Global Governance: A Necessity for our Times

Thomas Axworthy


Global governance is a commitment to political cooperation among states, non-governmental organisations (NGOS), businesses and other transnational actors aimed at solving problems that affect more than one state or region. Components of global governance include norms, rules, regulations, treaties and international organisations that institutionalize such cooperation. The rationale for enhanced global cooperation is obvious: issues like a warming planet; human migration; digital privacy and cybercrime; and promoting world trade, are beyond the capacity of any one state, however large and powerful, to solve. Therefore, cooperation or multilateralism is a necessary pre-condition to making progress on the world’s problems.[1]

As President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017: “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from. Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies and channel the water in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible. Indeed, it runs counter to the historical trend.”[2]

But, as Mary Kaldor, a professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics has written, “The paradox is that at the very moment when we need to construct the building blocks of global governance, institutions like the European Union and the United Nations are under attack from the rising tide of populism and xenophobia.”[3]This charge against multilateralism and global governance has been led by Donald Trump. The Trump worldview is that we live in a world of dog-eat-dog competition: power, rather than ethical norms, is the predominant virtue; bilateralism and deal-making is the preferred option; and since the rules and obligations of multilateral organisations constrain the United States, these institutions should be ignored, weakened, or disbanded entirely.[4]Trump, therefore, has withdrawn from the Paris Treaty on Climate Change, initiated trade wars with Canada, Mexico, Turkey, China and the European Union, and blocked the reappointment of judges on the WTO court that arbitrates trade disputes so that there are only three judges out of seven, moves designed to weaken or damage the court. The Trump administration, however, has prepared a 2019 defence budget for the United States of US$716 billion, a substantial increase from the Obama years.[5]

This “acute crisis of global governance” writes Madeleine K. Albright and Ibrahim A. Gambari, co-chairs of the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance, “casts a shadow over how traditional and emerging global actors build consensus and cooperate to solve problems in response to a vast array of new global risks and threats.”[6]

Trump’s actions to weaken or destroy the architecture of the world’s institutions of global governance is surprising since the United States took the leading part in building most of them.  All of Trump’s predecessors as President since the Second World War have been generally pleased with the institutions of world governance, viewing them as contributors to America’s security and prosperity or even as instruments of American power. Trump’s skepticism and hostility towards multilateralism and cooperation, however, is not a novelty as the international system has many detractors both on the left and the right, and his belief in power politics based on a jaundiced view of human nature certainty has a long pedigree in international relations.[7]From Sun Tzu in 470 BCE, to Thucydides in 395 BCE, from Kautilya in 300 BCE, to Lou Jing in 198 BCE, from Machiavelli in 1532, to Henry Kissinger’s book Diplomacyin 1994, the writings and advice of most theorists and practitioners alike on statecraft can be summed up in Thucydides chilling observation that “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”

But there is a counter tradition to the overwhelming predominance of realpolitik practice and theory, and its origins are as ancient as the realists. This liberal internationalist view places primacy on justice, compromise, keeping one’s word and creating rules and institutions that will shape behaviour rather than relying only on force. Ptahhotep, grand vizier to the Pharaoh, in 2400 BCE, for example, advised his master to listen more than command and always to seek fairness. Confucius, who died in 479 BCE, advocated reciprocity in his Analects and made the first formulation of the Golden Rule, “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” The ancient world slowly began to implement these precepts too. Eqypt and the Hittite kingdom in Anatolia signed a peace treaty (the first recorded in the world} in 1274 BCE after the battle of Kadesh. Commitments were now written down and norms established. In 198 BCE the Han empire and the formidable Xiongnu nation signed a “Peace through Kinship Treaty” in which the Han used their “soft power” to send scholars versed in Confucianism and Chinese culture (as well as a Han princess!) to gradually convert the Xiongnu to more peaceful ways.[8]Negotiators had long been used in specific missions in the classical world but in the Renaissance the city states of Italy developed the concept of permanent embassies to promote diplomacy with their sister city states on a daily basis. Diplomacy then began to stretch its reach further abroad: Milan sent an ambassador to France in 1455 and Spain to England in 1487. Hugo Grotius in 1625 published the landmark On the Law of War and Peace,which argued there was such a thing as an international society that should be governed by laws and mutual agreement not war. In 1814-15 the Congress of Vienna saw leaders coming together personally to negotiate a grand settlement and one of the fruits of that meeting was the creation of the Central Commission for Navigation of the Rhine, the world’s first international organization (still continuing to function) in which the states along the Rhine delegated power to an independent body to promote shipping and safety. In 1863 the Red Cross, the world’s first NGO, was created.

If the 19th century was a fruitful era for implementing Grotius’ concept of an international society to be governed by law not only power, after the horrors of the Depression and the Second World War there was a flourishing agenda for global governance on almost every international problem. The United Nations was created in 1945 with fifteen specialized agencies ranging from the Universal Postal Union to the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Wise Presidents like John F. Kennedy won passage of the Trade Expansion Act in 1962 allowing the executive to negotiate to reduce tariffs, and the Kennedy round ushered in global tariff reductions and negotiations, which led eventually to the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995. In 2005, the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity with the International Criminal Court being a key instrument to try individuals charged with such crimes. Inch by Inch, yard by yard, mile by mile, the world has moved slowly but relentlessly towards creating a network of institutions to promote cooperation and global governance. Until now.

The InterAction Council was created a generation ago as an instrument to promote the goals of global cooperation, multilateralism, and viable international institutions. One of the IAC’s Founders, Helmut Schmidt of Germany, originated the initial idea of the G-7 and the monetary forerunner of the Euro. The InterAction Council, however, knows that if multilateralism is to endure and international organisations thrive, ongoing reforms must be a continuing part of the process since events and problems mutate daily. Since the first meeting of the IAC in 1983, the organisation has produced reports calling for reform in the United Nations, the European Union, the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, to name just a few. 

In this time of crisis for global governance, as Madelaine Albright has called it, the IAC will meet in Beijing in September 2018 to address the following issues, all which require more international cooperation, not less:

  • What must be done to preserve the WTO organisation as an impartial arbiter of world trade, and what can be done to prevent the world from waging an ongoing protectionist trade war?
  • The exponential growth of Artificial Intelligence promises great benefits for humankind but also potential severe costs: What can be done to preserve digital privacy and fight cybercrime and fraud?
  • The world is heating up fast with recordbreaking temperatures all over the world, while our oceans are stuffed with plastic. What can be done to preserve the health of the planet?
  • Human migration is sweeping over many borders. What can be done to establish a fair framework for asylum seekers while maintaining the rights of states to control their entry?
  • North Korea threatens the stability of East Asia and reminds us that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is still one of the most urgent priorities in the world. What can be done to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and reduce existing nuclear arsenals?

Each of the issues are important in themselves. Together, they point to an even larger problem – how to preserve the institutions of global governance that have been built over the last 50 years and promote greater effectiveness and justice? 

Thomas S. Axworthy, Chair of Public Policy at Massey College, University of Toronto and Visiting Professor at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, People’s Republic of China.

[1]For a still relevant discussion of global governance see Vincent Cable, Globalization and Global Governance. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999.

[2]Xi Jinping Keynote at the World Economic Forum, January 17, 2017.

[3]Mary Kaldor, “Our Global Institutions are not fit for purpose,” July 2016,

[4]In her book Fascism: A Warning. New York: Harper Collins, 2018, Madeleine Albright makes several pointed comparisons between Trump’s worldview and past authoritarian leaders. She denies that Trump is a fascist but told the Atlantic Magazinethat, “I do think he is the least democratic president of modern history.” The Atlantic, April 18, 2018.

[5]Trumps views on these institutions and his trading partners was made public in an interview with Bloomberg News on August 30, 2018 when he opined, “If they don’t shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO,” Trump said the agreement establishing the body “was the single worst trade deal ever made.”He also commented that the“The European Union is almost as bad as China, just smaller” and on trade with Canada, “it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal.”

[6]“Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance,” The Report of the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance, June 2015.

[7]For a comparison of the competing schools in international relations see Thomas S. Axworthy “To Stand Not so High Perhaps but always Alone: the Foreign Policy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau” in Towards a Just Society. Ed.Thomas S. Axworthy and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992.

[8]For an examination of Chinese traditions and modern practice in foreign policy see Thomas S. Axworthy, “Dealing with the Dragon; The China Dream of Xi Jinping” Policy Magazine,December 21, 2017.