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Nationalist backlash has made effective global governance more difficult, and more necessary.

The widespread resurgence of nationalist and populist politics has raised serious questions about the future viability of global governance. This troubling trend is at least in part a result of the backlash against globalization - against both the economic and social dislocations it has genuinely created, and those for which it is unfairly blamed.


Populist movements generally express skepticism of perceived elites and profess a faith in the wisdom of ordinary people. Yet, they also tend to have an authoritarian bent and a belief in a strong leader able to mobilize the masses.


If people turn against global governance, however, it can exacerbate the very problems nationalist-populist movements aim to solve - as nationalist politics generally push governments away from global cooperation and effective coordination. That in turn risks triggering a downward spiral of mismanagement. For example, nationalist leaders actively undercut the ability of the World Health Organization to respond to COVID-19, by limiting its funding and decision-making authority all while blaming global institutions for not doing more to halt the disease, and deflecting attention from their own response efforts - or lack thereof - at home.


Examples of successful populist movements include former US President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of political authority in Turkey. Such movements typically appeal to those particularly worried about threats to their social status (due to their actual or feared loss of a job), or to those troubled by immigration and changing cultural mores; in other words, people who feel especially vulnerable to exactly the kinds of changes unleashed by globalization.


In a number of countries, governments have simply failed to understand or address the true impacts of globalization on their constituencies.

Even if countries have benefited from greater economic openness, a lack of sufficient attention paid to those left behind can weaken the political consensus supporting that openness.


Anti-globalization movements tend to oppose not only the aims of global governance, which they believe are rooted in a fictitious, cosmopolitan unity of human interests, but also institutions they believe are biased in favor of other countries or a rootless elite. These movements are at least partly a reaction to real failures to effectively function, for example during the 2008 financial crisis (some might add the global COVID-19 response to this list).

Weaponizing Interdependence

After World War II, global governance became increasingly robust; it created the necessary conditions for globalization. Once-distant people and places are increasingly being tied together by globalization. Deepening transnational links are being used for geopolitical leverage.


This involves not only the creation of economic links through cross-border trade and investment, but also stronger social bonds, increased communication, and heightened shared vulnerabilities to pandemics and environmental degradation. COVID-19 has vividly highlighted the challenges involved in managing this new, deeper level of global inter-dependence, as the World Health Organization seeks to keep everyone informed about the crisis and aligned on ways to combat it, despite persistent criticism.


As globalization has advanced, the ability to guarantee peace and prosperity for any given society is increasingly affected by decisions made elsewhere.


The creation and distribution of problematic mortgages in the US can lead to workers in Iceland losing their jobs, for example, while interaction with infected wildlife in one part of the world can devastate the health of people on every continent. Meanwhile, carbon emissions that occur in any single place can affect the future of the climate everywhere. Managing this interdependence is the central task of global governance. And that task is only getting harder.

When businesses branched out into foreign markets, they developed multinational models and value chains that increased their need to support effective governance wherever they operated. That, in turn, enabled other businesses to become more globally distributed, resulting in a self-reinforcing interdependence. However, as prosperity and well-being in one place now depend on decisions made abroad to a greater extent than ever before, geopolitical competition is now increasingly leading to the weaponization of interdependence - with countries using economic ties as leverage.


While COVID-19 has underlined supply chain risk and led to some efforts to decouple ties between the US and China, interdependence is unlikely to disappear. In some areas, it may even be deepening. Making that interdependence effective is now more important than ever for tackling shared challenges and ensuring prosperity.


Technologies like 5G and semiconductors have become geopolitical footballs between China and the US, and the European Union has leveraged its market heft to promulgate global data privacy standards.

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As the Fourth Industrial Revolution and climate change continue to disrupt our current lives, public and corporate governance need to change, too.

Global governance is a means to manage issues that cut across national borders - whether it is a pandemic, a financial crisis, climate change, or a geo-economic dispute. Though traditionally centered on diplomacy and international organizations, a wide variety of public and private actors now engage in cross-border governance. The work itself has expanded well beyond treaty-making to include formal and informal monitoring, standard-setting, enforcement, and financing.


Global governance has an unresolved problem: both our institutions and our leaders are no longer fit for their purpose. A new governance model is crucial for our world - the primacy of society and nature needs to be its focus instead of prioritizing the business and finance world.

Effective governance is essential to secure peaceful, healthy, and prosperous societies, particularly now amid COVID-19, worsening ecological crises, mounting geopolitical tension, and growing nationalist backlash against globalization.


Many leaders are already thinking and acting as pioneers for a new age of governance. They include business executives advocating for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics, and political leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi breaking down boundaries. Above all, young people are demanding a better future.

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Transnational Actors

Digitalization has reduced communication costs to the point that businesses, for example, can more easily organize themselves globally and publicly address global issues and concerns, and even relatively small civil society groups can connect across borders in order to tackle issues with an international scope. It has become increasingly clear that problems like pandemics, the catastrophic impacts of climate change, heavy flows of migration as refugees flee from armed conflict and economic hardship, a lack of adequate health care in both developed and less developed regions, and the depletion of natural resources cannot be adequately addressed solely within national borders - giving actors previously concerned only with local issues a greater incentive to engage with global governance. In addition to corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), these transnational actors have included city governments, philanthropic organizations, and trade associations.


A wider range of actors is engaging in global governance, though not all are benign.

International relations is not only about developing direct relationships between national governments. While sovereign countries remain central actors on the world’s political stage, a host of non-state and transnational actors have progressively inserted themselves into discussions about global governance.


Some have become extraordinarily influential, such as the Gates Foundation, thanks to its work on solving global health problems, or the C40 network of cities, due to its work related to addressing climate change. Meanwhile, multinational corporations often boast financial resources larger than the size of many countries’ GDPs, and large NGOs often have more delegates at international meetings than some medium-sized nations.

Increasingly, transnational actors also include dangerous entities like organized crime syndicates, terrorist networks, and paramilitary organizations. Such organizations have benefited from financial globalization and digitalization, and have developed sophisticated communications strategies and clandestine, cross-border networks that can be difficult to track and confront. Particularly in those parts of the world with fragile or corrupt state organizations, these transnational entities can exploit weak governance and evade law enforcement.


As the capability of these actors sometimes outweighs that of nation-states, it lends them decisive roles in resolving global issues. Their contributions do not necessarily come at the expense of government influence, but they have fundamentally reshaped notions about who matters in world politics. 

Institutional Complexity


The proliferation of institutions that are engaged in global governance has led to a not-infrequent overlap of public and private entities tackling similar issues. Sometimes, this leads to fragmentation that limits the overall effectiveness of global governance. In other cases, however, it involves the creation of entirely new forms of institutions and more innovative and adaptable global governance - and, ultimately, more effective problem-solving.

The architecture of global governance is becoming increasingly diverse. Traditionally, global governance has been centered on interstate diplomacy and formal, intergovernmental organizations - like the United Nations, the World Bank, or the World Health Organization. But as the interdependence of nations (and regions) has deepened, an array of sometimes competing institutions has emerged as important players in world politics.


While the World Trade Organization remains at the center of the global trade regime, for example, the proliferation of preferential trade agreements since the end of the Cold War has given countries alternative means of securing economic cooperation. Similarly, the rise of liquidity swap lines and other arrangements between central banks has called the International Monetary Fund’s traditional position as the global lender of last resort into question.

While state-centric, formal institutions remain critical, companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other private actors now often set regulatory standards, arbitrate disputes, and otherwise help govern the global economy. In addition, networks of domestic government officials - mayors, legislators, judges, and regulators - regularly collaborate with their peers across borders, providing a new take on traditional diplomacy.


Increasingly, both individual states and international organizations have sought to advance their respective goals not only through diplomacy and treaty-making but also by orchestrating partnerships between public entities and private businesses that are designed to pursue shared goals. While this trend toward public-private partnerships is now widespread, however, it has not been evenly distributed; in some realms, like decision- and policy-making related to addressing and adapting to the disastrous impacts of climate change, or global health issues including devastating pandemics, governance has become highly diversified among a broader mix of entities. Meanwhile, other areas, such as traditional security issues, remain firmly within the remits of central governments.

Power Shifts and Conflict

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Multipolarity has upended traditional power structures and opened the door to new geopolitical conflicts. The realignment of economic power creates new pathways to conflict - as globalization has spurred higher growth around the world, new countries have emerged as major powers in world politics. This marks an extraordinary advance in terms of human development, as hundreds of millions of people escape poverty and join the middle class.


At the same time, however, the economic rise of Brazil, China, India, and other emerging markets has upended the traditional power balance - along with traditional structures of global governance. Whereas in the past a few large, industrialized countries could set the rules for the global economy, today a much broader consensus among nations is required. This is reflected in the increased importance of the G20 (as opposed to the more exclusive G7) as a critical venue for international economic coordination and in the emergence of greater numbers of institutional investors from emerging markets who now wield global influence - such as the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which began operations in 2016. Most vividly, economic shifts have raised the stakes in the geopolitical competition between the US and China, which sends repercussions throughout the economic system.


Rising multi-polarity, or the distribution of power among a greater number of countries and entities, raises the possibility of a more balanced, and ultimately more legitimate form of global governance; more places can now have more of a say on critical global issues. However, this wider dispersion of power has also created new sources of friction and risk, and in some cases increased the possibility of armed conflict. That is due in part to the fact that the decision-making underpinning global governance does not tend to adapt and change as quickly as the relative influence of the countries involved. There is therefore an urgent need to find new ways to facilitate decision-making and international coordination, to ensure that global challenges can be met effectively.


The ways in which emerging powers engage with existing structures of global governance, and the ways that established powers react to these changes, will define world politics in the 21st century. Geopolitical competition undermined the global response to COVID-19, for example. As greater numbers of more diverse countries must now reach an agreement on how to address global issues, the gridlock this could result in would benefit no one.

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