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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : Rethinking Global Governance

Rethinking Global Governance

Historical Heritage

Rethinking Global Governance


Arnaud Blin, Gustavo Marin ¤ 2 January 2008 ¤
Translations: Español (original) . français .

Let us take a step back for a moment to take a look at the system we have inherited and certain mentalities that come with it, particularly those held by those in power, in order to better project us towards the future.

The modern political architecture put in place in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Year War – a religious and political disaster that marks the height of European religious wars and that sees the last hegemonic attempt of the Hapsburg Empire. The Peace of Westphalia puts an end to this conflict and installs a sustainable geopolitical system that will govern Europe, and then the world, until 1914. The Westphalian revolution is characterized by the establishment of a chessboard of nation-states that holds its own through a complex balance of powers. The system is amoral, but not immoral: the raison d’Etat governs inter-state relations. War is a normal recourse to maintain equilibrium but it is “limited” and progressively codified. In 1648, the Church starts to fade away from the political arena, whereas international law makes a significant breakthrough, the brilliant synthesis of Hugo Grotius, which integrates a number of theological concepts, being in a certain way integrated in the new geopolitical architecture. The “Westphalian” system asserts itself between 1648 and 1789. It is obliterated by Napoleon before being reestablished at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Then a long decline emerges with the first global conflict that, after a short parenthesis of twenty years, is followed by World War II. Another “post-Westphalian” balance of powers takes root in 1945, a bipolar one upheld by the threat of a nuclear disaster. 1991 marks the end of the balance of powers. As in 1919 and 1945, when collective security systems are established, 1991 opens up the theoretical and practical field of possibilities that take shape for the future. The idea of global governance – a pre-1991 concept – makes its way.

Even so, it would be counter-productive to deny the resilience of certain key concepts inherited from the Westphalian, or post-Westphalian, system and to overestimate the capacities of a system of collective security put in place in 1945, of which the is the most handsome feather in its cap. The evolution of international relations proceeds via revolution and rift. Nevertheless, each era inherits, for better or worse, certain, sometimes heavy, baggage from the past. The result is a complex architecture composed of sub-layers that accumulate one upon the other with a coherence that is not always perfect or harmonious. This architecture is unavoidably made up of paradoxes. In other respects, over time, certain elements from the past take on new dimensions, at times because they are more important; other times because some elements disappear. Globalization, an ancient phenomenon, is perceived today as the great revolution of present times, on the one hand because past rivalries have disappeared, and, on the other, because global political liberalization and technological revolutions have changed the current state of affairs. This is also the case with terrorism, a phenomenon as old as the planet but that, by order of the disappearance of other risks, seems today more worrisome because it is the only one that threatens the integrity of our over-protected societies. The ever-worrisome problem of nuclear proliferation is, after all, the all-positive outcome of the end of the (nuclear) “balance of terror” that, as we tend to forget, threatened to annihilate the entire planet.

Societal evolution and sudden awareness of the environment, sustainable development, the biosphere, and inequality, modify the nature of the person-to-person relationship, as well as that of the relationship between Humanity and its planet. This intellectual evolution, more rapid than that of institutions, has the effect of creating a permanent discrepancy between our collective vision of reality and reality itself.

The world, twenty years ago or so, seemed surprisingly simple. The predominant “paradigm” of global anarchy – inherited from the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes – envisioned a world dominated by governments that, in rational terms, acted according to the principles of national security and balance of power, following the simple rules of an ideologically heterogeneous system that saw two blocks in direct confrontation with one another. The stability of this system came from a complex equilibrium, fed by a terror of nuclear war, where, in the end, each side looked to maintain the status quo all the while trying to gain ground on their adversary. The absence of a global regulator of the struggle for power fed the anarchic character of a system which was otherwise relatively stable. The model of collective security, embodied by the U.N. – a theoretical rival of anarchy, in fact did nothing more than support the status quo because the dominant powers of 1945 constituted those that also held, via the permanent Security Council, the trump card of a collective security that was more virtual than real.

It is this “misunderstanding” of the nature of collective security that, sixty years after the creation of the U.N., contributes to the fact that this institution, indeed useful and essential, is so complicated to reform. Nevertheless, today’s discourse on the reform of the United Nations, as in the past, constitutes a dominant discussion on the future of global governance. But it is a discourse that seems to be without end and to progress slowly. The U.N. does indeed evolve, but does it truly represent the future of global governance?

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