Global Governance Conference at American University

The American University School of International Service (not my law school, but SIS) is holding a conference on global governance on Friday-Saturday, September 24-25, at the spanking new and quite lovely new SIS building at AU. It’s a great line-up of speakers and panelists; kudos to the organizers. One of the convenors is David Bosco, whose book on the Security Council, Five to Rule Them All, is essential reading for those who work on international organizations, and whose new blog, The Multilateralist, is hosted at Foreign Policy.

I will be on a Saturday panel on “How to Govern.” It raises delicate questions for me. As regular readers here are only too aware, I’m no fan of global governance in the sense usually meant by that term, a broad sense of liberal internationalism in which (as Frances Fukuyama once put it and I slightly extend) the anarchy of international politics will be replaced with the ordered relations of international law and organizations, leading finally, I would add, to some form of global constitutionalism.

As I’ve said numerous times before, I think it is problematic on realist grounds of achievability, but also on idealist grounds that it is the wrong ideal vision. But it is a dream facilitated by certain crucial ambiguities in international law and politics – ambiguities in the meaning of terms such as multilateralism and governance. Anyway, all that is the basic topic of my (arriving from the Hoover Institution Press in 2011) policy essay on US-UN relations, Returning to Earth (not an academic work, I should add, certainly not in the way that David’s Security Council book is; it’s a sometimes polemical argument aimed at the general reader. But the basic points are there about the ambiguities of governance, engagement, multilateralism, and so on.)

I’m not a (pure and complete) rejectionist, however. I think there are important roles for coordination, harmonization, and multilateralism in that non-governance sense – but they are only possible if one gives up the grand dream of global constitutionalism that corrupts the present tasks with glorious dreams of the future. The Basel III agreement, for example, might or might not succeed even in being followed as set down, and it might or might not be substantively the right formula – but it was an impressive instance of multilateral cooperation through technical networks.

That’s good – provided one does not make the mistake of assuming that because people worked really hard and came up with a statement, that is the same as coming up with a statement that will have effects in the real world or that the content of the statement is good.  As I said in a review of A New World Order, the “processes” undertaken to achieve substantively good outcomes are often identical with the “processes” undertaken to achieve substantively bad ones – people talk a lot, write memos and white papers, etc., etc., so it is hard to impute quality from surface processes.

But in any case, the outcomes of the technical coordination meetings of governmental expert networks – bank regulators, for example – will emphatically not likely be a success if it these networks of homologous national regulators are then re-imagined (to the dismay, has been my experience, of those who actually serve in those technical networks) to function as the vanguard for genuinely political global governance down the road in some wished-for future. Enough networks of technical regulators will eventually coalesce, as their social identities and personal identities shift away from their national governments to the “transnational,” that they will decide and “govern” in the interest of the whole, or something like that.

Technical networks scale up to political governance? Seems to me wrong in fact, and wrong in principle – and fatal to what transnational networks can actually hope to accomplish today. (Rene Char captured my sentiment very well in some poem I can’t offhand recall – “obsession with today’s harvest and indifference to the grand designs for history are the two ends of my bow” or something like that; if Dominique de Villepin can quote Char to his purposes, I guess I can too.)

And in any case, the smart part of this new way of thinking about global governance is that it acknowledges frankly that the issue is fundamental social – the formation of a society – rather than merely political, and so the questions of social integration, personal identity with the project, all the problems of Weberian social legitimacy, are squarely on the table in all this talk about how people will identify with their networks over their national governments (A New World Order goes to this question, for example.) It’s smart in the sense that it correctly comprehends the problem as being a matter of social legitimacy; it is not Thomas Franck’s legitimacy among nations, but rather legitimacy on a much more globalized, transnational basis among individuals who comprise these groups, not nations. Unfortunately, seeing the problem is not the same as solving it (if one thinks it is a problem to be solved, which I do not). The reality and the ideal is ‘a politics, not a society’.

So if the question is, how to govern? My answer would be, you don’t govern. Governance is an inapprorpriately glorious, tony, high-falutin’ idea. The problem is to accomplish a relatively narrow set of tasks competently, today, without thought of what great things it will be tomorrow. Whatever one thinks the list of tasks that the UN – focusing on the UN in particular, as an institution – can competently perform, one would do well to immediately cut it by two-thirds (nine-tenths?) and start from there. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, &tc., might be a good watchword for Secretary General Ban.

That all said, however, I have also looked with some surprise and dismay at the relatively little attention that the institutional UN gets these days from international law academics. The cool things are, as I’ve said many times, international criminal law. And global constitutionalism that, much of the time, has relatively little to do with international organizations and is mostly dreaming about how great things will be if one could only ramp up the model of the EU to the world (which is to say, a way of talking about the vision of the EU rather than talking about the actually, really existing UN). Or alternatively transnational regulatory networks and global administrative law (whatever their virtues, one implicit feature is that they by-pass the “political” UN). The relative lack of scholarly attention suggests to me that our profession has largely given up on the institutional UN, whether as a locus of idealistic dreams of liberal internationalism, or even as a topic of research interest.

My perception is that international law scholars nonetheless like the UN as an ideal and a symbol.  It’s part of the non-falsifiable faith of international law.  But we don’t want to have to confront it as an actual institution.  To the extent we want to get involved with it, we prefer to do so as a branding organization, one that essentially franchises the UN name over to essentially outside, “other-governed” activities, such as international tribunals, in which the influence of law professors is much greater than it is in things controlled by the General Assembly.

(There are some links I’ll go back and add later.  Time to teach international business transactions.)