Divided Nations: Why Global Governance is Failing, and What We Can Do About It by Ian Goldin

Dries Lesage on a wake-up call for 21st-century bodies no longer fit for purpose

June 6, 2013

By focusing on the financial crisis, climate change, cybersecurity, pandemics and migration, Divided Nations provides a state-of-the-art view of contemporary issues in global cooperation. Ian Goldin’s basic message is that today’s global institutions are not fit for 21st-century purpose. For this well-documented and insightful essay, the author brings to bear much of his experience as a former practitioner in international institutions and in the South African government. He offers both a diagnosis and a regimen for better global governance.

Big multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank are often too slow and bureaucratic for this rapidly changing world. Bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the G8 lack the legitimacy and inclusiveness to speak for all. Moreover, institutions dominated by the most powerful states tend to leave the latter off the hook when they build up major problems: the IMF-US and IMF-China relationships are cases in point. Policy domains such as environment and migration, moreover, lack a central and effective institutional home. In the meantime, global trade and climate talks seem deadlocked. The mismatch between global interconnectivity and global governance allows cybercriminals to operate from those countries with the weakest regulation. National sovereignty, economic-liberal orthodoxy and inequality between nations often stand in the way of cooperation.

The author presents interesting arguments about what individuals and their networks can achieve in today’s hyper-connected world, for good and for bad. Ordinary people can hold mighty governments and companies to account in spectacular ways, and even unleash revolutions. Information, communication and transport technologies have multiplied citizens’ capabilities to act. The flip side, of course, is the harm individuals can do, for example by developing computer viruses, or pathogens to be used as biological weapons. This democratisation will be a key element in solving global issues by unleashing creative potential or building pressure. But the trend also points to the urgent need to construct more flexible and legitimate governance arrangements, since it intensifies the governance challenge as such.

This well-written book offers no magic-bullet solutions, let alone the holy grail of global governance. Yet Goldin suggests some promising ways forward. Not surprisingly, governance reform to enhance the legitimacy of bodies such as the UN Security Council should stay high on the agenda. In addition, he places his hope in “coalitions of the willing” - that is, networks of states and other players cooperating on specific global issues without waiting for universal consensus. More than ever, individuals, civil society and business will have to be mobilised - with the help of new technologies. Divided Nations is full of concrete examples, ranging from consumer boycotts to citizens’ involvement in disaster management.

Still, Goldin’s thesis is susceptible to some criticism. As optimistic “liberal internationalists” often do, he avoids confronting some fundamental questions head-on. Take, for example, the international gridlock on climate change. There is more to it than the failure of global institutions: it has to do with questions of power, inequality, redistribution and the lifestyles of billions of people. Who will stop the current fossil fuel boom in the US and elsewhere, which continues to unfold as if climate change had never been heard of? Why would emerging and developing countries slow their fossil fuel-driven growth, given the historical responsibility of the old industrialised world? Are current financial and technology transfers big enough to support climate change mitigation and adaptation in the global South? For global governance to succeed, some tough battles will have to be fought at the national and international level. This idea, although not entirely absent from Divided Nations, could have been elaborated more extensively.

Divided Nations: Why Global Governance Is Failing, and What We Can Do about It

By Ian Goldin
Oxford University Press, 224pp, £12.99
ISBN 9780199693900
Published 14 March 2013

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