The Politics of Global Regulation

February 25, 2010

Editors: Walter Mattli and Ngaire Woods

Edition: First

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Pages: 312

Price: £44.95 and £16.95

ISBN 9780691139609 and 9616

It is commonplace for reviewers to talk about the timely publication of a book. In this case, the timeliness comes with a twist. As the book neared completion, the global economy was in the throes of a financial crash. This intrusion of the real world into a theoretical analysis of global regulation may have been unwelcome, but it did not stop some contributors from making last-minute references to the meltdown.

Even if the great recession had been known about at the beginning of the volume's conception, it probably would not have had a significant bearing on the content for the reason that the regulation of the financial sector remains largely a matter for sovereign states. This point goes to the heart of a dilemma openly recognised by the editors: while aspects of the regulatory process have a global dimension, a great deal of capacity in the system remains in the hands of powerful states and sectional interests.

The dimension of the regulatory process that is globalised in scope is standard setting. In an important contribution, Kenneth W. Abbott and Duncan Snidal track the role of states, firms and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the emergence of universal standards. Where there are legitimate public standards, for example in relation to addressing corruption, a signal is sent to NGOs about a change in the expectation for corporate governance and conduct.

Such a web of compliance can be spun in a variety of domains of political and economic activity. In an intriguing chapter, Kathryn Sikkink writes about the realm of human rights. Again we encounter a familiar story in which high normative standards bump up against weak international enforcement mechanisms. While the inclusion of this chapter was commendable, it would have been good to have a discussion about the extent to which violations of human rights can usefully be compared with the domain of other regulatory regimes. Is its severity and criminality comparable with a breach of a civil code by a private company?

In the concluding chapter, Miles Kahler and David A. Lake connect the main concerns of the book to the wider question of the character of the international system. If there is an identifiable public interest in an outcome that is not in the interests of the actors themselves, then why, they ask, "is there so little supranationalism"? Their answer, which chimes with realist thinking on international relations, is that in the international economic order "national governance within the boundaries of the territorial sovereign state remains dominant".

This recurring theme ought to prompt students of international relations to ask whether the word-order of the title needs inverting. The challenge is not about global regulation per se, but rather the regulation of global politics as an open and complex system. This is where the discipline began in 1919. There is plenty of unfinished business to be done by the next generation of researchers.

Who is it for? This specialist research volume will find an audience among academics in the discipline, as well as some postgraduates and advanced undergraduates.

Presentation: A series of case studies by 12 leading scholars.

Would you recommend it? Yes. It is likely to make a significant impact on the field of international political economy.

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