Can Global Governance Survive the Resurgence of US Sovereignty?

Research Note

Thesis: The resurgence of American hegemonic pretensions threatens the GG project. It suggests a return to a strictly power-driven process informing bargaining outcomes. However the US will not wholly reject GG schemes for three reasons. 1. There are high costs to be carried by going it alone. Cooperation, even with NGOs, has real benefits to the US it will not be anxious to forego. 2. The US controls power domestically through process and law. It is proud of this achievement. This creates internal popular pressures for American power to wielded internationally through processes rather than naked or arbitraty displays of force which would be unacceptable in domestic politcs. 3. The US is pluralist. With a strong civil society tradition at home including its access direct to the public policy process, there would be high domestic reputation and ideology costs were we to seek to exclude civil society and NGOs from the international public policy process.

Why are these relevant?

Realism suggests to us that the distribution of military capabilities and economic capacity among states is the pre-eminent measure of power and ‘outcome-determination’ in world politics. By such a measure, we need not examine ‘global get-togethers’ like the UN mega-conferences or the smaller BWI meetings. The important decisions are made in the capitals of the state-system’s poles, and in unipolarity, there is only one capital that is truly relevant for shaping world political outcomes.

GG scholars respond to this critique in 2 ways.

1. GG theory understands the world political system more sociologically. World politics is a community exercise in administration and management. Few would dispute that states are the most relevant actor, however they move in a world of other actors as well as norms. There is a ‘constitutional architecture’ in which World politics is more communal than neorealism admits.

2. These many actors include IGOs, MNCs and GCS/NGOs. States are more powerful, by realism’s hard indicators on military and economic might. However GG suggests that hard power is not wholly efficacious for the outcomes states seek, and that power is more diffuse than states realize. States ability to win contests of national might are simply not relevant in most dealings in IR. It may be the ultima ratio in the high politics of security, but as Graham suggested in his models 2 and 3, much of most of world politics is low politics – bargaining, arranging, coordinating, sharing on mundane or highly technical issues. Issues such as the environment, trafficking (drugs, human, weapons), development, tracking terrorism and others are simply not amenable to national power traditionally conceived. In lieue of world conquest, even hegemons will come to the table anf bargain and deal with other states and other actors.

Global Governance

GG is the large web of rules and institutions that generate outcomes in world politics. It is the “constitutional architecture” (Reus-Smit) of the world political system and the beginnings of an international public policy process (Commission on Global Governance). Traditionally realists IR scholarship speak of global governance as the provision of a hegemon or k-group. Yet we have learned that much of what states seek to achieve is impossible or far more costly without cooperative global governance. To be more precise, global governance could be raw hegemony to the exclusion of other actors, enforced on the world by the unipole. But even in this era of unrivalled American national might, it hasn’t the power to govern by such diktat. In lieu of global conquest, GG is “complex multilateralism” (O’Brien, Goetz, Scholte and Williams) rather the unipolar fiat. We talk of GG rather than hegemony because the architecture includes more than the superpower and the great powers.

There is much that states cannot do for themselves. Many issues, such as trafficking, the environment or terrorism are not amenable to ‘hard power.’ They require cooperation. Power, the ability to achieve one’s desired outcomes, is diffuse in the world political system, not nearly as concentrated as realists would have us believe. Different actors have different capabilities. Even superpowers like the United States has use for NGOs (for information on human rights, treaty monitoring, or development aid delivery) and IGOs (for coordination and lower transaction costs) and private firms (for impartial credit ratings, e.g.) As Rosenau and many others have observed power cascades through the systems where there is social complexity. New centers of authority, specifically, authoritative knowledge arise. This is not the fall of the state, but the rise in the importance of other actors.

These points bear restating in an era of description of the United States as a colossus that bestrides the world (Economist). Despite the unrivalled might of the United States by the realist measures of military capability and economic capacity, unipolarity does not translate into omnipotence. Even the United States will pay attention to the smallest NGOs which have definitive knowledge in some area of interest. This understanding lies behind the continuing international architecture to which the United States belongs and whose conferences it attends.

1. The resurgence of hard power in international politics has once again proven the centrality of the state. Luck was right.

2. The traditional indices of power – military capability and economic capacity – were never irrelevant. Rather so concentrated in one state were they, that seemed to recess in ‘daily IR’ because almost everyone was bandwagoning or hedging. If everyone signs up for the hegemon’s project, unipolarity can be pleasant (Wohlforth, Stability). Because there was no balancing, in the 1990s the topical debates became did not concern national power. Other concerns like GG and NGOs arose, but only in the shadow of Unipolar power.

3. GG only arose because the unipole was liberal, plural and deomcratic. It is premised on liberal unipolarity. Had the SU won the Cold War, or were China to usurp hegeomic leadership, the cooperative, inclusive bargaining of GG would disappear. Because the hegemon is liberal, it would carry high domestic political costs and world reputational costs if it openly sought to exclude NGOs, MNCs and IOs from relevance. Yet illiberal states with no tradition of openness would hardly permit “complex multilateralism.” They would exploit their hard power advantages to leverage outcomes as they saw fit with little regard for non-state and weak state actors.

3a. There is a polict prescriptive element to the liberal hegemonic basis to GG. NGOs particularly should be more forgiving of the US. The only reason the unipole listens to it and forces some changes in the IFA, is because it is a liberal. If poor states think they are getting a bad deal under the US, imagine the other picks – China, Russia. Even liberal France should be expected to its unipolarity more exploitative than the US as it is an ex-imperial power.

4. However, global governance does try to include the role of the state in its ‘constitutional archiecture’ of world politics (Reus-Smit). “Complex multilateralism” does not debunk the state’s role, but rather seeks to accentuate the role of other actors. Hence the question is whether GG can survive in an environment when one of those actors is vastly more powerful than all the others (even combined). Luck has counseled IO elites not try to makes deals with NGOs around the backs of state decision-makers, because such a 2 vs 1 scheme will backfire due to power inequalities. The result will be state elites’ distrust of both NGOs and IOs and greater state supervision of IOs. (And this ultimately runs counter to NGO goals. NGOs endorse neoliberal institutionalism. They want autonomous IOs. They can be lobbied far more easily than greatpowers.)


Peter Spiro, “The New Sovereigntists” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2000

Robert Kagan and William Kristol, “The Present Danger” The National Interest spring 2000

David Rivkin and Lee Casey, “The Rocky Shoals of International Law” The National Interest winter 2000

Jesse Helms, “American Sovereignty and the UN” The National Interest winter 2000

John Bolton, “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?” Chicago Journal of International Law, Fall 2000

Kal Rustia, “Trends in Global Governance: Do They Threaten American Sovereignty?” hicago Journal of International Law fall 2000

Commentary January 2000 Symposium on American Power

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