Global Governance and the UN

Considering our vast cultural and political differences, is it really possible to collectively solve the world’s social, economic and environmental problems? And more importantly, if so, how do we formalize our commitments to change without an overarching global government? The highly recommended Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey is a bold attempt to answer these questions by emphasizing the value of international co-ordination in tackling the most pressing and challenging issues of the 21st century. According to co-authors Thomas G. Weiss and Ramesh Thakur, it is only through global collective action, overseen by the United Nations (UN), that stability, consistency and order can be delivered to our increasingly globalized but fragmented world.

Both accomplished and well-regarded academics in the field of international studies, Weiss and Thakur approach the idea of global governance by clearly separating it from what it is not: government, that is,a central authority that solely exercises social control over a given population. Rather, they offer global governance as a purposeful set of norms, policies and institutions that aim to define, constitute and mediate transborder relationships to ensure a more effective and just international society. For the authors, such concerted action is made possible through the UN and its frameworks. Both Weiss and Thakur declare that state-centric institutions do not have the capacity to adequately address many global threats, such as terrorism, pollution and pandemics, on their own. Instead, the UN system facilitates the coming together of a multitude of global actors to endorse norms, gather international data and disseminate information, and empower social movements to act. As the authors effectively show, the UN has achieved many long-standing results since its inception in 1945, such as the reduction of child malnutrition and infant mortality and the global ban of ozone-depleting substances. Given these rich examples of constructive global decision-making outcomes, it is hard to ignore the significant contributions of the UN in diagnosing problems and co-ordinating intergovernmental responses.

Despite celebrating the value of global governance, Weiss and Thakur remain critically aware of the unfinished journey that remains in shaping the UN into a dynamic and relevant leader in world governance. This refreshing line of approach is arguably the book’s strongest element. Careful not to overrate the existence and future potential of the UN, the book’s chapters are figured around five major types of gaps the authors identify as being substantial “holes” in the UN’s current work. For example, they readily acknowledge the UN’s lack of enforcement mechanisms in addition to the existing tensions between the implementation of global governance and state sovereignty. Furthermore, they address criticisms regarding the allegedly “slow pace” at which UN decisions are made. Weiss and Thakur also hold back little in discussing the dominating and oftentimes hypocritical power relationships of the United States in UN decision-making processes.

As comprehensive as the book is, it does not deliver everything. The authors pay concentrated attention to the proliferation of non-state actors such as terrorist groups and NGOs in international relations, but they omit any lengthy analysis of the increasing role private industry plays in global governance. Admittedly, one cannot minimize the growing dominance of transnational corporate entities in fulfilling, setting and violating global norms. Ultimately, this does not detract from the most compelling point one takes away from reading this book: Despite it being a painstaking, constant work-in-progress, global collective action for the purpose of solving social and environmental problems is possible. In fact, it may be the only solution we have.

(Book published by Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 201o. 420 pages.)

Adrienne Johnson, originally from Toronto, is now a PhD student attending Clark University in Worcester, MA. She is a student in Critical Human Geography and studying the politics of natural resource governance in Latin America.