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The Principle of Hope

Thomas G. Weiss, Governing the World? Addressing ‘Problems without Passports’ (Boulder & London: Paradigm Publishers, 2014), 150 pp.

Reviewed by Franz Baumann (Assistant Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management United Nations)[1]

Tom Weiss’s book is published in the International Studies Intensives (ISI) series which is addressed at students and intended “to offer an intensive introduction to subjects often left out of the curriculum.” Organized in five crisp chapters, it achieves this objective, and more, by providing an introduction to the state of the field of International Relations (IR) studies and helpful bibliographic leads for more intensive reading. As a survey book, Governing the World? amply illustrates the ever increasing chasm between pressing global problems and the woefully inadequate institutions charged with resolving them. Weiss, as an optimist, succeeds in showing that and why the myriad problems must be solved. Explaining how they could be solved – or, more concretely, which obstacles need to be overcome – is out of scope. The reader, consequently, oscillates between inspiration and desperation.

The five chapters are sensibly arranged. Starting out with a review of governance issues, Weiss touches on the implications of state sovereignty for global governance, then moves on to the global commons and its governance requirements. Thereafter, Weiss discusses the efficacy of existing intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and concludes with a tour d’horizon of the enormous array of global challenges, the existing instruments to tackle them and the vast gaps remaining.


Opening Session of Summit on Climate Change                 Photo Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Governing the World? is formulated as a question, whereas the subtitle Addressing “Problems without Passports” as a statement, perhaps more for stylistic than for substantive reasons. Alas, this not being his fault, Weiss can marshal scant evidence that the problems he so lucidly runs through are being addressed, let alone effectively

Weiss plausibly frames the issues in terms of governance. Several definitions are offered, ranging from the academic to the practical. “Global governance” is for him (short version) the “collective efforts to identify, understand, and address worldwide problems” (p. 4) and, more elaborately, “a set of questions that enable us to work out how the world is, was and could be governed, how changes in the grand and not-so-grand patterns of governance occurred, are occurring and ought to occur” (ibid). Some pages on he avers that “global governance is the international capacity at any moment to provide government-like services in the absence of world government” (p. 38). While I agree with this definition, as far as it goes, it seems to me that a serviceable conceptualization of governance needs to go beyond capacity. Instead, it needs to relate responses to challenges and encompass the extent to which instruments and actors are adequate for the tasks they are supposed to carry out. After all, the effectiveness with which problems are resolved depends both on the appropriateness of the tools and on the motivation as well as skills of their users. A Beethoven symphony requires an orchestra with excellent instruments and expert musicians. A high school band won’t cut it.

The book’s leading question is “Can humanity formulate a plausible and affirmative response to whether we are capable of governing the world?” Weiss’s answer: “We already do … but we can and must do better” (p. 5). His conclusion is that “we require a three-pronged strategy in the decades ahead: the continued evolution and expansion of the formidable amount of practical global governance that already exists; the harnessing of political and economic possibilities opened by the communications revolution that began late in the twentieth century; and the recommitment by states to a fundamental revamping and strengthening of the United Nations system” (p. 6). There is no doubt in the desirability of this scenario, only in its practicability, considering that much of international politics does not (yet) transcend the prevailing conflicts between unreasoning wills. Tom Weiss, believing in – or hoping for – reason, rationality and goodwill as dominant forces in international politics, outlines in many declaratory statements what needs to be done for the survival of the world as we know it.[2]

What stands in the way of sensible global governance arrangements? Weiss does not tackle the question frontally, although he devotes an entire chapter, “Sacrosanct Sovereignty No Longer,” to state sovereignty and the Westphalian order, both of which need to be overcome for global problems to be adequately addressed. “Legitimacy challenges” in his words (e.g. human rights, responsibility to protect, secessions and border disputes) as well as “economic and technological challenges” (e.g. climate change, financial instability, terrorism, epidemics etc.) reveal state sovereignty as obsolete. This may well be so, yet it does not catalyse states into withering away. Since states will be around for a while, some strong, effective and legitimate, others fragile, weak, failing, poor, autocratic, oppressive, oligarchic or kleptocratic (or any combination thereof), it would be worthwhile for a survey of global issues to peek into the black box of sovereign states and to explore the internal dynamics which underlie state behaviour in the international arena.

Sadly, sovereign states are not prima facie good instruments to solve global problems, not least because of their inward-looking and rather short-term vision. Following the discussion of international affairs in the United States, for instance, does little to build confidence in a foreign observer, such as myself. On the one hand, it seems that a very significant international issue is Benghazi(!) On the other, one notes with wonderment that a reasonable politician like President Obama is caught, paradoxically, in a situation where his restrained foreign policy corresponds to the mood of the country (polls find no support for robust US interventions in Iraq, Ukraine or Syria) while there is palpable disappointment with his foreign policy leadership: 58% of Americans in a recent CBS/NYT poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy (Peter Baker, “As the World boils, fingers point Obama’s Way” The New York Times, Saturday, 16 August 2014). The risks emanating from armed conflict, nuclear proliferation, Climate Change, population growth and pressures on resources as well as on the environment are not debated in the US with much sophistication, and presidential leadership is exercised somewhat from behind. It is too painful perhaps, the unfortunate memory of President Jimmy Carter, who told the US public the harsh truth – and was defeated by the charming confabulator Ronald Reagan.


Icebergs in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland                               Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Whatever their weaknesses, there is no reason for students of IR blithely to write off sovereign states, just because they stand in the way of world government. As Michael Ignatieff argues with reference to the economist Dani Rodman, the “survival of sovereignty is not vestigial; it turns out to have economic survival value. …states that maintain their own ‘policy space’ do better than states that give it away” (“The Return of Sovereignty,” The New Republic, 16 February 2012, p. 27).[3]Moreover, in terms of legitimacy, as in the management of staff, there seems a span-of-control optimum, beyond which the effectiveness of both decrease. The Westphalian system became truly viable only in the nineteenth century with the emergence of nation states and the integrative forces of culture, language and symbols, whose emotional power is palpable every four years during the World Cup. Here nations compete as much as teams, and it matters not that the players are an international workforce wearing today the jersey of AC Milan, tomorrow of Arsenal FC and next week that of Real Madrid C.F. or FC Bayern München. In short, even though it would please Internationalists like Tom Weiss (or me, for that matter), no way has yet been found for political interests and loyalties to be aggregated effectively at regional, let alone global levels. The European Parliament, although a serious and encouraging experiment, is not the poster institution for the obsolescence of Europe’s Nation States. How, then, is it realistic to expect voters to extend their loyalties to the global level or States to surrender their sovereignty?[4] Europe has no common foreign policy, and suggestions to have France and Great Britain surrender their permanent Security Council seats in favour of a single European one have not been supported by or in the two countries. This points to the need to blend national impulses with international necessities, to satisfy voters’ aspirations while contributing to global solutions. The former take precedence over the latter, and the challenge articulated by the late Ken Waltz rings true as ever: Since the anarchic structure of international politics continues intact, to expect states to remain reliably at peace would, unrealistically, require their durable perfection (Man, the State and War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

Which brings us to something of a blind spot. I fear that Tom Weiss may be caught in the functionalist trap, which means the assumption that governments do what theory, logic and national interest demand. They don’t. And, even if some politicians wanted to, they couldn’t because states are not unitary, rational actors. Instead, one needs to consider the impact of factors (to list only a few), such as:

  • internal checks and balances between executive, legislative and judiciary;
  • lunatic right wing parties in many Western countries;
  • serious capacity constraints or blunders even in wealthy countries (just consider that the CIA was blindsided by Iran’s Islamic Revolution, confirmed non-existent WMD in Iraq and foresaw neither the fall of the Berlin Wall nor 9/11);
  • power moving away from states to non-state actors;
  • far too many fragile states;
  • rampant Islamic extremism as well as sharp conflicts within Islam;
  • President Putin’s popularity at home soaring as a result of foreign policy actions of dubious legality.

Where will, under the circumstances, the focus and power derive from to integrate this multitude of diverse actors as well as interests and to tackle, say, the enormous challenge of de-carbonization which is to leave in the ground much of the known fossil fuel reserves: “In order to preserve a roughly inhabitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away” from trillions of dollars’ worth of wealth (Christopher Hayes, “The New Abolitionism,” The Nation, 22 April 2014). Australia’s July 2014 decision to repeal a carbon tax on its biggest greenhouse emitters – from mining to aviation to power plants – is disheartening yet not surprising.

The obvious question (not asked by Weiss) is: Do states as they are, not as they should be, have the analytical, conceptual and tactical capacity, let alone the power commensurate with existential challenges? Can they reasonably be expected to overcome free-riderdom, parochialism and short-termism? Or is muddling through, i.e. cleaning up, the best that can be expected? Is it symptomatic or a fluke that the US federal government spent more money in 2012 repairing the damage from extreme weather than it did on education? (cf. Bill McKibben, “Collapse & Crash” The New York Review of Books, 20 June 2013, page 54).

Tom Weiss wanted “to write a provocative brief book”(page X) and he has, to this reviewer’s mind, certainly succeeded, even if his subtitle implies a book with a broader scope than he delivers. He highlights the inadequacy of the existing institutions and attributes much of their inadequacy as resulting from lacking financial resources. This is true yet unhappily reflective of the level of interest in and support for multilateralism. With Weiss, I wish it were not so and that, instead, the United Nations would be more widely viewed as a useful embryonic framework, and forcefully strengthened as well as used as a valuable instrument to tackle global problems. But what are the chances to overcome intergovernmental gridlock? “Reform of the UN must move from tinkering to real restructuring, but achieving it may take a crisis. Only tragic events of some kind seem to bring countries to the table, ready finally to do business and cut a new deal” (Mark Malloch-Brown, The Unfinished Global Revolution: The Pursuit of a New International Politics. The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, pp. 191-192).

In his farewell speech in September 2006 to world leaders gathered at United Nations headquarters, Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed to the ever sharper challenges of:

an unjust world economy, world disorder and widespread contempt for human rights and the rule of law. I remain convinced that the only answer to this divided world must be a truly United Nations … most of the world’s problems have acquired a global dimension that can only be matched by global action, agreed and coordinated through this most universal of institutions.

Tom Weiss, writing in the same spirit, eloquently and encyclopedically surveys challenges, as well as the solutions which are evident and not mysterious. Solutions, however, remain painfully elusive, and the prospect unnerving that meaningful reform can happen only in the aftermath of a catastrophe.


[1] All views expressed in this review are personal and do not reflect those of the United Nations.

[2]           “To rein in proliferation, to slow down runaway climate change, or to manage the global economy, there simply is no alternative to cooperation” (p. 33).

“ … especially the wealthy West as well as elites elsewhere need to nurture values of solidarity and fairness” (p. 43).

“Burden sharing worldwide and locally means that rich populations should pay more to offset the burden of adaptations” (p. 44).

“Industrialized countries should in fairness shoulder responsibility for previous damage from toxic emissions – and none more so than the United States” (p. 51)

“ … our common interests and aversions could be strong enough to find solutions to dilemmas, and these solutions will be, essentially, systems of global governance” (p. 58).

“ … global problems require global institutional structures that have the scope and the capacity to attack them” (p. 71).

“The planet … requires a strong but restricted central authority that accommodates as much local diversity and initiative as possible” (p. 95).

“Humanity collectively is capable of better and more fairly governing the world” (p. 101).

[3]           “Canada, for example, sends 75 percent of its exports south to the United States. Few economies are more globally integrated or trade-dependent – but Canada thanks its lucky stars that it maintains its own currency, interest rates, fiscal policy, and system of bank regulation. If it had folded these into those of its neighbour next door, its unemployment rate would be 2 percentage points higher and its mortgage market would be underwater” (ibid).


[4]           “… until now modern constitutional democracies have developed only within the context of sovereign nation-states. There is a reason for this. The nation-state represents a compromise of sorts between the politics of empire and the politics of the village: it is large enough to encourage people to think beyond their local interests, but not so large that they feel they have no control over their lives.” (Mark Lilla, “Our Illegible Age: How we declined into libertarianism,” The New Republic, 30 June 2014, p. 45).