The Vehicles of Global Governance

by Kenneth Anderson

At the SMU conference last week on transnational governance networks, splendidly organized by Prof. Jenia Turner, a question that was much on my mind was one that was – what’s the word? – obviated by the topic of the conference itself: what role for global civil society in, so to speak, running the planet?  For that matter, what role for the UN?  And how much do we believe in any grand sense of global governance anymore?  

The reason the question seemed ‘obviated’ to me at the conference was that our topic was largely transnational governmental regulatory networks – and those mostly devoted to finance, economics, trade, and such topics.  We had a very interesting panel on transnational tribunal networks, but in fact the conference mostly addressed economic regulation and the networks that informally coordinate across and among sovereign jurisdictions.  

I was struck, as I so often am in these discussions, by how little attention is paid to either the institutional UN or the international NGOs as intellectually serious players in the elaboration of these networks of regulatory governance.  The pragmatic reasons are easy to see – what, really, are you willing to hand over to the institutional UN, meaning by that organs controlled by the General Assembly and the assembled states therein?  The internet?  Bank capitalization standards?  What exactly?  Well, symbolic issues of important human values – actual things, they’re liable to get broken.  If I sound flippant, the reason is that I believe ever more deeply after each of these meetings that it is not just me – far from it – this is actually the deepest feelings of American international law professors; they (we) affirm, at the level of abstract platonism, a certain reverence for the UN as a seat and vehicle of global governance in a grand and general sense – but when it comes to anything that actually matters to them (us, I mean), whether the Internet, international criminal tribunals, you name it, today and not in some vaguely distant future, it’s hands-off.  

Now it is true that Kal Raustiala and David Zaring – I think they won’t object to my shout-out here – and no intellectual slouches, they, each told me that I underestimated the appeal of the UN even in the present circumstances.  But, while not having done a proper accounting, I have a pretty good anecdotal sense from SSRN and Westlaw that American law professors, at least, are writing far less on the institutional UN than used to be the case, while writing about, for example, tribunals far more.  

As for global civil society, hmmmmmm … I think we’ve collectively done a lexical revision without quite admitting it: we refer to the international NGOs as “norm entrepreneurs,” in no small part because the term allows us to elide the fact that we really don’t anymore buy what we bought in the 1990s, the “representativeness” of global civil society of the peoples of the world before the institutions of the international community, or the 1990s idea that global civil society was democratizing the international community.  NGOs are back to being advocacy organizations for their own propositions, but to treat it as a step forward and not a step back, we tacitly agree to call it “norm entrepreneurship.”  Global civil society matters a lot … mostly these days, however, to global civil society.

I’ll be writing this up as a conference talk for The International Lawyer, published out of SMU, but I have put part of the argument into a working paper on SSRN, something that is supposed to come out, in likely very different form, as a book chapter on the ethics of global philanthropy.  While I am tooting my own horn, if anyone wants to see this argument in Spanish, my lengthy review essay on Paul Kennedy’s Parliament of Man is just out in the November issue of the Revista de Libros (Madrid) – it runs a solid 10,000 words, and I am grateful to the editors for running an article of such length (here at SSRN; the English language version is here at SSRN.)  

(Let me add:  The Revista de Libros is a magnificent book review; if you can read Spanish, you should read it.  The editing is spectacular and Luis Gago, my translator at the Revista, makes me sound unbelievably brilliant.  My wife, who teaches Spanish, read my essay and said, “It’s so strange – it sounds so completely like you and yet it’s … better.”)

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