Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Governance: Providing a strategic framework

Global Strategies Project


In 1994 the Commission on Global Governance reported on its efforts to articulate a strategically appropriate response to the challenges of the international community. The Commission emerged as a consequence of a report in 1991: Common Responsibility in the 1990's: the Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance, which received the endorsement of many world leaders. The report appeared under the title: Our Global Neighbourhood, drawing on the reports of previous independent commissions. It proposes a World Conference on Global Governance in 1998 to give form to its proposals.

The concern of the Commission was to analyze the main forces of global change in order to reassess the capacity of the existing structures of international cooperation, and the values and concepts that underlie them, as a basis for the governance of global society. Specifically it was concerned with global institutional arrangements and how they should be reformed.

1. Outdated mind-set

The report constitutes an admirable presentation of what ought to have been done 10 or 20 years ago. Given that a number of members of the Commission were instrumental in blocking any such changes at that time, the report is significant in reflecting their learning since then -- faced with the consequences of styles of strategic thinking that have created the situation that now prevails. As such, the report is highly relevant to those in power who still identify with the strategic mind-set appropriate to those times. It is questionable how relevant it is to a future world characterized by crises like Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.

2. Mobilization by a discredited leadership

The second sentence of the report, regarding the collective power of the people, sets the tone: "Mobilizing that power to make life in the twenty-first century more democratic, more secure, and more sustainable is the foremost challenge of this generation." Use of a military metaphor -- mobilization -- illustrates the strategic mind-set out of which the report articulates its vision for the future. The mind-set has flawed the relationship of the United Nations to "We the Peoples" since its origin. There is no questioning of the appropriateness of this understanding of the future relationship between leaders and the led. This perspective is offered at a time when political apathy is a major concern in many countries, and when a significant number of members of any government cabinet are under indictment or obliged to resign.

3. Strategic vulnerability

Stressing hope for the future, it is characteristic of the positive approach of the report that it acknowledges few failings in the strategic initiatives of the past, including the independent commissions that preceded it. It is therefore insensitive to the turbulent forces that have tended to undermine any effective implementation of such strategic recommendations. Its useful recommendations are vulnerable to familiar manipulation which will render them of little consequence. This is unfortunate, especially since many members of the Commission are familiar with the games that can be played with such sets of recommendations.

4. Hoping for acceptance of a global ethic

The report bases its hope on widespread acceptance of a global ethic, namely "norms and values that should guide the world, the ethics that should inform life in the global neighbourhood .... Without them, it will be hard -- if not impossible -- to establish more effective and legitimate forms of global governance." It offers yet another weary articulation of worn out value words in the hope that their magic may breathe life into failing institutions.

The report fails to address the fact that, despite a multitude of value-laden declarations of principles since before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, observance of such principles is increasingly questionable. The unfortunate manipulations of supposedly shared values by religions, currently inflaming many regional conflicts, provides further illustration. The report remains locked into an outdated pattern of generation of ethical frameworksat a time when the process of generating such frameworks, and peoples' relationship to them, needs to be reviewed. As the flagrant violations of ethical principles and international law continue to illustrate, a more fruitful approach to values is required.

5. Failure to embrace difference

Recent warning signals from Asian countries concerning the imposition of Western value frameworks are ignored. The challenge of distinguishing between a Western (or American) system of values and a universal system is avoided. Perhaps most naively, the apparently consensual proceedings of the Commission itself is used as evidence to argue that: "The strongest message we can convey is that humanity can agree on a better way to manage its affairs and give hope to present and future generations." However any evidence of differences within the Commission is suppressed from the report. If there were no differences initially then the selection of members was at fault. If there were differences until the end, then the failure to articulate them is a measure of the inadequacy of purporting to deal with governance of a world faced with a variety of strategic perspectives and imperatives.

6. Failure to embrace complexity

The report benefitted from widespread government and foundation support. However despite such resources, it significantly fails to introduce any recognition of the challenges of dealing with complexity, whether through studies of complex systems, of strategic paradoxes, of chaos theory, of gender-biased policy-making, or of challenges to counter-intuitive comprehension. This is typical of the gap between those presently responsible for strategy formulation (and their academic advisors) and those seeking ways beyond the conceptual and institutional inadequacies of the past. World governance that fails to close that gap jeopardizes any slim chance of responding effectively to increasingly chaotic and paradoxical situations. Again Bosnia is an indication of the policy vacuum that can result.

7. Reinforcing discredited economic biases

Much is made in the report of the strategic value of replacing the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) by an Economic Security Council (ESC) as the key to reforming United Nations policy-making. Whilst there may be value in such rationalization, the report is insensitive to the irony of what could well be seen as the final step in the exclusion of the social dimension from United Nations policy-making. The ESC is indeed seen as "offering leadership on economic and social matters". But when there is no effective solution to the unemployment problem, it remains unclear as to who exactly is served by an Economic Security Council --when many would have made a case for a Social Security Council to complement it (let alone environmental and other councils). Given the articulate criticism of the development policy of past decades, especially that espoused by the World Bank group, what assurance is there that future United Nations policy-making would not sink further into the conceptual trap created by economists lacking any sensitivity to what they finally recognize as "externals"? In their total ignorance of the psycho-social dimension, such economists are still struggling to understand why certain developing countries have succeeded so remarkably whereas others, acting on their simplistic prescriptions, have failed.

8. Unrealistic vision

The report sets out to provide a new vision. A coherent vision is indeed presented. It is however distant from the realities that people are increasingly obliged to confront. The hope it offers is therefore essentially false, however pleasant it may be to subscribe to it. The report is especially weak on implementation and its methodological implications, notably in the light of the track record of its predecessors. It offers admirable suggestions on improving the relationship of civil society institutions to the United Nations, for example. But typically it fails to discuss well-known phenomena that easily transform such initiatives into an exercise in tokenism and arouse expectations that cannot be met in practice. If this is the best that the top people can do, then those at the bottom indeed have cause to worry.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential