By Michael Xizhuang Zhou

As Yuval Noah Harari reminds us in his best-selling book Homo Deus, “history does not tolerate a vacuum.” Even as we solve old problems, the laws of history dictate that new fronts emerge elsewhere, bringing with them new tests. The 21st century is no exception, however. But problems have become more transnational and complex in both nature and scope.

The acceleration in the movement and exchange of people, goods and ideas across the world has produced new challenges, including global migration, borderless diseases and climate change, that have the potential to affect the well-being and security of all people, and which national governments are struggling to contain. Often, the international community is seen frantically trying to do damage-control rather than proactively identifying and solving these global problems.

The fact that the international community is struggling to handle emerging problems signifies the need for a new global strategy. New transnational challenges that affect multiple actors and issues at one time rendered the traditional, hierarchical, international decision-making model obsolete. Instead, transitioning to a more aggregated and collaborative system of networks and partnerships can help the entire global enterprise to stay afloat and navigate through the choppier sea conditions of the 21st century.

Global Problems in the 21st Century

The 21st century has witnessed spectacular human achievements in various fields, notably the progress in telecommunications technology which underpin the success of globalisation. In 2018, the world has more than 4 billion Internet users. In other words, more than half of the world’s total population now have instant access to information and potentially connected to one another.

However, these figures conceal a deeper problem. Globalisation has brought hitherto unknown and unfamiliar communities together but not everyone is ready to shelf their own traditions and cultural values in exchange for a global culture of liberalism and consumerism. Even as the world comes closer together, the growing inequality and alienation between regions and cultures becomes ever more apparent. As a result, an unfortunate by-product of a more interconnected world is widening economic gaps and growing cultural tensions that have fuelled ongoing conflicts and acts of terrorism around the world.

One major challenge for the global community is governing forced migration. The UN Refugee Agency’s 2017 Global Trends Study found that a record 68.5 million people had been driven from their homes by the end of that year. But this figure is only one side of this multi-faceted problem. The rise of new transport technologies has facilitated greater ease of transportation. This fed momentum to a global movement of people and created new patterns of migration. Furthermore, strong domestic backlash generated by the ongoing European migration crisis and Trumpian-like rhetorical attacks on immigration in the United States and elsewhere demonstrate that global problems often create dilemmas between national interests and international responsibility; for diverging interests provide feeble grounds to build consensus and cooperation.

Governing Global Problems

Therefore, the ability of the international community to successfully tackle pressing challenges hinges upon its ability to achieve a global consensus on key issues. Global governance on climate change has set a foot in the right direction. Despite its many shortcomings, the COP21 Paris Agreement is a testament to a common understanding and effort to tackle climate change.

Global public health presents a “universal vulnerability”, too. The SARS outbreak in 2003 revealed this vulnerability as transportation networks and greater movements of people helped to transport the disease rapidly from one region to the next. Faced with diseases, such as HIV/AIDs, global unity is critical in building a durable public health infrastructure within the international community. In the words of ex-WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan, “[the] international public health security is both a collective aspiration and a mutual responsibility.”

In short, transnational problems travel without need of passports or visas. They can no longer be meaningfully demarcated or limited to specific regions and localities. Just as the process of globalisation overcomes geography and breaks all barriers to greater interconnectedness, it has also reshaped the geography of global issues. Hence, the traditional model of problem-solving using a state-centric focus is no longer sufficient and global problems can no longer be left to states alone.

With the international model increasingly outdated and world leaders wringing their hands about new challenges then, what can be done? The solution is straightforward: the world needs a new global upgrade of its governance frameworks and problem-solving instruments. This means the adoption of a network approach that creates a web of global actors and communities under a global governance framework.

Global Networks

As new global problems grow and multiply, the international community is increasingly over-stretched and unable to deliver adequate and timely responses. This causes governance gaps where state leaders are often too preoccupied with addressing certain issues at the expense of others.

To address this, the international community should encourage the formation of a network of communities and actors whose relevant resources, expertise, and skills are united to strengthen global “capabilities to handle global problems. By including a broad spectrum of actors, these networks could also help to fulfill specific policy requirements and adapt to local conditions.

To date, we have witnessed the growth of these networks in some areas. In an essay titled “Human Rights and Transnational Advocacy Networks” in the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks, Murdi and Polizzi examined the role of network theory in driving human rights advocacy. One prominent illustration of this phenomenon was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that not only managed to make the international community recognize landmines as a humanitarian issue but, more significantly, contributed to the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty (or Ottawa Treaty) of 1997 which made the installation of anti-personnel landmines illegal.

Furthermore, there are several situations where official status is granted to NGOs and other actors to participate in the international decision-making process. For example, Article 71 of the United Nations Charter outlines the ability for the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to grant official consultative status to partner NGOs. Similarly, the UN Global Compact initiative that was unveiled in 2000 testifies to the functional value of a network approach. Under its “Ten Principles of the Global Compact in delivering corporate sustainability”, the UN Global Compact has helped the international community to create breath in its political arrangements by accommodating multi-level partnerships.

As the international community continues to grapple with new and growing global challenges, these networks represent an innovative and necessary management tool to fix the issue of governance gaps within the international system. Slowly but surely, the process of global governance can enable the transition from a traditional state-centric, hierarchical decision-making process to a more inclusive network approach.

Global Norms and Values

The existence of norms and principles have encouraged a common global identity and cultivated a unifying conscious across different communities. This common global identity, in turn, provides a string that ties actors and communities together to a common governance network.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) marked a pivotal moment in international and human history. Not only did the international community provide a universal definition and commitment to the protection of human rights, but also promulgated the principle of universality. This declaration set a precedent where globally-accepted norms are possible and can be applied to govern international behavior.

Consequently, in the contemporary international system, states and government leaders no longer enjoy complete freedom to conduct political business behind closed doors. The formation of norms and principles have generated expectations of acceptable behavior, and domestic violations of these norms often have significant international implications. The common denominator created by global norms has not only helped the world to form networks between like-minded actors but, more importantly, it led to new mechanisms for accountability in these networks.

A case that illustrates this accountability is the global spread of human rights norms. Human rights are universal and transcend political systems and geographical barriers. By setting a common agenda, universal human rights establish a common identity among people across the world. This common identity can create favorable conditions for the emergence of new global actors, notably NGOs, to participate in human rights governance. Since the 1980s, the spread of human rights organisations have formed important networks among NGOs which can collectively hold governments and even the international community more accountable for their complicity in human rights violations. Prominent NGOs in the field include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that have played an important role in the systematic reporting of human rights violations. In such networks, individuals and organisations are bound together by shared values, common goals, and dense exchanges of information and services.

The promulgation of global norms and values mean that global consensus and solidarity on important issue areas have never been more necessary. States’ behaviour is no longer judged solely by their own citizens but also by the international community and other global actors. In the long term, setting global goals and expectations through agreeable norms can create a common identity. This identity helps actors set aside differences, resolve conflicts, and facilitate the growth of networks between partners.

It is Not a Choice

Global governance is no longer a matter of choice or preference but an imperative. Even at the domestic level, states are confronted with the challenge to develop national policies in response to immediate global challenges. With pressing issues that are fast becoming transnational in scope and multifarious in nature, a new strategy with greater global capabilities and flexibility is in demand. Fortunately, this can be achieved through multilevel networks that include all relevant actors into the decision-making process, thereby creating an effective global governance framework.

Many different types of networks have been formed and the concept of global governance is certainly not new. However, these network approaches are mostly limited to specific issues, such as humanitarian assistance and environmental protection. Progress on other common challenges like security and conflict management leaves much to be desired. At the same time, global governance and the creation of networks were never a systematic and intentional design. Instead, networks emerged piecemeal and applied as follow-up responses when events took place and damage had been done.

A better global governance strategy would involve timely and effective consultation among actors through the networks it creates, which serve as spaces for better dialogue and communication. Such connection helps the international community to actively identify and solve problems, rather than passively respond and do damage control. A comprehensive framework for global cooperation should also avoid pitfalls of overgeneralisation. It is not a one-size-fits-all model. By emphasising the need for networks, a global governance framework that inspires global cooperation on multiple levels and with various actors can help to tailor better solutions that fulfill both local and global requirements in tackling global issues

Governance, Not Government

It is also important to stress that global governance is different from a global government. Problems that have certain global characteristics do not always justify the application of a global authority. Rather, global governance and its networks should ultimately work to encourage states and governments to make more informed decisions through consultation with relevant actors and to facilitate a plurality of voices in the process. Essentially, it represents a shift from a hierarchical international decision-making system to a more flexible, representative and network-based global governance process.

To conclude, global governance essentially entails a complex process of multi-level negotiations between various parties and stakeholders and the accommodation of conflicting needs and interests. As such, compromise is unavoidable. Global governance makes no pretence that everyone gets all that they desire. Rather, what it can achieve is to enable everyone to attain a slice of the global pie so that the world can be a generally satisfied place, and people move forward together. In fact, the truth is, it might even be its ability to broker a deal, however imperfect that may be, through rounds of negotiations and compromise that makes global governance seems more important given a global environment that is increasingly heating up and turning hostile. ♦

Michael Zhou is a year 2 undergraduate studying Global Studies at the National University of Singapore with a specialisation in Policymaking, East Asia and the French language.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Dr Joshua James Jurz (Lecturer, Sociology Department, National University of Singapore) for reviewing this article. I would also like to thank Xie Jiajun (Year 3 Global Studies Undergraduate, National University of Singapore) for proof-reading my article despite having to prepare for her finals.

Featured Image: UN General Assembly, Taken on December 17, 2006.  [Patrick Gruban/Flickr]