Professor John Ikenberry of American Abroad has written an excellent post on the “Crisis of Global Governance.” After outlining a litany of recent institutional failings — the unsuccessful efforts to reform and modernize the UN, the collapse of the EU constitutional process, and the weakening of various other institutions, rules and norms (including NATO, the NPT and WTO) — Ikenberry asks:

where are the vibrant and growing global and regional institutions that are in place to help us collectively tackle the great problems of our age?

And:

Are we in an era where the demand for cooperative mechanisms and institutionalized collective action is growing but its supply is dwindling?

Ikenberry posits a lot of possible answers, but he certainly believes this is a central issue for the future of world politics:

it is all too clear that something is very wrong, big time, with the current system of governance. Looking into the future – with the growing complexities and dangers associated with continued globalization of economies, societies, and cultures and the privatization of technologies of violence – it is all too clear that the world will need more not less institutionalized cooperation. If we are in an age of declining institutionalized cooperation, well, ergo – we do have a growing problem or, yes, crisis.

Ikenberry suggests that America may be largely to blame for this crisis (though he addresses the neo-utilitarian concern with “hegemonic stability”):

a lot of it may have to do with shifts in American policy….today, the U.S. just doesn’t have an interest or inclination to sponsor, support, fund, and enforce global rules and institutions.

Some of my own scholarship has placed blame for the “crisis” on the US as well. However, my concern was primarily ideational, rather than material.

In May 2001, I wrote a short piece asking, “Is an Outlaw State Calling the Shots?” During the late Clinton administration, the US staked out selfish positions to justify its rejection of the Land Mine Ban Treaty, Kyoto, the CTBT (in the Senate anyway) and the ICC.

As a scholar sympathetic to the ongoing social constructivist “turn” in international studies, I view these real-world policy actions by the U.S. as quite troubling. Constructivists claim that a given norm reflects the international community’s shared understanding of “legitimate social purpose.” Thus, logically, if an important member state refuses to commit to various agreements and perhaps even considers them inappropriate, this dissent indicates norms that do not reflect widely shared understandings.

Ultimately, I rejected the material realist explanation:

realists remain hard-pressed to explain the creation and wide acceptance of numerous international norms that generally do not serve the narrow interests of powerful states.

Generally, the US claims to share the ideals expressed in these agreements — it just disagrees with specific provisions in the negotiated outcome. Plus, Kyoto , the ICC and the Mine Ban Treaty have had some success even without full US participation.

Ikenberry also discusses an ideational problem near-and-dear to my scholarship:

it might be that there is a crisis of governance driven by a more complex problem associated with the inability to infuse international regimes and institutions with democratic accountability and legitimacy.

In Democratizing Global Politics, Nayef Samhat and I explore the implications of the so-called “deficit of democracy” plaguing far too many international institutions and regimes. We conclude that burgeoning “discourse” norms requiring more extensive participation and transparency in these institutions can promote their legitimacy.

My “Outlaw” piece also favored discursive solutions to the global crisis:

[The] challenge is to convince American representatives of a shared international interest in normative ideals. Unfortunately, as current experience reveals, persuasion, social learning, and other consensual mechanisms of change can often fail to garner agreement.

Conceivably, norm-builders could borrow creative ideas from the policy-relevant toolkit employed by conflict resolution practitioners. These experts have long grappled with the problem of crafting consensus in the face of intransigent power and self-interest. Parties to disputes must be encouraged to engage in open dialogue in order to reveal and discuss their basic needs and concerns. Ultimately, the most important problems are dissected so that workable solutions might be mutually constructed. In practice, international negotiations would be supplemented with informal exchanges where powerful actors would find the veracity of their arguments challenged by other members of the global community. Could selfish U.S. claims withstand such close, discursive scrutiny? I doubt it.

Obviously, I don’t have time to write a more complete answer, and by no means can dialogue provide a simple solution to the problems at hand, but I do believe that transnational public spheres can promote democracy and public accountability in world politics.

In turn, more democracy and public accountability should help resolve the crisis in global governance.

This doesn’t mean a “second superpower” can simply balance American material clout, but it might mean that those seeking to build and promote international institutions and regimes can work effectively to create the circumstances allowing a fair hearing for their persuasive arguments.

If this were a class, I’d assign some homework: What does it mean if the Pentagon (the domestic player most responsible for US rejection of the ICC and Mine Ban Treaty) accepts the idea that global warming is a serious national security threat?

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