The world has a governance problem. We need more of it—at a time when we have less of it. Globalization has created gaps between the problems we face and our ability to respond. The problems move quickly, but our institutions do not. Problems like the meltdown of the global financial system and global climate change cross borders and require urgent and coordinated action across countries. But governance stops at the borders of our primary institutions, sovereign states.
New forms of governance are emerging to fill the gaps, especially in the private sector, sometimes in public-private partnerships, sometimes alone. Civil society combines in transnational networks to change corporate and government behavior on issues from debt relief to land mines. Nongovernmental organizations and private companies provide services previously deemed the purview of states—from building roads to providing security. Civil society and companies develop and hold businesses accountable to corporate social responsibility codes. A private regulatory body governs the Internet, to the extent that anyone does that.
The public sector also attempts to increase capacity and collaboration across borders. We create new international institutions (the World Trade Organization) and adapt old ones (NATO and the United Nations). Religious actors are part of the mix as well.
But all these efforts are still not enough. People are dying, but states cannot save them. The United States and other strong states cannot solve these problems alone; their institutions are not wired for it. Nearly a third of the people on earth live in the weakest states in the system, as described in detail in The Failed State Index, a new report by the Fund for Peace. Their citizens are the most vulnerable, yet these states are the least able to respond to the challenges of globalization and some deny their people the ability to participate in or hold their governments accountable for the activities undertaken in their name. The worst of these states are predatory, deliberately killing the very citizens they are supposed to protect.
Sovereignty—the ideas that governance aligns with territory and that those outside the geographic boundaries have no authority to meddle in internal affairs—is problematic for most of the people on the planet. But most leaders and scholars ignore the problem of sovereignty in world politics, focusing on government action even as states are less able to resolve global problems alone.
I am not a neutral observer of these issues. I had recently finished the fourth edition of my book on globalization, Beyond Sovereignty: Issues for a Global Agenda, when Pope Benedict XVI released his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The pope reveals himself to be an institutional pragmatist. When the challenges are as urgent as they now are, we have to use all available tools and work through, reform, strengthen, expand and improve many institutions. States, existing and new international institutions, civil society partnerships, more ethically oriented businesses, churches and individuals—all have a role, and no one is off the hook.
Media controversy focused on No. 67, “the urgent need of a true world political authority…universally recognized and vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.”
Few noted No. 41, which urges us “to promote a dispersed political authority, effective on different levels,” and No. 57, which notes that “the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way.” Pope Benedict calls for effective international institutions, as did his predecessors, but he also calls for updating and making all our institutions more ethical and effective.
The pope calls for neither one world government nor untrammeled sovereign autonomy, but for effective global governance. Institutional pluralism carries costs, including overlapping jurisdictions and coordination difficulties. But these institutions already exist, and so can be more quickly reformed to serve better the needs of the world’s most vulnerable.