The unfinished business of global governance

Yesterday I finished Mark Mazower’s [amazon_link id=”0141011939″ target=”_blank” ]Governing the World: The History of an Idea[/amazon_link]. It’s an excellent overview of global governance, ideal for students new to the subject as well as readers with a general interest. The book starts with the Concert of Europe and ends with the implications of the financial crisis for the EU. It has a western perspective, but then, as it argues, global governance has been a western and specifically American construct.

[amazon_image id=”0141011939″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Governing the World: The History of an Idea[/amazon_image]

Given its scope, the sections covering the parts I know best, namely the post-1990 globalisation debate and role of the IMF, World Bank, WTO etc, feels quite concise. Reassuringly, though, it also gets to the essence of the issues.There are also some interesting perspectives – for instance, on the problematic status of NGOs, many of which started specifically as instruments of the Cold War. “The broad term ‘NGO’ hids as much as it reveals'” writes Mazower. He introduced me to the acronym GONGO, government-organised non-governmental organisation.

Another very interesting section covers the momentousness of the UK requesting IMF assistance to deal with its balance of payments crisis in 1976. The book focuses on the internal Labour Party debate between the Atlanticists, among them Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Chancellor Denis Healey, and the left-wingers who favoured a radical turn towards nationalisation, capital controls etc. When the former prevailed, Mazower writes, “It was much more than a defeat for the British Left, the unions and the working class. It was the first step in the capitalist reconstruction of the West.” He argues that the moment marked the turn away from post-war social corporatism and enabled the construction of the financialized ‘free market’ economy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The book goes on to finger the role of economists in this process, and specifically its turn away from history and institutions into the realms of abstraction. “Most of the economists in the IMF had little interest in history, nor in the other social sciences. Its staffers were mostly male, and almost entirely economists trained in American and English universities. Entering the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s, they were rational-expectations revolutionaries who based their prescriptions on in-house templates couched in the language of highly formalized mathematical models…. they existed in a state of more or less total ignorance of the cultures, languages, or institutions of the countries they had been told to cure, having been trained, as many economists still are, to believe that this ignorance did not matter.” Anybody who quibbles about this should read Kevin O’Rourke’s marvellous post on why history matters in economics.

Mazower’s book ends with some thoughts or questions about where a  system of global governance shaped fundamentally by America goes next, in a world of European crisis and Chinese power. There seems little doubt it will be different – think only of the contrasting Western and Chinese attitudes to conditionality for loans to Africa these days. (Deborah Brautigam’s book [amazon_link id=”0199606293″ target=”_blank” ]The Dragon’s Gift[/amazon_link] is fascinating on the Chinese perspective.)

Mazower is a skeptic about the current emphasis on human rights as a justification for intervention in internal conflicts: “A world in which violations of human rights trump the sanctity of borders may turn out to produce more wars, more massacres and more instability.” Reading a history of the past two centuries of debate makes it clear that the dilemmas are constant, however. There are always powerful and less powerful countries. Governance is built around rights and responsibilities, but whose rights – the nation, the minority group or the individual? The balance changes as events move on. Technology progresses and social complexity increases, so there is a constant dilemma between technocracy and participation or politics. It is impossible to embed the good judgement these dilemmas require into a perpetual institutional framework; global governance will always be unfinished business.


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