Political Scientist Thomas Weiss Wonders If New Conflict Would Make Global Governance Effective

Jul 6, 2016

Thomas Weiss has spent 40 year studying global governance, the idea that international organizations and groups can work together to solve issues that transcend geographic borders.

“Whether it’s climate change, terrorism, proliferation, Ebola, it simply is impossible for states, no matter how powerful or un-powerful, to address these problems,” Weiss told KGOU’s World Views.

The City University of New York professor’s 2014 book Governing The World? explores what former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan described as “problems without passports” during a 2003 address to African-American civil society leaders. Dealing with these types of issues was a founding principle of the UN in 1945, but Weiss says the pendulum has swung too far away from state responsibility toward non-governmental organizations and an entire array of complex stakeholders.

“We’re applauding very loudly because Human Rights Watch screams about human rights, or that some deals are cut by Nike to make the environment a little less polluted when they make shoes in Guatemala. I’m certainly not against this,” Weiss said. “But those things actually don’t add up, and I think we’re really, really kidding ourselves if we think that somehow activists beyond borders and transnational corporations and Oxfam are going to halt mass atrocities, or reverse climate change, or provide financial stability to the planet.”

After the end of World War II, dozens of nations committed to postwar prosperity and stability through the UN, and Weiss says the world made similar commitments to international organization after the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century (the Congress of Vienna to establish a balance of power in Europe) and World War I (the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN). He wonders if another so-called “good war” to create a new generation of universal intergovernmental organizations.

“For a while I thought maybe climate would do that, but it seems that it’s just too slow alone,” Weiss said. “In certain countries you’re going to benefit from the warming and certain are going to suffer, mainly poor countries. So I thought maybe that would be the equivalent of World War III. That doesn’t seem likely, and we saw in [the] Paris [climate deal] that at least we didn’t take a step backwards.”

Weiss also says instability in the European Union – the rise of right-win movements, the migration and refugee crisis, and Britain’s vote to leave – further demonstrate the necessity of a global paradigm shift.

“I hope that under the pressures of maybe a combination of climate change, maybe of Boko Haram and ISIS, maybe of proliferation, maybe at some juncture the states that are likely going to survive are going to have to go beyond narrow conceptions of what is in their own national interests.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Thomas Weiss, welcome to World Views.

THOMAS WEISS: Pleasure to be here, Suzette.

GRILLOT: Well it’s really delightful to have you here Thomas. I've read so much of your work. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you because you are a leading figure, scholar, a thinker about issues of global governance and how we address global problems. One of your most recent publications is entitled Governing the World? And I think that's where we have to start with that question, governing the world. A former secretary general at the United Nations talked about problems without passports, and that's related to the fact that there are lots of things that are crossing borders today and that require a global approach and how we're going to govern these issues and address those problems. So, can we govern these problems? How are we to govern to world?

WEISS: Well I hope the answer to that, for you, for me and for my grandchildren is yes! However the jury is very much still out. If you look at the way states behave in the United Nations as well as outside the United Nations one would have to say the evidence is lacking. One of the reasons that global governments emerged was the emphasis upon interdependence and problems that go beyond borders. That used to be mainly war, that was the reason the United Nations was founded, but now we have an entire litany of problems. You pick yours, I'll pick mine. Whether it's climate change, terrorism, perforation, Ebola - it simply is impossible for states no matter how powerful or un-powerful, to address those problems. There are other resources available besides states. You have the feeble United Nations system, you have a handful of powerful and less-powerful NGOs. You have transnational corporations, and so global governance grew up to try and understand the complex array of actors that tries to deal with these problems. My own concern, and something I'm going to address this evening actually, is I think we've gone off the deep end here, the pendulum has swung far, far away from the responsibility of states and their creation – intergovernmental organizations, especially the United Nations - to actually address these problems. We're applauding very loudly because Human Rights Watch screams about human rights, or that some deals are cut by Nike to make the environment a little less polluted when they make shoes in Guatemala. I'm certainly not against this, or the fact that California has stringent air requirements, but those things actually don't add up, and I think we're really, really kidding ourselves if we think that somehow activists beyond borders and transnational corporations and Oxfam are going to halt mass atrocities, or reverse climate change, or provide financial stability to the planet. We can go on and on. So really the problem is the disconnect, the total disconnect between the nature of the problems and the nature of decision making and resource mobilization to address those problems.

GRILLOT: So the decision making then, I mean you're suggesting that there must be some sort of global governance structure, and I want to stop short of saying global government because I'm not sure that's what you're saying - that there needs to be global government. But you obviously referred to the feeble United Nations system. I mean, if the United Nations can't work to manage these issues, then what can? What do we need to create? Is there a new institution that needs to be developed to manage these problems?

WEISS: Well, my colleagues think that unlike a recent president I've been inhaling as well as smoking when I start answering this question because I do think we actually have to move beyond the feeble United Nations. I don't believe that we need a world government to address every issue. But we certainly need some sort central authority, some sort of super-national way to address problems. We can't hope that international volunteerism is going to somehow keep the planet's average temperatures from increasing beyond two or three or four or five catastrophic degrees, it's just simply isn't going to work. As I say, I'm not against all these isolated efforts, but I think there has to be some more major pooling. So part of the solution I do believe is for states to reinvest in the United Nations system. Some of the research I've done recently relates to going back to World War I. And during the period, '42 - '45, that is some people say 'Well, San Francisco when's the United Nations started.' Actually the United Nations began on the First of January, 1942, when 44 Allied nations signed something called the Declaration by United Nations. This was first and foremost an alliance to crush fascism, yes. But it was also a commitment to postwar prosperity and stability through multilateral institutions, which actually began with that alliance, began with the relief and rehabilitation administration, began with war crimes tribunals, began with the food and agricultural organization, began with etcetera et cetera, long before the war's end.

And, so, the question that, which is where you began and I'm going to go back: Do we need a good war to make people think seriously about subsequent institutions? When the Cold War ended we all heaved a collective sigh of relief: 'Thank God that's over!' But there was no experiment. There was nothing like the kind of thinking that was kicking around in 1918 when the League of Nations was founded. That floundered, we know that. Nothing like the thinking that went on between '42 and '45 that led to the UN system. And so we're still limping around with a weakened version, actually, of what the founders actually wanted to put in place. Weakened by the Cold War and 193 nation states and 70 years of partial success, and certainly no resounding success. And so I actually, in a strange way want to go back to the future, in the sense that the kind of proposals that were being discussed seriously, and being discussed seriously not only in Washington and London, but also throughout the capitals of independent Latin America, in what was a different China but China, in colonial - in several countries in the Middle East, all of whom were present in San Francisco. I think that most people somehow look back on that period as the imposition of Western world view and values. I think that's a really convenient narrative.

GRILLOT: Well I have to pick up on your comment that we need a good war, because I mean obviously there seems to be a good amount of war out there these days, but what you're referring to is some sort of world war, a World War III, something involving major global powers, the Great Powers if you will. European powers, the United States, Russia, China, I mean, these, we need to have war involved among these actors in order to, perhaps, convince them to overcome sovereignty, to come back to the table and say we've got to have something else in place that will convince us that we need to overcome our own individual interests and work to collectively maximize our global interests?

WEISS: That's the question I was asking quite seriously after looking at the historical record. I hope that I'm wrong, but if you look at the great experiments in international organization began after the Napoleonic Wars with the Congress of Vienna. Lots of creation of technical public unions in the 19th century then we have a good war that leads to the League of Nations, whose structure was partially responsible for explaining the Second World War. After World War II we create what we have now, the current generation of intergovernmental organizations. I think we need a third generation, or however generations we're at, I’d say the third generation of universal intergovernmental organizations...

GRILLOT: ...Global institutions 3.0....

WEISS: ... and I don't know what's going to force the species as a whole and government in particular to rethink that. For a while I thought, maybe, climate change would do that, but it seems that it's just too slow alone. The rains here last week, or snow in New York in the end of April, and storms elsewhere and record breaking temperatures would indicate it's not moving too slowly, but it's not moving in a sort of catastrophic way overnight that the world would, in certain countries you're going to benefit from the warming and certain are going to suffer, mainly poor countries. So, I thought maybe that would kind of be the equivalent of World War II. That doesn't seem likely, and we saw in Paris that at least we didn't take a step backwards, we maybe took a half step forward in terms of climate change. So I remain an inveterate optimist, but in doing that I have to sort of ignore the historical record.

GRILLOT: You're an optimist but yet you're solution seems to be we need a catastrophe, so I mean is this where we're headed do you think? Not only is it a solution, is it likely to be the case that we're headed to that kind of catastrophe, are there not other examples that we can look to and I hate to bring up the European Union, but it is really the only true example of at least a regional supranational organization that would be relevant, but look how it struggles as well...

WEISS: That's right, indeed. The entire multilateral experiment is very much on the ropes. The United Nations is a kind of afterthought, if it's a thought at all for most policy makers. The European Union used to be front and center, certainly for the 28 countries that are members of the European Union. But the current perfect storm of right wing movement in several countries mixed with a good dose of migration and refugees mixed with the currency crisis mixed with Britain's leaving suggests that that experiment too, which I certainly five years ago, or even three years ago, thought was an important step in the right directions for an entire group of countries. That does seem to be in question as well. For me, as a historian of both international organizations and of war and peace in general, I just found that one of the more distressing developments - there are lot of stressing developments - but the idea that, that this continent that was on its knees and had ripped one another apart for centuries and in particular was on its knees in 1945, somehow found a way to establish, 70 years later, an institution that had free movement of people, free movement of goods, various kinds of regulations that people don't like, but actually in the environmental area, for instance, amble, European has taken a huge lead and so I find that one of the, the more sort of depressing thoughts these days, that's why I insist that I want to go back to World War II because it's a little like Johnson's thought about hanging. It does focus the mind and under the pressures of war, and I hope that under the pressures maybe of a combination of climate change, maybe of you know Boko Haram and ISIS, maybe of proliferation, maybe at some juncture the states that are likely going to survive are going to have to go beyond narrow conceptions of what is in their own national interests.

GRILLOT: Well maybe the sum of all these together will begin to change hearts and minds. But just in the last minute we have can you just tell me, since we've been talking about some depressing things - you did say you were an optimist, what are you hopeful about when it comes to global governance?

WEISS: Well, the fact that more and more people are aware of these problems, that civil society is burgeoning in various ways. The criticisms coming from the bottom up related to trade, related to human rights, in fact even in a microcosmic way the current election for the secretary general, the 9th secretary general, has brought people out of the woodwork and proposals that have been made for 30, 40, 50 years suddenly have just a little bit of traction largely because civil society has in fact pushed and now even the electoral college of five countries may have to listen.

GRILLOT: Well Professor Weiss thank you so much for being here and sharing your perspective on this very interesting and important topic, thank you.

WEISS: Good to chat.

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