Avoiding Catastrophe: Institutions of Global Governance Hold the Key



Features | Mitchell Flitcroft


World order is crumbling. With American isolationism, a rise of Euroscepticism, and deteriorating attitudes towards global governance becoming pervasively entrenched in our society, universal law and order has perhaps never been under such immense threat. This comes at a time when we are facing an ever-increasing number of global existential risks—climate change, nuclear war, and artificial intelligence, to mention just three—all of which need global solutions. An immediate hard-line response needs to be taken towards those who do not cooperate in fighting these existential risks—before it’s too late.


According to renowned political theorist Andrew Heywood, global governance is, in its most abstract sense, ‘international cooperation in the absence of a world government’. In reality, it is the backbone of all laws, institutions, and practices that promote the common, universal good. One major class of institutions that facilitate global governance are intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and others, which can exert diplomatic, militaristic, and other forms of pressure in order to bring about global change. Global governance becomes most important, even essential, when the world is facing global problems that no single actor can solve on their own. Lamentably, the world is indeed currently facing such problems.


A prominent harbinger of these potentially catastrophic issues is the ‘Future of Humanity Institute’ at the University of Oxford which researches the most significant threats facing humanity. In its most recent report, it warns of existential threats in the forms of a ‘nuclear winter’, climate change’s ‘positive feedback loops…which would cause rapid and disastrous warming’, and the ‘75% chance of superintelligence in the following 30 years…[which] will plausibly usher in economic, social, and political changes of a magnitude significantly beyond those wrought by the Industrial Revolution’. These are all, according to the report, serious threats that ‘require cooperation by most or all of the world’s nations’. Just last month, the ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ released perhaps the most pressing report on global warming yet, confirming the severity of the problem and the need for immediate action. Moreover, the ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, and its symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’, representing in the form of a clock face existential threats to humanity, just reset the time. It is now two minutes until midnight—the closest we have been to apocalypse since the 1950s.


Universal law and order has perhaps never been under such immense threat.

In the face of these threats many, infuriatingly, turn away. President Trump has pulled America out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, opposed NATO, called the EU a “foe”, said the UN is “not a friend even to the United States”, initiated trade wars, and made many other isolationist gestures. Simultaneously, anti-EU sentiments are rising throughout Europe. The actions of Putin, Erdogan, and other strongmen have demonstrated little respect for global order or human rights. Essentially, there is an overall decline in attitudes towards global governance, at a time when these global threats suggest exactly the opposite is needed.


Of course, like all bureaucracies, global institutions do deserve a certain level of criticism- they can be costly, cumbersome and slow to adapt. However, these relatively trivial arguments should not inhibit our ability to recognise the simple fact that global governance is the most prominent and perhaps the only tool capable of implementing the global good which is necessary to sustain our very existence. As we scramble to plug the holes on this sinking ship, Trumpism, Brexit, and other forms of isolationism are busy lighting fires in the hull. The world is facing global problems that affect everyone. Locking yourself into the cabin will not save you from the sinking ship. We need to work together.


So how should we encourage international cooperation from those who don’t wish to contribute? Should the institutions of global governance be soft or harsh in their response to non-compliance? Some advocate a soft-line approach of appeasement, forgiveness and building bridges in the hope that detractors will eventually comply or at the very least, harm will be minimised. Others advocate a hard-line approach, in which non-compliance is harshly punished, large fines are levied, sanctions are imposed, but compliance is generously rewarded. A current example of this debate is the type of relationship the EU will seek to forge with Britain after Brexit. A generous, soft-line approach by the EU, which grants Britain all of the benefits of leaving the institution with no consequences for their non-cooperation, could be problematic in causing a mass exodus of other European countries, thus leading to the decline of the EU. However, too harsh a response would cut off all ties with a nation that has been prominent historically, politically and economically throughout much of European history. Therefore, a middle ground solution could and should be reached in order to limit damage to both parties without, most importantly, damaging the power and legitimacy of the institution of European governance - the EU.


I would suggest that in most cases, a mixed strategy is optimal. A pragmatic approach is best for trade, migration, and other issues which are not immediate existential threats. However, a hard-line response is needed on issues which are immediate existential threats, such as climate change, nuclear war, and artificial intelligence. It’s important to implement this hard-line approach immediately for a number of reasons. Firstly, these three existential threats all have runaway effects, meaning we will lose all control of these problems unless we act soon. Secondly, global institutions are still powerful and viewed as legitimate on a universal level with an opposition that is relatively weak and illegitimate. Lastly, and most importantly, hard-line action is necessary now as states will usually act in their own self-interest. This can perhaps be most aptly exemplified in the success and failure of two similar environmental protocols. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 (set out to reverse ozone depletion) which was widely adopted, most notably by the United States, enjoyed great success while the emission-reducing Kyoto Protocol of 1997 has produced few results due to a lack of participation by key individual actors including the US. Despite both protocols setting out to benefit the environment and therefore bring about ‘universal good’, only the former agreement benefited the individual actors given that their economic input to the Montreal Protocol was significantly less than the economic savings that its success yielded. This teaches us the harsh but realistic lesson that international relations depend upon the weighing of costs and benefits, not upon the goodwill of states.


While the institutions of global governance are under threat, they still wield huge power. They can provide states with the costs and benefits needed for cooperation on global issues. Every day of inaction from these institutions chips away at their legitimacy, chips away at the snowballing effects of climate change, chips away at the exponentially growing threat of artificial intelligence, and chips away at the small window we have to avoid catastrophe. It is time to stand firm. The actors of global governance need to produce a hard-line response. Now.



Originally published 22.11.18 in Vol. 2 No. 1.