Global Governance in the Existential Age – Part 1

The Centre has been privileged this month to host some valuable commentary on the challenge of global governance.

On 6 December the Climate Minister, Hon James Shaw, gave the 8th NZCGS Annual Global Lecture, by webinar with 292 registered participants.  His address (The UN and Climate Negotiations: Implications for the planet; implications for Aotearoa NZ) was focused, insightful and thoughtful.  The Minister, just back from Glasgow, offered some reflection on the nature of the global system, with regards to climate change: essentially, “it’s a stupid way to run a planet, but it’s the only one we’ve got”.  More specifically:

“The intergovernmental process is inherently slow moving. Every single word and every single comma must be agreed by all the more than 190 parties. Global negotiations inevitably prioritise forging consensus.  … COP26 was a shot in the arm for multilateralism, dysfunctional though the system is. So, where does this all leave global governance of climate change? The UNFCCC process includes a mix of peer pressure, norm-setting, political visibility, and capacity building.  And altogether, these foundations add up to push countries into doing more than they would have otherwise.  … But, the pace of progress admittedly has not matched the urgency of the action required. There is a saying that, ‘winning slowly on climate change is the same thing as losing’, given that we are up against an immovable deadline to halve our emissions this decade, halve them again the next, and eliminate them entirely the decade after that.”

Separately, Sundeep Waslekar (Advisory Panel member) contributed an article, more broadly, on the stark prospects for the contemporary multilateral system in the course of this century:

“The multiple crises of our time result from the breakdown of the multilateral order. Some of these crises may intensify between now and 2030. Multilateral organizations have been eroded to the extent that they are unable to manage catastrophic risk, including a military confrontation between superpowers. The weakening of multilateralism is mirrored in the strengthening of hyper-nationalism in many countries. It will not be sufficient to mend the multilateral system. It is necessary, instead, to envisage new principles for creating a global governance grid superseding the UN Security Council that serves the interests of human civilization and not the nation-states. The new grid can be grounded in the philosophy that the world should be treated as a family. It is utopian to expect the nation-states to accept a multilateral order that does not serve their narrow interests. But the alternative is the annihilation of the human race.”

James is a political leader (a cabinet minister). Sundeep is a thought-leader (having founded a think-tank in India).  What are we to make of their far-reaching comments, emanating from their different roles?

Existential risk

Leading universities are now developing focused research to explore emergent existential threats to humanity – notably the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge), Existential Risk Initiative (Stanford) and Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford).  Of the various natural and anthropocentric risks that are identified, three have direct relevance to contemporary global governance – and indeed to humanity’s medium-term future (50 to 100 years out).  They are nuclear conflict, climate change, and health pandemics.

This modern research approach is regarded by some as anthropocentric ‘catastrophising’. But it is becoming increasingly recognised that survival of our own species, despite the level of intelligence and consciousness attained, is not guaranteed – see James Gee: A Very Short History of Life on Earth (Picador; 2021) and or Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow (Harvill Secker; 2016).

The Centre and global thought: developing a new conceptual framework

The Centre’s statutory mission is to encourage research and debate on global affairs from the interests of the global community. It runs four thematic programmes: global citizenship & education; global law and governance; global peace and security; and global sustainability and climate change. It holds an annual lecture on a selected topic of global affairs. In fact much has been traversed along similar lines to the above, albeit through different threads, in the Centre’s annual Global Affairs lectures to date, and associated research by its members, advisers and alumni.

Assessing risk

Risk assessment is the starting-point for any remedial action in a crisis.  In the Centre’s 4th Annual Lecture (2017), Hon Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister, judged that the ‘massive task’ of nuclear disarmament had two major elements. The first is for strategic policy-making to recognise that the risks, for anyone, associated with possession of nuclear weapons outweigh any possible ‘rewards’.  The second is a political strategy in which a nuclear weapon-free world is a ‘truly productive’ vision.

Such a vision, clearly, requires embracing a new conceptual framework for perceiving the human condition.

New concepts

Earth trusteeship

In the Centre’s 1st Annual Lecture (2014), Prof Klaus Bosselmann (NZCGS Board member; Auckland Law School) advanced the concept of ‘Earth Trusteeship’. He saw two preconditions for effective global governance: recognition of the severity of the situation which humanity faces; and realization of the inherent limitations of the current system of global governance. He criticised the current education system for placing undue emphasis on short-term and market-oriented skill-development: the ‘sustainability and global citizenship approach has yet to be recognised in schools and universities’.  He foresaw three developments: recognition of Earth systems as a governance-determining reality; legal principles for underpinning this; and new institutions to respect the principles and undertake action. Perhaps the former UN Trusteeship Council could be resurrected for the purpose.

Planetary boundaries

Earth Trusteeship is closely related to the concept of planetary boundaries, which was advanced by its original progenitor, Prof Johan Rockström (SEI/PIK) in the Centre’s 5th Annual Lecture in 2018. There are nine ecological boundaries beyond which Earth should not transgress if the planet is to retain a stable and harmonious system for human and other terrestrial life.  At present, we are transgressing five of these.

Contemporary law and institutions

These are conceptual advances of recent decades, along with ‘responsibility to protect’ and ‘individual criminal liability’. But are our current international institutions – is contemporary international law – equal to the task of dealing with our existential problems?

Universal legitimacy

In the Centre’s 2nd Annual Lecture (2015), Prof Ramesh Thakur (ANU) judged the UN Security Council to be ‘unfit for purpose’ today. The challenge of global governance is that many of the world’s most intractable problems are global in scope and require concerted multilateral action that is also global in reach. But both policy authority and resources for solving them remains vested in nation-states. This disconnect explains the recurrent difficulties facing the UN and its fitful response to crises. The UN seeks to replace the balance of power with a community of power. It represents the dream of a world ruled by reason. From its universal membership flow both its unique legitimacy and its unique inability to make timely collective decisions.

Within the UN system, the Security Council is the peak body for deciding on the great issues of war and peace and the preeminent forum for addressing global crises. The Council is the core of the international law enforcement system, the world’s sheriff with the legal competence to make decisions on armed conflict that are binding on all countries, even non-members and those who voted against the decisions. It violates many fundamental precepts of contemporary good governance, including representivity, accountability and transparency. The irreducible minimum for any credible system of collective security is that the key actors making and enforcing the coercive decisions in the name and on behalf of the international community collectively are the major powers of the day. This is the logic justifying permanent membership with veto rights of the Security Council.

This is also the criterion on which, more than any other single factor, the Council fails the test comprehensively.  In most cases where UN efforts to deal with outbreaks of international violence are frustrated by a veto, it is the fact of great-power opposition, not its expression in the form of a Security Council veto, which is the obstacle to peace.

Revolution of the mind

In the Centre’s 3rd Annual Lecture (2016), former PM. Sir Geoffrey Palmer (Prof Emeritus, VUW) reflected that the meshing together of politics and law is at the heart of the problems of governance that afflict global society. International law is deficient in the three fundamentals of a judicial system: compulsory jurisdiction, hierarchy of judicial decisions, and application of precedent.

Sir Geoffrey also warned about that “the future of education is not secure and we may be trapped in a time warp, where there is a widening gap between real world experience and what is taught in the system.”  We are in an era where it is not easy to have confidence in the future. But keeping hope alive is an essential ingredient of a healthy society.  Redemption might be found in the thought of historian-philosopher Phillip Allott:

“The necessary revolution is a world revolution. The world revolution is a revolution not in the streets but in our minds. Allott paints a picture for the future of a consciousness that extends throughout the world. It passes freely across frontiers.  It is based on humanity, and our moral and social responsibility extends to the whole of humanity and to the whole of the physical world which we transform by our actions.”

Permanent empathy

In the Centre’s 7th Lecture (2020), Prof Azza Karam (NZCGS Advisory Panel member; SG of Religions for Peace) explored the relationship between universal peace (the concept identified in the UN Charter, Art. 1.2) and religion through the United Nations.

Prof Karam used the metaphor of the flamenco dance: with politics (the 193 UN member states) engaging in the song, religion providing the music, and human rights being the consequential dance. Through her deep experience in the UN, academia and civil society, she critiques the UN for being fundamentally hampered in its multi-religious engagement, still disproportionately working with one particular religion and being selective in its particular human rights focus.

Yet she sees progress in all religions working more normally with the UN today, enriching the exposure and understanding of UN officials with contemporary multi-religious dynamics. She cites the call of one religious world leader to “discover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond with permanent empathy.”

Relational change

In her response to the Minister Shaw’s Lecture, NZCGS Board member Catherine Leining offered the observation that the chief barriers to progress on climate change are not technological or economic but relational.  And relationships can change, which will occur “when we face the unavoidable reality of our interdependence with the Earth and with each other” – the question is when. Catherine cites the distinction between ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ games drawn by NYU professor James Carse: the former reflects zero-sum, competitive relationships in negotiations over finite outcomes; the latter a shared relationship over continually-evolving set of boundaries, including planetary boundaries (see her blog of 15 Dec.).

Which leads naturally on to the concepts of global citizenship and global education.

Global citizenship and education

NZCGS Board Chair, Prof Chris Gallavin, has written extensively on the subject of global education.  Returning from a study tour of the USA as an Eisenhower Scholar, Prof Gallavin has written five articles that can be found on this NZCGS blog site: (Dec. 2019 to May 2020). The future global university, he suggests: “must enfranchise all students as global citizens across race and class; effectively manage info-tech; and develop an accurate meta-narrative for our time, involving the normative structure of human communities and our relationship with the physical resources of our planet. 

Chris as Board Chair, and Libby Giles (Board member) who becomes NZCGS Director on 1 January, together have far-reaching plans for the Centre’s activity in global citizenship and education in 2022 and beyond.

Legitimate global governance

The challenge of global governance was directly addressed in the Centre’s 6th Annual Lecture by Prof Augusto Lopez-Claros. Drawing from his co-authored book, Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions (CUP; 2020), he advanced proposals for addressing effectively the ‘catastrophic risks’ facing humanity that are beyond national control. The solution, he suggests, is to extend to the international level the ‘same principles of sensible governance’ that exist in well-governed national systems: i.e. the rule of law, legislation in the common interest, an executive branch to implement such legislation, and courts to enforce it.

In Part II of this blog-post, I shall offer a few personal reflections.

Author: Dr Kennedy Graham

Dr Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is founding Director of the Centre.

December 20, 2021

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  1. Ray Rivers

    Kennedy – Should global governance follow the democratic or more autocratic form? Would a Chinese totalitarian model work best at bringing all of the global interests together? Is it even possible to think of global governance in a diverse world of democratic and non-democratic states, each with their own set of domestic priorities and systems of governance? And is a truly global democracy just a pipe dream?

    • Dr Kennedy Graham

      Hello Ray,
      The ‘slight’ delay in responding is not due to excessive reflection on my part, but rather awaiting the revamped website.
      You raise interesting and challenging questions. To some extent, perhaps, they are answered in my Part II that followed this.
      But, directly in answer, I suggest the following:
      1. Should global governance follow the democratic or more autocratic form?
      Neither. ‘Global Governance’ is simply a revamped 21st c. version of the UN Charter that governs relations among Member States regarding the lawful use of force and the regulation of armaments. Beyond respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, it does not direct each Member State as to how liberal / autocratic its domestic order is to be.
      2. Would a Chinese totalitarian model work best at bringing all of the global interests together?
      No, obviously not; but that is answered in 1 above.
      3. Is it even possible to think of global governance in a diverse world of democratic and non-democratic states, each with their own set of domestic priorities and systems of governance?
      Yes, for reasons in 1 above.
      And is a truly global democracy just a pipe dream?
      Yes, the pipe-dream is in requiring universal agreement among 8 billion people / 193 Member States to have the same domestic order as you / I / the West / others might subjectively wish. That is not a precondition, and is in fact a repudiation, of ‘global governance.
      So, it all depends on the definition, and a consensus understanding, of ‘global governance’. I suggest that it simply means that, with respect to the three or four existential global problems we face, we need a form of legitimate global governance, irrespective of domestic political differences.
      TBC, no doubt! Thanks for the comments.


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