This report brings together a set of diverse perspectives on global governance from independent thinkers. It does not attempt to lay out a prescriptive path as to how global decision-making should be organised, but rather, it aims to stimulate reflection and invite the reader to explore new directions.  

Four initial pieces set the scene, situating the main challenges that the world now faces in a broader historical perspective. We open with a contribution from Cambridge astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees who takes what might be called ‘the long view’.  In ‘A long-term perspective on global catastrophic risk’, he considers the 45 million century life span of the Earth, identifying our present century as unique. It is the first era when our species is in a position to determine the planet’s future, choosing between ‘ever more wonderful complexity’ and higher forms of intelligence, or a darker view where human folly could foreclose this immense future potential. The biggest challenge, he concludes, is not scientific or technological, it is political: persuading decision-makers to carefully consider the long-term consequences of their actions.

The second contributor, David Held from Durham University, examines the state of gridlock into which our international institutions have fallen in ‘From multilateralism to gridlock and beyond’. Developed after the traumas of the Second World War, current institutions have enabled the globalised world that we know today, but they are increasingly unable to tackle the greatest problems of our time. David Held attributes this to rising multi-polarity, institutional inertia, tougher problems and institutional fragmentation. Humanity now faces a crossroads, and could head either towards authoritarianism, or  a ‘brighter cosmopolitanism’. This second and more hopeful perspective would entail embracing a new form of citizenship that goes beyond national allegiances to more flexible and interconnected kinds of political belonging, anchored in the principle that all human beings are of equal moral worth.

In the next piece, ‘The current shape of global governance – a look inside the UN structure’, philosophers Magnus Jiborg from Lund University School of Economics and Management and Folke Tersman from Uppsala University provide a general overview of the United Nations – the current focal point of global governance, designed for the voluntary coordination of sovereign nations. The piece offers an optimistic perspective on our existing systems by considering the various areas where the UN has had at least partial success in coordinating action towards environmental protection, poverty reduction or conflict prevention. Perhaps, the authors suggest, an institution designed to address one set of problems might evolve, and prove capable of tackling others.

The last piece in this first section takes a different angle and considers how little we know about the actual effect of our global collaboration efforts. A number of international treaties exist to support environmental protection, but until recently, no system was in place to systematically monitor their impact, or even whether commitments are fully implemented. In ‘Global Environmental Goals: What works, what doesn’t and why?’ Maria Ivanova from the University of Massachusetts Boston introduces a new research project that monitors the implementation of treaties on environmental issues. The ultimate goal of the project is to increase accountability and to support better institutional design. Early results encourage optimism: developing countries show better performance than expected and data reporting is consistent. An environmental conventions implementation index, which is developed as part of this project, will provide a valuable accountability tool for future treaties and agreements.

The second part of the report offers a selection of nine pieces from independent thinkers that each consider the question of global governance from a particular perspective, encouraging reflection on the multiple dimensions of this complex issue.

The changing role of the courts in protecting global public goods is a theme that has been highlighted by recent legal cases, firstly against ExxonMobil’s failure to disclose environmental risks to their shareholders, and secondly against the Islamic terrorist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for destroying UNESCO World Heritage Monuments in Timbuktu, Mali. In ‘Governance for sustainable development – courts as the new game changers,’ Malini Mehra from Globe International argues that when companies and governments are becoming less trusted with ensuring the preservation of our environment, the judiciary may offer a solution and a source of hope.

Recent years have seen a marked shift in the role played by the private sector in global governance. Sachin Joshi from the Confederation of Indian Industry explores these changes in ‘The privatisation of global governance’. Increasingly perceived as a potential source of solutions for global challenges, the private sector now has a seat at the negotiating table along governments and civil society. In a world where new technologies crucial to the future of humanity – such as human genome mapping or artificial intelligence – are largely controlled by private sector entities, there is a strong case for their involvement in global decision-making. This may signal the beginning of a new era where global governance is increasingly privatised.

‘Women’s leadership in global governance’ – or the lack of it – is a subject tackled by New York University’s Anne Marie Goetz in a passionate indictment of the lack of women in our current global governance structures. Gender parity within institutions is just one aspect of the problem however, argues the author: institutions must actively embrace a feminist agenda. Improvements to the condition of women must be listed as a global priority, and accountability systems must be put in place to ensure that the fight against misogyny progresses everywhere in the world if multilateral solutions are to be found.

China’s rise in the late 20th and early 21st centuries resulted in a massive shift in geopolitical balance. In ‘China’s role in global governance,’ Professor Pang Zhongying from Renmin University examines how China continues to deepen its relations with existing global governance institutions, while using different strategies to push a reformist agenda, and aspiring to a central position in global forums, a bridge between East and West, between developed and developing countries. In a time of ‘global governance deficit,’ the author argues, China may act as a factor of stability – but China’s long march towards an established role in global governance has not yet come to an end.  

Against the background of nationalist agendas challenging regional integration, the recent adoption of a single African passport could offer grounds for optimism. In ‘Perspectives on the African single passport,’ Cameroonian legal expert Atangcho Nji Akonumbo explores the impact this initiative could have for Africa. A continent-wide market could stimulate intra-African trade and investment, encourage entrepreneurship and business diversification, he argues. However, the institution of a single passport alone will not be sufficient: development efforts – from education to infrastructure, peace and stability – are all crucial to unity and long term prosperity on the continent.

In ‘From the regional to the global: better achieve together what cannot be achieved apart’, professor Ian Manners from the University of Copenhagen interrogates the European experience, and what might be learned from its successes. Over its seventy years of existence, the European Union has achieved peace, prosperity and social progress in a continent that, for centuries, had hardly experienced ten years without a war. These achievements, argues Ian Manners, are deeply connected to the core principle of the European Union Treaty – subsidiarity or ‘to better achieve together what cannot be achieved apart’.

In the Middle East, unusual forms of cooperation hold valuable lessons for collaboration at the global level. ‘The big jump into the Jordan – putting water before conflict’ by the three co-directors of EcoPeace Middle East, in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, tells of one such initiative. EcoPeace is a recent initiative that brings together municipalities bordering the Jordan River. Over the years, the Jordan River which serves as a border between regions in conflict, has become little more than a sewer, with severe environmental consequences. How could a river holy to half of humanity suffer such a demise? To address this issue, EcoPeace has developed a systematic local awareness raising campaign and engaged local leaders in symbolic acts – inviting Mayors to  jump into the Jordan together. These initiatives are building ground for collaboration, and slowly, the river is showing signs of a rebirth.

Cities offer vibrant alternative approaches to cooperation when it comes to addressing global challenges, particularly environmental issues and climate change. In ‘Cities are key to our survival in the twenty first century,’ Robert Muggah of Brazil’s Igarapé Institute and Benjamin Barber of New York’s Fordham School of Law show how the city may be one of the most crucial form of political organisations in the coming century. While nation states are building walls around themselves, cities are building bridges between each other. Further progress will require structures that allow for deeper engagement, particularly between cities in wealthier nations and the fast-growing metropolises of the Global South – and some of these are already taking shape.

The final piece in this section offers an original perspective on the potential impact new technologies might have on global governance, and how radical alternatives to current models might emerge. In ‘BITNATION Pangea: the world’s first virtual nation – a blockchain jurisdiction,’ Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof paints a picture of how blockchain technology could herald a new form of governance. Through secure technological systems, individuals could join an alternative polity based on electronically negotiated contracts, thus bypassing the traditional nation state model.

We live in exceptional times: our present period, that of the Anthropocene, or era of human impact on the biosphere, presents unique challenges and the real possibility of catastrophic destruction. Yet, argues Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre in ‘Planetary stewardship in the Anthropocene’, leverage points for transformative change exist. Looking to the future, these four in particular deserve our attention: new legal norms that consider the notion of planetary boundaries; changes to the mandate of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that would upgrade the organisation to coordinate internltional rules in ways that support a transition to global sustainability; a strong commitment to develop and support innovations that have a positive impact on the biosphere; and consistent efforts to secure popular endorsement, so that proposed changes are not only effective but also perceived as legitimate.