The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

How might we go beyond the gridlock of today’s international governance systems? Institutions developed after the Second World War have become the victims of their own success, and are no longer able to face the systemic challenges of our globalised environment. We are at a crossroads: one path leads towards authoritarianism, but another opens up a more hopeful cosmopolitan future, where citizenship is a non-exclusive form of belonging, and each human being is considered of equal moral worth.

World War II, the Holocaust, and the rise of Nazism and fascism brought humanity to the brink. As the violence subsided, the toll of this human drama weighed heavily on world leaders, and recommitted leading powers to set down a structure of global order capable of preventing a war of this magnitude from ever occurring again.

The post-war multilateral organizations created in the wake of this destruction – the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions – established conditions under which, in principle, a multitude of actors could benefit from forming corporations, investing abroad, developing global production chains, and engaging with a plethora of other social and economic processes that ushered in a new era of globalization. This is not to say that these institutions were the only cause of the dynamic form of globalization experienced over the last few decades. Changes in the nature of global capitalism, including breakthroughs in transportation and information technology, are obviously critical drivers of interdependence. Nonetheless, all of these changes were allowed to thrive and develop because they took place in a relatively open, peaceful, liberal, institutionalized world order. By preventing World War Three and another Great Depression, the multilateral order arguably did just as much for interdependence as digital communication, satellite technology, and email.

However, economic and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war rule-based order are now amongst the factors grinding the global system into gridlock, and affecting our ability to engage in further global cooperation. As a result of the remarkable success of global cooperation in the post-war order, human interconnectedness weighs much more heavily on politics than it did in 1945, and the need for international cooperation is marked. Yet the “supply” side of the equation, institutionalized multilateral cooperation, is stalling.  In areas such as nuclear proliferation, the explosion of small arms sales, terrorism, failed states, global economic imbalances, financial market instability, global poverty and inequality, biodiversity losses, water deficits and climate change, multilateral and transnational cooperation is now increasingly ineffective or threadbare.

We are at a crossroads. One road points to authoritarianism, while another opens up a more hopeful cosmopolitan future.

Gridlock is not unique to one issue domain, but appears to be becoming a general feature of global governance: cooperation seems to be increasingly difficult and deficient at precisely the time when it is extremely urgent. Why?

There are four reasons for this blockage, or four pathways to gridlock: rising multi-polarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, and institutional fragmentation. As I argue with my colleagues Thomas Hale and Kevin Young in our book Gridlock (2013), each pathway can be thought of as a growing trend that embodies a specific mix of causal mechanisms. First, reaching agreement in complex international negotiations is hampered by the rise of new powers like India, China and Brazil: a more diverse array of interests have to be hammered into agreement for any global deal to be made. On the one hand, multi-polarity is a positive sign of development; on the other hand, it can easily bring both more voices and interests to the table, so that it becomes harder to weave them into coherent outcomes. Second, the institutions created seventy years ago have proven difficult to change, as established interests cling to outmoded decision-making rules that fail to reflect current conditions. Third, the problems we are facing on a global scale have grown more complex, penetrating deep into domestic policies, and are often extremely difficult to resolve. Fourth, in many areas, international institutions have proliferated with overlapping and contradictory mandates, creating a confusing fragmentation of authority.

These trends combine in many sectors to make successful cooperation at the global level extremely difficult to achieve. The risks that follow from this are all too obvious. To manage the global economy, prevent runaway environmental destruction, rein in nuclear proliferation, or confront other global challenges, we must cooperate. But many of our tools for global policy-making – chiefly, state-to-state negotiations over treaties and international institutions – are breaking down or inadequate, at a time when our fate and fortunes are acutely interwoven. Signs of this today are everywhere: climate change is still threatening all life as we know it, conflicts such as Syria continue to run out of control, small arms sales proliferate despite all efforts to contain them, migration has increased rapidly and is destabilising many societies, and inequality threatens the fabric of social life across the world. While it is far from gloom and doom in all respects, these are dangerous trends stemming from governance structures that are no longer fit for purpose.

We are at a crossroads. One road points to authoritarianism, while another opens up a more hopeful cosmopolitan future. The path to authoritarianism could be created by the search for decisive solutions and ‘strong man’ leaders from people faced with a world that is seemingly out of control and where a retreat to the familiar (and away from the Other) offers a tempting way forward. Of course, we have been here before. The 1930s saw the rise of xenophobia and nationalism in the context of prolonged and protracted economic strife, the lingering impact of World War I, weak international institutions and a desperate search for scapegoats. The 2010s has notable parallels: the protracted fallout of the global financial crisis, ineffective regional and international institutions, and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all blame for every problem on some form of Other.

Under these circumstances, identity and distributional struggles typically intensify; mutual gain gives way to zero-sum equations, and the social order risks fragmentation and sectional struggle. It is not a surprise, accordingly, that the rise of the far right is a sustained and troubling trend.  From Nigel Farage and UKIP in the United Kingdom, to Le Pen and the National Front in France, to Golden Dawn in Greece, to Norbert Hofer in Austria, and to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, this trend is manifest across Europe. The retreat to nationalism and militant identity politics is counter to the process of national accommodation that has underpinned European peace since the end of the Second World War. It is as if all that was learnt in the wake of the Second World War risks being undone. And yet, it would be false to assign all responsibility for the erosion of accommodation to right wing politics. Exclusionary politics can, and does, come from all sides of the political spectrum and has clear manifestations on the far-left in Britain, France and Germany to name a few.

But there are alternative routes. To begin with, we have the option of recalling where the pursuit of authoritarianism leads. The routes chosen in the 1930s all led to calamity and destruction, while the 1940s rediscovered the dangers of simply putting up the shutters, pursuing protectionism and denying the equal dignity of each and all. The architects of the post-war era, who put in place the human rights regime and a re-invigorated law of war, set down elements of a universal constitutional order in which two principles became the bedrock of peace and stability: the equal moral standing of each and every person, and the equal rights and duties of each and all.

Moreover, a cosmopolitan model of politics and regulation can be found in some of the most important achievements of law and institution building in the twentieth century. These developments set down a conception of rightful authority tied to human rights and democratic values which can be entrenched in wide-ranging settings. In this perspective, political power is legitimate if and only if it is democratic and upholds human rights.  

Interestingly, within this new framework, the link between territory, sovereignty and rightful authority is, in principle, broken, since rightful authority can be exercised in many spheres and at many levels, local, subnational, national and supranational. Accordingly, citizenship can be envisaged, as it is already in the European Union, as equal membership in the diverse, overlapping political communities which uphold common civic and political values and standards. Citizenship, thus conceived, is built not on an exclusive membership of a single community, but on a set of principles and legal arrangements which link people together in the diverse communities which significantly affect them. Accordingly, patriotism would be misunderstood if it meant, as it all too often has done, ‘my country right or wrong’. Rather, it comes to mean loyalty to the standards and values of rightful authority – to common civic and political principles, appropriately embedded.

Suitably developed, this conception of global politics envisages a multilayered and multilevel polity, from cities to global associations, bound by a common framework of law, a framework of law anchored in democratic principles and human rights. The state does not wither away in this conception; rather, it becomes one element in the protection and maintenance of political authority, democracy and human rights in the dense web of global forces and processes that already shape our lives. Perhaps more importantly still, it points to a political order no longer exclusively anchored in raison d’état and hegemonic state projects but in principles of global cooperation and cosmopolitan association.

The years since 9/11 have cast a dark shadow over global politics in many respects. The wars and crises of this period have put at risk the wisdom and achievements of the architects of the post Second World War era: of the founders of the UN and EU, of those who established and advanced the human rights regime, of the many actors and agencies that have tried to mitigate climate change and other environmental threats, and of those who have struggled to address poverty and inequality across the world, among many other pressing issues. But while these wars and crises have put this all at risk, the achievements of the post-1945 era have not yet been undermined or damaged to the point of no return. The future is still in our hands. Our forebears created stepping stones to a universal constitutional order, and we can still walk across them and build on them further. This remains a future worth struggling for.

The other side of the cosmopolitan commitment to the equal moral worth of every human being, and to the equal freedom of each and all, is an acceptance of the plurality of ways of living and a tolerance of this diversity in all its richness, with one qualification – that pluralism does not undermine the boundaries of moral and political equality. With this understanding, we can consolidate a global order that serves the many, and not the few.

David Held

David Held is Master of University College, Durham and Professor of Politics and International Relations at Durham University. He is Director of the Institute of Global Policy, Durham University and Visiting Professor at LUISS University in Rome. He is the founder and Director of Polity Press, the Durham Global Policy Institute and the Wiley-Blackwell flagship journal, Global Policy. He is author of more than 60 written or edited books and of an extensive number of academic articles on democracy, democratization, globalization, global governance and global policy. Among his most recent publications are Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need it Most (2013),co-authored with Thomas Hale and Kevin Young, and Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities (2010). His main research interests include the study of globalization, changing forms of democracy and the prospects of regional and global governance.