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The Why and How of Global Governors

In 2010, Deborah Avant, Martha Finnemore and Susan Sell coined the term „global governor“ to refer to „authorities who exercise power across borders for purposes of affecting policy“ (Who Governs the Globe?, p. 2). I’m not sure the term „authorities“ is the best one (I’d prefer „actors“) but the remainder of their book makes it clear that they are looking for authority in the legal sense but in the more practical one – a „global governor“ is an actor who gets a seat at the tables of global policy-making.

The History and Future of Global Governors

Who are the global governors of our time? You only have to look at introductory textbooks for the generally accepted wisdom on that: States, international organizations, NGOs, corporations, experts, social movements, transnational advocacy networks, cities etc. While certain others – e.g. celebrities, foundations, rating agencies – get a mention from time to time, there is a pretty stable consensus on the most important ones.

But why these and not others? In the past, non-state polities or papal envoys had international status but not anymore. Where did their agency go? Who decided that NGOs should have access to global policy-making? And how does change in the tableau of actors occur so that we may see the emergence of oligarchs as global governors?

Empirical Applications

These were some of the questions that led Matthias Hofferberth and me to engage in this project on the „How and Why“ of global governors. After an initial article on how global governors emerge, which we are currently refining, we also convened a set of scholars who take a more empirical approach. The results of this collaboration are now available as a Forum in the upcoming issue of International Studies Review (paywalled, contact me if you’d like a copy). It contains the following contributions:

  • Matthias Hofferberth & Daniel Lambach: The Why & How of Global Governors: Relational Agency in World Politics
  • Martin Koch: Actor with(-out) a Cause: The Role of the G20 in World Politics
  • Anna Holzscheiter: Inside/Outside International Organizations: Contentious Rules of Interaction between IOs and Non-State Actors
  • Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre: The Power of Doing: Constitutive Steering Practices and the Making of Steering Committees
  • Nina Reiners: Self-Agentification by Experts: A Mechanism for Human Rights Lawmaking
  • Karsten Ronit: Global Industry Associations as Agents of Governance

Findings and Futures

Reading across the individual contributions, we find that agency rarely emerges in a straightforward manner. Even where actors fulfill functional needs, with steering committees or the G20 being formed in response to new issues, decisions over who gets to be a global governor are contested and contingent. Recognition is the central dynamic underlying these decisions, whether formally via institutional access rules for NGOs or informally (as in the case of the G20 or expert lawmaking). Expertise seems to be an important asset triggering the delegation of authority (as in business associations or UN committees), while practices of steering (humanitarian committees) and organizing (G20) help entities to sustain their agency over time even though they are only be “thinly” institutionalized.

Two motifs of agency emergence come up repeatedly in dialectical fashion. Self-agentification may be difficult within discriminatory power structures (NGO access) but actors-in-the-making creatively use interstitial spaces and indeterminate situations of loose delegation to advance their agency claims (experts, steering committees). Delegation can also be implicit and occurs in a push-and-pull of desires and recognition dynamics that respond to self-agentification claims (G20). It can, however, also be explicitly formalized, for example when individual corporations collectivize and thereby expand their agency in business associations, which then, in turn, have to be recognized by relevant others in complex relations.

Clearly, there is more to be learned from further reconstructive empirical work on these and other cases, especially by disaggregating categories of actors and looking at dynamics among NGOs (Holzscheiter, Deloffre), business actors (Ronit) or legal experts (Reiners). In future work, the framework should also be applied to “negative cases”, i.e., global governors which have lost or never successfully acquired agency despite initial recognition or decisive self- agentification. Here, unsuccessful cases of agency claims, e.g. sovereignty claims of indigenous groups or de facto states, could be compared with more successful attempts to spell out the dynamics of misrecognition. On that note, we need to further conceptualize what it means to be a global governor while avoiding agency/non-agency dualisms, understanding the very concept as a gradual one with meaning only in the relational context it emerges from.

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