What is global governance?

We speak a lot about global governance, but what exactly does “global governance” mean?

Roughly speaking, global governance refers to governance on a global scale. While the concept seems simple in theory, it can take many forms in practice. National governments come in many shapes and sizes. But global governance, as we shall see, is a different beast altogether.

First, it’s important to note that governance is not the same as government. A government is a formal body that is solely responsible for governance of specific institutions within a jurisdiction. Governance on the other hand typically refers to rules, institutions, and officials that have the power to shape the behavior of actors in a system. For example, the enforcement of laws and regulations as well as the provision of safety and services. It should be clear then, that achieving governance with a global scale or impact doesn’t necessitate a single global government. There is a continuum from negotiation between nations to broad-impact treaties and agreements1 to trade/customs unions to political unions. These exist from a transnational all the way up to a global scale.

On a global scale, this could be achieved the same way as on a national scale: one monolithic, unitary government operating across the entire globe. All people would adhere to the same rules and be answerable to the same final authority, and all people would rely on the same institutions to provide safety and services. In other words, the whole world could unite as a single country.

This is in fact probably the first concept that springs to mind when people hear the term “global governance”. There have been many attempts by futurists to propose frameworks and systems that would be most effective for unitary governance of the world in this fashion2 .

That said, such a system will not be built for a long, long time – if it is ever built at all. For the reasons why, look forward to our upcoming piece on the Global Cooperation Possibilities Frontier. For now, it is sufficient to know that such a monolithic global government would both represent a high level of national government coordination and sacrifice of sovereignty.

Is global governance impossible without first achieving this daunting and distant goal? Not at all. In fact, manifestations of global governance have been in place, or at least the building blocks for it, since the end of the Second World War.

The United Nations governing body and its institutions constitute a framework that allows for global governance. It fits the definition because it allows for a democratic framework of voting on regulations that apply globally, it provides a safety net to prevent or respond to wars and humanitarian crises, and is funded by nations which are a part of it. This structure allows for an array of institutions and services that provide everything from consulting, advisory, justice, humanitarian aid, education, information, and so on. In theory, it could provide much more, and on a global scale.

In fact, the United Nations (UN) is the closest thing we have to a global government. Today, it contains the closest approximations that the world has to a constitution (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights); a set of deliberative lawmaking bodies (the General Assembly and Councils); a police system among nations (the Security Council); and an executive branch (the UN bureaucracies).

Regardless of the shape global governance takes, it’s something that humanity will certainly need in the future. With all of the challenges and risks facing us, our ability and willingness to cooperate is going to directly impact our ability to thrive.

  1. See The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. []
  2. See, for example, the global governance model proposed by one of the winners of the 2017 New Shape Prize. Lopez-Claros, A., Groff, M., Dahl, A., Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century, 2017. []

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