UN Diplomacy in Today's Crises

Western governance has transparency and accountability but lacks continuity. Eastern governance has long-term discipline but lacks public participation. Each can improve by learning from the other.

October 2015 | by Robert Harris

New times require new methods of governance, and our own troubled era is no exception. The great economic and technological convergence that is the consequence of “Globalization 1.0” has also given birth to a new cultural divergence: the wealthier emerging powers are asserting their individual cultural norms, looking to their respective historical foundations as they define themselves against the waning hegemony of the West. If “Globalization 2.0” is to be successful, it must accommodate both greater interdependence and greater pluralism.

Unfortunately, none of the existing governance models, including Western liberal democracy, is adequate to the task of ensuring a peaceful and prosperous Globalization 2.0. Our world today requires levels of technical expertise, long-term planning, legal and regulatory consensus, and cosmopolitanism that are not consistent with nation-based democracy as currently practiced in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, the emerging neo-Confucian mandarinate of China, and some similar state-dominated models, cannot hope to remain stable—or to lend stability to the developing global order—without finding ways to attract and channel the free consent of the governed, who increasingly are demanding the dignity of meaningful participation. We need, in short, to find a middle way, both in theory and in practice.

Globalization 2.0 means, above all, the interdependence of plural identities instead of one model for all. The once regnant Western liberal democracies must now contend on the world stage not only with neo-Confucian China but also with Turkey’s model of an Islamic-oriented democracy with a secular frame, a model that has been a beacon for the newly liberated Arab street. Historically, a power shift of this magnitude often ends in collision and conflict. But given the intensive integration that the post–Cold War round of globalization has wrought, this power shift also presents entirely new possibilities for cooperation and cross-pollination across a plural cultural landscape.

Much hangs on our ability to balance the need to recognize and respect distinct cultures and the need to embrace intense global interdependence, all while responding to the demands for greater participation in the political process. Our ability to manage those conflicting needs will make the difference between dynamic and stalled societies and determine whether clash or cooperation emerges as the global modus operandi.

That balance might be called “intelligent governance,” a middle way that devolves power and involves citizens in a meaningful fashion while fostering legitimacy and consent for delegated authority at higher levels of complexity. Devolving, involving, and decision division are the key elements of intelligent governance. These are the factors that can reconcile knowledgeable democracy with accountable meritocracy.

Striving for intelligent governance does not mean imposing a one-size-fits-all template. Different political systems are at different starting points, and each must reboot according to its own cultural preferences and needs. While China needs more citizen participation and meritocratic accountability to achieve balance, the United States needs to depoliticize its democracy, finding a system in which governance for the long term and the common good is insulated from short-term populism and a special-interest political culture. China needs to lighten up, while the United States must tighten up. In Europe, the institutional infrastructure necessary to complete integration—a strong but limited political union—must be invested with democratic legitimacy, or it will fail to attract the allegiance of European citizens over the medium or long term.

At the global level, the Group of 20—the main mechanism of adjustment for the global power shift currently under way—must be invested with legitimacy by nations and their publics. Otherwise, it will never acquire the political capacity to provide the global public goods—a reserve currency, stable trade and financial flows, security, nuclear nonproliferation, and a united front against climate change—that no one hegemonic state or club of states can provide in the plural world of Globalization 2.0.


Executive Editor

 Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan