Global Governance

Global Governance

In this article, we shall examine the role and place of global governance in international relations, particularly within the context of globalization. We will define global governance, discuss the role of global governance in international relations, as well as discuss limitations to effective global governance. Within this discussion, we will examine the various political and international organizations that have arisen with the objective of fostering more effective global governance.

Much of the discussion of global governance is based on the current operational structure of the world that we live in. As Thakur & Weiss (2015) explain,

“There is no government for the world. Yet, on any given day, mail is delivered across borders; people travel from one country to another via a variety of transport modes; goods and services are freighted across land, air, sea, and cyberspace; and a whole range of other cross-border activities take place in reasonable expectation of safety and security for the people, groups, firms, and governments involved. Disruptions and threats are rare…This immediately raises a puzzle: How is the world governed even in the absence of a world government in order to produce norms, codes of conduct, and regulatory, surveillance, and compliance instruments? How are values allocated quasi-authoritatively for the world, and as accepted as such, without a government to rule the world?

The answer…lies in global governance. It is the sum of laws, norms, policies, and institutions that define, constitute, and mediate relations between citizens, societies, markets, and states in the international system–the wielders and objects of the exercise of international public power” (27).

Global Governance Definition

Global governance is understood as “…the way in which global affairs are managed. As there is no global government, global governance typically involves a range of actors including states, as well as regional and international organizations. However, a single organization may nominally be given the lead role on an issue, for example the World Trade Organization in world trade affairs. Thus global governance is thought to be an international process of consensus-forming which generates guidelines and agreements that affect national governments and international corporations. Examples of such consensus would include WHO policies on health issues” (WHO, 2015).

The idea behind global governance is that it will aid in helping to solve any challenges within the international system.

Criticisms of Global Governance

However, there have been criticisms by some against the idea of global governance. For example, the WHO (2015) points out some arguments that critics make, namely that “Critics argue that global governance mechanisms support the neo-liberal ideology of globalization and reduce the role of the state (and thus its sovereignty) to that of an adjusting body for the implementation of international policies. Some argue that, as a result, the interests of the poorest people and nations will be ignored unless they have a direct impact on the global economy.”


Gaps in Global Governance

 There are a number of gaps within global governance systems. For example, the World Health Organization (2015) argues that three primary gaps exist. Namely: 

  • “The jurisdictional gap, between the increasing need for global governance in many areas – such as health – and the lack of an authority with the power, or jurisdiction, to take action.
  • The incentive gap, between the need for international cooperation and the motivation to undertake it. The incentive gap is said to be closing as globalization provides increasing impetus for countries to cooperate. However, there are concerns that, as Africa lags further behind economically, its influence on global governance processes will diminish.
  • The participation gap, which refers to the fact that international cooperation remains primarily the affair of governments, leaving civil society groups on the fringes of policy-making. On the other hand, globalization of communication is facilitating the development of global civil society movements.”

Thakur & Weiss (2015) argue that there are five particular “gaps” in global governance. They are as follows:

  • Knowledge Gaps
  • Normative Gaps
  • Policy Gaps
  • Institutional Gaps
  • Compliance Gaps

Knowledge gaps are important because if we do not know the severity of a problem, or if we don’t have the resources to investigate a particular issue, then this could become difficult for effective global governance. Thus, if we don’t have information or research, not only do we not know how problematic an issue is, but it can then also affect how we go about trying to resolve or remedy that situation. Therefore, in the cycle of global governance, “the first step in eventually addressing a problem that goes beyond the capacity of of states to solve is actually to recognize its existence, to understand that there is a problem. Next, it is necessary to collect solid data that challenge the consensus about the nature of the problem, to diagnose its causes–in short, to explain the problem” (31).

Normative Gaps follow knowledge gaps. After we understand that an issue exists, it is important to establish (and develop) norms to address that problem. This often forms within societies, but international organizations such as the United Nations also have a role to form law on the issues (Thakur & Weiss, 2015). Norms are important; they “matter because people–citizens as well as politicians and officials–care bout what others think of them” (Thakur & Weiss, 2015: 32). Thus, individuals, organizations, and international organizations can work to set norms on various issues, whether they are economic trade, environmental issues, or human rights, as well as many other issues. Thus, once we know about a situation, many can work to shape norms about how we in the global community can respond to what is taking place (Thakur & Weiss, 2015). 

Policy Gaps are related to the specifically policies that one can implement in order to address the stated problem. When we speak of policy, we are talking about “the articulated and linked set of governing principles and goals, and the agreed programs of action to implement those principles and achieve those goals” (Thakur & Weiss, 2015: 33). There are many actors in this process. Individuals and NGOs can call for policies, and the state itself can introduce and establish policies towards these problems. However, sometimes actors (such as states, for example) may have varied interests with regards to a conflict, thus making policy more difficult to establish multilaterally. On the other hand, is it also an issue when states are making policy without including members of the civil society (Thakur & Weiss, 2015). In the case of the United Nations, some scholars argue that General Assembly resolutions, or United Nations treaties and covenants can take the form of policy (Thakur & Weiss, 2015). 

Institutional Gaps are the challenges of implementing any policies that are put forth by the international community. If we are speaking about environmental rights abuses, institutional gaps would include any failures of effective mechanisms to ensure that environmental law is in place. For war crimes, the idea is that the International Criminal Court will be there to hold state leaders accountable for their actions. If we are speaking about human rights, one could look to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for refugee issues, the Office of the Commission for Human Rights, or the Human Rights Council, for example. 

Compliance Gaps are one of the final challenges with regards to global governance. This includes effective implementation, as well as enforcement. Amongst the challenges is the fact that “[r]ecalcitrant or fragile actors may be unwilling or unable to implement agreed elements of international policy, for example a ban on commercial whaling, the acquisition of proliferation-sensitive nuclear technology and material, or the cross-border movement of terrorist material and personnel” (Thakur & Weiss, 2015: 36). Or, it might be difficult to enforce penalties on violators. The United Nations, while it does not have a standing military (Thakur & Weiss), through the Security Council, can pass resolutions and carry out military and economic actions against non-compliers. Nonetheless, there are still many difficulties to ensure that actors are following prescribed policies and norms. 



Thakur, R. & Weiss, T.G. (2015) Chapter 2, Framing Global Governance, Five Gaps, pages 27-40, in Steger, M., The Global Studies Reader, New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

World Health Organization (WHO) (2015). Global Governance. January 2015. Available Online:

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