Ethics & International Affairs Volume 25.4 (Winter 2011): Book Reviews [Full Text]: "Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey" by Thomas G. Weiss and Ramesh Thakur [Full Text]

Dec 15, 2011

Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey, Thomas G. Weiss and Ramesh Thakur (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010), 448 pp., $32 paper.

Timothy D. Sisk (Reviewer)

When two of the leading scholars on the United Nations team up to write a definitive overview of the premier international organization managing the great global issues of our day, both scholars and students should take notice. This book, which stems from the work of the United Nations Intellectual History Project, delivers on its primary goal of identifying "gaps" in world order and the ways that the UN has evolved to manage those gaps, albeit in a somewhat ad hoc fashion; and it offers perhaps the most integrated and big-picture perspective of the United Nations in contemporary international relations literature.

A foreword by John Ruggie sets the stage by stating that the concept and realities of global governance are an outcome of "an ever-present tension between the need to internationalize rules and the desire to assert and retain national control" (p. iii). This observation serves as a leitmotif of the book as the authors then go on to articulate how these tensions lead to a series of functional, and yet still highly incomplete, global "regimes" in the principal areas of security, human rights, and development.

Weiss and Thakur assert in a conceptual introduction that when crises occur and the need for global governance emerges, five kinds of gaps in global governance present themselves. There are knowledge gaps (that is, about the nature of the problem or the extent and intensity of a global challenge), normative gaps (the rules guiding appropriate responses are contested), policy gaps (in terms of who should respond and how), institutional gaps (insufficient clarity about lead actors or a mismatch between policy and the capacity to act), and compliance gaps (particularly relating to reactions to noncompliance).

The last gap is perhaps the most significant for global governance, where incentives for compliance can be weak and reactions to noncompliance involve measures that are either ineffective (as sanctions can sometimes be) or costly and risky (especially military responses). The book's historical overview is clearly relevant to the contemporary themes in the volume, and relates well to the evolution of the international global public policymaking process. But while many of the historical themes are also traced in subsequent chapters, a more fully developed history-as-path-dependence scene setting would have been beneficial. Additionally, an introductory system-wide overview of the United Nations would have helped the uninitiated reader to understand the complicated web of institutions and dizzying array of acronyms that collectively make up the UN system.

The authors do a good job of highlighting the push and pull between a statist (or even realist) interpretation of global governance and the liberal pursuit of a collaborative or multilateral framework for handling global issues. These tensions are a common theme throughout the chapters, which are organized into discrete sections on the three proverbial pillars of the UN: international peace and security, development, and human rights.

The analysis starts with the security regime. The UN Charter's pledge to eliminate the scourge of war continues to be a principal challenge in global governance, and one in which the institutional and compliance gaps are most yawning. The section ventures into a number of controversies (the 2003 invasion of Iraq) and failings (the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda), and guides the reader through some of the uses and abuses of chapter VII of the Charter.

The first peacekeeping chapter is nicely up-to-date, tracing the evolution of various types of peacekeeping operations and the evolution of the UN's role in other areas of security, such as the disarmament of combatants and the clearing of landmines in the wake of war. It also rightly puts its finger on the legitimacy gap in the use of force—namely, the absence of a reformed Security Council that more accurately represents today's configuration of power. Subsequent chapters address the role of the UN in disarmament talks and its responses to terrorism.

The section on development starts with an analysis of the international harmonization of trade, aid, and finance (where gaps clearly continue to exist), as the institutional divisions within world order are most apparent in this area. The authors describe an ad hoc set of national and global policies for managing trade and finance, incoherent responses to some of the most inequality-producing dimensions of global trade, and an aid system that seems more and more broken as the investments in overseas assistance do not seem to bring returns. The section also critically reviews the evolution of global normsetting processes, such as the Millennium Development Goals, as an innovative approach to crystallizing collective action. The authors then round out this section with a chapter on the UN-facilitated climate change negotiations, arguing that the talks on limiting global greenhouse gas emissions are reflective of the way global governance evolves (at best) in fits and starts, and often without much progress in achieving coherent solutions given divergent national prerogatives.

In a subsequent section, the authors address the UN's role where it is perhaps most effective and where it possesses the most legitimacy: protecting human rights. In this section they include analysis of the global health regime in terms of "protecting against pandemics" (although the linkages to the development regime suggest that this issue might have been covered elsewhere in the volume).

The book concludes with a clearly written and passionately argued chapter that homes in on the problems of noncompliance to UN norms and some ways in which the UN's halting evolution still fails to meet contemporary global challenges, such as the "Arab Spring" transitions. If anything, these crises have underscored the relevance of the organization even for such states as the United States, which has historically been skeptical of anything more than a limited role for the UN in the Middle East—perhaps the most problematic global region for security, development (especially for women), and human rights.

Global Governance and the UN will satisfy those who seek a serious grappling with the ethical aspects of international action to address the world's most pressing challenges. The book argues that the UN's evolution is an "unfinished journey": however haltingly, global governance will continue to evolve, with the UN at the center, in the wake of each global crisis. Even the world's most powerful states that jealously guard (or hide behind) the concept of sovereignty find that in an increasingly interdependent world, strengthening the world body can actually directly serve their own individual national interests.


The reviewer is professor of international and comparative politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and the editor of Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organization.

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