Interview with Thomas Weiss on Change and Continuity in Global Governance

January 26, 2016

Mikhail Gorbachev at the UN, 1988. CREDIT: RIA Novosti archive (CC)

JOHN TESSITORE: Hello, and welcome to another episode in our Ethics & International Affairs interview series, sponsored by the Carnegie Council. I'm John Tessitore, editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly peer-reviewed journal, which is now in its 30th year, and is published by Cambridge University Press.

With me today is Professor Thomas Weiss who, with Rorden Wilkinson, is the co-organizer of a roundtable titled "Change and Continuity in Global Governance," which appears in the recently published Winter 2015 issue of the journal. Other contributors to the roundtable are Craig Murphy, Roland Paris, Susan Park, and Catherine Weaver.

Welcome, Professor Weiss. Good to have you with us.

THOMAS WEISS: Good afternoon, John. Good to be here.

JOHN TESSITORE: Tom Weiss is director emeritus of the Ralph Bunch Institute for International Studies and Presidential Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center of the University of New York. In addition, for the last three years he was also research professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; a past president of the International Studies Association; and the recipient of the association's 2016 Distinguished International Organization Scholar Award. He is also past editor of the journal Global Governance, and has written extensively about multilateral approaches to international peace and security, humanitarian action, and sustainable development

His research interests focus on the United Nations, global governance, humanitarianism, human rights, the responsibility to protect doctrine, and the power of ideas in shaping world order. Professor Weiss is the author of a great many books and articles, so I'll only mention that he and Rorden Wilkinson are co-editors of Routledge's Global Institutions series and of the 2014 volume International Organization and Global Governance, with some 50 chapters by many of the world's leading analysts.

With that, let us begin. First, I would like to start with a somewhat personal question, if I may, Professor Weiss. I think it's fair to say that few citizens and even fewer academics are seriously interested in the United Nations these days. Tell us, please, how did you get into this business and what has kept you interested in the world organization, which is now 70 years old?

THOMAS WEISS: Good question, John. A student in London a few weeks ago at the anniversary of the entry into force of the UN Charter asked me the same question, and I began giving an answer I've given over the years, which relates to the fact that as a graduate student, I had an internship at the International Labour Organization in Geneva. Then I stopped in mid-sentence, and I suddenly realized—I was doing the calculations—that I was actually conceived during the San Francisco conference and was born as the General Assembly was opening in 1946. I think it actually was in mother's milk in addition.

JOHN TESSITORE: A congenital condition.

THOMAS WEISS: Yes, a congenital condition. In addition, over the years, what happened to me was I began in U.S. domestic politics and in fact was working at Rikers Island on educational reform, prison reform, etc., and then I went to graduate school and I suddenly realized that everything is related to everything else. I couldn't just stay at Rikers Island. There was the Department of Corrections. There was the City of New York. There was the State of New York. There was the federal government.

I started looking at international problems, and I soon got myself to the level of world order and became interested in the world organization. I've been there ever since, although as you mentioned, over the years there was a real dearth of interest in the institution. In fact, that's why, way back when, some of my mentors founded something called the Academic Counsel in the UN System. They realized they hadn't procreated, that there were very, very few younger analysts at the time in the mid-1980s who actually were focused on the institution, whereas if you go back to the early 1950s, for example, at Columbia there were six or seven people who actually taught about United Nations. Today, there are few people in law school, but that's not at all their own interests. Righting that situation was one of the things that I became interested in and actually have devoted basically the rest of my career to.

JOHN TESSITORE: Understood. Let's connect that then to the roundtable as it appears in the winter edition of Ethics & International Affairs, your roundtable on global governance, which obviously is a very big part of your academic study. To begin, for the sake of absolute clarity, start us out, please, by giving us a layman's definition of exactly what you mean when you use the term global governance, and perhaps tell us how this is different from that always controversial issue of global government.

THOMAS WEISS: Global governance consists of all efforts to identify, understand, and address problems that go beyond the boundaries of states. The real problem is that for those of your listeners who actually studied Latin, the terms governance and government have the same Latin root. The difference between them revolves around the fact that governance concerns formal and informal principles, rules, laws, and institutions, whereas government really is the formal side of that equation.

The real problem, and you hinted at it by asking the question about world government or world governance, is that at the national level, while we may lament what's going on in city hall, or Albany, or Washington—in fact, we do that with some regularity—basically, there is a structure in place that occasionally agrees on legislation, enforces it most of the time, collects taxes, and takes action. In addition, there are a lot or other information groups, community groups, nongovernmental organizations that are active in communities and that in some ways supplement federal, local, and state government.

The real problem at the international level is all we have is the soft side. All we have are the informal set of relations, because the formal ones—there's nothing like a central authority. There's nothing like an overarching authority. The closest we have is the United Nations, which consists of 193 member states that occasionally come to an agreement about a rhetorical text and almost never come to an agreement about anything approaching enforcement of those resolutions or decisions.
To sum up, at the national level, you've got government and governance. Really at the international level, all we have is the softer, informal side of governance.

JOHN TESSITORE: That weakness leads directly into my next question. In your contribution to the roundtable, you note that despite international agreements since the 1970s aimed at stemming climate change we have failed to do so, and that even though there are numerous international conventions governing human rights, the world today is still characterized by massive rights violations. I don't think anyone would contest that. Finally, despite the fact that huge international bureaucracies exist to combat poverty, billions of people still suffer from extreme poverty.

What is it about our current system of global governance that is inadequate to solving these issues? Is it even fair to place blame on these institutions?

THOMAS WEISS: Let me answer that by going back to your previous question. During the 1930s and 1940s, there were a whole series of individuals in the United States that included Walter Lippmann and, lord help us, Ronald Reagan, who actually were partisans of the notion of world government. They looked back at World War I, they looked back at the Depression and said there needs to be something beyond states.

All of the issues that you've mentioned—climate change, human rights, and the like—we could add to the list with Ebola, terrorism, and on and on—there's a disconnect actually between the nature of the problem that requires usually global or at least very widespread action that is well-funded and strategic. Instead, we have basically tactical actions that are very short-term and usually very under-funded.

The nature of the problem, which goes beyond borders, is being attacked by governments on their own or on the international level by governmental organizations to which you referred, whose basis is those 193 member states. Their decisions and the funding of their decisions are based on national interests, and the result is oftentimes highfalutin' rhetoric, like the Paris Agreement on climate change. The price of oil falls and that's the end of that; or human rights, and that's set aside in the interest of repressing one's own population. The disconnect, the total disjuncture, is between the nature of the problem and the nature of the decisions and the institutions that are supposed to do something about them.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, when someone asked him a question about why the UN was so hopeless, said (I believe it was an effort in Angola), "Blaming the UN for Angola is like blaming Madison Square Garden for the Knicks' record." It's a building, and what goes on in the building is what states decide, what international civil servants carry out, and oftentimes what others—those of us in the business and on commissions and NGOs—help to carry out.

JOHN TESSITORE: As you express it, and certainly this is an argument that might be in the minority, but one that I happen to subscribe to as well, the stumbling block lies with the states themselves. Again, looking at your essay, you argue that "a debate about what drives change and what encourages continuity in global governance has been surprisingly limited," with much of the focus being placed on the distribution of power among states.

Do you think we should place less emphasis on states as drivers of global governance? If so, what other institutions and actors should we be looking to?

THOMAS WEISS: I'm a student of international relations, which means I get paid to look at how states interact in international politics, by definition. What's happened over the years, however, is that it's not necessary to put less emphasis on states, but cease giving only emphasis on states and to ignore the other actors who are an important part of global problem-solving.

JOHN TESSITORE: Tell us about those.

THOMAS WEISS: The whole term global governance grew up to describe the fact that there were on the scene an increasing number of civil society actors, nongovernmental organizations of one sort of another, trans-national corporations, the media, a whole series of actors that were not encompassed by looking only at international diplomacy and what government-to-government relations were. Clearly, unless states come together in better intergovernmental organizations, all of these other actors are not going to solve terrorism; they're not going to halt mass atrocities; they're not going to halt Ebola in West Africa.

States need to participate, but we also need to understand this complex array of other actors whose activities oftentimes reinforce or complement what states are doing. I think that, ironically, by my effort and the efforts by many others to emphasize non-state actors, we've almost gone in the other direction. We have become sort of infatuated, if you will, with Human Rights Watch and the Bill Gates Foundation, and the work of The New York Times and the CNN effect, and we've failed to see the extent to which states are still the main actors on the stage. It's those entities that have to be pushed and shoved to respect the kinds of agreements that they've come to and the ones they haven't come to. The rest of the actors need to push and shove in that direction.

JOHN TESSITORE: Perhaps if we took a look at the history of global governance we might be able to put some flesh on these bones. Obviously, at different historical periods, there have been markedly different systems of global governance. These have been reflected and influenced in the contemporary world order at the time. Let's go back to World War I and the League of Nations. Can you briefly tell us about the evolution of the modern global governance system over the past century?

THOMAS WEISS: The answer to your previous question, John, about the success of other actors: global governance includes states; it includes intergovernmental organizations and everything else, non-state actors. Global governance at the outset in the 19th century, the main actors were not only states, but the main intergovernmental actors came together already, long before the First World War, to regulate commerce on the Danube, for example, to fight smallpox coming out of, at the time, the Ottoman Empire. There were also technological developments, which led to telecommunications, led to better postal delivery, and all of those topics were the work of public international unions, some of which are still with us today. This movement toward cooperation, to solving problems that a single state could not solve, began then.

World War I, the first world war of the 20th century to end all wars, after four years of that carnage, Woodrow Wilson, in particular, but others, had in mind that it was necessary to put together an international institution that would help move beyond the narrow confines of state sovereignty. We know that that institution flopped. It was a total failure. Part of that failure led to World War II and the second experiment in the 20th century with a universal international intergovernmental institution to actually react against poverty, against the instability of the markets, against war crimes, and also keep international peace and security.

Ironically, then, and it's hard to ignore the lessons of this history, it's really wars that lead governments of states to think a little outside of the box and begin to experiment with an institution that might pull them together more than it pulls them apart, and so World War II led to the current generation of United Nations organizations that occasionally, when governments decide to use them, actually work.

JOHN TESSITORE: Let's stay with the UN for a little while. It has its detractors, certainly, but there are still many who point to the fact that, in so many respects, it's indispensable. Its specialized agencies are doing remarkable work in so many areas worldwide. This clearly is, as you say, a form of global governance. Are we learning from our failures and our successes? Is this something where we can build on and we're going to go on to something better? Are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic?

THOMAS WEISS: Alas, I'm an inveterate optimist. I wouldn't be in this business otherwise, but it's hard to ignore the reality that we frequently take a couple of steps forward and then at least one and a half backwards or sideways. While Steven Pinker talks about the "better angels of our nature," I'm not sure actually that there are lots of other people who agree with him. [Editor's note: Check out the Carnegie Council debate on this subject with Pinker and Robert D. Kaplan.]

I'm struck, John, by some historical work I've been doing about the wartime years. The United Nations actually reflects a decision of 26 governments on the 1st of January 1942 to put together a coalition. The allied coalition was obviously a coalition that was effective in crushing fascism, but it was also actually a commitment to a kind of international collaboration, a kind of international cooperation—multilateralism, we'd call it today—that was not just a tactic for the war, but was actually a commitment, I think, in the longer run, that peace and prosperity could only be guaranteed by stronger intergovernmental organizations.

Of course, that vision and in looking at the documents during the wars—and this is not just in Whitehall; it's not just in the State Department. It's in China; it's in imperial India; it's in parts of Latin America; it's in the Middle East. There's very creative thinking, in some ways, a whole lot more creative, ambitious, and innovative than anything we have today, either in thinking or in practice.

Under the pressures of war, governments and individuals thought differently. I have not abandoned the notion that we can learn from this and that without having a conflagration that would make World War II look like child's play, that we might learn. World War II led to the creation of the United Nations. The notion at that point was not that the solution should be going back to 1914 minus, but the idea was, "Let's go to 1918 plus." The League failed and had lots of shortcomings, but we didn't want to re-institute the law of the jungle and go it alone. The notion was multilateral cooperation with intergovernmental institutions that mattered.

I was just reminded of this by some students the other day regarding Syria. The UN has screwed this up royally. But one also has to remember that when states—in this case, the 15 members of the Security Council—when states decide to use these things, they work. Even in Syria, despite the lamentable refugees, internal displacement, the disaster that's in that country, when the members of the Security Council decided that it was time to get rid of chemical weapons, there really was only one solution, and that was a decision by the Security Council to cooperate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As a result, we haven't, probably, gotten rid of 100 percent, but we got rid of probably 95 percent to 98 percent of the chemical weapons in that country.

JOHN TESSITORE: A good point. I think many of us overlook that positive aspect of UN action, of Security Council action.

Let me move you, then, from one global governance institution to another on the other side of the Atlantic. Many believe that the advent and growth of the European Union, which now features 28 member states and has common currency among 19 countries, is one of the most significant developments in global order in the last quarter-century or more.

Nonetheless, as we all know, the EU is clearly under enormous pressure at the moment from the refugee crisis out of Syria, which you just mentioned, and from a number of euroskeptics, ultra-nationalists, even from neo-fascists from within the EU member states themselves. Is the EU in any danger of dissolving or is it perhaps, at least, likely to re-trench and thereby limit itself to a number of core functions? Not to compare it with, certainly, the League of Nations, but is this another example of global governance taking, as you said, two steps forward and one and a half back?

THOMAS WEISS: I actually am quite afraid that you may be correct. On sabbatical a couple of years ago, I was at the University of Leuven, which is right next to Brussels. I spent a lot of time in Brussels. At that time, it was mainly the euro that was concerning people. If you are familiar with European history and you think about Europe on its knees in 1945—Ian Buruma has written this book, Year Zero. [Editor's note: Check out Buruma's Carnegie Council talk on this book.] If you read this book, and then fast-forward, and think about 28 countries that for centuries have been tearing one another apart, have been at loggerheads.

You see a place that has the free movement of people, has free movement of capital, has the free movement of industrial goods, occasionally makes decisions about various kinds of health regulations, has done much more on the environment than the United States, for example.

You say, "Whew! Boy, that was one hell of an experiment," that Jean Monnet and his sidekicks, who began thinking about something narrow that Europe could agree upon, the European Coal and Steel Community, and then building on that success, eventually, one would—piece by piece—move toward a union that would be economic as well as political.

In the past, basically since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, Europe has taken lots of steps forward. There have been crises over the years, the UK not going in and then subsequently going in, other countries threatening this, that, or the other. Each crisis in the past has actually led to the strengthening of the European Union—more members, better financing, the Schengen visa agreement, to move ahead with the currency.

This crisis, I think, is a little different from the previous ones because you've ticked off the elements. It's almost a perfect storm related to a refugee influx we haven't seen since World War II coupled with terrorism that's, I think, incorrectly but often identified with refugees coming in. You couple that with the economics of the euro and not just Greece, but the other southern European countries, and then you mix into that witch's brew another element. You've mentioned the right wing—there's no other word for them than fascists, who are emphasizing nationalism and national borders.

JOHN TESSITORE: We've talked about the UN, we've talked about, obviously, the European Union. Let me get into some individual countries or groups of countries and see what role they're playing.

We all agree, after all, that the Cold War/bipolar world order has given way to a more complex multipolar world with the United States still maintaining its position as the greatest military and economic power. However, many forecasters, of course, claim that China will soon overtake the United States as the world's largest economy. Other powers, such as India and Brazil, are upset about aspects of the current global order, notably, for instance, their continued failure to reform the UN Security Council, which represents a post-World War II order.

All that said, do you think that the United States and other Western powers failed to adapt to these new power realities? Will other powerful states succeed in creating, let's call it an alternative global order or at least alter the current order to make it more to their liking? Let me throw in one more, the wild card. What of Russia, which seems to be a case all to itself? Your thoughts?

THOMAS WEISS: Okay. I hope your listeners are ready for a long answer. You've got three or four questions.

JOHN TESSITORE: It's a big question. Go ahead. Take your time.

THOMAS WEISS: I'm thinking in particular about the "rise of the rest." U.S. power, in my view, hasn't really diminished. What's happened is that many other centers of power are rising and challenging it.

JOHN TESSITORE: Is it a zero-sum?

THOMAS WEISS: I don't believe it is a zero-sum. I think that's the way that, for instance, the debate is occurring in our presidential candidates' rhetoric. They suggest that the only solution is pounding the table and getting one's way. At the same time, it seems to me that one has rather overstated the situation. Some have said the Cold War changed everything. The Cold War actually didn't change everything, but 9/11 changed everything.

The rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), it seems to me, was a phenomenon that—I'm not going to say it's over—but it's very different now from 2001 when the term was coined to describe those rises in powers.

JOHN TESSITORE: Yes. It is, particularly if you look what's happening in Brazil and Russia.

THOMAS WEISS: Brazil, and Russia, and China, and what's happening in Africa because China's not buying commodities.

JOHN TESSITORE: Now in China—yes.

THOMAS WEISS: These things are all linked one to another. The fact that these powers need to share the limelight on the world stage seems obvious. Within the context of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the rules need to be written to reflect the fact that China is the world's largest creditor. And the fact that its power is not reflected in the IMF rules was a real shortcoming. The fact that the U.S. Congress took five years to alter those rules actually forced China to set up a couple of regional banks that are rivals to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

I think the answer will be that there will be alternatives and alternative institutions developed. We've already seen a reflection of the Group of 20, which has all of the countries you've mentioned, plus part of the West, plus some other parts of the Global South, as a way to try to reflect what clearly is a very different balance of power from 1945, which I guess brings us to the Security Council, which is the institution that has basically not evolved at all from the original design of 1945. In 1965, it went from 11 to 15 members and more elected members, but the five—

JOHN TESSITORE: Only the Perm Five remain.

THOMAS WEISS: Yes. The Permanent Five—the victorious powers in World War II—all have permanent seats. They can veto any decision. The fact that you have major economic powers—Japan, Germany—and major geopolitical powers like China and India that do not share those seats casts a light on the Security Council that says its decisions are less legitimate than they should be. They won't be enforced in the same way that they should and could have been had those powers been included in 1945. We're at a very, very peculiar moment because the Permanent Five have to have enough confidence and enough insight to agree to such changes. I see, actually, no indication that the politics are right for that.

Every new member creates as many problems as it solves. The veto power is not going to be given up. That's the reason that Washington and Moscow and Beijing are in the game. I think that London and Paris would give that up long before the other three. I don't see much evidence that there's going to be a change in the Security Council any time soon, I've been saying, actually, in my lifetime, and maybe that's shorter than it used to be. It still is anything except imminent. This means that there will be alternatives, that states will look at the "coalition of the willing" that the United States has put together on a couple of occasions, in Kosovo, for example. There'll be coalitions of the willing in West Africa or elsewhere that will act when the Security Council cannot.

JOHN TESSITORE: Let me just follow up. Let's keep looking forward. I'm going to ask you to gaze into that crystal ball that you may or may not have.

As a final question, you write that we—and again, I'm referring directly to your essay as it appears in the global governance roundtable in Ethics & International Affairs. You write that we need to "begin to distinguish changes of global governance, that is, in its grand arrangements, producing different world orders, from changes merely in global governance, that is, modest adjustments within a recognized form."

I find that very interesting. Looking ahead, do you think that we will see changes of global governance or in global governance over the next decade or two? If you wish, speculate further out.

THOMAS WEISS: My speculation further out is that there has to be changes of global governance because otherwise we'll all be drinking water that resembles that in Flint, Michigan. The Zika virus, or the Ebola virus, or whatever other viruses and pandemics are floating around will be not confined to Brazil, and then South America, and then in Caribbean; they'll be here.

The kinds of disruptive climate events, the use of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, these kinds of challenges to human security or just basic human survival with dignity require cooperation of the kind that does not seem to be on the drawing boards. What we hope most is changes in tinkering on the margins. Frankly, some colleagues, whom I respect very much, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dan Drezner, Stewart Patrick, have talked about "good enough global governance," cobbling together arrangements, deals cut by corporations, deals cut by some states, moves to improve human rights here and there.

I'm, of course, not against such improvements in global governance. It's really quite astounding to think that norm entrepreneurs, or transnational corporations, or CNN, are going to halt mass atrocities in the Central African Republic, or they're going to turn climate change around, or they're going to halt terrorism. What one needs and what we need, frankly, are changes of global governance. For me, the first step in that whole process is having a conversation that suggests that good enough global governance ain't good enough, and that we have to do the kind of real rethinking, fundamental rethinking, that I am heartened to say occurred between 1942 and 1945.

I'd like to think that we're smart enough to not require a world catastrophe to push us in that direction. When I have the conversation in professional meetings, there's a kind of chuckling: "That Weiss is too long in the tooth. He's going off the rails. He's talking about those kinds of 1930s arrangements that we know are totally impossible."

It seems to me that if any of the problems that are on our checklist here are going to be resolved over the next half-century, they are going to have to be changes of global governance, which would include far more efficacious, far more robust inter-governmental organizations.

JOHN TESSITORE: This has all been fascinating. I regret that our time is up, and we need to stop here.

Once again, I'm John Tessitore, and I have been speaking with Professor Thomas Weiss, whose roundtable "Change and Continuity in Global Governance" appears in the winter 2015 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. That roundtable, as well as much more, is available online at We also invite you to follow us on Twitter at @EIAJournal.

Thank you for joining us, and thank you, Professor Weiss. It's been a real pleasure.

THOMAS WEISS: Thank you, John.                  

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