Emergence of HICs
The explosion of diverse institutional forms, often within incumbent regime complexes, means that most issue areas today are governed by HICs. Consider the following examples.
The climate change HIC includes a range of institutions associated with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as well as other formal interstate institutions, including other treaties, international development banks and plurilateral “clubs,” many led by the United States (Keohane & Victor, 2011). It also encompasses IIGOs including the G7/8 and G20, multinational and regional environmental TGNs, and several transnational networks of subnational governments. In addition, PTROs set standards for private behavior (Abbott et al., 2016), and other private organizations engage in information sharing, operational activities and finance (Abbott, 2012). Finally, under the “voluntary commitment system” initiated by the UN Secretary-General and UNFCCC, numerous states, subnational governments, public–private partnerships, firms and civil society organizations have voluntarily pledged action. Thus, the climate change HIC is far more encompassing than either the “regime complex for climate change” (Keohane & Victor, 2011), which includes only international institutions, or the “transnational regime complex for climate change” (Abbott, 2012), which includes only transnational institutions.
The global health HIC (Hoffman et al., 2015) is centered on the World Health Organization (WHO), complemented by its regional organizations (e.g., Pan-American Health Organization) and other regional institutions. FIGOs including the World Bank, United Nations Development Program and UNICEF also address aspects of health. In addition, global health governance is carried out by global and regional TGNs, which harmonize and strengthen regulation of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, food, blood and other products, and facilitate cooperation on inspections. TPPPs and multi-stakeholder institutions play prominent roles in developing and delivering medicines, vaccines and health care; important examples include GAVI – the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria is a unique multi-stakeholder institution focused on financing. Finally, civil society and professional organizations directly provide health services (e.g., Médecins Sans Frontières), respond to disease outbreaks (e.g., Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network [GOARN]), and engage in research, advocacy and funding. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now plays a central role, shaping the agenda for global health governance (Hanrieder, 2015) and supporting development and deployment of new health technologies.
The HIC for the prudential regulation of financial institutions (Black, 2013) includes FIGOs such as the IMF, World Bank and OECD, but governance is centered on a series of prominent TGNs, which govern banking (Bank for International Settlements, Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, International Association of Deposit Insurers), securities (International Organization of Securities Commissions), insurance (International Association of Insurance Supervisors), auditing (International Forum of Independent Audit Regulators), and other issues. The private International Accounting Standards Board prescribes relevant accounting rules. The G20, an IIGO, provides overall guidance; it sponsored the creation of the Financial Stability Board (FSB) (a TGN) to coordinate the complex (Rixen & Viola, 2020).
The cyberspace HIC (Nye, 2014) includes UN bodies and other FIGOs that deal with core issues such as telecommunications and intellectual property, as well as emerging issues in areas including human rights, the “information society” and development. It also includes IIGOs such as the G7/8, G20 and 3G, plus TGNs addressing data protection and privacy, intelligence sharing and law enforcement. Private organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) adopt technical standards for internet and communications technologies. Most importantly, core cyberspace policy standards are promulgated by a diverse set of private, public–private and multi-stakeholder institutions, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
The nuclear safety HIC (Alger, 2008) includes several multilateral treaties, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety; the International Atomic Energy Agency (a FIGO with many subsidiary bodies and soft law norms) and other FIGOs; the Nuclear Safety and Security Group, a technical network sponsored by the G8; multilateral and regional TGNs of nuclear regulators; transnational scientific bodies; the World Nuclear University, a TPPP; and private industry associations.
The HIC concept as analytical lens
In this subsection we introduce four characteristics that define the HIC concept in relation to that of the regime complex.
First, a HIC is characterized by a relatively high degree of institutional diversity. As the examples above demonstrate, HICs include a wide range of interstate (formal and informal), infra-state, public–private, and private institutional forms, with significant differences in membership, legal and political authority, modes of operation and other important features, discussed further below. Regime complexes, in contrast, are understood to be composed of relatively homogeneous institutions – denoted simply as “elemental regimes” (Raustiala & Victor, 2004: 279) or “elemental institutions” (Alter & Raustiala, 2018: 332). In the literature, these are all interstate institutions – treaties and treaty-based FIGOs.
Because both HICs and regime complexes are types of global governance complexes (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni & Westerwinter, 2020), we can array them both along a continuum of institutional diversity. Regime complexes, with relatively little institutional diversity, cluster near the low end, the endpoint being a complex comprising only two FIGOs or treaties identical in form. In fact, however, regime complexes can include both treaties and FIGOs, each of those forms can exhibit considerable variation, and their numbers and proportions can also vary. While we treat them separately for purposes of comparison, then, one can view even pure regime complexes as low-diversity HICs, and can conceptualize the entire continuum as depicting the range of HICs.Footnote 7
HICs with relatively greater institutional diversity occupy the remainder of the continuum. These too vary widely in the types, numbers and proportions of component institutional forms (for empirical examples, see Pattberg & Widerberg, 2020). A HIC located near the regime complex region – e.g., one comprising multiple FIGOs plus a TPPP – would satisfy our definition, but would be unlikely to exhibit strongly the characteristic features of HICs. As one moves toward the high end of the continuum, however – typified by the climate change and global health HICs – institutional diversity increases significantly, and we expect those complexes to exhibit more strongly the characteristic features of HICs.
Second, the components of a HIC are global governance institutions. All perform one or more governance functions, such as standard-setting, monitoring, enforcement, financing of implementation, or producing and disseminating information.Footnote 8 We do not treat members (e.g., states, agencies, firms or NGOs) or stakeholders of institutions as part of the complex, and do not include organizations that merely advocate policies or “provide input and feedback” to governance institutions (Henning & Pratt, 2020), although those groups certainly influence governance indirectly.
Third, the institutions within a HIC address a common set of governance problems, revolving around, for instance, climate change, nuclear safety or prudential regulation of financial institutions. Specifying these problems defines the substantive boundaries of a complex, although such specifications are inherently imprecise. The regime complex literature generally specifies an “issue area” (e.g., Henning & Pratt, 2020; Raustiala & Victor, 2004),Footnote 9 but issue areas are unobservable analytical categories, and scholars define them differently depending on their research questions.Footnote 10 Further, a HIC may address problems that are narrower or broader than an identified issue area, or that intersect multiple issue areas.
Scholars can likewise define the institutional boundaries of governance complexes in line with their research questions. For example, even though a HIC includes multiple institutional forms, scholars may appropriately focus only on legalized interstate institutions to address conflict between binding rules (Raustiala & Victor, 2004); only on interstate institutions to address cross-institutional strategies of states (Alter & Meunier, 2009); or only on transnational institutions to highlight their exclusion from the regime complex literature (Abbott, 2012).Footnote 11
In many settings, however, it is important to consider the HIC as a whole, using the broader analytical lens developed in this paper. A broader lens is clearly necessary where research questions encompass multiple institutional forms; it is even necessary where they focus only on particular institutional forms, if the presence of other forms may affect their actions or interactions, e.g., where the actions of informal, infra-state or private institutions influence the operations or impacts of treaties or FIGOs. More broadly, it is necessary whenever scholars make general analytical claims about global governance in domains governed by institutionally diverse HICs.
Fourth, a HIC is a “complex,” not just a collection of institutions. The component institutions of a HIC address a common set of problems on a continuing basis; all have appropriate authorities and capabilities to govern in that domain. As a result, those institutions interact with one another on a continuing basis: they take account of one another’s actions; influence one another’s normative development and governance effectiveness (Gehring & Oberthür, 2009); and generate other interactional effects.Footnote 12 Such interactions and effects are systemic features of HICs, which constitute them as governance complexes. Thus, only institutions involved in such interactions are part of the complex.
Many of the characteristic features, benefits and weaknesses we identify here reflect the effects of interactions among component institutions. For example, interactions based on functional differentiation may generate a division of labor, which can increase the effectiveness of the governance system through comparative advantage and mutual reinforcement. And interactions based on informal hierarchy can render the system more ordered and coherent. On the other hand, institutional interactions may weaken incumbent institutions, reducing system effectiveness, or amplify competition and conflict, reducing system coherence. Because of these effects, a HIC is not simply a group of “parallel” (Alter & Meunier, 2009) or “fragmented” (Keohane & Victor, 2011) institutions, but a governance system (Faude & Gehring, 2017; Gehring & Faude, 2013).
This does not mean that all component institutions necessarily share common norms or epistemes, or that there is no conflict among them. Institutions may have epistemic or normative differences, frequently reflecting those of their members, producing disagreement over the best ways to address governance problems. Where differences arise out of contending spheres of authority, with different views of the governance goal or common good, conflict will be especially intense (Kreuder-Sonnen & Zürn, 2020). In the cyberspace HIC, for example, some institutions (led by the US and other Western states) favor an open internet governed by multi-stakeholder institutions, while others (led by China and Russia) view an open internet as dangerous and promote strict regulation by states (Flonk et al., 2020).
Structural features of HICs
In this subsection we first introduce the characteristic structural features of HICs in relation to the well-established features of regime complexes. We then develop conjectures as to how those features affect the governance outcomes highlighted by the regime complex literature.
The literature identifies two characteristic structural features of regime complexes, both of which reflect their relatively homogeneous institutional composition.
First, component institutions “overlap” in terms of both authority and state membership; as a result, multiple institutions claim authority to govern particular issues, and their common member states are all subject to their (potentially inconsistent) rules.
Second, there is no formal hierarchy among overlapping component institutions. This is “the key political feature of a regime complex—the feature that drives the critical dynamics and strategic interactions that characterize politics within a regime complex” (Alter & Raustiala, 2018: 332; see also Raustiala & Victor, 2004: 279).
Institutionally diverse HICs differ from regime complexes in terms of both overlap and hierarchy. HICs exhibit relatively greater functional differentiation, and thus less overlap; while they too typically lack formal hierarchy, they exhibit greater informal hierarchy. As a result, they produce different dynamics, interactions, systemic effects and outcomes.
Importantly, we think of functional differentiation and hierarchy not as fixed values, but as variable dimensions along which HICs and regime complexes can vary (compare Henning & Pratt, 2020). Both dimensions derive from institutional diversity. As with the underlying continuum of institutional diversity, then, we expect HICs to assume values on both dimensions that are systematically higher, on average, than those of regime complexes.
In contrast to the treaties and FIGOs of regime complexes, the institutional components of HICs are substantially more differentiated in membership and authority, the two determinants of “overlap.” For example, only FIGOs, treaty bodies and IIGOs have state members and can adopt standards that authoritatively address states; among those, only treaty bodies and a few FIGOs can adopt legally binding rules. With rare exceptions, TGN standards address only participating government agencies, while TPPP and private standards address only private actors; none is legally binding.
Alternative institutional forms also differ from interstate institutions, and from one another, in their governance functions and techniques. For example, TGNs typically focus on harmonizing regulatory standards and collaborating on implementation, e.g., inspections and enforcement. Subnational government associations typically focus on mutual learning in areas within their members’ jurisdiction, while TPPPs often focus on operational activities that draw on the resources and capabilities of public and private actors.
As a result of this differentiation, HICs face relatively fewer conflicting authority claims and less challenging problems of overlap – including rule inconsistency, instability and conflict – than do regime complexes. That said, if a HIC includes multiple FIGOs or treaties, nothing prevents them from asserting overlapping authority claims; the same may be true of other authoritative institutions of a single form, such as TGNs. But the presence of additional institutions of different forms does not proportionally increase the likelihood of authority conflicts.
The global health complex illustrates this effect. WHO remains the focal institution, especially on norm-setting and infectious disease response, although its focality has been reduced in many domains (Hanrieder, 2015). During the Covid-19 pandemic, WHO has focused on declaring an outbreak of international concern to trigger member state obligations, approving vaccines for emergency use by UN agencies and governments, and communicating technical guidance to states. Over time, WHO has encountered significant authority conflicts with other FIGOs, including the World Bank, UNICEF, WTO and UNAIDS (a joint UN program involving several FIGOs). More recently, it has also faced modest overlaps with other institutional forms, notably with the Gates Foundation on health financing; the Global Fund, a TPPP, also provides substantial financing, but only on three diseases.
Overall, however, the diverse institutional forms in the complex deal with different actors, exercise different forms of authority, and perform different governance tasks, with limited overlap and conflict. IIGOs (e.g., G20) coordinate national responses; TGNs strengthen pharmaceutical regulation. TPPPs (e.g., GAVI, CEPI) finance and deliver medicines and vaccines. Civil society organizations provide health services (e.g., Médecins Sans Frontières), respond to outbreaks (e.g., GOARN), and provide funding (e.g., Gates Foundation). WHO collaborates with all of these institutions to enlist their specific capabilities, as in the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and the COVAX vaccine initiative. While the pandemic response has been far from satisfactory, functional differentiation has almost certainly enhanced its effectiveness.
As the diversity of their component institutional forms increases, HICs will be characterized by greater functional differentiation, and relatively fewer overlapping authority claims, than regime complexes composed of relatively homogeneous institutions.
While regime complexes and HICs both feature little formal hierarchy, the diverse component institutions of HICs exhibit greater informal hierarchy: “unofficial stratification … because of conscious or unconscious social processes,” as opposed to “official structures and rules allocating formal roles and positions at different levels” (Diefenbach & Sillince, 2011: 1516). While informal hierarchy also exists within regime complexes (Pratt, 2018), the institutional heterogeneity of HICs expands and reinforces it.
The literature on informal hierarchy in world politics focuses primarily on relations among states, not institutions (e.g., Lake, 1996; McConaughey et al., 2018; Stone, 2011; compare Mattern & Zarakol, 2016). We therefore draw on Pratt (2018), which analyzes why certain FIGOs in a regime complex may defer to others, “generat[ing] an informal hierarchy of regulatory bodies…” (Pratt, 2018: 587).Footnote 13
We build on the two distinct mechanisms that Pratt develops to explain inter-institutional deference. First, “functional efficiency” leads institutions to defer to others with greater expertise, more effective decision-making, stronger authority for the problem at hand, or other complementarities. This reduces “inefficient overlap and inconsistencies.” Second, “member state power” leads institutions to defer to others whose member states are relatively stronger. This results in “power-based hierarchy” among institutions (Pratt, 2018: 580). We consider both mechanisms below, arguing that both apply more forcefully in HICs than in regime complexes because of HICs’ greater institutional diversity.Footnote 14
Overall, we conjecture that:
As their institutional diversity increases, HICs will feature greater informal hierarchy among component institutional forms than will relatively homogeneous regime complexes.
Formal interstate institutions are highly institutionalized, allowing for the centralization of cooperative activities and institutional independence (Abbott & Snidal, 1998). Treaties and (some) FIGOs alone can create legally-binding rules for states and implement monitoring and enforcement procedures (although these are often weak in practice). Member states can implement agreed rules domestically through binding law. State membership also provides democratic legitimacy, enabling formal interstate institutions to adopt principles, norms and goals that diverse actors, not simply states, see as authoritative.
The functional efficiency rationale therefore leads us to conjecture that:
Informal, infra-state, public–private and private institutions within HICs will tend to defer to legal rules, norms and other commitments adopted by formal interstate institutions.
Informal and transnational institutions, such as IIGOs, TGNs and TPPPs, are less highly institutionalized and cannot adopt legally binding rules; hence they cannot perform many of the governance functions of treaties and FIGOs. However, they can effectively perform functions such as adopting coordination standards, disseminating information, and building trust; they have relatively low formation and operating costs, and so are more malleable and flexible (Abbott & Faude, 2020).
Each of these institutional forms also has unique strengths. TGNs, for example, derive authority and legitimacy from the technical expertise and domestic authority of member agencies. TGNs can make decisions effectively because of participants’ common knowledge and epistemic orientation; can build trust among officials; and can implement decisions through binding domestic regulations. They are particularly valuable in addressing complex, technical policy issues. TPPPs and private institutions draw on the material and subjective resources and capabilities of non-state actors, and can effectively address problems in which such actors are centrally involved.
Functional efficiency therefore leads us to conjecture that:
Formal interstate institutions will tend to defer to informal and transnational institutions on the types of cooperation problems and governance tasks which those institutions can address effectively at lower cost.
The climate change HIC illustrates both forms of deference. Numerous private, public–private and sub-state organizations defer to the goals, norms and approaches of the UNFCCC. Most notably, while multiple private carbon offset schemes expand on the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), most explicitly recognize CDM rules, applying them to private targets through their own voluntary mechanisms (Green, 2013). Similarly, many public, public–private and private organizations participating in the voluntary commitment system explicitly follow UNFCCC priorities, addressing recommended “action areas” and adopting recommended cooperative structures.
At the same time, the UNFCCC, as well as the World Bank, UNEP and other FIGOs, defer to non-state organizations on activities that centrally involve private actors, including norms for voluntary climate offsets, pledges of action on mitigation, “green bonds,” standards for corporate environmental reporting, private financing, and renewable energy projects (Abbott et al., 2016). Similar examples can be observed in other fields. In labor governance, for instance, private institutions such as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) incorporate ILO standards into their voluntary codes of conduct. While the ILO adopted a Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy in 1977, a rare step for a FIGO, it largely defers to private institutions for voluntary business standards (Marks & Wouters, 2017).
Interstate institutions draw on member states’ authority to exercise hierarchical power domestically, by enacting and enforcing national laws. TGNs, similarly, draw on the authority of member agencies to adopt and enforce binding domestic regulations, typically pursuant to state enactments. Even the shadow of hierarchical state power is often sufficient to induce sub-state, public–private and private actors to defer to the demands of interstate institutions. Indeed, private actors often strive to anticipate future exercises of state (and interstate) power and shape their behavior accordingly, to avoid subsequent (non-)compliance costs (Green, 2014).
However, institutions composed of powerful member states or agencies, and institutions to which states have delegated extensive authority, cast stronger shadows of hierarchy than weaker institutions (Pratt, 2018). The G20, for example, represents sufficient state authority and power to coordinate all the TGNs in the financial HIC. WHO, in contrast, has universal membership, diluting state power, and only limited delegated authority and resources. While other institutions defer to its expertise and legitimacy, the Global Fund, GAVI, Médecins Sans Frontières, and other institutions need have little concern for its power.
Conversely, some sub-state, private and public–private institutions have substantial authority and power due to their membership, resources, expertise or legitimacy; they will grant less deference to inter-state institutions and receive more themselves. Business-dominated PTROs and the Gates Foundation, which has far greater financial resources than WHO, are cases in point.
The member power rationale therefore leads us to conjecture that:
Infra-state and non-state institutions will tend to defer to the rules of interstate institutions, especially those with powerful state members.
Sub-state and non-state institutions will tend to defer to the rules of TGNs, especially those with agency members from powerful states.
In each case, the actual degree of deference will depend on the relative authority and power of the specific institutions involved.