Global Governance and National Governance

  • M. Anne BrownEmail author
Living reference work entry


Ethical Leadership Global Governance Governance Institution Political Accountability National Governance 
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Governance is a highly contextual term. It can be used in different ways in public policy and public administration, organizational theory, international relations, models of corporate governance, and approaches to “good governance.” As this chapter is addressing global and national governance, governance is approached in a more open-ended context. Global and national governance are encompassing categories; the first refers to the world, the second to what is widely understood as the principal unit of contemporary political order throughout the world: the state. The systems of political and economic power which shape fundamental dimensions of our world are not fixed, but changing, with significant transitions underway. Moreover, these systems are in close feedback loops with local and global ecological dynamics; as trajectories of governance have affected ecological balances, climate change will have deep, unpredictable impacts on collective human life, presenting profound challenges for governance. Questions of how the world was and is governed (in its more local or more global dimensions) and how it can or should be governed are journeys of exploration. This chapter contributes by looking at some of the themes that emerge in discussions of global and national governance, and calls into view a dimension that can be overlooked, but has something to say to both.

Global and national governance are in dynamic interaction, empirically and conceptually. This chapter first considers governance in general terms and then discusses global and then national governance. The discussion concerns empirical states of affairs, but since what we see is profoundly shaped by how we look, it is significantly conceptual. At points throughout the discussion, the chapter considers “local,” societal sources of governance. Societal sources of order are important for all populations; for a substantial proportion of the world’s population, however, they are the primary source of governance and thus fundamentally significant. Societal or “local” governance could be understood to be included in both national and global governance. In important ways, it is. In the places where people speak for national or global governance, however, it is rarely recognized, or part of the conversation (Muehlebach).


Governance could be understood as the ways we organize ourselves to live together or to undertake certain kinds of ongoing activity. This involves questions of the systemic, collective exercise of power, but power in its various faces. That is, governance concerns not simply power as command or coercion but also the power to attract, persuade, and hold together, to resist and withdraw, to shape habits and values, and to make meaning and interpret it. In this understanding, power is dynamic, moving throughout a system of relations and interactions, and not only held by some over others. While power certainly operates as command, over time most governance systems involve processes of resistance, exchange, and negotiation. Governance is not, then, simply the assertion of rules or norms, but those processes by which norms and institutions are produced and authority and legitimacy established. Governance thus concerns systems and practices of power by which different kinds of collectivities seek to order interactions and to shape and respond to their environment (or some part of it) over time. Questions of accountability and legitimacy are central to this activity. Much writing on governance focuses on the governing agent, or the regulatory system. While this focus often makes sense in practical terms, governance fundamentally concerns the quality, character, and system of relations circulating among governing and governed or across the collectivity.

The collectivities referred to could be families, kin networks, towns, institutions, enterprises, societies, states, and so forth. These are clearly not separate entities but interweaving and often contending systems whose organization may be dense or loose, tightly defined, or open-ended. Governance also includes the messy, often incoherent processes by which interdependent, overlapping, or autonomous bodies manage their relations and undertake tasks, forming larger networks or more complex hierarchies – that is, how different kinds of collectivities “hang together” (Weiss and Wilkinson 2014).

Governance is an inclusive term. It can include “government.” Definitions of governance given by both the Commission on Global Governance and The Council of Rome explicitly include government. But governance can also be distinguished from government by virtue of its very generality. Government is the key activity of a state and identified with a centralized body of institutions which has a monopoly over aspects of making, monitoring, and enforcing a dense complex of rules, regulations, and norms covering a specified range of activities across the territory of a state. Governance recognizes a wider, potentially less hierarchical and more fluid range of ways by which rules can be generated, activity oriented, and societies steered (Rosenau 1995).

This tension between governance and government points to themes recurrent in discussions of national and global governance. One concerns “top-down” and “bottom-up” orientations, with government being classed as more top down and hierarchical. While governance can be associated with either, it can enable recognition of bottom up, or relatively horizontal, forms of social and political ordering, as well as of more fluid processes of decision-making. The other, related theme concerns questions of accountability, the legitimacy of authority, and the nature of appropriate participation and communication. All forms of governance, top down, bottom up, or horizontal, raise these questions. In the contemporary world, however, it is the governments of states that have been principally charged with accountability to and for their populations. Many governments clearly do not or cannot fulfil these responsibilities. At the same time, in practice, there can be many forms of accountability and participation at work in the ways communities live and organizations operate, some fundamental to people’s life chances. Nevertheless, democracy, popular sovereignty, and political accountability have been fundamentally conceptualized within the state and in institutional terms rest finally with government. Questions of global and transnational governance, then, automatically raise issues of how accountability and participation (“citizenship”) might be understood and exercised beyond traditional conceptualizations of the state.

In international political and legal terms, the state is a fundamental building block of contemporary world order and, in principle at least, the primary context within which societies can seek a range of political goods, including accountability, participation, justice, security, and self-determination. It is not only a matter of realpolitik then that states and models of how they in principle operate – top down, centralized, with coercive capacity, but a key point of accountability nationally and internationally – remain a significant point of reference for much thinking about not only national but global governance. Demand for global governance is significantly driven by realization of the limitations of state power, capacities, and accountability, but many conceptions of global governance remain in one way or another dependent on traditional models of statehood. The United Nations is central to much discussion of global governance, but is an organization of states, as are a range of key centers of power in global decision-making. Nevertheless, categories of global and national governance open more searching lines of enquiry about the sources and interplay of social, political, and economic systems of collective power.

Concepts of governance, for example, enable attention to forms of order that underpin the life of communities in many parts of the world but that are scarcely taken into account by prevailing models of the state. In much of the global South, fundamental elements of governance are societal or “local.” In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the great majority of peace, security, and justice functions – functions usually identified as critical responsibilities of state institutions – are provided by societal bodies, including customary networks and authorities. While often “local,” face-to-face networks, these patterns of authority may simultaneously stretch across the country and be part of transnational systems of relations. “Global” and “national” are often thought of as levels in a vertical hierarchy. This can be misleading, however. The “global” is saturated with the “national” and vice versa; issues arising within a state (epidemic disease, civil war, nuclear weapons, financial collapse etc., as well as the management of or resistance to these things) can, and often do, have global significance and vice versa. This point extends to the “local.” The local can be small scale, geographically contained, or parochial; it can also be where communities interact with far-reaching networks of communication, trade, criminality, security, and migration, where people struggle with dilemmas of war and peace, terrorism, climate change, or epidemic disease and where creative responses to existential challenges can emerge. Understanding “how things hang together” needs to take these dimensions of governance into account, not least because they concern a significant proportion of the global population. The significance of societal sources of governance also raises questions of participation and accountability “within” these systems but also on the part of global and national institutions to the communities involved. To what extent are the more officially “global” level of global governance and the “national” level of national government accountable to, and in exchange with, communities of the global South?

Global Governance

Debate about global governance is inevitably significantly conceptual. There is no plainly established set of objects and processes to which “global governance” refers. What then might the term enable us to do conceptually, politically, or ethically? Indeed, when it is not a discussion of the management of particular transnational issues, from climate change to nuclear weapons to overviewing international postal services, much discussion about global governance is debate about what the term means or should mean (Whitman 2009). Debate does not mean that the term has no value, however. Rather, it reflects the challenges of conceptualizing the changing ways we live together in the broader ecology of the world, the new demands imposed by change, and how to work with the need to shape these patterns of interaction less destructively and dangerously.

Foci of debate include whether global governance refers primarily to institutions and processes that already exist (but need reform) or whether it requires something radically new that needs to be created. If it already exists, does it consist of the dense network of sometimes conflicting, sometimes collaborating multilateral, state and civil society institutions, norms, and processes which already significantly shape transnational interactions (known as complex multilateralism)? Is it centralized around key international organizations, notably the United Nations? Or does global governance rest rather with the balance of economic and political power which, while shifting, is still seen as resting largely with major states and corporations of the global North, the transnational institutions they dominate, and what is sometimes identified as Anglo-Saxon modes of capitalism? Given entrenched patterns of economic and political power is the emergence of a more genuinely collaborative system conceivable? Or is global governance a truly all-inclusive category which refers to all those multiple forms of governance which have relevance across borders, without being limited to the “global level”? If global governance needs to be created, is it understood as a nonhierarchical web or a centralized coordinating body – perhaps a radically reformed UN operating as an authoritative, autonomous assembly of democratic peoples (Held 1995)? Should state (interstate) or non-state actors be the leading figures? In either case, what forms of accountability would bind its operations, and under what political conditions and how might it be brought about?

Contemporary ideas of global governance emerged on the back of a growing awareness of societies’ complex vulnerabilities to intensifying globalization. Changing patterns of global interaction have long-shaped history. Globalization has enabled many of the benefits of people’s collective lives, including material and cultural enrichment and scientific and technological advances. The benefits and costs of these dynamics, however, are distributed in deeply unequal ways. The impacts of globalization are substantially shaped by dominant systems of economic and political interaction; in this context, globalization has led to intensifying global inequality, entrenched patterns of violence, and major irregular population movements, among other problems. It has resulted in changes to the world’s climate that have pushed the global ecology deep into uncharted territory. While unevenly distributed, these impacts are extensive and growing. Such effects are not inherent to globalization. Through increasing velocity and synergies, globalization has entered a potent new phase of both constructive and destructive potentials, but its impacts are largely shaped by global political and economic patterns of interaction (Whitman 2009). The recognition that collective problems are intensifying and require collaborative solutions is a strong impetus driving interest in global governance.

It was the devastation of the twentieth-century world wars that focused attention on the dangers of increasing global interdependence and the need to find ways to manage them. First the League of Nations, following WW1, and then the United Nations, following WW2, were established to restrain the use of weapons of mass destruction and to avoid further major war through collaborative action. They were to be “world” bodies, but the sense of what constituted “the world” reflected their time. For the League, the “world” did not include the colonies. By 1945, the UN embraced principles of self-determination. Over time, decolonization has extended UN membership to 193 states. The world was and continues to be understood as constituted by states, with populations represented in principle by their governments, and international organizations complement to, if potentially also restraints on, state power. The character of statehood, however, is both deeply heterogeneous and changing.

A suite of agencies, treaties, and norms emerged under the aegis of the UN. These undertook to control nuclear weapons, help regulate trade and support economic development (the Bretton Woods institutions), manage or respond to crises and diverse interstate stresses, improve living conditions for vulnerable sectors of the globe, and promulgate human rights norms while respecting sovereignty. As well as improving well-being, these were efforts to reduce factors seen to cause war. They were informed by what has become known as “embedded liberalism” or the welfare state: a new vision of the social contract (underpinned by a Keynesian interpretation of the slide into the Second World War) where support for more globalized trade was balanced by national and international regulation and (where possible) social welfare provision. The Cold War, running from soon after the establishment of the UN until 1989, severely limited potential for cooperation, particularly regarding war and peace, but did not entirely remove it.

For states of the global North, however, the scope of state power has been shifting since the establishment of the UN. Intensifying regional and global interconnectedness has been redistributing decision-making powers around a spectrum of economic, political, and social issues previously associated with national governments (Held 1995). These developments have changed the dynamics of national political systems, reducing the capacity of governments to steer developments within the state and altering channels for accountability between citizens and government. Commitment to socially embedded liberalism has given way to the neoliberalism of small government and enhanced market power associated with Anglo-Saxon modes of capitalism, not only in key states but in international economic institutions. By the end of the Cold War, demand for international institutions to take greater responsibility for dealing with transnational issues, including managing some of the negative effects of economic globalization, was growing, as was frustration with the limitations of the sovereignty-based, post-World War II institutions. There are other dynamics of change and forms of heterogeneity affecting states. Beyond the global North, for many of the more recently decolonized states, the state as political community was and is still in early stages of emergence. At the same time, the balance of power among states, including their relative power within key transnational institutions, has been shifting over the several decades since the UN was established. This period has seen the demise of the Soviet Union, the weakening of the United States, the emergence of Russia, and the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, India.

The League of Nations and the UN emerged from responses to devastating war but were also informed by long-standing traditions of political thought concerning world government. Far from being a world government, the United Nations is dependent upon the states which make it up. Kantian political thought saw a nonauthoritarian world government as the ultimate evolution from a federation of independent, “rational,” and like-minded states. Belief in the value of a literal “world government,” with its potential for totalitarianism, has receded dramatically. Nevertheless, although the idea of global governance is often framed in contrast to world government, the idea of a central global sovereignty, perhaps with coercive power, in effect a traditional state writ large, remains a common point of reference. Similarly, while hopes for a more truly global form of governance are often counterpointed to interstate organizations, the imprint of the United Nations and sister bodies such as the World Bank orders much thinking about global governance. The UN represents, or aspires to, a centralized coordinating role for what has become known as complex multilateralism. Debates and experiments around reform are ongoing; for example, with Responsibility to Protect, the UN has sought to revive some coercive function under highly restricted conditions, with mixed results. Some radical agendas for UN reform seek to transform it into a mechanism for cosmopolitan, transnational democratic accountability and participation that can account for the changing scope of state power and meet the growing need for democratic ordering of the global domain of multileveled, overlapping emergent political centers (subnational, national, regional, issue specific, and global). This is a vision of the UN as an authoritative institution setting the framework for grappling with pressing global problems, potentially with some autonomous coercive power (Held 1995).

A complex network of transnational, societal, and government bodies, including the UN, provide significant levels of governance, undertaking a wide spectrum of cooperative problem-solving endeavors and providing significant responses to political and natural disasters. While this network is not a unified system, to a significant extent it operates according to a shared, dominant form of organization and communication that is technocratic, bureaucratic, rational-legal, codified, and regularized. This mode of organization, which could be seen as drawing from, and grounded in, dominant models of state organization, frames the operation of international governance institutions (James and Soguk 2014). In a vertical hierarchy of levels, the UN and other international institutions can claim a rarified place; there is little chance of mutual exchange with, or input from, the “local” forms of governance mentioned earlier, for example. This is not simply because the “grassroots” is far away but because the sociocultural models of person, community, legitimacy, and authority can be profoundly different than the world of elite bureaucracy. The UN may be an alternative to the hierarchy of world government but remains within its own hierarchical, top-down approach to governance with little way of relating with the concerns and values of large sections of the global population.

A more active role for social movements and non-state bodies does not automatically reverse this limitation. Nongovernment organizations can provide invaluable services under intensely difficult conditions. While they can make important contributions to the pursuit of goals of democracy and human rights, however, in the international arena they cannot provide channels of democratic participation or accountability nor are they able to represent those voices or issues which do not translate into rationalist bureaucratic norms of exchange. Transnational civil society does not necessarily speak for significant elements of the global population, particularly those in the formerly colonized world, nor is it accountable to them. There have been efforts to respond to this limitation. The Multilateralism and the United Nations System (MUNS) project, for example, sought to stimulate movement toward a grassroots multilateralism built from the foundations of a global, participative civil society. Models of cosmopolitan citizenship seek to explore ways in which the democratic accountabilities that have been sought with mixed results in the state might be established and deepened in transnational governance institutions. These are important contributions to political ethical debate. Nevertheless, these cosmopolitan trajectories find it difficult to extend beyond dominant European and North American models of the individual and community. The activism of indigenous peoples seeking voice and representation within the UN has helped open debate to wider conceptions of political community and selfhood and challenged the normative and organizational foundation of international political exchange (Muehlebach 2003).

An alternative approach is to see global governance as including all efforts to exercise authority at all levels of human activity (Rosenau 1995). This expansive definition includes the United Nations and other transnational organizations but does not take them as singular models or containers for governance. Nor are only those forms of governance mediated through rational-legal modes of technocratic exchange included. This view does not erect obstacles to seeing “local” sources of order or different constructions of statehood. Nor, however, does it satisfy the desire to identify a coherent mechanism through which response to fundamental collective challenges is possible. For this approach, the ongoing challenge of working simply with what is there is all that is available. What this perspective does enable is better recognition of the complex responses that are already underway, in conflicting and incommensurate as well as complementary and coordinated ways. It enables the United Nations and a council of elders, a corporate board, an NGO panel, and a women’s committee to come into view, but the perspective within which they are grasped is one of global interconnection. By bringing them all into frame, it allows a “thicker” view of interconnecting networks of governance. This enables recognition of profoundly different forms of governance and of the critical role any of them might find themselves playing, independently or together, without claiming equivalence among them. Ways of thinking about global governance that are less marginalizing of substantial populations and ways of living become a little more possible. Crafting ways of acting on this realization can be pursued at different “levels” and in different sites.

National Governance

National governance refers to the pursuit of sociopolitical and socioeconomic order within a state. This could be understood to include, but is not limited to, the institutions of government. Institutions of government are an essential part of national governance, but the ways in which they are important, and how important they are in the mix, vary significantly across states. Governance addresses questions of legitimacy and accountability and thus concerns the dynamic web of interactions linking governing and governed, rather than being located entirely within an institution. There is a process of mutual exchange at work, in which fundamental political, economic, and legal institutions work to a significant extent because they are embedded in networks of social norms and practices, which in turn institutions help to regulate. National governance could thus be understood as the web of interaction and exchange, and channels of accountability and communication, linking government and other forms of social, political, and economic organization across the fundamental elements of people’s collective lives.

Bodies of scholarship address interlocking dimensions of governance in the states of the global North. Discussions range from investigations of different areas of sectoral management (e.g., the banking industry leading up to the global financial crisis) and public-private partnerships to the perspectives brought by scholars of governmentality. Governmentality explores those technologies which seek to manage the habits and actions of subjects, including through shaping the sense of self and its internalization of norms, in order to strengthen the state and dominant forms of power (Miller and Rose 2008).

One critical focus concerns the impact of global interconnectedness in the context of the dominant global economic system on democratic accountability, popular sovereignty, and inequality within states. Increasing economic globalization, including the power of transnational corporations, worldwide production chains, loss of taxing capacity, and international financial institutions, has reduced governments’ ability to direct economic policy and weakened the ability of the welfare state to counteract capitalism’s harshest features. Inequality has intensified within many states in both the global North and South, even as the gap between the North and South has reduced. This has exacerbated conditions of political, social, and economic instability. Neoliberalism has further fragmented the capacity of governments to steer policy (Rhodes 2007). As governments became “small,” other bodies and interests with significant sectoral power increasingly shaped policy agendas. The tension between nationally based democracy and transnational decision-making poses fundamental, long-term challenges to democratic processes and public accountability. In the international arena, “small government” became a central feature of governance frameworks promoted by international agencies, with significant consequences for government accountability and corruption in many postcolonial regions.

In many states of the global South, national governance faces an additional challenge of a different order. In the decades following WW2, the United Nations played a leading role supporting decolonization, so contributing to a shift in world order. As part of this role, the UN has supported, at both generic and concrete levels, certain models of what constitutes statehood, government, and governance. The templates of the state promoted in much international state-building give the impression of remarkable conformity. Centralized government institutions, with a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and tax-raising powers, operate across a defined territory and population. A unitary system of legal and political institutions is responsible for justice, accountability, security, and a range of social services. Public institutions operate according to a rational-legal model of decision-making. An electoral system underpins basic mechanisms for representation, participation, and political accountability. The governing institutions of the state are distinct from society, over which they exercise authoritative power. This is a model of the centralized, hierarchical, top-down sovereign power, separate from but accountable to citizens. The person is taken be a self-interest maximizing, rational, competitive individual, while the economy is founded on private property and free market exchange. This model flows from a liberal, technocratic construction of political and economic order, the person, collective human relations, and their place in broader ecological relations.

This template articulates potent governance values with significant effects. It is not, however, a reliable account of how governments in the global North actually work. States are increasingly porous, and government is often not so clearly demarcated from other bodies. The modern state governs through a complex network of formal and informal relations and bargaining across a spectrum of state and non-state institutions and associations (Miller and Rose 2008; Rhodes 2007). In addition, state-building has often proceeded by “transferring” governance institutions to another society, so underestimating the importance to accountability and legitimacy of the tissue of relations linking state institutions with societal sources of order and norms.

If the picture of government directly setting national policy no longer holds for many established states, across much of the postcolonial world, state institutions are often relatively recent introductions and have limited reach. Across many regions, management of fundamental dimensions of collective life, including everyday security, conflict management, much justice provision, food security, and social welfare, depends not on the formal agents of the state as much as on clan networks, village councils, town elders, neighborhood watch arrangements, and other “informal” or societal networks. While there is considerable variation, these societal networks can hold significant legitimacy and authority. They may work together with government actors, such as police, magistrates, and health workers, and with local NGOs or religious bodies in complex, shifting alliances. However these “informal” networks are positioned in relation to state institutions, in many parts of the world, the working order of the state and the everyday continuity of many people’s lives exists to a significant extent by virtue of these community networks. Crisis management, survival in the face of war and predatory government, and management of refugee flows also rest not only with international interventions and government agencies but often, out of sight, with “informal” networks. This is not to suggest that “local” mechanisms can stand alone in the face of disaster, or in themselves constitute a state, but to underline that they are a significant, functional part of governance for much of the world’s population.

Societal forms of governance are often overlooked by both international bodies and state agencies. Private property may not be the basis of economic exchange, land is often communally held, and expectations of what people owe each other can contrast sharply with the models of human behavior upon which significant elements of international governance are based. Forms of governance that do not fit prevailing international models can be seen as backward, irrational, violent, or patriarchal. They can be, as can the operation of state actors. The coexistence and enmeshment of profoundly different ways of generating political and social order, legitimacy, and accountability pose considerable challenges for national governance. If effective national governance is understood to include the development of networks linking state and societal governance institutions and mechanisms together in ways that are accountable and meaningful to communities, it is important that societal forms of governance come more clearly into view, not as signs of the past or of the failure of state-building but as dynamic and changing elements within the exchange of contemporary national and global governance.


Contemporary societies face truly pressing challenges of governance: the need for collective responses to profound ecological, political, and social dilemmas, the construction of political mechanisms or systems able to hold shifting loci of economic and political power within and beyond the state to some form of account, and ongoing challenges of sociopolitical violence. These are existential challenges, and it is not clear how well we will meet them, either as a species (facing ecological pressures) or as interweaving societies seeking some level of justice (dealing with social, economic, and political dilemmas). Whatever forms progress might take, however, need to be based on better understanding of how we live together, a more informed grasp of the profound differences shaping global societies, and on working to undo deeply embedded forms of exclusion and marginalization that have shaped aspects of the dominant governance patterns of the last few centuries.

Political dynamics can move swiftly, and opportunities can emerge that allow what was unrealistic to become possible. Concepts of governance are valuable because they are a way of investigating changing patterns of collective power and their effects on life chances over time; they help us understand processes of change, and they challenge us to consider what it is we collectively value and seek in such processes. The investigation of changing governance dynamics can thus contribute to recognizing and shaping opportunities for change. Ideas of governance also draw attention to the significance of the relations among the different elements making up a collective social order. Examining governance systems and practices brings to light not just the agents exercising governance but the nature of relations that make up the legitimacy, authority, accountability, and patterns of communication constituting sociopolitical order. In this sense, questions of governance highlight interdependence within a governance system but also, increasingly, across the networks among them. Greater understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence within and among patterns of governance needs to include a more concrete grasp of the different ways collectivities of various kinds shape their lives. Such understanding could change subtly but significantly how the search for effective forms of national and global governance is framed and enable more voices to be part of the conversation.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Global, Urban and Social StudiesRMIT UniversityMelbourneAustralia