Global governance to the rescue: saving international relations?

Author:Weiss, Thomas G.
Position:Essay
 
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OUR PURPOSE IN THIS ARTICLE IS TO PROVOKE AND PROPOSE. WE AIM TO PROVOKE a reaction from our colleagues who, at worst, have not yet awakened to the fact that international relations (IR) teeters on the edge of an abyss of irrelevance or, at best, have yet to be spurred to refresh a field much in need of revitalization. IR as an academic pursuit has become disparate and fragmented. Those of us in the field have ceased to pursue greater clarity in the way that we understand the world around us. Furthermore, we have failed as agents of change; that is, as purveyors of opinion and proposals about a better and fairer world order. As such, we no longer serve our students and those practitioners who seek our advice--or for those of us who take on policy jobs, we no longer push out the envelope of what is considered acceptable. We too seldom offer a set of tools for understanding how the world works, a grounding on which socially beneficial policy can be created, and a framework for thinking about change.

How we have arrived at this point is easier to explain than moving beyond it. We nonetheless have a proposal: to move back toward the future--to the table of grand disciplinary debate--by applying the not yet fully utilized concept of global governance.

Our argument unfolds in three parts. In the first part, we outline why and how IR teeters on the edge of an abyss. Here, we show that the field's precariousness is theoretical, methodological, pedagogical, and linguistic. In the second part, we offer a proposal for moving beyond the fragmentation and atomization that afflicts international relations. We suggest here that one way of encouraging reengagement is to return to debating grand questions that used to be the sustenance of IR. Questions come no grander than asking how the world is governed, how we have ended up with the global governance that we currently have, and what kind of order we ought to put in place to correct the myriad ills that afflict humanity and the planet that we so willfully neglect. Indeed, understanding the precise shape of the current world order is perhaps the fundamental question of international relations, but one on which we have tended to turn our backs in recent years. (1) Shunning big questions of world order has certainly not resulted because we have solved the riddle of how the world is governed or the concomitant puzzles of how power and authority are exercised, what the consequences of particular formations of organization and governance are, and how we might best engage in meaningful reform.

In the third part of this article, we argue that global governance--appro-priately and specifically framed to make it fit for purpose--offers an opportunity to return to these as well as other questions and, in so doing, to reinvigorate our fragmented and atomized field. We are, of course, not blind to the problems that global governance itself brings. It has rightly been criticized as a catchall term. Lawrence Finkelstein asked in the first volume of this journal, "what is global governance?" He provocatively replied, "virtually anything." (2) What we suggest, however, is that questions of global governance can be a catalyst for a rejuvenated field as long as we resist the temptation to fall back into our old habits of asking and answering questions within the intellectual silos that we now inhabit. We conclude by showing how we can move fruitfully beyond this to reclaim global governance's potential as a critical scholarly endeavor and--in our role as provocateurs--as the savior of IR.

The Edge of the Abyss

The field of IR--and those of us within it--should be proud of its success. Barely thirty years ago, "international relations" was a vague appellation that referred to those areas of political science that dealt with politics "beyond the border," or "over there," or "in foreign climes." Those who practiced it became members of our faculties, but they were somehow different--they did African and Asian politics; the communist world; and, in North America at least, European integration. Larger departments also had faculty members who studied forms of international organization--almost exclusively, the United Nations--and international law. However, with a few notable exceptions, the bulk of political science (and the areas that carried professional prestige) remained more squarely focused on the core executive, representation, and enfranchisement; national and local bureaucracy; comparative politics; and classical and neoclassical political theory.

The technological advances and economic forces that have propelled disparate peoples and places together, along with the rise of new forms of insecurity, have underpinned a growing and serious student demand for IR, resulting in a fundamental change in the complexion of political science departments worldwide. Not only is it now common that IR faculty--along with applicants for limited numbers of PhD positions--outnumber their more traditional counterparts, but also that students clamor to find internships and eventually work for one global institution or another and have careers with an international orientation. This demand has fundamentally altered the content of course offerings. Whereas once it was the Cinderella attracting the attention of the mainstream only when international applications spoke to core political science endeavors, research in IR attracts at least as much attention and prestige as its older siblings and its professional associations have grown as a result. For instance, the International Studies Association (ISA) has seen its membership grow from approximately 200 just after its establishment in 1959 to 1,000 by 1970, 1,900 by 1973, 3,000 by the mid-1990s, and over 6,000 by 2013, with participation at its annual meetings also having increased similarly. (3)

The Way We Think

However, we are victims of our own success. The burgeoning growth in ER as an intellectual pursuit has encouraged the community not to focus on overlaps and interactions, but instead on showing how different we are from one another, illustrating how our novel value-added distinguishes us from an all too often imagined orthodoxy. Perhaps we should not be surprised. We teach our students to be critical of conventional wisdom. In their graduate work we demand that they develop frameworks and pursue empirical enquiries that show how what we thought we knew to be true is not actually quite so. In a less frenetic field of study (i.e., one that has not grown so quickly and struggled for recognition), the result would be a steady advance of knowledge; the development, refinement, and critique of a canon; and a constant reflection on big and important questions.

That has not been the case for ER. The number of new entrants, along with the necessity to be different or to get a job or to secure tenure, requires making a name for oneself. The result has been fragmentation. As such, we have lost sight of the need (and, indeed, perhaps the capacity) to interact more productively with one another, more often than not finding ourselves conversing with fellow converts and eschewing dialogue. Our intellectual splits are legendary--the British and US schools in international political economy (IPE) and the divide between rationalists versus reflectivists are just two of the more notable (4)--but so are the intellectual silos that we now inhabit: poststructuralist, structural realist, constructivist, neo-Gramscian, feminist, solidarist, communitarian, cosmopolitan, pluralist, postmodemist, behavioralist, postcolonialist, and institutionalist, among many others. We do not interact in our journals (indeed, we seldom publish in the same places), we do not mix well at our conferences, and we are disparaging of what it is that we imagine others do.

This unhealthy intellectual state of affairs infects our students. We teach them our favored ways of looking at the world, deriding the wisdom of those whom we view as "the Other." We encourage them--and in growing numbers as the demand for IR shows no sign of flagging--to seek out new ways of thinking about the world by combing other disciplines for novel approaches and harvesting the wisdom found therein as the new next best way of understanding the world around us. Ironically, this incentive makes us even less likely to talk with one another; it reinforces our intellectual silos; and it ensures that we are less, rather than more, able to think through how we could make the world a better place. Indeed, many of us have become more able to talk with colleagues in other disciplines than those within ER.

The Way We Research

Our problems are not, however, just theoretical. They are methodological too. IR has always had an unusual problem when it comes to how we conduct research. It has never been practical to expect that we or our graduate students can easily gain access to a war cabinet to study decisionmaking; hang out with trade delegates expecting that they will share their negotiating secrets; or spend time with combatants, victims of rape and torture, and perpetrators of crimes against humanity and acts of terrorism. So, we have pursued other research methods. For some, IR had to become more scientific; we needed to have formal theories and to count what we could to make sense of the world. For others, archives, interviews, and secondary sources became standard operating procedures.

The methodological divides are well known, and we have talked about them since at least the 1950s. Yet we have continually failed to bridge the qualitative-quantitative divide, let alone learn from a blend of methodological insights. Our rush to harvest approaches from other disciplines has compounded rather than attenuated this problem. We have imported, adapted, and adopted the methods from other disciplines; but in so doing we have reinforced the walls between us. In IPE, for instance, there is almost no bridging the quantitative...

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