Academic journal article Global Governance

The John Holmes Memorial Lecture: Global Governance in a Copernican World

Academic journal article Global Governance

The John Holmes Memorial Lecture: Global Governance in a Copernican World

Article excerpt

FOR ALL THE DIPPING POLITICAL SCIENCE DOES INTO SUCH DISCIPLINES AS economics, physics, and sociology for our theory and metaphors, it is (as Carl Sagan no doubt would have agreed) astronomy that provides the best conceptualization of the twenty-first-century international system. The Cold War system of the second half of the twentieth century was a lot like the ancient philosopher-astronomer Ptolemy's theory of the universe. For Ptolemy, the earth was at the center with the other planets, indeed all the other celestial bodies, revolving around it. And so too was the United States at the center of the Cold War world. It was the wielder of power, the economic engine, the bastion of free world ideology. When the Cold War ended with the demise and defeat of the Soviet Union, US centrality seemed even more defining; it was the sole surviving superpower. The US economy was driving globalization. Democracy was spreading all over. The world seemed even more Ptolemaic.

Not anymore. The twenty-first-century world is more like the theory of the universe developed in the early sixteenth century by the Polish astronomer-cosmologist Nicolaus Copernicus, who posited that the earth was not at the center, that the sun was, and that the earth had its own orbit around the sun, and other planets had their own orbits around the sun not the earth. So too in the twenty-first century, the United States is not at the center. It has its own orbit. Other planets (countries) also have their own sources of influence, their own national interests, their own identities, and their own domestic politics. This Copernican world is evident geopolitically with other powers rising (China), recovering (Russia), seeking to reinvigorate (European Union), emerging (e.g., India, Brazil, and Turkey), and engendering their own revolutions (e.g., Tunisia and Egypt). It is evident economically with globalization having what the United States' own National Intelligence Council assessed as a "less of a 'Made in the USA' character." It is evident ideologically amidst what my colleague Steve Weber and I have called the "global marketplace of ideas." It is evident culturally as with the comment by a New York art dealer after an auction dominated by newly moneyed non-Western collectors that "for the first time in nearly two hundred years the Western world doesn't make the decisions about our future." (1)

What is less clear, though, is what the sun is in our version of a Copernican world, keeping planets (countries) from crashing into each other. It is not the United Nations: it helps, but only partially. It is not just having a more multilateralist president of the United States. Indeed, the "what is the sun" question is fundamental to global governance.

This article, drawn from my 2011 John W. Holmes Memorial Lecture at the annual meeting of the Academic Council of the United Nations System, has two main objectives: develop this Copernican model theoretically and draw out some of its principal policy implications from a global governance perspective.

Theoretical Bases of the Copernican World

The Copernican world model has three comparative theoretical advantages. First, it picks up on the diffusion and dilution of power that realists underestimate and that makes the twenty-first-century international system less than hegemony, whether of the persistent US version or the prospective Chinese one Second, it gets at the greater contestation of systemic ordering principles than liberal institutionalist theories acknowledge. Third, it brings the state back in, checking against too-exclusive focuses on global architecture and other systemic-level factors in ways consistent with the crucial role states still must play in the multidimensionality of global governance.

Diffusion and Dilution of Power

One of the most seductive deceptions of the George W. Bush years was that, once he was gone, the United States would regain its global reputation and place of leadership and all would be well. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.