Governance and International Relations: Terence O'Brien on the Need for, and Obstacles to, Effective Global Governance

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Governance and International Relations: Terence O'Brien on the Need for, and Obstacles to, Effective Global Governance


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


Governance is a currently fashionable word to describe government, both domestically and in international relations. But it means something that is wider than government in the traditional sense. It refers to activities, to institutions and to influences that are not just part of legal or sovereign power. Non-government activities, formal and informal, that inspire, guide or restrain collective behaviour are also a vital part of governance. (1)

In international affairs governance is an expression born of the present era of globalisation that has dramatically widened and deepened inter-dependence between countries and peoples. The sheer speed, magnitude and complexity of modern globalisation exceeds anything previously experienced. It offers exciting possibilities for those countries in a position to capitalise upon the opportunities; but there are dangers and complications. Crime, illicit trades, drugs, and corruption are abetted by the new dynamics of globalisation. Unless globalisation, or important aspects of it, is effectively governed, and benefits shared equitably, it may not be sustainable. (2)

Even as the tempo of globalisation increases, it is not homogenising the world. Diversity remains the basic reality of human experience. People in many parts of the world remain firmly grounded in their traditional ethnic, cultural and religious communities. In more than one region internal ethnic conflict, sharp religious enmity and terrorism are evidence that globalisation has not changed basic reality. Elsewhere right-wing nationalism, unilateralism and a brand of evangelical religious fundamentalism are also on the rise. All of this obviously poses a serious challenge to effective global governance.

Governance challenges

Globalisation guarantees that a political assassination in Lebanon, a run on currency in Thailand, a weapons test in North Korea, an upheaval in Tonga and a host of other such events are no longer strictly national affairs whose impacts are contained inside borders. Technology and the emergence of a host of new channels of communication have created a completely new context for international politics. The traditional preoccupations of international politics--trade, power and security--are being extended into a diversity of other areas, such as social, environmental, scientific, medical, and ethical, where non-government influence is far greater and where governments are obliged to share authority and governance with networks of business, professional and humanitarian agencies, advocacy groups, trade unions and citizens generally. Regulation of transactions at the border resides to a greater degree in non-government hands--banks, insurance companies, the medical profession, scientists, information technologists etc.

Co-ordination and governance grows crucially harder, especially for governments. Ministries of foreign affairs are no longer the sole channel of communication with other countries or governments. The sheer mass of information now widely available makes the process of sifting the important from the unimportant a vastly more complex task at all levels, and a monopoly on information, and of wisdom, has effectively ceased. Foreign connections are the preoccupation of a wide number of ministries, departments, private companies and corporations, as well as individuals. The sheer frequency of international meetings, and the intensification of international law-making, renders the business of option-weighing, decision-making as well as diplomacy itself more complex and diversified. (3)

For all these reasons, international relations have in many countries become a particular preoccupation for the offices of presidents, prime ministers and heads of government because they provide the focal point for ultimate national co-ordination. This can prove a mixed blessing. The advantages of diplomatic involvement at the highest level of government, which are real, can be nullified by constant intrusion of other competing domestic priorities. …

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Governance and International Relations: Terence O'Brien on the Need for, and Obstacles to, Effective Global Governance
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