The Last Two Centuries of Global Governance

By Murphy, Craig N. | Global Governance, April-June 2015 | Go to article overview

The Last Two Centuries of Global Governance


Murphy, Craig N., Global Governance


In recent essays, Thomas Weiss and Rorden Wilkinson argue that analysis of systems of global governance going back to the beginnings of the earliest state systems could provide fundamental insight into the problems that trouble the scholarly field of international relations today. (1) While no social scientist or historian is yet able to give a credible account of global governance over those many millennia, it is possible to begin to recount the history of global governance far back beyond the events with which scholars of international relations begin, 1945, the end of World War II and the founding of the postwar UN system--as Thomas Weiss and Dan Plesch do in their essay in this issue of Global Governance--to provide valuable insights for contemporary global governance.

An even more reasonable date for the beginning of the contemporary system of global governance would be 1815. The associated events were the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna and the beginning of a system of governance of Europe and its empires that eventually led to the global system that we now have. The conservative governments that held the congress created many of the institutions that still characterize global governance and gave new life to older institutions and practices whose sources and consequences were central to the nineteenth-century interimperial organizations out of which the United Nations grew. Many of the goals of the interimperial system--the economic goals as well as the goal of universalizing and perfecting the state system--also are still with us. Moreover, the constitutional dynamics of the nineteenth-century system--the forces that led to change within international governance--remain the same. Attention to those dynamics can, as Weiss and Wilkinson would suggest, help us understand the prospects for ameliorating current global problems, including problems that could not have been anticipated two centuries ago.

New Institutions

The Congress of Vienna imposed a peace on France and Napoleon's allies by doing much more than reestablishing something like the eighteenth century European balance of power. The victors sought to create a system that would assure continent-wide and interimperial rule by conservative social forces far into the future. The congress itself was the first of a series of nineteenth-century multilateral conferences of the great powers called to deal with European and interimperial conflicts. The Hague international peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 (and a third, planned for 1915, aborted after the outbreak of war) also built on the earlier conferences by attempting to institutionalize general processes for resolving conflicts among all national governments. The goal remained the same with the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that established the League of Nations and the 1945 San Francisco conference that agreed on the UN Charter.

The congress or conference system not only made multilateral treaty making a common practice, it quickly led to the simultaneous or sometimes separate meetings of periodic congresses or conferences of representatives of ministries involved with transportation, communication, commerce, health, currency, finance, and almost every other aspect of government. This was the beginning of the "legislative branch" of today's global governance, the system of global multilateral conferences.

At the same time, and often in the same cities where nineteenth-century public officials met, private associations of transnationally oriented communities of professionals and social activists also met to agree on voluntary international standards affecting almost every aspect of economic and social life throughout Europe and its empires. Moreover, long before the congresses of the great powers became truly global, the private international governance system welcomed professionals and activists from every part of the world.

By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the periodic conferences, both public and private, had created permanent administrations (secretariats) to carry out tasks between the meetings of national representatives. …

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