In examining the views of our experts at Princeton at the “New Foundations for Global Governance,” not surprisingly there are real differences in understanding the direction of global governance. Reflecting on the source of these differences, I have no magic answer but I think one critical factor is the importance that experts place on structure. 

But before I get to examine structure, let me focus first on the context – that is the contemporary context - of international relations. 

All of us seemed to be grappling with the shape and impact of the current context of international relations.  In this new context, the experts are trying very hard to understand a number of things: the US leadership role, for instance.  With a new American administration in place for just over a year, we are trying to understand the consequences of the apparent reengagement of the United States after eight-years of rather radical international politics.  Multilateralism appears to be back in Washington.  But has the past just gone away – the unilateralism, à la carte multilateralism, the coalitions of the willing?   Is the world just to be put back as though US foreign policy never suffered, what – ‘a brain storm.’

Leaving aside for the moment the question of US leadership it is evident that the world has changed.  New powers – the rising powers – have increasingly become leaders in global governance.  In fact all the G5 – Brazil, India, China, South Africa and Mexico have been tapped for the new G20 Leaders Summit.  All are aware that the there is now an expanded leadership

In the context of examining US leadership and the rising powers, among other things, my assessment of the current international relations context was sparked by a very interesting piece by Jia Qingguo Associate Dean of School of International Studies at Beida and Richard Rosecrance, now at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.  The two have written, “Delicately Poised: Are China and the US Heading for Conflict?” in Global Asia released recently. And just for factual purposes both these experts were also at the Princeton conference.  While the piece is interesting on a number of grounds, let me focus on their examination of the contemporary landscape of global affairs.  Not surprisingly these two ‘Cornell types’ – meaning both either attended or taught there - have examined rather closely the international relations context.

An examination of the contemporary international relations is valuable.  When the cold war ended, analysts began discussing the new structure of international relations.  Dick Rosecrance was one of the first to examine and compare the international system with the early nineteenth century European Concert (“A New Concert of Powers,” Foreign Affairs, (Spring, 1992). The fact that conflict between the two superpowers had ended and instead what emerged was a number of powers where there was no strong division or ideological gulf seemed to suggest the aptness of the comparison.  Indeed, there appeared to be the prospect of a ‘new concert’ in the face of the end of the Cold War struggle.  But lost in this examination was the fact that the dynamics of this new international relations world was not classic structural realism.  Balancing one another and building a stable international system was not at the heart of international relations.  As the United States emerged as a unilateral power, especially on the military dimension, realists – the dominant analytic perspective of American international relations specialists – scrambled to explain why the mechanisms, impulses and great power behaviors of balance of power were nowhere to be seen (see, Stephen Walt for example in his revision of classic balance of power with the ‘balance of threat.’ For a more recent examination of unipolarity and its consequences on international relations see the special issue of World Politics, Vol. 61, no.1 (January, 2009) and especially the introduction by G. John Ikenberry, Michael Mastanduno and William Wohlforth, "Unipolarity, State Behavior, and Systemic Consequences, pp. 1-27 )

In examining the China-US relationship and determining the likelihood of war (let me not keep you guessing here, the two argue, “no,” or at least not likely.”), both Jia Qingguo and Richard Rosecrance describe a context today (though I’d argue such was the context after the breakup of the Soviet Union) quite distinct from the 19th century world of the concert of Europe.  As they point out there are three quite significant changes in international relations:

  • Nuclear weapons and the deterrence nuclear weapons have generated among the great powers has dampened major power enthusiasm for conflict and its consequences;
  • Globalization and growing interdependence have allowed, impelled, major powers to focus on trade and investment in their efforts to insure growth and national prosperity; and
  • Territorial expansion as a means to enhanced wealth and prestige has little appeal – states and importantly their publics in general do not favor territorial expansion and conflict.

In the China-US relationship and indeed for all the major powers, the tight interdependence (both positive and negative) causes states to explore the necessary collaboration even where conflict exists.  As the authors suggest, “… after years of interaction, China and the US have developed a shared stake in cooperation.”  

Global leadership is today built on national interest and interdependence. Such a foundation does not rely on the mechanisms of balancing and great power rivalry, as we understood those concepts in the past.  Today we see the great powers struggling to overcome the problem collective action and to fashion collective decisions in global governance.  This is not a focus on the distribution of power of the leading states but on the negotiated agreement of states.  For al the many criticism, it is why the Gx process with leaders summits represent the cutting edge of global governance.


The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.