John Ravenhill, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, addresses the audience in his CIGI Signature Lecture "A Crisis in Global Governance?" (Lisa Malleck/CIGI)
John Ravenhill, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, addresses the audience in his CIGI Signature Lecture "A Crisis in Global Governance?" (Lisa Malleck/CIGI)

"Now is the best time in history to be alive," concluded John Ravenhill, the new director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Quoting a paper published by the Martin School, his closing sentiment reflected the overarching tone of his CIGI Signature Lecture entitled, "A Crisis in Global Governance?"

Ravenhill began his address by acknowledging the "failures" of global governance that have led many critics to believe that global governance is in crisis: the decision by Saudi Arabia’s government to forgo its seat on the UN Security Council; the UN's failure to take action on the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons; and the ineffective nature of environmental talks were just some of his examples. Despite the evidence, Ravenhill argued in defence of global governance by responding to these failures through the lens of redefined terms.

“The origin of the word crisis," explained Ravenhill, "originally applied to a turning point in a disease when important change takes place — leading to either recovery or death." The definition has since evolved, he said, to reflect a "decisive point," or more recently, "a tipping point." Rather than crises, Ravenhill argued, the examples he mentioned should be considered ongoing weaknesses that may eventually erupt in crises.

After clarifying “crisis,” Ravenhill turned his attention to the concept of “global governance,” a relatively new term credited to James Rosenau. Rosenau believed that “global governance was emerging as a consequence of the recognition of the need for new forms of governance in a world characterized by economic integration but one that lacked an overarching political authority." Ravenhill explained that "global governance" and "international organizations" are not synonymous nor codependent. Global governance is not defined by organizations, buildings or a permanent secretariat. As such, the failure of an international organization does not necessarily reflect the failure of global governance.

By clarifying these definitions, and solidifying his defense with additional arguments, Ravenhill took the wind from the sails of many global governance critics.

Interestingly, Ravenhill argued for the reappraisal of the expectations placed on both international organizations and global governance. When mandates and players are considered in context, with all of their complexities, “their record is impressive.” Speaking on the weaknesses – not crises – that some international organizations and forums of global governance face, Ravenhill explained that failures can be explained by shifting powers, and inadequacies of the infrastructure and decision making processes maintained by the organizations in question.

Ravenhill brought the lecture to a close by offering his suggestions on how to remedy these weakened organizations. His recommendations included breaking down “single undertaking” votes into smaller, more focused talks; maintaining a focused agenda; and, renewing the leadership role of the United States.

After acknowledging these areas for improvement, Ravenhill reiterated his hope for global governance. While a perfect system may yet be far off, the progress that has been made over the past 50 years should induce a sense of hope and excitement. We are well positioned to recall past progress and foresee future advances in global governance; for that reason, “Now is the best time in history to be alive.”


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