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Will Global Voluntarism Supersede Rule of Law?

By Harris Gleckman | March 22, 2013

In the multilateral arena, new international conventions and other forms of hard law are getting rarer and rarer. They are largely being replaced by voluntary undertakings, public-private partnerships, and guidance documents. What occurred in Copenhagen in 2009 with the de facto abandonment of an internationally binding agreement and its replacement by the voluntary Copenhagen Accord is occurring more frequently in international relations. The same thing tends to happen whenever multinational corporations are involved.

This trend has been advocated by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in their Global Redesign Initiative (GRI) project on the future of global governance. WEF developed its views on international cooperation in a global, internal, multi-stakeholder dialogue during 2009 and 2010.

They were prompted to take on this project by two factors: first, the inability of the international market and global banking authorities to contain the international financial crisis, and second, a related anxiety with the loss of legitimacy for globalization itself. The Davos process involved more than 750 experts working in 60 separate taskforces.

The resulting GRI report, Everybody's Business: Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World, was launched in May 2010 at a high-level meeting in Doha, Qatar involving 1,200 reviewers. It reaches well beyond financial matters into broad redefinition of the actors and institutions of the global international system.

At the thematic level, WEF's proposals covered an extraordinary range of public policy areas including educational systems; systemic financial risk; philanthropy and social investing; emerging multinationals; fragile states; global investment flows; social entrepreneurship; energy security; international security cooperation; mining and metals; the future of government; ocean governance; and ethical values.

In the report's overview, the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI) presents an alternative conceptual model for the future of global governance which, if it were to be accepted, would significantly reorder international governance, at least as it is understood through the Charter of the United Nations. One of the four key structural recommendations is to institutionalize voluntary commitments as a preferred system or as a partial replacement for decisions by UN governing bodies, and most of their major framework recommendations can be put into place without a formal decision by any existing United Nations organization.

Given the importance of the GRI report, the Program on Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston published an online Readers' Guide to the World Economic Forum's proposals to provide an easy introduction to the key proposals and to encourage a healthy debate on the future of global governance. The interactive website provides a series of commentaries on selected extracts of the GRI report, a detailed summary of the arguments made by the WEF community, and a critical assessment of the key ideas advanced by the World Economic Forum.

From WEF's perspective, voluntarism in governance solves a number of practical issues. First, it dispenses with long, drawn out negotiations for binding international agreements and their subsequent country-by-country adoption. What GRI proposes is that a self-selected group of actors, some of whom may have a financial self-interest in the formulation of a particular solution, will now be welcomed to generate standards which WEF hopes will be seen as new forms of internationally recognized rules. With this approach in place, it would be increasingly difficult to gain agreement on intergovernmental binding legal standards, as opponents can block consensus and then "adopt" their own more lenient standard since the international undertaking "failed."

In a Davos-style multi-stakeholder governance arrangement, participants are not necessarily from the relatively weak foreign affairs ministries but can be individually selected representatives of departments outside of foreign relations. Identified problems can be addressed more quickly without, in their view, recalcitrant government agencies, old fashioned narrow-minded business executives, and divergent views from civil society. Those who find the right combination of partners can move ahead, so long as the other key institutions of international governance do not overly object. Crucial to WEF's multi-stakeholder governance approach is the idea that all the participants volunteer their time, energy, and capital to solve a given problem.

Voluntarism in governance also means building on the informality of project-based public-private partnerships (PPPs), which most often do not have a formal legal basis. Key actors can join or abstain from a public-private partnership, as and when it best suits them. Find the right combination of government offices, the most interested global corporations, and the best informed civil society experts and let them find the right solution for a regional or local problem. Others from international, regional, and local communities, businesses, and governments can join the volunteer team over time, providing the current participants agree.

If a commercial partner walks away, it can leave the remaining state bodies, international organizations, or the civil society groups with the political liabilities for a perceived failure. If a significant civil society group withdraws, it can change the balance of power within a PPP, but it does not necessarily mean that the PPP will collapse or immediately lose legitimacy with local authorities or the wider community. See, for example, recent developments with the Kimberley Process.

In a similar manner to project-based public-private partnerships, MNCs can join a multi-stakeholder governance process if and when it looks lucrative or provides other benefits to the firm. In both cases, there tends to be quiet recruitment of participants in multi-stakeholder processes or, as WEF sometimes calls them, "coalitions of the willing and able."

A civil society group may join a multi-stakeholder process and then subsequently decide that their financially constrained organization has other priorities. A government body may choose to participate in starting a multi-stakeholder process to gain public visibility but not have the energy or resources to engage actively in the process. As all participants are voluntary actors, all of them can withdraw whenever they wish.

Three features of this ad hoc selection and withdrawal process delimit this form of governance sharply from that of multilateral relations:

  1. Rather than all countries being welcomed in a process, multi-stakeholder participants are selected by the dominant initiating actors (usually multinationals) and in this sense are self-excluding;

  2. The temporary nature of the governance arrangement means that effectiveness of the outcome is uncertain as it generally depends on voluntary actions by the members of the multi-stakeholder governance group, not on a self-standing international organizational structure; and

  3. The constituent members of a multi-stakeholder group need to make up the rules of procedure and decision-making process for each new alliance as there are no agreed standards that are even roughly equivalent to one-country-one-vote.

WEF asserts that voluntarism on a global level can make things happen faster and with greater effectiveness than the universal decision-making of UN, since an opt-in-opt-out system would be less hindered by those small or ideologically different nation-states whose presence would be required by a full global agreement. WEF also argues that the outcome of the process may well have greater legitimacy as the key multinational corporations are seen as working together with other interested constituencies. (See, for example the sequence of steps GRI recommended for Rio+20.)

But this voluntary engagement of selected actors presumes that international relations do not entail significant conflicts. Nation-states often have sharply different views and interests, some of which cause the difficulties in gaining agreement on new legally binding international conventions. In the globalized economy, conflict in the form of competition for market share, return on investment, and quality workers and executives is the name of the game.

The WEF call for a voluntary system of global governance masks this reality by seeking to provide legitimacy for a small sub-group of MNCs, nation-states, and CSOs to stake out the terrain of an agreement so as to exclude their competitors.

GRI makes this assumption of an inherent spirit of cooperation even in post-conflict situations. GRI's Global Agenda Council on Fragile States advocates that voluntary dual-oversight agencies, comprised of public and private donors and the official local government, manage the political process in fragile states. Most fragile states are plagued by the resource curse. The battle for control of a natural resource often involves multiple domestic forces, and a combination of competing foreign investors and their allied home governments. In these circumstances the international extractive industries are very likely to be part of the original problem.

Consequently these partisan firms cannot reasonably be expected to be neutral governing partners in the post-conflict fragile state. GRI's recommendation does not exclude these self-interested firms, nor does it explain on what basis firms would be selected to participate in assisting fragile states. Without these specifications, the effect of GRI's recommendation would be to enhance significantly the ability of specific resource-extraction firms to continue to operate under a new post-conflict governance arrangement without having to acknowledge any prior malfeasance. As all of these arrangements are on an opt-in-opt-out basis, any of the dual-oversight bodies can leave at any time, even if this is to the disadvantage of the stability of the local government.

The GRI approach may also lower public expectations of nation-states and MNCs. Currently governments at various UN forums adopt declarations or standards for particular policy areas. While these resolutions are not legally binding, they do provide the public with explicit criteria by which to judge the performance of nation-states or other actors. GRI says that it wants to strengthen the nation-state but then makes absolutely no recommendations for doing so in international or domestic governance.

An opt-in-opt-out global governance system would move the world away from one of ever-expanding stability based on the rule of law to one that is increasingly based on ad hoc and temporary arrangements. The net effect would be to transform what was a consultative mechanism into a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't governance structure when it suits the nonstate actors because, in most cases, the political obligations and responsibilities in international affairs still remain with the nation-states.

The World Economic Forum's Global Redesign Initiative project has advanced some challenging new ideas about a future global governance system, yet it is clear that significant additional research and much broader public engagement on the evolution of multilateralism and multi-stakeholder processes is needed.

Harris Gleckman is a senior fellow at the Center on Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and director of Benchmark Environmental Consulting. This article draws from his 20 years as a UN staff member and his Readers' Guide to the Global Redesign Initiative.

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