Networked Planetary Governance

To tackle planetary problems like the climate crisis and pandemics, we have to tear down old hierarchies and build new, fluid networks of people, cities and organizations.

Aaron Larson for Noema Magazine

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the CEO of New America and the former director of policy planning for the United States Department of State and dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

She recently spoke with Nils Gilman, the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and deputy editor of Noema Magazine, and Jonathan S. Blake, a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow, about the design and legitimacy of governing institutions for the 21st century.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Blake: One of the themes in your work is the disconnect between sovereignty, which is held exclusively by national governments, and the actual work of governing, which is often done by many different actors working at multiple scales. Can we reconcile the gulf between the theory — nation-state sovereignty — and the practice, where governance comes from all sorts of institutions?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: It’s not good enough to do what we’ve always done, which is to treat the state as a black box. We have to find ways to recognize the different parts of states — to think and act in terms of horizontal disaggregation (among departments or ministries) as well as vertical disaggregation (cities, provinces, etc.). Legitimate, recognized status is important for the system to function — international organizations need legal status to be able to participate formally in global institutions and conclude agreements as official actors on the world stage.

What we need to do now is to enable official action at more levels. For example, we could formally recognize the role of sub-national actors. It’s telling that the Paris Agreement included the category of “non-party stakeholders.” Some of these were billionaires and foundations, but a lot of them were sub-state actors, like governors and mayors. That matters because when President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the U.S. out of the agreement in 2017, California Governor Gavin Newsom and the mayors in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, as well as a number of CEOs and foundations heads, stepped in and committed to continue working toward the agreement’s goals. 

Nils Gilman: At a practical, legal level, what kinds of institutional work needs to be done to achieve that?

Slaughter: We must be able to work in a networked way as well as in a hierarchical way. You have to be able to identify the different actors who are going to be in your network. Consider, for example, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, a committee of central bank governors, or the International Organization of Securities Commissions. These groups have no formal legal status but are crucial for generating norms and developing ties among central bank officials.

We need both function and legitimacy. Institutions have to be functional — they have to deliver the goods — but they also have to be seen as legitimate. Every time I give a talk on my vision of world governance, someone says something like, “Bill and Melinda Gates are just as important as the U.N. secretary-general!” What they mean is that both the Gates Foundation and the U.N. serve an important function — they both deliver the goods — and as a result have some form of “output legitimacy.”

At the same time, it’s important for subnational governmental actors and international organizations to have a formal legitimacy gained via legal recognition by national governments. States are the best representatives of large communities of people, and given norms of popular sovereignty, they remain the best vehicles for providing legitimacy. So on the one hand, we have to be able to solve problems through transnational and nongovernmental networks, but on the other hand, we cannot deny the status of states, which remain crucial nodes in the network.

“We need both function and legitimacy.”

Gilman: We at the Berggruen Institute have recently been promoting the idea of “planetary realism,” which we define as the need for intensifying cooperation on problems like the climate crisis and pandemics — which don’t care about our petty human concerns — despite ongoing political tensions among states about everyday human affairs. 

Just recently, a number of groups published a letter saying the West and China need to put aside their differences in order to focus on climate change. But this generated pushback from people on the left and right, who each think this approach ignores vital concerns (human rights and security, respectively). 

Where do you see the possibility for cooperation between China and the West, given the reality of the geopolitical tensions? 

Slaughter: My basic proposition is that great power politics are very 20th century. When President Joe Biden says, “We need to win the 21st century,” anybody under 40 — and certainly those under 30 — asks, “What the hell does that mean? Win the 21st century?! We’re worried that we’re not going to make it to the end of the century! And it’s not going to be nuclear war or a Chinese empire that does us in.” 

It’s clear that there are other threats that are far more pressing. There will always be some elements of great-power politics, but much of this mindset is really generational. Biden’s approach to China, reasonably enough, is deeply 20th century.

The old-school, statist way to achieve the cooperation we need is to get the U.S. and China together and say, “Look, let’s stop rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and instead face shared threats together.” The problem is that great-power politics are locked in. Many folks in the U.S. government right now are more interested in standing up to China than they are in thinking about global survival. 

The alternative is to look past all that and create what I call an “impact hub.” For example, let’s create a Gavi (the public-private partnership to increase global access to vaccines) for climate change. We have what we need to do it right: get the signatories of the Paris Agreement together, get funding, adopt standards, work those through mayors, governors and businesses as much as we possibly can and then ask smaller nation-states to get on board. Once that’s in place, China and the U.S. will face real pressure to join in.

With pandemics, it’s a little easier because we already have the World Health Organization as the nucleus of a potential impact hub, though it’s admittedly captured by the interests of powerful states. A group of WHO states might be able to pilot an impact hub focused specifically on preparing for and fighting pandemics.

With this alternative approach, we don’t wait for the big players — we just go do it, knowing that our younger folks are going to be with us. I’m not saying we should work against states — just that we should not necessarily start with them. Assume that governments are still important, but don’t wait for them. Let the great power rivalries play themselves out as they will; get the important work done other ways. I know that sounds naïve, but think about the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders or the Landmines Treaty — all begun and ultimately achieved by civic entrepreneurs who weren’t willing to wait. 

“We don’t wait for the big players — we just go do it, knowing that our younger folks are going to be with us.”

Gilman: You published “A New World Order” 17 years ago, arguing that we already have a far-reaching global governance system, just not the one that people typically think we have. This system is made up of global networks of government officials coordinating and cooperating to tackle all sorts of shared problems, from transnational crime to constitutional jurisprudence to regulating financial markets. What’s your assessment of how these networks have fared in the years since the book came out? Do we need new ones to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow?

Slaughter: There are definitely new ones. In the financial arena, for example, the Financial Stability Board — which emerged out of the global networks of insurance supervisors, securities regulators, finance ministers and central bankers — was essential during the 2008 financial crisis. We would not have gotten through the crisis without it.

What I left out of the book were cities. I knew they were there and I gestured at them. But since then, cities have become far more important. On terrorism, health, climate, equity and inequality, we can’t only work at the national level. City governments have a huge role to play.

Blake: Yet nation-states remain institutionally oriented toward other nation-states and towards the formal intergovernmental fora, like the U.N. How much of a barrier is this to achieving a fully networked world?

Slaughter: Much of this is due to the formation of officials’ professional identities: what they studied, what they’ve done in their careers. The pathway for diplomats is to go into government or maybe into an international organization. This shapes how people see the world: as a world of states, which is definitely how the State Department sees it. 

There’s also a divide in the issues that people learn about. Diplomats study war and peace and global commons issues, like freedom of the seas. But you have no training to help you think about vaccines, and certainly not treatments and isolation and all the things that we need to do during a pandemic. Similarly, when you get into the nitty-gritty of climate change — and the behavioral change we have to accomplish in almost every aspect of the way we live, produce and consume — we have to work far below the level of national governments and foreign policy practitioners. Something like the Paris Agreement is important, but only a beginning at best. 

By contrast, folks working in city governments often do have the necessary knowledge and experience. I tell my students if I could choose between Nina Hachigian’s job — Los Angeles deputy mayor of international affairs — versus being a midlevel official in the State Department, I’d take Nina’s in a heartbeat, because she’s really at the cutting edge. 

This also means that we need to rethink security outside the state-centric framework that we are used to. Governments with nuclear weapons still have the capacity to destroy the planet, but that threat is not what affects most people in their everyday lives. Health and climate are the paradigms for security in this century, in the same way that world wars were the paradigms for the 20th century. 

What’s key is to get people away from thinking strictly in terms of “international,” which connotes government-to-government interaction and state versus non-state, and instead to think in terms of the interconnected global. Our kids are much more keyed into thinking that way. Psychologically, my generation (I’m 62) started out with separation, and then figured out connection; by contrast, recent generations start connected. The idea of an interconnected ecosystem comes naturally to them because they were connected from the beginning. Not all connections are good, of course, so they also have to figure out separation and boundaries. 

“When you get into the nitty gritty of climate change, we have to work far below the level of national governments and foreign policy practitioners.”

Blake: Earlier you said that when dealing with climate change, we should set aside the U.S.-China rivalry and let other actors get on it. To what extent do global networks really have the power to deal with climate change, especially if powerful states don’t want to?

Slaughter: Having now spent 10 years working with foundations, I’ve become acutely aware that while the Gates Foundation has a lot of money, it’s still nothing compared to what governments can mobilize. I don’t think non-state networks can accomplish what governments can, particularly if those governments are against you. If a government really wants to shut you down, they will. 

But for most purposes, it makes more sense to start by figuring out what network can effectively push progress. For example, if we brought together the heads of the major foundations, big corporations, university presidents, etc., we could start shifting the starting point, moving the goals. This would change the backdrop against which governments work. It’s not enough to say we can rely only on networks, but I would not spend all my time pushing on the governments of the two major emitters either.

At the same time, remember that a government isn’t a single thing. Think about disaggregating it into its components. Develop structures in and around and through the existing skeletons of states. Use whatever parts of the state system we can, because governments can still do things at scales that are hard to do otherwise.

Gilman: At the end of the day, given the massive collective effort that’s going to be required to deal with something like climate mitigation, do we need some kind of Weberian institution sitting at a center that can wield force to enforce decisions?

Slaughter: The answer to that goes back to the underlying mental model and our vocabulary for understanding the world. Our thinking about governance is so outdated compared to what we now know about how the world works. You could compare Weberian institutions to Newtonian physics, which were already understood to be incomplete by the 20th century, let alone today, with chaos theory and quantum mechanics. In the same way, nothing works the way classical international-relations theory says it should. 

When I walk down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., I look at all those enormous buildings, each a block long, each a perfect hierarchy, with a secretary at the top and information and authority flowing down from there. We need to tear that down and connect every single person who’s an expert, regardless of their place in the hierarchy. We need them to be able to connect, disconnect and reconnect dynamically. A “Google for government” would wipe out the old model and create a far more fluid (but far messier) system. Of course, we’re never going to get all the way there, but maybe we’ll get three-fourths of the way there, which would be much better than where we are now.

“Perhaps we can create a parallel world virtually — that is, designing new institutions from scratch without the risks of taking a sledgehammer to the old institutions.”

Gilman: But institutions are incredibly durable. They tend to stick around even when they have long outlasted their original logic or utility — which is a point the historian Arno Mayer makes in one of my favorite books, “The Persistence of the Old Regime.” From this perspective, all these ancient edifices, which as you say are literally cast in concrete in D.C., present a huge challenge for getting to the world of ad hoc and self-assembling networks that are capable of dealing with problems as they emerge in a fluid manner. How can we deconstruct the old statist order without producing total chaos?

Slaughter: One way to proceed is by building off our ongoing pandemic-driven experiment with remote work. Many of us are now used to working in virtual spaces; perhaps we can create the parallel world virtually — that is, designing new institutions from scratch without the risks of taking a sledgehammer to the old institutions. Virtual spaces allow us to create parallel institutions that are far more fluid and flexible without having to first destroy what already exists. Let’s create it virtually, make it work and then later we’ll figure out when and how to move people out of their rigid, hierarchical buildings.

Blake: As we’re thinking about these new fluid, hybrid networks, we return to the question of legitimacy. How can networks gain legitimacy?

Slaughter: Cities are an essential resource. If we look at where we need to tackle the issues we’ve been talking about, it’s mostly not at the national or even at the state government level, but rather at the city level. This is why I’m thinking a lot these days about city-states. Specifically, we need to think about the right jurisdictional unit for human beings to come together in ways that let them cooperate effectively to improve their collective circumstances. It has to be an entity that is big enough to have some real heft, but small enough to be directly connected to the people, which is how it will attain legitimacy.

Sovereignty is still defined as political independence and control over a defined piece of territory. But what if we can decouple governance from territory? What if jurisdictional boundaries didn’t have to be territorial? 

I’m fascinated with “condominium” governance arrangements — for example, the idea that Israelis and Palestinians would share all the territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, but that each would answer to a different government. Maybe we still need territorial boundaries for some things, but it’s worth thinking creatively about how these can be reconfigured. Does the future of governance rest solely with territorial jurisdictions? I’m pretty convinced it does not.