Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
It is easier to see the real-time demise of the familiar old world order than it is to see key elements of the next one falling into place. While the inability of nations to come together to effectively manage COVID-19, global warming and refugee flows from war zones is evident to all, the countless successful interventions across borders by churches, private foundations, humanitarian organizations, doctors, scientists, companies, teen activists, provinces and cities remain mostly below the radar. So far, they appear as an array of pixels that do not yet come into focus as a whole picture.
This incipient “polylateralism,” in which the agents of global civil society and subnational governments are taking up the slack of faltering nation-states, marks the advent of the most significant evolution in world-scale governance since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. That series of treaties ended the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics within the crumbling Holy Roman Empire and established the principle of sovereignty, under which each nation would determine its own religious identity and not battle others over their denominational choices.
Four centuries on, planetary realities — combined with the growing fragmentation of identities within nations and the newfound connectivity that links those identities beyond borders — suggest the emergence of something new: a distributed form of governance in which diverse constituencies from across the world with common interests and values can act effectively alongside creaking sovereignty. In effect, what we are seeing is the beginning of a reversal of the whole Westphalian notion that political and cultural life could, and must, be contained within designated territories.
The dramatic debacle of the U.S. military retreat from Afghanistan has obscured the notable efforts of citizen activists and nongovernmental organizations to get people threatened by Taliban rule out on their own. To cite just a few examples, through its networks of contacts established during the American occupation, the Digital Citizen Fund was able to spirit some members of its girls’ robotics team out of the country to Qatar and Mexico. A veterans’ group, Allied Airlift 21, has been organizing overland escape routes to Pakistan for those who worked with them during the long war. New York Instagram star Tommy Marcus (alias Quentin Quarantino) raised $7 million through a GoFundMe campaign for rescue missions, privately chartering a flight to take 51 people from Afghanistan to Uganda.
The C40, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, coordinates climate action among 40 mayors worldwide to implement the Paris climate accord goals and beyond. During his term in office, California Governor Jerry Brown convened a Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco that brought non-state activists together with state and local governments to chart out a long-term strategy to reach net-zero emissions. Both were formed when former President Donald Trump sought to withdraw from the Paris accord at the national level.
Brown now co-chairs the California-China Climate Institute that is aligning carbon trading markets of the Golden State with Hubei and Guangdong provinces in China despite rising hostilities between Beijing and Washington.
Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, brings together the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and donor nations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, vaccine manufacturers and basic research institutions to develop and spread vaccines for COVID as far, wide and equitably as possible.
In an interview in Noema, Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses the promises and pitfalls of this polylateral idea. While she agrees that the devolution of “formal legitimacy” to subnational units of government so they have the legal status to act globally makes sense, for her, the nation-state remains the core actor. “States are the best representatives of large communities of people, and given norms of popular sovereignty, they remain the best vehicles for providing legitimacy. … 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.”
Her idea is to join the capacities of subnational governments, civil society and business with international organizations and nation-states in “impact hubs” to address planetary issues. She cites Gavi as one example. In this way, Slaughter reckons, “we don’t wait for the big players — we just go do it… 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. … Think about the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders or the Landmines Treaty — all begun and [were] ultimately achieved by civic entrepreneurs who weren’t willing to wait.”
She goes on: “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.”
On this point, Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization, couldn’t agree more. But he regards the formal legitimacy of national sovereignty Slaughter continues to embrace as a dubious notion past its due date.
“The idea came to me,” says Lamy, “while reflecting on explanations for the impotence of the contemporary Westphalian order and the chaos which stems from it. The multilateral order is based on one principle: the sovereignty of nation-states. However, this notion has become a fiction. Great fictions can be useful and have been very convenient: The principle of sovereignty contributed to the nationalization of religious wars in the 17th century. However, from my professional vantage point, I came to realize that, as globalization developed, sovereignty crumbled. The state progressively lost control and the fiction of sovereignty solved less problems than it actually caused.”
He continues: “Founding an international system on a squeaky fiction does not produce a harmonious concert. Our multilateral system is built on all kinds of formalisms. Jurists continue to claim that nation-states are all equal. This is, of course, true from a formal point of view. However, in the real world, their relations are governed by asymmetry.”
He takes on a related fiction that multilateral institutions are, by definition, all legitimate. “The government is therefore entitled to speak on behalf of the state. And we deduce from this that organizations made up of legitimate nation-states are themselves legitimate, through the transitivity of their legitimacy, due to the monopoly of nation-states. This is coherent in this universe of legal concepts, but it does not correspond to the reality of political, economic and cultural relations.”
For Lamy, polylateralism is about bringing to the table “international agents,” such as NGOs, businesses or subnational governments who have little or no place in the formal multilateralism of nation-states.
If planetary realism is one day to supplant Westphalian fiction, the conundrum is how to evolve a system of governance that recognizes these realities by engaging the new agents on the global block outside the formal legitimacy of national sovereignty.
Here, there seems a parallel with present debates in the West around how to integrate new forms of citizen participation into current systems of representative democracy in order to mend the alienation and breach of trust between the public and the institutions of self-government.
The idea of “participation without populism” would do this by inviting the broader civil society into governance through new mediating institutions such as citizens assemblies and digital deliberative platforms that would both complement and compensate for the waning legitimacy of representative government. Such an innovation would rebalance the institutional equilibrium of republics for an age when social networks have drawn more players outside the formal halls of power into the political fray than ever before.
In essence, polylateralism proposes a similar arrangement at the planetary scale by integrating those agents of action outside official channels into global governance in a way that complements the nation-state and the established state-to-state multilateral institutions. Such a hybrid system would create a new balance between the multitude of effective actors that lack formal legitimacy and the nation-states that possess that formal legitimacy but lack the capacity to address planetary challenges on their own.