Gridlock: The Breakdown of Global Governance

Estimated reading time: 4 Minutes
Many of the causes of contemporary gridlock stem in part from the previous successes of the multilateral order.

The world has not been able to negotiate a new global trade deal for 19 years. After 21 years of climate talks, we have yet to find a way to meaningfully reduce the amount of carbon pouring into the atmosphere. And just 5 years after the worst financial crisis since the 1930s forged enormous political will to reduce the risks created by global financial flows, regulation is increasingly balkanized and, in many places, far too weak.

The multilateral institutions we rely on to solve global problems are less and less able to do so, even as the problems themselves grow worse. To see why, think about your last trip in a car.

After World War II, developed countries, and especially the United States, set about building modern road networks. In the US, the interstate highway system, as the project was called, cut the time required to cross the country from weeks to days. This shift paved the way not just for cars, but for decades of economic growth and fundamental changes in the nature of American society. People began moving to communities where you had to have a car, or two, to get around. Soon the existing roads became clogged, and more had to be built. But this just led to more people getting cars and moving further from urban centers, generating yet more traffic. And new kinds of problems emerged: vulnerability to gas prices, smog, sedentary lifestyles, etc. People began to spend more time sitting, gridlocked, in their cars than they spent with their kids. In other words, the postwar project to increase mobility succeeded extraordinarily, but in doing so created a new set of problems that road-building couldn’t solve.

The same paradox now afflicts the other ‘interstate’ network created after World War Two—our system of global governance through multilateral institutions. After the war the victors, led by the United States, built an extraordinary set of multilateral institutions. Bodies like the United Nations created a system of collective security, and the Bretton Woods institutions set the world on a path toward managed economic integration. Over the next decades a virtuous cycle ensued. Cooperation between countries allowed companies and individuals to forge connections across borders. These links increased mutual dependence, creating greater need for institutionalized cooperation to manage common problems. So states created more global bodies and treaties, new international organizations, international standards and regulations - thousands of which now exist, regulating most aspects of our lives. Cooperation undergirded globalization, and deepening globalization, in turn, required more cooperation to manage.

For most of the postwar period, this process of “self-reinforcing interdependence” worked extraordinarily well, at least compared to any other historical period. It worked so well that multilateral cooperation—as happened with road-building—created conditions that halted and even undermined its own success.

We call this phenomenon gridlock, a basket of trends that is today making international cooperation more difficult, even as deepening globalization and interdependence mean that we need global cooperation now more than ever.

Four separate dynamics have combined to produce gridlock. One, the rise of new powers like India, China and Brazil means that a more diverse array of interests have to be hammered into agreement for any global deal to be made. Two, the problems themselves have also grown more complex, penetrating deep into domestic policies.  Three, the institutions created 70 years ago have proven difficult to change as established interests cling to outmoded decision-making rules that fail to reflect current conditions. And last, in many areas international institutions have proliferated with overlapping and contradictory mandates, creating a confusing fragmentation of authority.

What can be done? Recognizing that gridlock is a general condition of global politics—not just an issue-specific blockage—is an important step toward designing effective solutions. But at the same time, it militates against a hope in “silver bullet” solutions. The problems facing global cooperation are long-term trends, and the solutions are likely to be equally gradual.

Several trends offer promise. First, even as traditional state-to-state international organizations stall new forms of cross-border cooperation that involve companies, networks of cities, NGOs and other types of actors are filling some of the “governance gap” gridlock creates. In most issue areas it remains to be seen how effective these new institutions can be, but they offer at least a partial solution.  Second, while gridlock trends make political leadership unlikely, they do not render it impossible. Space remains for individual policymakers or broad social movements to force change. The key here may be in new actors—or coalitions of actors—forging links across issue areas. The radical increase in interconnectedness that has overwhelmed our existing institutional “technology” may yet lead us to clearer roads ahead.

These themes are explored in a new book by the Thomas Hale, David Held and Kevin Young, entitled Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need it Most, published 28 May 2013.

  • Thomas Hale is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. His research explores how we can manage transnational problems effectively and fairly. He holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton University.

  • David Held is Master of University College, Durham and Professor of Politics and International Relations at Durham University. He is also a Director of Polity Press, and General Editor of Global Policy.

  • Kevin Young is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on international political economy, the politics of financial regulation and transnational policy networks. His recent work appears in The Review of International Political Economy, Regulation and Governance and Public Administration.