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Multilateralism and the Limits of Global Governance

Richard Higgott
CSGR Working Paper No. 134/04
May 2004



Global governance (GG) is an over-used and under-specified concept. The search for meaningful use is a reflection of the growing despair over the mismatch between the over-development of the global economy and the under-development of a comparable global polity. For the global policy community, driven largely by economic theory, the delivery of public goods via collective action problem solving leads to what I call GG Type I. By contrast, scholarly interest, driven by normative (often cosmopolitan) political theory and focussing on issues of institutional accountability, greater citizen representation, justice and the search for an as yet to be defined global agora leads to a rather loose GG Type II. But, using the IMF and the GATT-WTO as case studies, the paper argues that without the enhancement of GG Type II, the prospects of the continuance of GG Type I—via the economic multilateralism of the 20th century Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF and WB), the WTO—will become unsustainable. It will do so for at least three reasons.


The nature of what constitute ‘public goods’ in the 21st century global economy is strongly contested. Both the ability and political will of the US to play the role of self-binding hegemon, under-writing multilateralism, is problematic to say the least.

Resistance amongst the world’s ‘rule takers’ to a hegemonic global order is growing.


It is not necessary to accept ’Clash of Civilisation’ style arguments to recognise that this is also, in part at least, an ideological contest with security implications of the kind that have dominated the international agenda in the early years of the 21st century. But, perhaps more importantly, it is also a practical-cum-policy issue over the contested nature of what actually constitute ‘global public goods’ in the 21st century. In this context it is appropriate to ask questions about alternative forms of global governance espoused by advocates of G-20 style activities. The paper concludes with an introductory comparative analysis of this evolving economic initiative and the existing economic institutions.


Key words: multilateralism, global governance, US foreign policy


Address for correspondence

Professor Richard Higgott
Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation
University of Warwick,
Coventry, CV4 7AL, Uk


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