One should distinguish between three different levels of governance, which though interrelated may actually follow their own dynamics and work at cross purposes: 1) the geopolitical level of international relations; 2) the economic level of global markets and financial structures; and 3) the sociocultural and normative level of an emerging global civil society aspiring to universality while having to recognize the irremediable plurality of the many particular religions and cultures constituting global humanity. I will touch briefly upon the first two structural levels of global governance, while dedicating greater attention to the third level, which is the one that serves as the focus of attention of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
Geopolitically, we moved in short order from the bipolar system of the Cold War to the monopolist hegemony of a single hyper-power that coalesced briefly into an ephemeral Pax Americana, which is now been replaced by an increasingly anarchic multipolar global disorder. The multiple simultaneous wars being fought in Syria with the involvement of dozens of state and non-state armed forces and the inability of the international system to contain the violent regional conflicts or to manage the resulting humanitarian and refugee crises offer the most clear evidence of the global geopolitical crisis.
In the long term, only the consolidation of a legitimate international system based on international law that limits the absolute sovereignty of each and every state can offer the hope that the present crisis will not lead to a new global conflagration between world powers. But in the short run, the principle “might makes right” seems to be gaining the upper hand from the South China Sea to Crimea. Even the project of a European Union, meant to overcome the nationalist conflicts of the past that triggered the two world wars, is in serious crisis. The vision of a single European home from the Atlantic to the Urals is receding in the face of a European Union unable to develop solidaristic economic policies that would benefit all its members, to respond in unison to the immigration and refugee crisis, or to confront Russia’s new militarist challenge.
On the economic level of global governance there has been no stable recovery from the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The crisis itself manifested a collapse of internal corporate and financial governance structures, the widespread failure of regulators, credit rating agencies and market mechanisms, a lack of transparency and ultimately a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics. Governments that proved unable or unwilling to regulate the economy before the crisis had to intervene afterwards to bail out the financial system. Yet, their monetary policies often coupled with austerity measures have flushed the financial system with easy money but have done little to stimulate the real economy. Market mechanisms alone appear insufficient. Neither the advanced capitalist countries nor China seem to be able to function as engines of growth for the world economy. Most emerging markets are in recession and the global economic peripheries are confronting serious subsistence crisis. Most damagingly, economic inequality keeps growing everywhere, reaching unsustainable levels and undermining the political system as well as the civic trust and the social fabric in most societies.
In sum, the world economic system lacks internal self-regulating governance structures, while the national political systems lack the ability, the political will or the know-how to regulate global economic processes in a productive, fair, and beneficial manner. Nationalist populist responses popping up everywhere are a sign of the malaise but are unlikely to offer long-term creative solutions that may serve to overcome the crisis.
If new norms and governance structures are to emerge which may serve to regulate the global geopolitical system and the world economic system they will have to be nurtured and grow within the emerging global civil society. The crisis in global governance is ultimately a crisis of legitimacy, of accountability, and of participation. The ruling political and economic elites are too detached and inattentive to the people they represent and in whose name they claim to govern. But the rise of populist demagogues, most evident in the United States and Europe, will not serve to reform the system. Only greater democratic participation beyond electoral mobilization can lead to greater accountability and in turn restore trust and legitimacy.
Against this backdrop, the prospect of a global civil society that aspires to the universal representation of global humanity and to the universal common good must appear nebulous at best, if not utterly unrealistic. Any sober look at the emerging world society reveals an irremediable and seemingly unsurmountable plurality of worldviews, moral norms, cultures, and religious traditions in open tension if not in outright conflict with one another. How could paying attention to such a cacophony of voices possibly help in the development of global norms and governance structures? Global cosmopolitan elites would prefer to ignore all these discordant and unruly voices from below and offer instead rational, positivist, and technocratic rules that can be legislated uniformly from above.
But in the long term such a strategy most likely will fail to advance greater and more legitimate global integration. The reaching of consensus among global elites may well be a sine qua non for the development of any viable global governance. But to be lasting such a consensus will need to be grounded in broader norms, which find resonance in the moral, cultural, and religious traditions of the diverse peoples who constitute global humanity. Such norms can only emerge from a sustained conversation and dialogue that recognizes the irremediable plurality of cultures, religious and secular, which coexist in our global era and will persist into the future.
Long-lasting global norms which may serve as the foundation of legitimate structures of global governance will only emerge from sustained interreligious, intercultural, and intercivilizational dialogue.
It will not be enough for such dialogue to uncover shared understandings of norms of justice, peace, and human dignity embedded in different traditions. Those norms will have to be reflected and expressed in the very process of dialogue itself, carried out in a spirit of openness and mutual respect. Only the mutual recognition of our common humanity and shared fate has the potential to inform and support structures of global governance that will promote world peace and social justice for all instead of protecting the national security interests of the superpowers; that will promote economic growth and well-being for all instead of protecting the economic interests of the ruling elites; and that ultimately will promote the common good of global humanity and the protection of the earth, our common home, from greater environmental degradation.