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The flattening of global governance


Transformation from a vertical model to a composite network featuring multiple layers and actors is taking place

In recent years, with the decline of the hegemonic international order, there is a deficit in global governance. The vertical governance model has become increasingly unfit for the changing world. Although global-level governance still exists, more and more power has been transferred to regional and subregional levels, and global governance is flattening.

The world has ushered in a post-hegemony era, in which China, the United States and the European Union are emerging as the three pillars. And a relatively stable strategic balance has formed among the three. Other major international players such as Russia, India, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also play important roles in their respective regions as well as international affairs. At the same time, although nations are still the dominant actors in global politics, other international actors are playing increasingly big roles in global affairs.

Going forward, global governance will be realized at multiple levels--global, cross-regional, regional, and sub-regional levels--at the same time. Regional processes and cooperation mechanisms, such as the EU and ASEAN, have demonstrated their dynamism and practicality.

The EU has adopted a series of treaties that set the code of conduct for its member states, helping lower the cost of transactions and increasing information symmetry, thus weakening the challenge of collective action and realizing its goal of collective governance. ASEAN has adopted a governance model that is flexible and resilient, and realizes its vision of regional governance through strengthening a common sense of partnership and community.

In the era of globalization, the world faces cross-border challenges in areas such as public health, climate change, wealth disparity, global trade, terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vertical global governance system has failed to tame the virus. As the world's largest hegemonic power, the withdrawal of the US from the World Health Organization in 2020--a decision Joe Biden reversed after he was sworn in as president in 2021--made the global coordination and cooperation in the face of the public health crisis extremely difficult. As a result, countries had to grapple with the pandemic on their own.

In some key areas, small countries, even non-state actors, can take leading roles. Against the backdrop of globalization, new problems in space, the polar regions, deep seas and cyberspace will keep emerging. And those who can demonstrate sufficient capacity in governance and coordination can stand out as the leaders in these areas. Although sovereign states remain major players in the global arena, other international actors, such as international and regional organizations, non-governmental organizations and even individuals, will increasingly participate in global governance. For example, among the top 10 voluntary contributors to the WHO, five are private donors or international organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The participation of entities from diverse backgrounds has become an important feature in global governance.

The flattening of global governance renders multilateralism more competitive. The competition among different multilateral systems and the fight for dominant status in multilateral systems among major powers will intensify. Take the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement as an example. Cooperation and competition will co-exist throughout the whole process of its implementation, and from time to time competition may become fiercer.

In the process of flattening global governance, the world should guard in particular against exclusive multilateralism. During the Cold War, the multilateral governance system designed by the US excluded the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union took the same approach against the US, leading to the formation of a bipolar world marked by divisiveness and confrontation. Today, the international community should do its utmost to prevent such a confrontational world order from reemerging. Only inclusive multilateralism can enable global governance to work.

As the global governance flattens in the coming years, the new trends of multi-level, multi-field and multiactor governance will emerge and interact, and become a new normal in global governance.

The author is a professor and former president of China Foreign Affairs University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn