The Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis: Future of Global Governance and Political Inequality

by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, Polish Academy of Sciences

Is global governance inevitable? Is democratic global governance likely?

Borrowing from Elke Krahmann, we can define global governance as regulation of international relations without centralized authority, meaning that collaborative efforts to address interdependent needs are voluntary. Because global governance challenges national sovereignty, nation-states resist centralizing too much power in a single global body.

Despite that global governance challenges national sovereignty, its institutionalization has accelerated; nations are aware that no one nation can solve global problems, and globalization has forced even the most nationalistic countries to collaborate across state lines.

Rival Hypotheses

In addressing the question of governance inevitability, there are two major hypotheses: the global governance hypothesis, and the nationalist retrenchment hypothesis.

Global Governance Hypothesis: The more problems are global in scope, the greater the chance that global governance will emerge and be enhanced.

An alternative hypothesis posits a world in which the opposite occurs: Despite growing global problems, countries will shrink from international commitments that they think will limit their ability to act in their parochial self-interest. This is the nationalist
retrenchment hypothesis.

Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis: The more problems are global in scope, the greater the nationalist retrenchment.

By nationalist, I mean a nation-centric view of world events, akin to unilateralism. By retrenchment, I mean a stop and backslide toward unilaterialism in which countries eschew global governance strategies.

Is Nationalist Retrenchment a Possibility?

Nationalist retrenchment may be a mere theoretical counterfactual, something that at its fullest extent is not now possible. What evidence do we have in the modern era of nationalist retrenchment? The relationship between the United States and the UN is a useful case study. The “U.S. out of the UN!” movement has its roots in the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, and despite some occasional resurgence, it has never truly threatened to pull the United States from the UN or eject the UN from its New York City headquarters. Although the U.S. Congress has historically been skeptical of the UN, diehard members of the nationalist retrenchment club—anachronistic throwbacks to the pre- Wilsonian era (or the 1930s)—are a rare breed.

Political Inequality at Home –> Political Inequality in Global Governance

If global governance is inevitable, we can now turn to the next question: Is democratic global governance likely? Here is where the notion of political inequality is important.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that global governance organizations are characterized by political inequality. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said that “we cannot claim that there is perfect equality between member states.” Political inequality, according to Annan, can differ in extent: he says that the “small and powerless feel less unequal” at the UN than in other major international organizations.  Nevertheless, political inequality in terms of unequal voice and response continues to challenge the legitimacy of existing global governance institutions.

If international organizations, individual nations and social movements have thus far been relatively ineffective democratizers of global governance structures, it may be because political inequality at home translates into political inequality on the global stage.

Nationalists and internationalists—or, unilateralists and multilateralists—battle for supremacy over foreign policy within their own nations and in global governance organizations. We can imagine a situation in which nationalists win policy battles more often than internationalists, and where the scope of the policies made by nationalists precludes or minimizes actions to internationalize.

In a world where few countries have a lot and most have little, nationalist retrenchment can also weaken democratic development of these structures by de-funding these organizations and neglecting the needs of the disadvantaged.

This post is based on the article, Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Democratic Global Governance, Political Inequality, and the Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis.” International Journal of Sociology 43(2): 55 – 69.