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date: 28 July 2021

Alternative Global Governancesfree

Alternative Global Governancesfree

  • Amaya QuerejazuAmaya QuerejazuPolitical Science Department, Universidad de Antioquia


Global governance has become part of the international relations vocabulary. As an analytical category and as a political project it is a strong tool that illustrates the major complexities of world politics in contexts of globalization. The study of global governance has expanded and superseded traditional approaches to international relations that focus on relations among states. Moreover, the study of global governance and has included nonstate actors and their dynamics into a more intricate thematic agenda of global politics. However, global governance has become less a political space of deliberation and more of a managerial aspect of world politics because of some assumptions about reality, humanity, and the international community. It would appear that this is a result of the predominance of liberal thought in world politics after the end of the Cold War. Regardless of how diverse the approaches to global governance may appear, the ontological assumptions—that is, the beliefs about reality that are behind its definition, conceptualization, and implementation as political projects—are not neutral nor are they universal. These assumptions respond to specific appreciations of reality and are inherited from Western modernity. The problem with this is that claims to contemplate the interests of humanity as a whole abound in global governance institutions and arrangements, whereas in fact global governance is constructed by neglecting other possible realities about the world. The consequences of this conceptualization are important in the sense that global governance becomes a tool of exclusion. Only by taking into consideration the ontological difference through which global governance can reflect the complexities of a diverse world can one explore the importance of alternative governances as a way to consider how global orders can be approached. Such alternative global governances draw from ontological pluralism and conceive political global orders as based on the coexistence and negotiation of different realities.


  • Ethics
  • Organization
  • International Relations Theory


Since at least the 1990s, the question about how to govern the complexities of globalization has raised and increased interest in the field of international relations. Globalization can be considered a process (or set of processes) that represents a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations, affecting them in terms of their extension, intensity, speed, and impact. Globalization’s scope is so wide that it has even led to the need to reproblematize the main themes of our contemporary understanding of globalization as well as some of our main assumptions (Fazio, 2011, p. 136). The possibility of governing this intricacy is known as global governance (Chanda, 2008; Held & McGrew, 2007).

The end of the Cold War marked the victory of the West not only in geopolitical and ideological terms but in the way in which the world order would be conceived and built afterward. During the 1990s, and without any apparent opposition, the liberal narrative about global politics began to be dominant and to spread throughout the world, along with a particular vision of global governance as the most adequate to steering the processes of globalization. The world was facing common problems that had to be managed through coordination between different actors, who created rules and norms to achieve certain commons goals. Consequently, global governance institutions began to disseminate values such as freedom, equality, democracy, and human rights, adding to a neoliberal logic where the criteria of efficiency and competitiveness prevailed in the way problems are addressed and solutions are proposed. The world was to be managed as a corporation (Ba & Hoffmann, 2005, p. 262). According to Barnett and Duvall, this left aside any discussion about power relations in the way global governance was projected (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 4). One of the major implications of this exclusion is that the language used in global governance institutions and literature began to accept, without further contestation, that certain values and ideas were universal—that is, shared by any rational being in the world—and that because they were universal they were assumed as natural and neutral. But political languages are never neutral; in fact, they can reflect a particular kind of power (Hurrell, 2007, p. 141). At first sight, one can see that liberal ideas have become natural.

Barnett and Duvall summarize this tendency as follows:

To the extent that global governance entails only the mechanisms of coordination, it could appear to be merely a technical machine, but in fact there are strong values running this machine. Liberalism is the spirit in the machine. There are, of course, many different definitions of liberalism, but as a category in theory and in practice in international relations it has typically revolved around the belief: in the possibility, although not the inevitability, of progress; that modernization processes and inter-dependence (or, now, globalization) are transforming the character of global politics; that institutions can be established to help manage these changes; that democracy is a principled objective, as well as an issue of peace and security; and that states and international organizations have an obligation to protect individuals, promote universal values, and create conditions that encourage political and economic freedom.

(Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 5)

Global governance reflects the interests and values of a liberal society that conceives a specific global order not only as something desirable but also as the only one possible. These values are presumed to be universal; those who do not share them tend to be considered insufficiently rational or insufficiently civilized. That particular approach to reality (as a global and unique reality) defines the goals and problems of the international community and the necessary steps to achieve progress for all humanity. From that point of view, the idea of a specific and encompassing political world order emerges.

The field of international relations has a corresponding idea of “global international relations” (Acharya and Buzan, 2009), and in the international dimension, global governance embodies this approach. This article argues that this conceptualization is problematic because trying to encompass and include all peoples under the same umbrella (e.g., international community) silences and suppresses differences and the pluralist characteristic of the world. As Blaney and Tickner put it, such global international relations, and extensive global governance, is problematic because it assumes that difference can coexist within a single “multiplex” world, when in fact diverse cosmologies or worlds are converted into contending perspectives on a shared world order (Blaney & Tickner, 2017). The result is that global governance creates a totalizing order under the premise of “the common,” relegating or leaving out of that great container, the difference that is not subsumed in those premises (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004).

The foundations of this approach have deep and long-standing roots that crystallize in Western modernity (see Dussel, 1994) and condition different ways in which power has been exercised to build that order. Among them is the power or ability to present the Western/modern ontological premises as objective and universal truth and its vision of modern society as the most advanced and normal of human experience (Lander, 2005, p. 12), making these premises desirable and ensuring that they are the common objectives that must be reached through global governance.

The world order inherited after World War II is characterized by that liberal tinge. The most important institutions such as the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), among others, are not only embedded in liberalism (Ruggie, 1983) but they also spread those ideas and values as the most suitable for all humankind. The problem is that by employing such values in practice, global governance becomes an ideological project that is portrayed as the outcome of global participation with universal scope, hiding long-lasting colonial structures and power logics.

In the 21st century and since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it is clear that this “desirable” and “universal” order has great fissures. Some examples are the frustration of the democratization process by civil society in the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring, which has produced more violence and repression, causing a bloody and endless conflict in places like Syria. As a consequence, a refugee crisis has shaken the very principles of the protection of human rights, highlighting the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the European Union and, in general, the inability of the international community to respond in solidarity. Added to this is xenophobia exacerbated by fear. The fragility and instability of governments in countries intervened with the objective to democratize them from outside, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and the practical and conceptual impossibility of defeating terrorism, to the point of even assuming a proper name (Islamic State), are also evident. On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, Brexit marks a resounding setback in the integration process that reflects dissatisfaction with this process and revives old nationalisms and populisms. Another example was US president Donald Trump’s mandate to “make America great again,” the US trade war with China, and the Trump administration’s unique way of conducting international diplomacy. In Latin America, social protests have been taking to the streets more frequently, showing a deep discontent with the impact neoliberal measures have had in the lives of impoverished populations; the cases of Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador are only emblematic of the symptoms felt in the entire region. Among these struggles, stronger voices that claim other forms of life and other types of actions are resonating, like the indigenous claims demanding not only access to land, or recognition of collective rights, but also the possibility to exist on their own terms.

It is also pertinent to mention the failure of the environmental agenda in all its areas (adaptation and mitigation of climate change, protection of biodiversity, and deforestation), the impotence of the world in the face of the fires in the Amazon, and the violent displacement of peoples by multilateral corporations extracting natural resources. Developmental cooperation policies have not been able to improve the lives of millions of people or overcome the problem of extreme poverty. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has made evident governance weaknesses in terms of credibility, cooperation, and leadership, reviving sovereign state–centric and national approaches.

All these are symptoms of a crisis that the institutions are not only incapable of solving, but incapable of understanding. For being so “global,” this world is defined by multiple divisions and unexplored or neglected networks. The background of these fissures is the globalization narrative that implies “we are all in this together” as humanity. In that context, the institutional design and concept that was developed to govern globalization, known as global governance, needs to be not only contested but also reconsidered.

The argument here is that the assumptions of global governance are ontological in nature, deeply naturalized, and universalized. To think of alternatives, we must first denaturalize and provincialize those assumptions to show what has been neglected and silenced that could reveal important insights to think of global governance differently. The contribution of the study of alternative global governances is the argument in favor of a more plural academic field that can nurture studies and provide information and tools to decision and policy makers. Additionally, it offers different approaches to how our political projects and institutions could materialize in practice in a way that they can actually reflect all the differences in the world. The study of alternative global governances focuses on global governance as an object of study in international relations and a political phenomenon in global politics. However, some of the arguments can be taken into consideration in other realms to contest and critically engage other ontological assumptions and to show some of the limitations of other mainstream theoretical foundations. The structure of this article is as follows: the first part offers a literature review to understand global governance and how it is implemented in practice; in the second part, a critical approach is covered to show that not even critical approaches manage to break with the ontological foundations on which global governance is conceived; the third part proposes to rethink global governance in another way, taking into account other possible ways of understanding reality.

Understanding Global Governance

A proliferation of studies about and analysis of global governance appeared in the 1980s. This proliferation was a response to the fact that traditional concepts of international relations such as the state and the Westphalian system were no longer adequate to understand the complexity of a world in which other actors, such as international institutions and nonstate actors were gaining influence. International relations literature tried to reflect this transformation through changing its terminology. What we know today as global governance, for example, used to be called “international organization.” Later, the term “international governance” began to be used, and finally “global governance” took hold in the 1990s (Katzenstein, Keohane, & Krasner, 1998; Martin & Simmons, 1998).

To understand global governance, it is necessary to approach it as a contested category and notion of international politics (Ba & Hoffmann, 2005; Lederer & Müller, 2005). Early works referred to it as “virtually anything” (Biermann, 2004; Finkelstein, 1995, p. 369) and a “nebula” (Cox, 1996). Definitions vary too, from the one that understands it as “doing internationally what governments do at home” or “governing without sovereignty, relations that transcend national borders” (Finkelstein, 1995, p. 369) to the set of coordinated efforts of international regimes (Young, 2012) or the regulatory structure that aims to solve problems that can only be solved through coordination (Mayntz, 2001).

There are many edited volumes on global governance (see Barnett & Duvall, 2005; Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2006; Domínguez & Flores, 2018; Grugel & Piper, 2007; Hoffmann & Ba, 2005; Murphy, 2000; Rosenau & Czempiel, 1992). Even among the critical perspectives of global governance, there is a predominance of liberal thought. Recognizing that there are different liberal discourses, here liberal thought is defined through the idea of progress (which presupposes the linearity of time) and modernization as a general goal, capitalism, the importance of institutions in managing global processes, and the existence of shared values such as democracy, peace, and security. These “shared” values account for the idea of an international community and respond to a specific notion of the rational individual (see Barnett & Duvall, 2005). This liberal pattern is evident in the literature that focuses on the elements and attributes of global governance (Clarke and Edwards, 2004), and with topics related to authority, the participation of actors other than the state, and legitimacy and democracy.

It is also critical to emphasize that other analyses have referred to the problem of proliferation of actors and arrangements as one of the most important challenges of global governance. For example, Slaughter (2004) refers to this challenge as the governance dilemma: while institutions are essential to human life, they are also dangerous if they do not work well. The challenge is to discover how institutions can enable the rebirth of freedom in the world. Bureaucracy within the context of the proliferation of international institutions has also been an object of analysis. For example, Held et al. (2013) have analyzed the sort of problems that arise when the institutions created to govern globalization can become themselves a problem of governance. The strategy to alleviate the negative effects of global governance with more global governance is what the authors categorize as second-order problems, which are those difficulties in governing globalization caused by governance itself. This creates a “gridlock,” which manifests itself, for example, in the duplication of efforts and unnecessary resources (Held et al., 2013).

Faced with this challenge of variety and the fact that there are many ways of approaching global governance, I use Ba and Hoffman’s (2005) framework to organize the arguments and perspectives of global governance. The authors propose three categories to describe global governance: as a phenomenon, as a worldview, and as a political project.

Some studies have focused on analyzing the scope and specificities of global governance as a phenomenon. For example, Rosenau argues the following:

Governance, in other words, is a more encompassing phenomenon than government. It embraces governmental institutions, but it also subsumes informal, non-governmental mechanisms whereby those persons and organizations within its purview move ahead, satisfy their needs, and fulfill their wants.

(Rosenau, 1992, p. 4)

According to Rosenau, a key element to take into account is authority. The exercise of authority is different from the classic exercise of sovereignty, which has a territorial ingredient and exclusivity. The author points out that what characterizes global governance is the presence of “spheres of authority” in which different actors (state and nonstate) participate and interact. Global issues are treated differently depending on the theme and the actors involved (e.g., environment, security, human rights, economy) (Rosenau, 2006, 2007, 2009). These spheres of authority are made possible through different formal or informal agreements called “governance arrangements” that depend on degrees of publicity, delegation of functions, or on how inclusive the spheres of authority can be (Koening-Archibughi, 2007). Some of these agreements are embodied in formal treaties, some are undertaken through policies, and others through cooperation among actors. Another aspect that has been explored in relation to global governance is the role of rulers and leaders, along with their ideas and identities (Avant et al., 2007). Therefore, one could say that as a phenomenon, global governance is about understanding these power dynamics and their characteristics, as well as the interaction between different actors at different levels and on different matters (Rosenau & Czempiel, 1992).

The second category is global governance as a vision of the world. This approach tries to identify positions that seek to justify global governance as an analytical category differentiated from the traditional concepts of international relations, such as state-centered approaches. This differentiation has been justified because in the context of globalization where transnational interactions gain greater impact, global politics cannot be fully grasped without a broader approach that includes other dimensions that go beyond the three levels of analysis (individual, state, international) and are not state centric. As a category of analysis, global governance is better equipped to understand the importance that nonstate actors such as international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, multinational companies, social groups, and others have and their impact on defining the international agenda. Given these transformations, global governance also allows the reformulation of questions about sovereignty, democracy, and legitimacy, as well as the multiple forms of social organization and decision-making can take that do not necessarily address the state or emanate from it (Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2006). Summing up, approaching global governance as a new category of international relations, or at least an independent one, means that the classic notions of international relations based on the state system are insufficient to understand and account for the complex reality in today’s world politics. This is also helpful to address problems that are transnational in nature, such as environmental issues.

The third way of understanding global governance is as a political project (Biermann, 2004; Hoffman & Ba, 2005). This means focusing on how certain ideas, values, goals, and strategies are implemented in policy building and taken into practice. As a political project the main goal of global governance is to solve, or at least to address common problems and needs of the international community. According to this approach, what should be highlighted is the political nature of the global governance concept and its manifestations in practice.

In this complex game between actors and agendas, the procedures called global governance apparently recognize difference and plurality, but reflect a series of mechanisms that reinforce a precise idea of the international society that should be achieved: one that personifies values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, free markets, the defense of private property, and integration, among others. These values are presumed universally desirable, not only because they are inherently good for all but also because they contribute to creating a more prosperous and peaceful world (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 5). In McGrew’s words, when talking about global governance, reason and rationality are assumed to be not only necessary but also sufficient requirements for the effective conduct of international affairs. This assumption means that the growing interdependence of states promotes regulation and that international institutions promote peace by creating international norms that both the most powerful and the least powerful accept, creating new mechanisms to manage interstate conflicts. Likewise, liberal internationalism believes in the human advancement and the transformation and progress of global conditions (McGrew, 2002, p. 268). Approaching global governance as a political project is particularly important to the argument presented here because it shows the implications that the predominant vision of global governance—being modern/Western and liberal—has in terms of dealing and engaging with diversity in the world, and how it can become a process closed to those who do not frame their existence according to those modern/Western liberal values.

Understanding global governance as a political project implies recognizing its ideological content, as well as the hegemonic forces and the interest in the achievement of concrete goals in institutional terms and the design of the mechanisms to achieve them (Lederer & Müller, 2005). In fact, it has been claimed that the UN system embodies this global governance project at different levels and in different regions (Grugel & Piper, 2007). Perhaps, nothing illustrates the ideological conceptualization better than the report Our Global Neighborhood elaborated by the Commission on Global Governance (1995). This document makes constant reference to the path to achieve “global progress”; it emphasizes that globalization has erased the difference between East and West, admitting that although states retain sovereignty, they have lost authority. The text discusses a “common future” that depends on the world’s development. In short, the world is described as a “Global Neighborhood” where the closeness of all peoples is caused by globalization. This narrative reflects the idea of global governance both as a worldview and as a liberal political project. That neighborhood is the planet, where moving away from “bad neighbors” is not an option (Commission on Global Governance, 1995, p. 50). It is claimed that the quality of global governance is determined by several factors: the acceptance of a global civil ethic based on the principles of equal treatment; respect for life, liberty, justice, and equity; mutual respect; and care, among others. It is about making the world better than it is today (Commission on Global Governance, 1995, p. 148) by linking the world’s interests with those liberal values (Laffey & Weldes, 2005, p. 61). The Commission on Global Governance worked under the understanding that global governance was not aimed at global government, but rather was a way of building community based on a sense of belonging to the universe (Ramphal, 2003). Such expressions appear neutral, but they conceal a series of ontological assumptions.

The report offers the following definition of global governance:

Governance is the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs. It is a continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and co- operative action may be taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest.

(Commission on Global Governance 1995, p. 23)

The concept of the Commission on Global Governance is a call to action, since it sees global governance as a positive phenomenon that must be put into practice to deal more adequately with the problems that globalization brings (Lederer & Müller, 2005, p. 3). When it comes to implementing a global political project where certain values predominate, this ends up reflecting a rationality that, first, accepts the existence of the phenomenon; second, it tries to apprehend it; and third, it tries to solve the problems that it identifies according to specific beliefs and values that in this case are modern/Western and liberal. Following Rai’s argument, governance functions as an ideology where liberal values triumph over other aspects of Western civilization and over other cultures, and the issues of modernity are resolved through those triumphs (Rai, 2004, p. 33). Global governance seeks to reach goals that reflect liberal readings about peace, the international community, the role of the state vis-à-vis citizens, the rule of law; in addition, it seeks to promote the liberal approach to human rights and individual identity of humans, the elimination of trade obstacles, and the reduction of state intervention in private spheres of life. This has two important consequences: first, there is the need for a common framework of existence based on a specific presumed rationality and, second, by extension, it is no longer a viable or desirable option to think that global governance can be constituted from the coexistence not only of different values but also of different realities.

The following statement is pertinent to illustrate this: “Instead of coming together around a common vision of the way forward, the world seems in danger of losing its way” (Commission on Global Governance, 1995, p. 23). The Commission on Global Governance raises this concern as a dichotomy: while the desirable path is in the recognition of the common, the other option is considered as undesirable because it represents a danger. Hence, we return to the idea of the totalizing versus exclusion (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004).

It is easy to locate the liberal language in declarations, statutes, and charters of international institutions. These documents are useful to understand global governance as a political project because they prescribe concrete actions. But at the same time, global governance as a political project reinforces and is reinforced by the other two categories (phenomenon and worldview). On the one hand, as a phenomenon, global governance is an important consequence of globalization where other logics, actors, and dynamics come into play that require other cooperation strategies and forms of interaction. On the other hand, the vision of the world is what nourishes the mechanisms with which the project is implemented, because problems and their solutions and how they are conceived and perceived depend on specific worldviews and assumptions about reality. They determine roles, goals, and values and establish the terms according to which the international agenda is set. The ways in which global issues are framed respond to specific assumptions about reality and can become dominant narratives. Here is an example from the same Commission on Global Governance document:

The emerging global neighbourhood is forging new bonds of friendship and interest, but it is also creating new tensions. Never before have so many people had so much in common, but never before have the things that divide them been so obvious. In a vast, uncrowded space, diversity often goes unnoticed. As people bump against each other more frequently, however, even minor differences become more evident and more contentious.

(Commission on Global Governance, 1995, p. 50)

This diagnosis is incorrect not only because it is based on a light reading of history but also because it presents a specific “reality” that is not open to discussion or contestation. For example, the premise of the existence of a stage in time where there was never so much in common and the existence of divisions is forcefully affirmed. Reality is presented in a dichotomy where the common is positive and the division is negative, where difference is a problem. In general, the panorama is portrayed as a reality of tension caused by the presence of difference, a dichotomous tension that puts us in a situation of having to choose between a parsimonious existence based on common values (defined by the modern and Western) or nothingness, chaos, and disorder (see Reddekop, 2014); choosing the latter is, then, irrational. In this sense, the common is revealed as the desirable value and difference as the undesirable. The problem is that this common denominator is what the modern and liberal West defines and imposes, since it is suggested that if these common and positive values exist, it is possible to coexist under the umbrella, the single world or “global village.” Therefore, the implementation of this political project does not flow naturally and is a result of power relations. This conflict leads us to think the following:

Hoy estamos inmersos en un sistema hegemónico, donde no es la mera fuerza bruta militar la que nos domina, sino el convencimiento de que no se pueden cambiar las cosas proveniente de lo que se ha llamado el “pensamiento único”: un sentido común legitimador del sistema existente que nos inhabilita para inventar o escuchar con simpatía propuestas de acción transformadora. [We are immersed in a hegemonic system, where it is not mere military brute force that dominates us, but the conviction that things cannot be changed from what has been called the “single thought”: a common sense legitimizing the system existing that disables us to invent or listen with sympathy to proposals for transformative action.]

(Coraggio, 2013, p. 247)

This modern/Western and liberal dominance of specific approaches to global governance is developed and implemented through concrete discourses and specific ideas and values that are universalized but are not necessarily universal. The dominance of liberalism can be seen in the way problems are defined and their solutions are sought, where a specific discourse about freedom, rights, and property is generalized. In practice, it is possible to see how the use of the language of rights, the commodification of values, and the extension of the principles of protection of private property have been extended to other areas, strengthening and extending capitalism. For instance, the international human rights regime revolves around the liberal conception of the individual, which is why the struggle of indigenous peoples for the recognition of collective rights has been so questioned and hampered (De Sousa Santos, 2018; Lightfoot, 2009).

Despite the very different ways of approaching global governance, there seems to be general agreement that it implies, at least, the existence of institutions, norms, and processes; the interaction of different international actors; and the need to rethink how problems are managed and how authority is exercised. The problem is not so much that this is so, but that it is taken for granted that there is a universalized vision. It is through processes of silencing and marginalization of other assumptions about reality that a specific narrative becomes universal and eventually accepted as neutral. Global governance ends up becoming a depoliticized concept that follows the logic of business management, where criteria of efficiency, problem solving, and meeting goals and objectives prevail, restricting the spaces for politicization and discussion of those problems, goals, and objectives, as well as other possible realities.

Critical Perspectives on Global Governance

The fact that it is argued that there is a predominant view of global governance does not mean that it has been the object of varied criticism. Critical arguments can be identified according to the theoretical approach and by asking how global governance is framed and by challenging its practices (Lederer & Müller, 2005; Späth, 2005). Another way is to highlight power relations behind the processes that are portrayed as neutral or natural (Barnett & Duvall, 2005; Cox, 1996; Duffield, 2001). The explanatory framework offered by Barnett and Duvall (2005) serves to better understand the different manifestations of power in global governance. They define power as the production—within and through social relations—of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their own circumstances and destiny (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 8). According to the authors, there are various manifestations of power in global governance practices: compulsive, structural, institutional, and productive. From these manifestations, productive power stands out, because it is what enables the production of subjectivity through meanings and signification (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 12). The latter is key to the argument because it is precisely productive power that enables or suppresses the possibility of other realities.

Many authors and texts formulate their criticism by separating the terms “governance” and “global.” While there seems to be more discussion about what is understood by governance, there is less analysis about its global dimension. This is part of the problem because not questioning its global character is indicative of a process of naturalization of the way reality is conceived, since it is worth noting that the global is also a social construction (Ba & Hoffmann, 2005, p. 111). There are no different narratives about the global; that is, what is understood by global passes through a filter of what would rationally be accepted as possible or not, so it is not the result of the communion of different visions but of the imposition of one and the consequent presumption of its universality. For this reason, not only is the global scope attributed to global governance debatable but also what is considered global (Whitman, 2005).

Others argue that the liberal predominance in discussions about global governance has depoliticized the concept and the project, making it impossible to oppose. The delegitimization of the dissident and dissonant voices denies the political character of global governance, reducing it to the establishment of technical measures for solving problems efficiently. According to Späth (2005, p. 38), global governance becomes postpolitical because it takes place after values have been chosen and the course of action determined. Thus, global governance ceases to be a space for “the political” and for the discussion about the differences that can coexist in scenarios where very diverse groups participate and where problems could be addressed in different ways and, therefore, where different and alternative solutions can be established. As the values and objectives are presumed universal, they are no longer questioned and are naturalized through practices. As the spaces for discussion are reduced, the idea of the one world is reproduced.

Critical feminist contributions (see Rai, 2008) share the concern of presentation of a predominant narrative based on gender, and they criticize the exclusion of other narratives in global governance that would recognize the multiple bases of inequity that are stabilized through neoliberal systems such as class, North/South, and gender differences. These contributions take into account arguments and strategies based on gender to challenge these inequalities (Rai, 2008). Rai argues that global governance’s analyzes are based on three political arenas: markets, institutions, and ideology. She highlights a fourth: the arena of spectacle, which is particularly relevant for illustrating how political power is deployed in specific ways so that the transgression and discipline of the other narratives are the legitimate exercise of power. Some cultural norms become human “rights,” while others become human “wrongs.” The capture and dissemination of these is done both through traditional media and new forms of communication, which end up creating a certain reality (Rai , 2008, p. 21). Some feminist contributions contest assumptions about reality and engage differences that come from other fields of the social sciences, but their ideas and arguments clearly enrich theorization on ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies in international relations in a broader sense (see Barad, 2007; Haraway, 2016; Harding, 2004; Rivera Cusicanqui, 2018)

Poststructuralist approaches suggest that global governance is a narrative with particular uses of language and discourses. Global governance is a political practice capable of constituting and defining reality through the establishment of limits. Such limits define and build up a world apart from all other worlds, from all other forms of being in time and space (Walker, 2006). Global governance—especially as a project—repeats the double movement inside/outside that Walker analyzed in the case of sovereignty (Walker, 1993), in the sense that what is considered suitable for humanity is designed by prescribing what we should look like if we want to be part of the international community, leaving out everything that opposes it (Späth, 2005; Walker, 2006). The Commission on Global Governance report illustrates this argument: in its global governance proposal there is no room for the “other.” The possibility of their existence as a “part of” is not taken into account, an inside and outside is generated and perpetuated where the other has to transform and adapt if they want to belong or become a part of humanity and, extensively, the international community, otherwise they will remain outside. The only two options are either the assimilation which means that the other must commune with and accept the presumptions and values of the international community (modern Western and liberal values) or be excluded. Laffey and Weldes (2005) explore the power of global governance as a productive power, that is, one that produces reality, identifying the relationships between global governance and the construction of policies when these are created through the prism of neoliberalism. They point out that although globalization is shown to be antagonistic to the state, it is evident that they are not, but rather that the latter can become its agency and vice versa. Extensively, Escobar has illustrated how narratives constitute specific realities such as the idea of an underdeveloped or “Third World” (Escobar, 2007), with the implication that these narratives reflect directly in conditioning the terms of international cooperation and the role international institutions have in perpetuating the narrative of “other” less developed.

Postcolonial approaches are characterized by questioning universalisms, linearity of time, ethnocentrism, and “History” as factors of recognition and legitimation (Chakrabarty, 2000). Postcolonial literature has also analyzed the construction of identities at the expense of an “other” portrayed always as inferior, dehumanized, or not fully human (see Muppidi, 2012). These perspectives show the great silences in international relations, especially regarding the contribution that other’s perspectives can make to understanding the global. By “others” it is meant groups of people that experience different realities or worlds, such as indigenous communities or other communities that share spiritual and rational beliefs and ways of engaging global issues that are different from the Western/modern ones. Daoism, Buddhism, or other ways of living such as Dharma and Sikh are some examples (see Trownsell et al., 2020). But the “other” can also be or represent that who cannot be assimilated by the overarching umbrella of common values, examples in the current context being communism or fundamentalist and extremist jihadist groups. But difference can also be found within the “West,” in migrant diasporas but also in groups that try to develop life projects that mean contesting liberal orders, contesting capitalism, or trying to recover their ancestral legacies, such as in the case of paganism as an everyday religion (Harvey, 2013). For authors like Beier (2005) and Shaw (2002), international theory has limited our imagination about the international and subverted an openly emancipatory project that can be much broader in possibilities. Global governance, an area that is presumed to be comprehensive, is conceived as inclusive. But the processes of inclusion, which are the source of the problem, are rarely contested. Millions of people who do not agree with those existential principles that are presumed and imposed as universal are silenced, labeled as inferior, irrational, or uncivilized. If they do not respond to the expectations created for them in the West (Said, 2004), they are kept on the sidelines, outside the rationality that today prevails in global governance institutions. Consequently, global governance does not reflect the real diversity that exists in the world and restricts the possibility of thinking about global issues from positions other than those legitimized or empowered to do so. Thus, to be considered global, any governance must be the result of the negotiation of different imaginings and understandings of the global (Muppidi, 2005), which is not the case.

Furthermore, the use of symbolic violence has been key to keeping other narratives and other ways of being in the world on the sidelines. The prerogatives of freedom, participation, equality, and difference, among others, always occur at the expense of an other who embodies the categories of uncivilized, savage, and dangerous through processes such as that of “advanced colonization,” whereby much of the world, mostly indigenous populations, have been displaced and silenced (Beier, 2005). Dussel (1994) has explored the processes of legitimation, marginalization, exception, and even violence, arguing that they respond to the “Myth of Modernity”; similarly, Chatterjee (2008) uses the idea of the “colonial rule.” Global governance exercises this type of epistemic violence by presuming a single and common vision of reality and an encompassing community, because these logics include and “tolerate” difference as long as these ontological assumptions are not questioned. In this sense, a large part of the world’s population sees their existence translated into terms that are not their own, but not only that: they cannot be part of a global governance negotiation that includes their own practices and the possibility of existing on their own terms (Querejazu, 2016). Through the politically correct (liberal) language of multiculturalism and tolerance, global governance perpetuates the colonial rule.

The inclusion of “others” in global governance schemes has been possible only to the extent that otherness has been assimilated, authorizing their entry into “History” (see Chakrabarty, 2000). A clear example is the processes of inclusion of indigenous peoples in the United Nations system or in other global governance settings, which lasted over 20 years. The participation of populations is narrated to the extent that global governance spaces are opened, and they vindicate their struggles using the language of rights or Western notions such as sovereignty. One would think that global governance is an opportunity of thinking otherwise by overcoming the state-centric approaches that protect the idea of sovereignty, that global governance opens space to actors who contest sovereignty as a restricting category. But this has not been the case for indigenous communities, who have struggled for decades as groups that contest sovereign rights over their territories and sovereign political institutions to govern their livelihoods. In fact, their recognition and participation in the United Nations have been hampered by the challenges they represent. These communities become a “problem” because they contest precisely those aspects of governance that are generally accepted, such as state sovereignty, the conception of (private) property, and the language of rights centered in the individual citizen. Their “presence” is uncomfortable for states because it implies affecting fundamental political stakes such as the exploitation of natural resources (Lightfoot, 2009; Santamaria, 2006, p. 98) and because it reveals the illusory nature of universalism.

On the other hand, their struggles have provided the key to decolonize and contest universalized categories and concepts that have dominated the discipline of international relations and global governance analysis, enriching and at the same time provincializing the way we understand the international and the global (Beier, 2005; Lightfoot, 2009; Shaw, 2002). All of this allows breaking silences and changing our way of seeing things, and therefore politicizing institutions so that they can be more plural, recognizing the political beyond what is accepted by the West (Picq, 2013; Shaw, 2002). All these experiences continue to be marginalized, because despite how they may enrich our understanding of the global, they are a direct challenge to the assumptions already mentioned.

As illustrated in this section, the prominence of a certain way of understanding reality has had important effects on global governance. First, it has limited the possibility of alternative views, in the ontological sense, becoming possible; second, building a global order based on a single and specific ontology (Western, modern, and liberal) and then assuming that it is suitable for everyone, only translates into further exclusion, epistemic violence, and depoliticization. Critical positions, without a doubt, have contested the liberal predominance and challenge the predominant ontological and epistemological premises in international relations. Global order is built upon a dichotomous thought that leaves out everything that is not part of that single vision of the world. Despite this, the critics also have limitations: some, such as Marxist and poststructuralist approaches, fail to overcome the modern framework that presumes the universe and the linearity of time. Others that do, such as feminism and postcolonialism, do not develop their arguments explaining how plural coexistence can or should occur in global governance. They do not question the ontological premise of the universe. It is not enough to start from an ontology, like constructivists have suggested, limited to affirm that reality is a social construction. Even these arguments cannot escape the presumption of a single world. The apparent theoretical diversity in international relations is but a single Western monologue (Beier, 2005) that neglects one of the most important discussions in international relations, which is how to make meaningful and significative room for difference (Acharya & Buzan, 2009; Blaney & Tickner, 2017; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004). Perhaps a starting point, an initial way of thinking of alternatives to overcome these problems, is to think in terms of plural instead of global. Whereas the former allows thinking about coexistence of difference, enabling not only other narratives but also other ways of living different realities, the latter implies a single container based on “the common” that implicitly leads to exclusion.

Alternative Governances

The ways we theorize about the world depend on what we consider to be real. But reality is socially and culturally constructed and depends on historical contexts (Dilthey, 1954; Heidegger, 1927/2012). This is indeed a political aspect relevant to the discipline of international relations precisely because how we think about the world enacts specific practices. As Donna Haraway (2016, p. 35) puts it, “it matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.” In practice, the possibility of defining problems and their solutions based on their own ontological understandings is denied to millions of people who live in realities that are not fully accepted by the dominant thinking (among them, indigenous communities). This implies different conceptions of space and time, different cosmological explanations about origin, and different ethos. As a result, their livelihoods are not only neglected but also the institutions that are created with a global scope perpetuate and deny their existence unless they assimilate specific values and assumptions about reality. For example, collective communities must become individual citizens in order to be taken into account. This causes major identity issues, and this is only one example or many. For these communities global governance represents a project and a concept that implies renouncing their own ways or life, their own political projects. Therefore, it is imperative to radically rethink global governance differently.

Such an ambitious project and concept like global governance must at least allow spaces for the recognition of this complexity of coexistence with alternative worlds or realities, recognizing and highlighting its political character. If it is supposed to be global, it must account for all the plurality that exists in the world and not start from a specific conception and universalize it. Processes of inclusion and universalization are problematic not only because of the assumptions illustrated here but also because it creates deep silences. In trying to encompass humanity under an overarching umbrella, it erases difference and uses language to create specific realities. As Rivera Cusicanqui (2010) notes, language can conceal as much as reveal. In the case of language used in global governance arrangements, the language of inclusion conceals important aspects of thinking of global politics in a more plural way. Not only are there great absences and silences, but the order constituted based on a single world is problematic and is not working to reflect the diversities and tensions we witness every day. It should not be necessary to point to a shared imagination of the world, but rather that all the imaginations about the global and all their materializations can shape and build global governance in plural ways. The fact of whether there are shared values or ontological principles should not be a constraint or condition for building governance arrangements unless there is at least one negotiation (Verran, 2002). This necessarily involves including difference, not only in terms of tolerance and acceptance (liberal pluralism) but also in terms of the global coexistence of many worlds (Blaney & Tickner, 2017; Hutchings, 2019).

We need alternative ways of conceiving world orders and to coordinate them as a plurality. History has shown that in trying to include everything into a one-world world logic (Law, 2011) only creates more epistemic violence. Alternative governances respond not only to a Global South contribution on how to contest power relations but also to enhance that only by acknowledging the deep differences that constitute us as inhabitants of the world and by embracing them, not as a problem but as a thriving force, can we create different and more plural political projects that are more meaningful and reflect plural and messy realities. Examples of alternative and probably more pluralist projects are offered by the Zapatistas movement or the Buen Vivir (Suma Qumaña/Sumaq Kawsay) in Latin America, which try to contest neoliberalism, offer alternatives to development as a Western ideal of progress, and defend different ways of living more in tune with the environment (Escobar, 2017). Another interesting project is the International Tribunal of Mother Earth Rights that proposes a “different reality” where natural beings (mountains, rivers, forests) are represented as subjects with rights.1 Perhaps Hutching’s (2019, p. 115) suggestion that “taking the idea of the ‘pluriverse’ seriously could be the best way to decolonize international theory in general” and global governance in particular.

But how could these realities and practices of many worlds be governed? First, it will be necessary to put aside many of the notions that we have of governance and governing and start, perhaps, by asking ourselves what it is that could be governed. Beyond wanting to govern the different relationships among states, or institutions, with known categories, beyond having a notion of governance such as the desire to govern the effects of globalization, an alternative and plural governance would aim at governing the negotiations of those realities or worlds and their coexistence (Hutchings, 2019; Querejazu, 2017). Pluralist governances should be about enhancing difference instead of silencing it. This means going beyond modern and anthropocentric or multicultural perspectives, but the consequences could give important insights to practically all issues on the international agenda: environmental issues, conflict, economic system, and the political regimes themselves.


A state of the literature on global governance is presented here, with the purpose of understanding it but also of questioning it. The review shows that as a concept and as a project global governance gives rise to many and very different readings; however, one reading, the Western, modern, and liberal one, has become dominant because it relies on specific ontological principles that are not contested. The ontological features of global governance are inherited from modernity and over time have become naturalized and universalized. This makes it possible to highlight that global governance is the result of a practice that generates specific realities while marginalizing others.

Variety can be found in how global governance has nurtured processes of participation, democratization, and legitimation, and how the exercise of power occurs. But global governance has also been depoliticized to the point that it is reduced to manage problems of a supposed international community. This leaves out other dissident positions, and not only are critical approaches neglected but it also leaves out the possibility of challenging assumptions that belong to the modern/Western rationality that global governance inherits (not only institutions but also fundamental ontological principles). Therefore, the discussion of difference is not limited to its absence on the epistemological sense, but the lack of difference in ontological terms. The compelling arguments exposed here aim to unsettle this. It is not about highlighting a void in the international relations literature; it is an existential void that we must address if we really believe it is important to talk about the world and the place of difference in it. Rethinking global governance in ontological terms, that is, questioning the existence of a single reality from which it is derived and reflected, makes it possible to expand the possibilities to define and negotiate the terms of the global governance agreements and at the same time reflect on how this contributes to plurality in international relations.

To think about real and more plural alternatives, it is necessary to reflect on the possibilities that open up if we consider that global governance could be very different, and that therefore to build it, it is not necessary to start from shared ontological values and assumptions but rather the result of a negotiation where difference can also be possible and that the global does not become a container but can be thought of as something plural and governance in not universal terms, but pluralistic terms. The arguments need further inquiry and can be used for other categories of both international relations and global politics—they contribute to our thinking of ways in which the production of academic knowledge has important consequences in realities that are made possible or silenced.


This text is part of the research project entitled “Making Kin with Other Worlds. Relationality as Methodology to Build Pluriversal International Relations,” funded by the British Academy Newton International Fellow Grant, during my fellowship at the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth University. I would like to thank the reviewers, editors, and Professor Milja Kurki for their feedback and comments.

Further Reading


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