Associated Press.

Winter 2024

As Global Governance Shifts, So Must the UN

– Thomas J. Biersteker and Kenneth W. Abbott

With the growth of informal governance , the organization must adapt to remain fit for purpose.

Since the United Nations was founded in 1945, there has been a profound change in how the world is governed globally. During the decade that followed World War II, many new treaty-based, formal intergovernmental organizations were created. Much of our understanding of international organizations, global governance, and rules-based international order is based on an analysis of the operations of formal inter-governmental organizations (FIGOs).

The Growth of Informal Governance

Since the mid-1990s, however, there has been a significant increase in the number of informal governance arrangements and institutional forms. These include informal inter-governmental organizations (such as the G7, the G20, and BRICS), as well as trans-governmental initiatives (such as the Kimberly Process to combat conflict diamonds and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative related to oil, gas, and mineral resources). At the same time, governance actors increasingly rely on informal practices—even within FIGOs—and informal transnational policy networks (based on shared technical expertise) have emerged to set agendas and shape policy around both formal and informal organizations.

Environmental groups and human rights organizations advocate for policy reform and have increasingly been given direct access to deliberations in formal organizations.

In our forthcoming book, Informal Governance in World Politics (Cambridge University Press), we elaborate on these three types of informality in contemporary global governance: informality of institutional forms, informal practices within institutions, and informality around both formal and informal institutions.

Rulemaking is an essential element of global governance, but making rules is no longer the exclusive prerogative of formal inter-governmental organizations like the UN. Rather, they coexist in an increasingly crowded world of governance. Institutions of different types are competing to define agendas, to articulate (and sometimes contest) global norms, to address emerging issues like the regulation of artificial intelligence, and ultimately to define the rules that guide and shape behavior globally.

Questioning the Move to Informality

One functional explanation for the rise of informality is the comparative ease with which informal organizations can address difficult problems. In contrast to formal organizations with universal membership, including the UN and its specialized agencies, informal inter-governmental organizations are typically comprised of  smaller numbers of state actors, possessing greater shared values and common orientations about the world. They sometimes provide an institutional setting where states can come to decisions with greater efficiency than in formal institutions with broader and more diverse participation. Smaller numbers of states can also reach consensus on collective action more easily than larger coalitions.

Another reason for the move to informal governance is that powerful countries with significant resources are able to participate in multiple organizations simultaneously, and thus can choose to address issues in the organization most likely to support their policy goals. If they are blocked by procedures or insufficient member state support in one institution, they can “forum shop” to another often informal organization (as the US did in Iraq in 2003 when it bypassed the UN and formed a “coalition of the willing” to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his regime). Informal practices within organizations—such as routine ways of determining the nationality of leaders of different departments—also typically favor the powerful. This is evident within the UN, which has long favored the permanent five members of the Security Council when it fills significant administrative positions within the organization. For example, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs is traditionally American, the USG for Humanitarian Affairs British, the USG for Peace Operations French, and the Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva Russian (or former Soviet). The current USG for UNDP is Chinese.

The 9/11 attacks triggered institutional competition and constructed an assemblage of actors around the UN who created both formal rules and informal practices for placing individuals and entities on sanctions lists.

Most FIGOs are treaty-based and require ratification by legislative assemblies (or some other domestic authority) before a state can join. Subsequent decisions by those organizations may also require legislative consent, particularly when they involve new financial obligations for member states. Sometimes it is advantageous for a nation’s executive authority to use an informal organization that lacks these institutional requirements to get around the opposition of domestic veto players (such as powerful diaspora communities or economic interests). It is easier to make decisions in informal institutional settings without the transparency and potential scrutiny that comes with periodic legislative hearings.

Nongovernmental organizations are increasingly prominent in global governance. Environmental groups and human rights organizations advocate for policy reform and have increasingly been given direct access to deliberations in formal organizations (like the Human Rights Council when it periodically reviews human rights records of UN member states). NGOs also contribute expertise and arguments in informal, multi-stakeholder settings where their influence is even greater than in FIGOs. It is difficult to imagine how cyber governance, or the regulation of artificial intelligence could be accomplished without the presence of the transnational actors that developed the new technologies.

A demonstration march against climate change in Glasgow city center during UN COP26 climate conference. Bruno Mameli/Shutterstock.

The novel nature of emerging global governance challenges may prompt the move to informal institutions and arrangements. It is impossible to create a new formal governance institution for every emergent problem. Competition among existing formal institutions wishing to influence the governance of new issues can be counterproductive—and may result in forcing new challenges into old solutions and approaches.

The 9/11 attacks triggered institutional competition and constructed an assemblage of actors around the UN who created both formal rules and informal practices for placing individuals and entities on sanctions lists. This network included lawyers litigating in national and international courts, sanctions scholars, policy entrepreneurs in the UN Secretariat, permanent members of the UN Security Council, UN panels of experts, special rapporteurs for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, private financial compliance officers in banks around the world, and software creators that facilitate corporate compliance.

One cynical motivation for creating informal institutions may be specifically to disenfranchise small developing nations.

There are many possible explanations for the emergence of informal governance in world politics: functional effectiveness, power and state capabilities, a desire to avoid domestic veto players, NGO pressure, and/or the nature of new governance challenges. The United Nations functions actively within this complex array of institutional actors—but it must build on its institutional advantages to remain effective in this increasingly complex and multifaceted environment.

Real World Implications

The growth of informal governance in world politics has important implications for the effectiveness and legitimacy of global governance. While informality has the potential to strengthen effectiveness and thus output legitimacy, the limited participation and transparency of informal cooperation may undermine both effectiveness and input legitimacy by excluding important technical knowledge and diverse voices.

Informal institutions are inherently exclusionary. In contrast to FIGOs that aspire to global inclusion, such as the United Nations, most informal institutions are highly self-selective. The G20 was created to go beyond the exclusivity of the G7 and G8 that preceded it—but this informal organization still excludes 173 states. Only a select few other states may be invited to meetings or allowed to participate indirectly through regional organizations such as the African Union. One cynical motivation for creating informal institutions, in fact, may be specifically to disenfranchise small developing nations. Universal membership organizations based on the principle of sovereign equality have voting rules and other institutional requirements that complicate decision-making, may require costly tradeoffs and side payments, and can sometimes result in stalemate.

Informal practices within institutions are often less transparent than formal practices subject to institutional oversight and review. Limited transparency can be used to disguise the use of power by major states within both formal and informal organizations. Informal rules can produce supplemental representation or ensure that authority and control remain with the most powerful members of institutions, whether formal or informal. The great powers routinely negotiate the distribution of authority within the UN, while the World Bank has always been headed by an American, and the International Monetary Fund by a European.

Transnational policy networks (TPNs) operate around formal and informal institutions and are also inherently exclusionary, as they are based on expertise and allow the exclusion of those who lack sufficient technical knowledge. Informal organizations are also subject to vague and shifting conventions and practices about precisely who is included or excluded from the network at different moments. TPNs have indistinct boundaries by definition, and these change frequently in nature and composition. Non-state actors with significant financial resources, backing from powerful governments or strategic locations close to centers of global governance in North America and Europe, are disproportionately represented. This is why New York and Geneva are hubs for the operations of many transnational policy networks—and why NGOs from developing countries operate at a distinct disadvantage.

It is not yet certain whether informal governance arrangements can deliver when it comes to addressing global problems. The ephemeral nature of ad hoc informal arrangements might leave them as empty shells with little impact. Informal arrangements might remove weaker states from access and influence, manifesting and reinforcing existing power distributions. On the other hand, the flexible and adaptable boundaries of informal organizations might under some conditions empower weaker state actors by giving them access to decision-making amidst smaller numbers of competing states. In the final analysis, it is unclear whether informal organizations’ lack of input legitimacy (due to limited participation and transparency) can be offset by the output legitimacy created by their ability to solve complex global problems.

What This Means for the UN

The UN remains a principal player for delivering public goods in today’s international order. As UN scholar Thomas Weiss has quipped, “If we didn’t have the UN, we would have to reinvent it.”

On one hand, institutional multiplicity and diversity offer the UN many opportunities for more effective governance. The UN as a whole, the specialized agencies, and other UN bodies increasingly address complex problems through multi-stakeholder partnerships that incorporate the expertise, operational capacity, material resources, and societal connections of diverse actors. An important recent example is the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), in which the World Health Organization joined with diverse non-state actors to promote vaccines, treatments, and other responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The proliferation of informal institutions (state-based and non-state) also offers opportunities for UN agencies to orchestrate, as the UN Environment Program has often done.

To leverage its legitimacy and expertise, the UN must be selective in the areas in which it intervenes—and must build on its comparative advantages of inclusivity, representativeness, and expertise.

On the other hand, the growing space for global governance leads to competition for influence, creating particular challenges for the UN. While it remains the first among equals in some issue domains (such as the protection of global intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization), in many other domains it is merely one actor among many. Even during the COVID pandemic, one could argue that the World Health Organization’s responses were insufficient and that it was forced to partner with other international organizations and NGOs in informal institutional arrangements like COVAX to remain a significant player.

Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bun Heng, right, receives boxes of COVID-19 vaccines from World Health Organization representative to Cambodia Dr. Li Ailan, left, Unicef country representative in Cambodia, EU Ambassador Carmen Moreno, center, during a handover ceremony of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX Facility at Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. More than 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines from Serum Institute of India on Tuesday arrived Phnom Penh, as part of global COVAX initiative. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The UN has unique institutional characteristics in global governance. Although it is a profoundly state-centric organization—particularly around international security—its near-universal membership gives it legitimacy unrivaled by informal institutions. It is both inclusive and broadly representative, even in the Security Council, whose elected members are drawn from different regional groupings. The UN also has extraordinary depth of expertise on technical issues. Its Secretariat and the staff of many of its specialized agencies and programs often remain within the same UN bodies throughout their career, providing deep expertise and knowledge of past approaches to technical challenges.

To leverage its legitimacy and expertise, the UN must be selective in the areas in which it intervenes—and must build on its comparative advantages of inclusivity, representativeness, and expertise. Partnerships and orchestration with other institutional actors offer promising avenues to achieving the UN’s governance goals, but it needs constant reform and adaptation to remain fit for purpose in the challenging and increasingly complex world of informal governance institutions and practices. The Secretary-General’s High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism holds the promise of facilitating such reforms, starting with rebuilding trust in multilateralism. At a time when so many core norms of the postwar order—such as limitations on the use of force, state aggression, and territorial annexation—are being degraded, the UN is needed more than ever.

Thomas Biersteker is Gasteyger Professor Honoraire at the Geneva Graduate Institute and a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center. He previously taught at Yale University, the University of Southern California, and Brown University. He is the author/editor of 11 books and principal developer of UNSanctionsApp, and his research focuses primarily on multilateral governance, international relations theory, and international sanctions. He received his PhD and MS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his AB from the University of Chicago.

Kenneth W. Abbott is Jack E. Brown Chair in Law Emeritus and Professor of Global Studies Emeritus at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the interdisciplinary study of public and private international institutions, in fields including the environment, global health, corruption, emerging technologies and international trade. He taught for more than 25 years at Northwestern University, where he held the Elizabeth Froehling Horner Chair. He received his BA from Cornell University and his JD from Harvard Law School.

Cover photo: Participants at the AI Safety Summit, which brought together international governments, leading artificial intelligence companies, civil society groups, and experts in research. Thursday, November 2, 2023. (Toby Melville/Pool Photo via AP).