Global Governance 2030

The world of 2030 will be a global world, in need of global governance. Yet the nature of that global governance is changing. Old reliance on multilateral institutions such as the United Nations is giving way to other forms of global regulation. Old reliance on market forces is giving way to various modes of intervention. The precise direction of these institutional and policy changes – beyond multilateralism and beyond markets – is a matter for debate and struggle.

Prediction is a hazardous occupation in today’s world of radical uncertainty; however, the next twelve years until 2030 will no doubt see a persistence of major global challenges and pressing needs for global policy responses to them. World-scale problems like arms proliferation, climate change, disease control, financial stability, gender discrimination, heritage conservation, Internet communications, and migration flows will not go away. On the contrary, such global matters will sooner become even more urgent. The quintessentially transborder character of these issues means that they cannot be regulated by states alone. Global connections evoke global governance.

Many early proponents of the UN saw it as the seed of a future planetary government.

‘Global governance’ refers here to regulatory arrangements for world-scale concerns. As a general concept, ‘governance’ refers to ordering society with norms, laws, standards, and principles. Such rules are usually administered through an institutional apparatus, including (but not limited to) the state. Societal regulation normally also involves one or the other ideological orientation including liberalism, socialism, and others. In a word, then, global governance entails rules, regulatory institutions, and policy frameworks for planetary issues.

The question before us is not whether the world in 2030 will have global governance. As just stressed, a more global society ipso facto elicits global regulatory arrangements. Rather, the question is what kind of global governance will unfold over the years ahead. In what directions could global governance develop? Insofar as choices are available, what sorts of global governance should be encouraged? And what kinds of directions are better resisted?

The following article examines these questions from two angles: institutional frameworks and policy paradigms. With regard to institutional design, the discussion anticipates that the years to 2030 will see continued stagnation of multilateralism and further rise of other global governance formats such as transgovernmentalism, private regulation, and multistakeholder initiatives. With regard to policy approaches, the analysis foresees continued competition in global governance between market-centred neoliberalism and alternatives including protectionism, global social democracy, and transformational ideologies. This article urges daring innovations on both the institutional and the policy fronts.

Multilateralism: A Limited Future?

From the previous century, today’s world has inherited global governance in the form of multilateral institutions. This approach focuses on public international law and formal intergovernmental organisations (IGOs). Multilateralism is most extensive and visible in the United Nations (UN) system and other bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). These are legally constituted, permanent, planet-spanning agencies with their own resources and nation-states as their sole members.

At its peak in the 1940s–1970s, multilateralism through ‘international organisation’ (IO) was widely regarded as the definition of global governance itself. The reigning assumption was that, to address world-scale problems, one needed formally institutionalised intergovernmental cooperation. Indeed, many early proponents of the UN saw it as the seed of a future planetary government.

Only diehard world federalists still hold this expectation today. Although the UN remains an important venue for global public policy deliberations, it falls far short of the resources and legitimacy required for adequate action on planetary problems. Hence, regardless of how committed staff and supporters of the UN might be, the organisation cannot in its current condition make the required ­large contributions to global governance.

For example, twenty-five years of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have left global warming unchecked. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is quite powerless in the face of global financial markets. The World Health Organization (WHO) cannot tackle transborder epidemics alone. Likewise, the UN’s Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be quite unachievable through multilateral channels alone. Shortfalls in multilateralism are also glaringly evident with respect to the WTO. Gone are the days when it was envisioned as a comprehensive regulator of world commerce. The Doha Development Round of trade negotiations has stalled for a decade.

There is little indication that the coming years will bring significant rejuvenating reform to multilateral global governance institutions. Even obviously warranted adjustments to the UN Security Council and multilateral financial institutions have made little advance, despite thirty years of trying. More ambitious reform proposals – for example, to increase resources for multilateralism through global taxation – lack any serious hearing at all.

Multilateralism is most extensive and visible in the United Nations (UN) system and other bodies such as the World Trade Organization .

By no means will multilateral global governance disappear in the period ahead. The world in 2030 will surely retain a UN system and a WTO. However, multilateral institutions are in the next years very unlikely to attract sudden upsurges of resources and popular legitimacy; hence, counting on multilateralism to supply adequate global governance is misplaced faith. Might government, civil society, and academe in Germany (as in other countries) consider redirecting some energies on global governance away from IGOs?

Indeed, other institutional forms of global governance have been emerging in order to supplement (and in some cases even supplant) IGOs. This trend towards plural types of global governance agencies seems likely to continue as the world moves towards 2030. Policymakers, researchers, journalists, and citizens would therefore do well to discard twentieth-century multilateralist mindsets and catch up with global governance as it is actually developing today.

Beyond Multilateralism: Alternative Institutional Designs

Alongside multilateral institutions, global governance today also takes organisational form in transgovernmental networks, private regulatory arrangements, and multistakeholder frameworks. The next paragraphs first describe these three alternative institutional designs. It is then suggested that global issues are increasingly governed through ‘polycentric’ processes which combine the four modes of organisation. Successful global governance in the years ahead therefore lies primarily in building constructive polycentrism.


Transgovernmental networks (TGNs) involve global governance through regular informal cooperation among civil servants from multiple states. In contrast to IGOs, TGNs usually have no juridical grounding in an international treaty, no permanent offices, and no own resources. Likewise, the decisions that emerge from TGNs normally fall outside traditional international law, in so-called ‘global administrative law’.

TGNs have mainly developed since the 1970s. The most publicly visible examples are the Group of Seven (G7) and the Group of Twenty (G20). Myriad other instances of TGNs include the International Hague Network of Judges (IHNJ), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and the 250 committees and working groups of the ­Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

TGNs have often arisen as a deliberate move to circumvent what their initiators regard as cumbersome and inconvenient politics of IGOs. Proponents argue that TGNs can “get things done”, whereas IGOs get bogged down in bureaucratic procedures and diplomatic wrangles. Although precise measures of comparison are not available, TGNs today seem as active in global governance as IGOs, producing as many decisions, obtaining as much compliance, and achieving as much impact – if not more. Compare G7/G20 summits with UN General Assembly meetings, for example. Consider advances on capital market regulation by the transgovernmental Basel ­Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) relative to the intergovernmental IMF.

Despite half a century of increasing significance, TGNs still attract much less research and policy consideration than IGOs. Apart from the G7/G20, this informal global governance largely escapes media publicity, parliamentary scrutiny, civil society engagement, and academic study. In consequence, TGNs are for the most part poorly understood. Hopefully, forward-looking journalists, politicians, activists, educators, and researchers might reverse this neglect in the years to 2030.

Private Global Governance

Similar inattention is evident in respect of private global governance (PGG). In this further alternative to old-style multilateralism, regulation of transplanetary connections operates through commercial and/or civil society actors, without direct participation of states. The rise of PGG, particularly since the 1990s, underlines that societal regulation can occur through nongovernmental as well as governmental channels.

Much PGG is formally institutionalised in permanent organisations with their own budget and staff. Examples in the area of global finance include the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and the Wolfsberg Group. Private global regulation also prevails in many schemes for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Other prominent private global standard setters include Fairtrade International (FLO) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Successful global governance in the years ahead therefore lies primarily in building constructive polycentrism.

In addition, some IGOs now contract out significant parts of their policy implementation to private actors. For example, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) figure prominently in the provision of humanitarian assistance and many development projects. Commercial security firms now often participate in various conflict management exercises. Such private operations are often claimed to be more efficient and proficient than public services.

PGG is generally voluntary, without judicial backing for enforcement; nevertheless, these measures can still have high compliance and impact. For instance, the IETF’s protocols are vital to an integrated global Internet. IASB norms substantially shape investment by and taxation of transnational corporations. Arguably, CSR may pre-empt greater public-sector regulation of global capital. Fair trade standards probably would not exist today without civil society initiatives. Global private security is partly displacing national citizen armies.

So, PGG matters greatly; yet, as with TGNs, PGG is generally underappreciated among political parties, civil society associations, mass media, schools, and researchers. Conventional wisdom still supposes that global governance equates with IGOs. This situation is moreover politically worrying when PGG is often open to capture by special interests.


Multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) form a third significant type of institutional alternative to IGOs in contemporary global governance. Whereas IGOs and TGNs assemble states, and PGG works through commercial actors or NGOs, MSIs draw participants from several social sectors. For example, an MSI might entail joint action by government, business, civil society, professions, and academe.

Global MSIs are relatively new. Early instances include the International Labour Organisation (ILO), founded in 1920, and the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO), launched in 1947. However, most MSIs date from the past thirty years. Examples include the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Kimberley Process (KP), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM).

Proponents of ‘multistakeholderism’ argue that it integrates the best of market-driven innovation (from business), citizen participation (from civil society), technical expertise (from professions), knowledge (from academe), and public-interest oversight (from government). For example, enthusiasts note that MSIs have largely driven the rapid global spread of the Internet and ask rhetorically whether IGOs such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) could have achieved such a result. The years ahead could well see major extension of MSIs.

However, MSIs also warrant some caution. Although they are often touted as ‘bottom-up’ initiatives that tap the best expertise, in practice MSIs can become the preserve of self-appointed and self-perpetuating insiders. Moreover, no less than other forms of global governance, MSIs can be dominated by the Global North and elite classes. Hence, the legitimacy of multistakeholderism still warrants considerable attention in the years to 2030.


The preceding discussion indicates that global governance is moving away from its twentieth-century focus on multilateralism to a situation of multiple institutional arrangements. Old-style international law and organisation are not disappearing, but they are also not expanding. Instead, gaps in global governance are increasingly addressed through alternative constructions such as TGNs, PGG, and MSIs.

As a result, global challenges are engaged through several global institutional formats at once. The years to 2030 will likely see further moves towards polycentric global governance, where each planetary issue is handled through ‘many centres’, including a mix of IGOs, TGNs, PGG, and MSIs. Regulation will not be attained through individual institutions, but through their combinations, collaborations, and competitions within polycentric governance complexes.

Take, for example, global governance of the Internet. On the one hand, it involves IGOs such as the ITU and the WTO. Relevant TGNs include OECD working parties as well as the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) in ICANN. Active PGG figures inter alia through the IETF and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Major global MSIs include ICANN and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Similar polycentric combinations of IGOs, TGNs, PGG, and MSIs are found in pretty much any other problem area: conflict, ecology, health, heritage, human rights, migration, money, etc.

Apart from the G7/G20, trans- governmental networks largely escape media publicity, parliamentary scrutiny, civil society engagement, and academic study.

Still further complexity arises with polycentrism as the different forms of global institutions interconnect not only with each other, but also with regulatory bodies on other geographical scales. For example, Internet governance includes significant regional institutions such as the intergovernmental European Union (EU) and the nongovernmental African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC). Meanwhile, most regulation of online content transpires through individual nation-states, often in collaboration with commercial Internet service providers within their territories. Local governance also figures when, for instance, federal states in the US have their own policies for online gambling.

In sum, polycentric governance of global challenges is not only transsectoral (interlinking public and private domains), but also transscalar (interlinking planetary, regional, national, and local arenas). Governing the globe is therefore a messy business today. The next generation to 2030 and beyond must cope with polycentric governance: decentred and diffuse, fluid and unstable, ambiguous and elusive, headless and often rather rudderless. There is no point in harking back to simpler times when global governance equated to international organisation. Polycentrism is here to stay.

This messy situation holds promises as well as problems. The positive potentials include rich reservoirs of diverse experience and insight spread across polycentric governance networks. In addition, inter-­agency competition can encourage governance institutions to respond to policy challenges with greater speed, relevance, creativity, adaptability, quality, and accountability. Meanwhile, collaboration among polycentric sites can combine the respective strengths of different institutions. Polycentrism could also invite experiments in alternative and possibly deeper forms of democracy.

However, polycentric governance involves significant potential perils as well. For one thing, most people today lack the tools and resources to engage effectively with polycentric complexes. Even the most astute and affluent players struggle to make their way through the labyrinths of polycentric regulation. In this situation, thorough policy coordination – bringing all the scales and sectors into sync – is unattainable. Instead, polycentrism sooner generates confusion, duplication, and turf battles. Other major challenges in this mode of gover­nance include negotiating cultural diversity (given that participants come from all geographical regions and all social sectors) and securing compliance (given that many of the institutions have fragile enforcement mechanisms and legitimacy). Situations of diffuse gover­nance can also be exploited by dominant actors (such as major states and large corporations) to reinforce their power and evade public accountability. So, the rise of polycentrism poses major risks to policy effectiveness as well as democracy and justice.

Hence a major task for the years to 2030 lies in learning how better to realise the positive possibilities of polycentric governance and how better to avoid its potential dangers. Progress on these fronts will depend on adjusted mind-sets and more sophisticated practice by everyone involved: officials, activists, consultants, journalists, researchers. Beyond better theory and practice, however, realising benefits and avoiding harms of polycentrism will also depend on better policy.

Market-led Global Policy: a Limited Future?

The institutional shift from multilateralism to polycentrism coincided in the late twentieth century with an ideological shift in the overarching policy paradigm of global governance. Instead of socially embedded liberalism, which prevailed in international organisation from the 1940s to the 1970s, the decades after the 1980s saw a reign of market-centred neoliberalism in global policy. However, the fact that polycentrism and neoliberalism rose in parallel does not mean that the two are intrinsically interlinked. On the contrary, to the extent that neoliberalism has brought out polycentrism’s negative potentials, one might want to explore other policy frameworks.


Neoliberalism prescribes that society should be regulated in the first place by market forces. This paradigm views society as a marketplace where individuals interact as producers and consumers in pursuit of their self-­interests. To maximise those utilities, neoliberalism urges laissez faire, a paradigm which promotes rules that facilitate market forces (such as laws of contract and property) and opposes rules that interfere with supply-demand dynamics (such as price controls and redistributive policies). Mainstays of neoliberal global governance have included the liberalisation of transborder economic flows and contractions of public-sector activities.

Neoliberalism has been advanced through all four main institutional formats of polycentric global governance. The legitimacy of multistakeholderism still warrants considerable attention in the years to 2030.With regard to IGOs, pivotal developments for neoliberalism have included the creation of the WTO and the pursuit of so-called structural adjustment programmes by multilateral financial institutions. TGNs have pushed market-led policies through inter alia the G7 and OECD committees. Neoliberal faith in market solutions has also driven much self-regulation in the financial sector and reliance on consumer choice to propel fair trade. Likewise, some major global MSIs like ICANN and the GFATM have obtained their main funding from corporate business.

To be sure, some neoliberal global governance has been innovative and productive. Market-led governance has raised economic efficiencies and outputs in banking, global value chains, and telecommunications. Neoliberal regulation has harnessed market forces to ecological concerns through the recycling industry and carbon trading. The neoliberal focus on individual rights and responsibilities has also directed much contemporary global governance attention to civil and political freedoms.

On the other hand, the record of neoliberal polycentric global governance is also often charred. Reliance on market forces and individual responsibility has often failed to provide guarantees for material welfare or human rights. Critics have linked neoliberalism with persistent poverty, widening inequality, inaccessible health care, financial instability, labour abuses, ecological damage, crass consumerism, corporate capture of regulatory processes, corruption, and general declines of social solidarity and moral fibre. Even if some accusations are exaggerated, recent decades surely have seen greater concentration of personal wealth and corporate power, while a ‘bottom billion’ continue to live in abject deprivation. Laissez faire has also brought recurrent financial crises and intensified pressures on ecological sustainability. Given such ills, many people call for alternatives.

Global Social Markets

Thus far, the main response to harms of neoliberalism has been a shift towards ‘social market’ approaches. This qualified neoliberalism undertakes modest deliberate interference with market forces. Think of social safety nets in structural adjustment programmes, CSR schemes, anti-corruption programmes, and environmental regulations. With such interventions, no global governance institution today affirms that free markets are a panacea.

Indeed, it may be that a Polanyian ‘double movement’ is currently underway in global governance. Karl Polanyi argued that, in modern capitalism, the harms of ultra-­liberalisation (‘first movement’) trigger an interventionist reaction from states (‘second movement’). Today neo-Polanyians suggest that the rise of neoliberal global governance in the late twentieth century constituted another first movement and that the early twenty-first century witnesses another second movement of re-­embedding the (global) market into (world) society.

A neo-Polanyian reading would expect the coming years to bring further global governance measures to counter free market harms. The SDGs could be seen as one prominent initiative in this vein. Maybe further global financial crises in the 2020s might trigger greater official interventions in money and capital markets. Further global corporate scandals could spur intensified CSR. Yet, will more of this modest reform be enough to sustain – let alone increase – elite and popular confidence in polycentric global governance?


The fragility of neoliberal and social market global governance is already apparent in the current wave of anti-­globalism. ‘My country first’ agendas have little time for institutionalised global cooperation. Brexit and the rise of far-right parties across Europe reflect large-scale anxieties about global markets. In the Global South, meanwhile, many governments and citizens have only ever followed neoliberalism under constraint.

Recent decades have seen greater concentration of personal wealth and corporate power, while a ‘bottom billion’ continue to live in abject deprivation.

Anti-globalism is not new, of course. Popular protests against neoliberal austerity were widespread in the Global South during the 1980s. A worldwide ‘anti-­globalisation movement’ especially targeted multilateral economic institutions around the turn of the millennium. Yet, opposition in the late 2010s is if any­thing even stronger than the earlier backlashes and looks to last longer as well.

Can neoliberal global governance produce enough convincing social market reforms to turn back the current anti-globalist tide? More of the same – SDGs, fair trade labels, transparency, civil society participation, shuffling a few votes at the IMF – seems unlikely to rally larger publics behind global governance. Unless more ambitious changes are pursued, the world of 2030 could be left with major deficits of institutionalised global cooperation, when the needs for such collaboration will have grown still more.

Beyond Markets: Alternative Visions

To date, the main ideological debate around global governance has pitted neoliberalism (including its social market variants) against anti-globalism. As such, the disputes of recent decades have largely reproduced arguments between laissez faire and protectionism which go back more than three centuries. A key question for the years to 2030 is whether creative politics can break this deadlock with new kinds of visions.

Global Social Democracy

One alternative would be to push the neo-Polanyian double movement beyond global social markets to global social democracy. In this vein, today’s polycentric global governance would make the sorts of moves towards democracy and redistribution on a world scale that previously generated the welfare state at a national level. Greater citizen voice and greater equity in global governance could generate higher popular legitimacy. In turn, increased legitimacy would allow global regimes to obtain more resources, more decision-taking capacity, more compliance, and more problem-solving impact.

Global social democracy differs from a global social market by placing high priority on public participation and control. Neoliberalism has assumed that market forces will automatically provide sufficient democracy, whereas anti-globalism has assumed that global democracy is an impossibility. In contrast, global social democracy affirms that citizens can be brought to the core of global governance. Perhaps different instruments (other than popular elections to representative offices) must be devised in order to integrate popular will into global governance. Multistakeholder initiatives and civil society forums alongside multilateral meetings might be seeds of new global democratic practices for 2030 and beyond.

Global social democracy would also involve major moves towards progressive global redistribution of resources. Whereas anti-globalism responds to increased economic inequalities under neoliberalism by retreating to protected territorial spaces, global social democracy deploys regulatory interventions to allocate resources more evenly across world society. Examples of such measures could include global taxes, universal basic income, loosened intellectual property rules, and preferential access to credit for disadvantaged circles. Implementation of such policies would require substantial expansion of global governance institutions. This increased power of global authorities would in turn be checked by the parallel development of greater global democracy.

In sum, global social democracy would undertake more ambitious reforms of global capitalism that two de­cades of global social market approaches have refused. Moreover, global social democracy presents a positive programme of building the required expansion of global governance for 2030 and beyond, whereas anti-­globalism offers only protest without proposal. At a ­moment when neoliberalism is discredited and anti-­globalism lacks viable answers, the case for global social democracy could become compelling, however great the practical obstacles to implementation may seem in 2018.

Global Transformations

That said, others may find global social democracy too tame and instead advocate more radically transformative visions for global governance in 2030. These deeper critiques argue that the harms of current global regulation result not merely from neoliberalism, but also from underlying capitalism and modernity. From transformational perspectives, global social democracy does not go far enough to address systemic ills such as cultural violence, ecological damage, economic injustice, militarism, and social stratification.

Transformational visions of future global governance show great variety. For example, radical ecological ­visions suggest that climate change, biodiversity loss, ­resource depletion, and transborder pollution require­ a comprehensive reconstruction of humanity’s relationship to the overall web of life on Earth. Certain radical feminist visions propose to transition from a global political economy based on profit to one based on care. Religious revivalist movements advocate global reordering in conformity with certain theological codes. These and other transformational programmes maintain that a good global world requires transcendence of capitalism and modernity.

Thus far, transformational visions have remained mostly on the margins of global politics, at sites such as the World Social Forum and Climate Justice Action. Radical movements have tended to have brief upsurges with limited impact; however, their persistence suggests that notable shares of populations perceive needs for profound structural change in global governance. Perhaps these followings could grow in the years ahead, as anti-­globalism fails to deliver concrete answers for global challenges. Even if transformational paradigms do not gain the upper hand, they could well intensify pressure for reform of existing global governance.

In Summary

The world of 2030 will need major global governance. That world-scale regulation will be supplied partly by old-style multilateralism, but also increasingly by other institutional frameworks: informal, private, and multi­stakeholder. Each global issue will be governed by a polycentric complex that combines geographical scales and social sectors. A key challenge for the years ahead is to equip policymakers and citizens to harness polycentric arrangements to democratic, effective, and fair regulation of world society. To achieve those positive ends – and resist flows towards protectionist anti-­globalism – policy paradigms will need to go beyond markets in the direction of global social democracy or more deeply transformational programmes. The question is whether sufficient political forces can be mustered to achieve reinvented global orders.

Global Governance

How We Must Act

  • Recognise that global governance in the years ahead will involve much more than old-style multilateralism, with its focus on intergovernmental organisations. Greater policy attention to transgovernmental networks, private global governance, and multistakeholder initiatives is needed.
  • Appreciate that governance of global issues occurs not through individual institutions in isolation, but through polycentric complexes that interlink multiple regulatory sites across scales and sectors. To achieve policy success, the next generation needs to address not single regulatory agencies one by one, but overall polycentric arrangements together.
  • Improve the practices of polycentric global governance. On the one hand, nurture potential fruits of more rich, quick, relevant, creative, adaptable, effective, and democratically accountable regulation of global challenges. On the other hand, address potential difficulties of conceptualisation, navigation, coordination, compliance, cultural diversity, power inequalities, and legitimacy.
  • Acknowledge that limitations and harms of market-­centred neoliberal global governance have generated widespread unease and popular backlashes which two decades of modest reforms have not adequately answered.
  • Thus dare to explore global social democracy and more transformational political visions as ways to break the deadlock between neoliberalism and anti-globalism and thereby achieve the urgently needed expansion of global governance for 2030.

Prof. Dr. Jan Aart Scholte (59) is Professor of Peace and Development at the School of Global Studies of the University of Gothenburg, as well as Co-director of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research of the University of Duisburg-Essen. He also (co-)convenes projects on “Legitimacy in Global Governance” and “Legitimacy outside the State: Governing the Global Internet”. Publications include “Globalization: A Critical Introduction”, “Building Global Democracy?”, and “New Rules for Global Justice”.