Contesting Contestation—Alice Huntoon

Contestation between those who are largely concerned about justice and social equality and those who represent a traditional international governance system based on the primacy of nation state is neither new nor an existential threat to world order. But the tension is there and it is increasing as the forces of globalization increase. 

The Westphalian system of rational nation states is about largely democratic forms of government, based on the principle of sovereignty for their survival. Those nation states also yield some of their national power to international governance organizations like the UN and the Word Bank in order to prosper, to regulate world markets and trade to their own advantage, and so to survive. Contestation, or challenges from non-governmental organizations to nation state authority whose purpose it is to bring about social change is not a threat, it is normal. Many nation states speak in the political words of social justice and equality, but as part of large scale international governance organizations they may not always match those liberal approaches to the equality by their deeds. In the first part of the 21st century the idea of globalization is a central economic phenomenon; transnational economic forces in which all nation states participate by default (IT is the great equalizer) to sustain their economic strength, their markets, and ultimately their sovereignty. Globalization is not completely a good thing for either nation states or those in the developing world who are more subject to its power.  A major evidence based concern is that globalization is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Globalization loosely regulated by the World Bank or the IMF or the UN and thus supported by a nation state system means that global governance is preferable as long as it does threaten the sovereignty of states – their profit and gain, if not sustainment of a status quo. Nation states are not incentivized to structure the market forces of globalization through international governance in a way that brings about increased justice or reduce poverty. And so that is the major tension at play in 2014 and in the near term. International institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the UNDP are global governance organizations fully supported by (principally western) nation states. Those states will speak about justice and social equality without surrendering the structure of their governance systems for transnational political ideals.

Ominous signs for proponents of global governance are that their success is based on a nation state system that fundamentally seeks to retain the status quo, retain the success of nation states in international trade, and does not want too much global governance that would threaten the nation state system. Compromise is acceptable and is the basis for international global governance; the current system of international institutions that attempt to regulate currency, trade, credit and debt. But those nation states are unlikely to give over their power to global governance in the name of social justice or economic equality.

Hopeful signs for global governance are the inclusion of NGOs in policy processes, and an increased recognition that there need to be ways to reduce the income gaps that unchecked globalization has brought about. An example of this in Higgott’s article would be the CERES Principles, or the increasing recognition of nation states that economic inequality over time and an increasingly large unemployed youth bubble across the underdeveloped world is a threat to both the global economy and for that matter to some key nation states themselves in parts of the Middle East, Latin America and East Asia. So at some point nation states must give over more of their power to global governance to sustain order and reduce threats to sovereignty. A byproduct could be increased social justice and economic equality.

Finally, Higgott argues convincingly that a new “international political economy” is a way ahead. It can reduce the contestation between traditional international governance structures, nation states, and those who see globalization at odds with social justice and fairness. Instead of liberalization and letting free markets find their own level in a global economy, the new international political economy would embrace a realistic approach to international economic governance that would accept the primacy of the nation state and the need to close the gaps between the developed and developing worlds. The former can sustain traditional sovereignty and demonstrate legitimate and substantive support for ethical concerns. The developing world and NGOs gain strength by accepting the legitimacy of international global organizations which represent the only current means to making necessary global change. This can be a major strategic level compromise that offers hope to both sides of the debate.


One thought on “Contesting Contestation—Alice Huntoon”

  1. You discuss the idea that the powerful governments promote the ideas of social justice and equality, but that they do this out of hypocrisy. But wouldn’t it be true to say that they shouldn’t have to follow what they preach since they dealt with these issues already on their own without having an outside influence forcing them to do so? But on the counter side, one might ask, couldn’t they do even more?
    Another issue you discuss is how the powerful states promote these International Organizations so that they may maintain the status quo and keep the vast majority of the power for themselves. Do you think that there is a way to give incentive to the powerful states so that they will be able to release some of their power in order for the developing countries to gain some of their own? There may be many ways for the leading countries to release some power, but how do we convince the leading powers that by letting go of some power to the countries that need it, that they will not be losing their influence?


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