Policy Quarterly special issue: Global studies: The challenge of governance in the 21st century

14 Feb 2017



Whereas the November 2016 issue of Policy Quarterly focused on local government, this issue takes a global perspective. In particular, it explores the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, and it does so through the lens of ‘global studies’. The articles are mostly based on papers presented at a conference at Victoria University of Wellington in late July 2016 entitled ‘We the Peoples: global citizenship and constitutionalism’. The conference was co-sponsored by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, the New Zealand Centre for Global Studies, the United Nations Association of New Zealand and the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

As Kennedy Graham discusses in his introductory article, the concept of ‘global studies’ differs from that of ‘international relations’ in several important ways. As the name suggests, global studies is fundamentally concerned with societal issues at a planetary scale. The focus is transnational – it deals with matters that affect humanity as a whole, not merely those of specific communities, regions or sectors. By contrast, international relations embraces both global and sub-global concerns, the latter including a multiplicity of regional and bilateral issues and a vast array of complex and evolving interstate relationships.

Just as global studies and international relations differ on the crucial dimension of scale, so too they have contrasting orientations. International relations typically focuses on nation states and national interests; it tends to view issues from a country perspective. Global studies, on the other hand, deals with the interests of the entire human family – or what might be called the long-term common good of the ‘global village’. The question is how humanity – via the mechanisms of nation states, international organisations, multinational businesses, civil society bodies, global networks, associations of cities and social media – can best protect vital global public goods, such as a stable climate system and healthy oceans, and ensure global justice, peace and security. How, in other words, can humanity agree upon, and live within, safe planetary boundaries and build the institutions and frameworks required for a fair, inclusive and sustainable future for generations to come.

Such challenges are not new, but they have become increasingly pressing as a result of ‘the great acceleration’ in human activity. This began with the industrial revolution in the 18th century, but sped up dramatically after the Second World War. Notable changes have included the doubling of the global population since the late 1950s, an enormous expansion in productivity and the aggregate output of goods and services, dramatic advances in technology and a huge increase in humanity’s destruction and degradation of biosphere.

Indeed, so great has been the human impact on Earth in recent times that many leading scientists now contend that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – has begun. This assessment is based on evidence that human beings have become the largest driver of changes in the planet’s biodiversity, biogeography, geomorphology and the climate system. Not only has humanity’s ecological footprint dramatically lengthened, it has also widened and deepened. We now possess the capacity to destroy vast numbers of species and ecosystems, radically transform the Earth’s climate, and impair critical life-support systems. If citizens and their governments fail to recognise such threats or are unwilling to mitigate them because of short-term political pressures, narrow national interests or commercial imperatives, the long-term consequences will be grim. Much irreversible damage will be inflicted on critical biophysical systems and future generations will be left with a large and unsustainable ecological debt. A fundamental question, therefore, is how humanity can govern the Anthropocene epoch responsibly. What new global institutions and policy processes are needed and how are they to be forged?

At the end of 2015 there was a mood of optimism. In September 2015 world leaders gathered in New York and unanimously endorsed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, setting an ambitious agenda for 2030. (See the contribution of Graham Hassall and Marjan van den Belt in this issue of Policy Quarterly.) Three months later, in Paris, a new and significant global agreement on climate change was negotiated (the details of which are discussed by Adrian Macey in this issue).

But significant political events during 2016 have darkened the global horizon. As 2017 begins, equity markets may be buoyant, but the search for solutions to humanity’s global problems has become harder. Dictatorial, and sometimes brutal, leaders have gained ascendancy in various parts of the world. Populist movements, spurred on by decades of rising inequality and understandable concerns about large-scale flows of migrants and refugees, have gained traction in Europe and the United States. Long-standing political movements, especially on the centre-left, are in disarray. Terrorist attacks remain an ever-present threat.

The victories of Brexit and Trump signal a significant, and possibly decisive, shift in global politics – a turn away from globalisation, internationalisation, multilateralism and humanitarianism. We have entered a period of heightened uncertainty and, in all likelihood, greater instability, as discussed by various contributors in this issue of Policy Quarterly. There are many risks. Amongst these are that broader global identities and goals will succumb to narrow, particularistic ones. Petty nationalisms and sectional interests will prevail over wider transnational concerns. Countries will turn inward, their peoples becoming more insular and anxious.

A related risk is that the time horizons of governments will shrink. Pressing day-to-day concerns will increasingly override long-term interests. And short-term economic forces – the quest for jobs – will take centre stage at the expense of ecological concerns and long-term sustainability.

Responding to these forces and navigating the uncertain waters ahead will be challenging. But as the contributors to this issue of Policy Quarterly highlight, the vision of a global community – one committed to compassionate justice and strong sustainability – is far from extinguished. Despite the fiercer headwinds, the quest for a better world must, and will, continue.

I am grateful to each of the contributors, and especially Kennedy Graham for his thoughtful oversight and editorial assistance. The articles here provide informed, discerning and timely perspectives on critical global issues. They deserve our careful reflection. Jonathan Boston, Editor

NB: This is the entire issue of Policy Quarterly February 2017.  Individual articles will be posted progressively.