Why Governments Disagree
When we think about why governments disagree amongst themselves on the international stage, we think automatically in terms of power politics. Old powers wane, new powers rise. Both test the boundaries of what they can do. In part, the assertions of power will show up in territorial disputes, in the formation and dissolution of alliances, and in the use or projection of force. This blog however sets aside disagreements about territory and those that might involve force or weaponry. Instead, it looks at areas of rulemaking such as trade, finance, health and the environment where collective global policies are desirable but where agreement may prove elusive. This space has been referred to as a ‘grey zone’ between unilateralist conduct and fully politically integrated policy making.
In recent years the process of reaching international agreements in this ‘grey zone’ has become more difficult. In the field of trade there has been no fully international follow up to the 1995 GATT agreement. In the field of environmental protection, 20 years elapsed between the 1972 Stockholm conference on climate change and the Rio conference in 1992 and almost a further 20 years between the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and follow up in the form of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The dream of the world wide web has turned into the world of a fragmented internet. The difficulties may reflect a natural progression where fields for general agreements become occupied and the attention of governments turns to more difficult areas such as regulatory differences. It may also reflect transient politics, such as President Trump’s brand of unilateralism. In addition, a preference for informal agreement has become more pronounced. However, regardless of whether agreements are formal or informal, the process appears to be becoming more difficult. Instead of fully international agreements we have seen a growth in regional and ‘plurilateral’ arrangements and a fragmentation of global institutional arrangements.
Sources of disagreement: governance
The source of disagreement that receives most attention from those that study the architecture of global institutions and global agreements is that of ‘governance’. Disputes in this area can be seen as a simple reflection of power politics. The world now looks very different from the world in 1944/45 when discussions about the post war architecture started. The weights and position accorded to different members in decision taking have not kept pace with the changes.
However, the underlying issue is about the principles of representation involved in international decision making. The concern is that the lack of clear principles adversely affects the willingness of governments to participate in, or to implement and comply with agreements. In simple terms, if large and powerful governments feel that they are not given sufficient weight in the decision and its subsequent implementation, then they will be reluctant to participate. Conversely, if small governments feel that their interests are going to be ignored and overridden by the large, then they will also be reluctant to participate. The simplest way for all countries to protect their own position is to look for high majorities for important decisions. These become extremely difficult to reach. Even if high majority thresholds are reached, they can conceal what are called ‘disaffected minorities’ that will undermine agreements at the implementation stage.
Sources of disagreement: interpretation
A second source of disagreement arises when governments are divided about how to interpret a situation. For example, all governments agree that climate change needs to be addressed by collective action, but they may still disagree on how much weight to place on mitigation, or adaptation or compensation and on the urgency and nature of mitigation measures. The Paris Agreement attempts to address this problem by allowing each country to choose its own measures consistent with a global target. Even as President Biden brings the US back into the agreement there remain many questions over the meaningfulness and effectiveness of the Agreement.
Sources of disagreement: applicable values
A third source of disagreement arises when there are differences about the values applicable to a situation. The UN doctrine of the ‘duty to protect’ represents an attempt to clarify the circumstances in which the application of human rights values takes precedence over the value attached to non-interference in the ‘internal’ affairs of a sovereign nation. Leaving aside crisis interventions, the issue of what values are applicable arises in many areas of public policy reflecting what is termed the global ‘knowledge economy’. The knowledge economy is driven by data, information and communication. For some countries these attributes flag the need for social and political control. For others, the values applicable are those around privacy, the need to ensure the integrity and probity of data and data validators, as well as to safeguard concepts of personhood.
Sources of disagreement: validation
A fourth source of disagreement arises over what is needed by governments in order to validate any agreement. ‘Validation’ can be defined as a procedure for the justification of a decision that makes the decision acceptable to an outside audience. Different forms are involved in different spheres of activity from the peer review of research in academia, to jury decisions in the law, to the judicial review of the decisions of regulatory bodies. In the case of international agreements, different governments operate to different standards for validation. For democracies, validation necessarily involves review and approval by a domestic legislature acting on behalf of ‘the people’. For autocracies, popular assent is risky. Nationalism can be used by autocracies in order to buttress their position. But autocracies also run a risk that their people might look to play a larger role in other areas of policy making. This difference can lead to disagreements about what is likely to be acceptable and to pass the necessary validation threshold.
An overriding ‘global good’?
In theory any of these sources of disagreement might be trumped by a sense that governments are acting to achieve a ‘global good’, on behalf of a global citizenry. What this implies is that governments should be prepared to put aside disagreements, whatever their source, for the sake of an agreement itself. This reasoning might be persuasive in relation to disagreements about ‘governance’, or over interpretation. However, it hits a roadblock when the disagreements are about what values are applicable, or about what is required to validate an agreement. Democratic governments need to validate any agreement in front of their electorates or elected representatives. They also look for consistency between the values that are expressed in any agreement with their own foundational values (see blog of 7/1/2020). They are not requirements that can be circumvented. There has been an agenda shift accompanying the growth of the knowledge economy that now makes this difference in the character of governments crucial to the potential for reaching international agreements.
The agenda shift and the character of governments
When the UN was established, its charter forbade it to interfere in the internal affairs of its members. Similarly, the charters of its specialised agencies forbade them to be influenced by the political character of their members. The assumption was that many areas of international cooperation and rulemaking could be treated as ‘technical’ and separable from political values reflecting the nature of domestic regimes. It is this separation that is no longer tenable. The reason why it is no longer tenable is that the shift to a global knowledge economy makes the treatment of data, information and communication critical for almost all areas of rulemaking. The treatment is fundamentally different depending on whether the internal character of the regime is democratic or not. Autocratic governments will filter information and want to exploit new opportunities for social control; democratic governments will want to protect their citizens and to ensure the integrity of data and data providers. There is no avoiding this fundamental divide.
We are now living in a world where the making of fully international rules agreed by all countries around the world has become extraordinarily difficult. What stands as a barrier is not different world views. It is about differences in the internal character of domestic political regimes. It is a difference that is likely to be long lasting. Autocracies do not want to see their means of social control weakened by those outside. Democracies do not want to see their core values eroded from the outside either.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.