Polylateral governance as the way ahead

Paris Peace Forum
Oct 12, 2018 · 4 min read

We have a growing global governance deficit. On the one side we have rising global challenges (such as climate change or cybersecurity). On the other we have decreasing international cooperation and threats to multilateralism.

Not that global governance should be thought as a global version of local governance. It is inevitably much more difficult than local governance who will always keep a comparative advantage in leadership, in accountability and in efficiency. With the benefits of subsidiarity, but with the limits which are by definition inherent to its limited scale.

One way forward remains the classical Westphalian approach: negotiating new agreements and building new institutions between sovereign nation states. Experience, however, shows that this approach, which was successfully followed after WWII, may be reaching its limits since the end of the XXth century: emerging powers are reticent to enter into more western conceived arrangements but are still unable to suggest their own global alternatives; some established powers are resisting further sovereignty erosion; nationalism (“my country first”) is back as a result of anti-globalisation surges in some countries or as an affirmation of superiority or even xenophobia in others; opposing the “somewhere” to the “nowhere” and criticizing cosmopolitanism as naïve or dangerous has become fashionable in some intellectual quarters.

As a consequence, little progress in addressing the global governance deficit can be expected from traditional sovereigns left to their diplomatic conversations. This is the bad news.

The good news is that others than sovereigns have started to step in. NGOs, trade unions, corporates, cities, academic institutions are now engaging in coping with global issues. We are moving from « multilateral » governance to « polylateral » governance, with topic centered multi stakeholders coalitions in action.

An example of the benefits of such an approach appeared at the end of the 90’s in the fight against HIV — Aids, and is illustrated by the governance of the Global Fund as compared, for instance, to the UN Security Council. An example of the ongoing damages resulting from the absence of such an approach is in the area of oceans where the present course of degradation and depletion could only be addressed by a multidimensional/multi actor combination, the contours of which are still elusive.

But “polylateral” governance is not a silver bullet as it has its own limits. Whereas it is fit for purpose for problems the solution of which lies in coalising the energy of a variety of actors who unite around a result, a scale, and resources, it is not adapted to regulation or rules making which remain a necessary tool to frame behaviours according to an agreed standard, and to provide the necessary stability, predictability, transparency, and implementation monitoring.

Hence the apparition of hybrids, in between “multilateral” and “polylateral” governance, such as the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change which encompassed more or less binding commitments by both sovereigns and non sovereign actors.

Fostering “polylateral” governance or hybrid initiatives of this kind is, thus, the best hope to fill many of the remaining gaps in global governance.

Many questions remain on: how to do that more and better; how to draw the lessons of successes and failures in the conduct of these innovative approaches; how to share knowledge and experience to address better and faster a number of pressing global issues; how to build and to resource these new types of coalitions?

Debating these issues with concrete proposals ready to take off is very much what the Paris Peace Forum is about.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.


Pascal Lamy, President of the Paris Peace Forum Steering Committee. He served for two consecutive terms as Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Pascal Lamy was appointed in 2016 President of the French Committee of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) and chair of the European group of experts in charge of evaluating the impact of EU research funding. He also serves as President emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute, President of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, as well as in various positions related to international affairs.

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