A Brief History of Global Governance

Where did the concept of global governance come from?

The global governance structures seen in the world today are the products of a long trajectory shaped by historical failures and successes alike. The ideal of political cooperation among global actors in response to shared problems is not a new idea, but has only been embodied by concrete institutions in the last century. Attempts at global governance have always faced the hurdle of being tasked with solving humanity’s most pressing and enduring challenges while respecting the circumstances of individual nation states. While most people recognize the need for national legislative bodies to enact laws, executives to implement them and to run the government, judiciaries endowed with the power to interpret the law when needed, central banks to issue currency, and police forces to guarantee the safety of citizens, there is significant debate concerning the extent to which the same structures should exist at the supranational level.


The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

— Albert Einstein, 1946

Charles Castel de Saint Pierre, 1658-1743

Early Visions

Against the background of episodic phases of political instability and violence, history is replete with calls for exploring alternative political arrangements or methods of organizing human affairs in a way that would be more conducive to the rule of law. For instance, in the wake of recurring, devastating continental wars, the French cleric Charles Castel de Saint Pierre (1658-1743) called for the creation of a European Confederation in his Plan for the Perpetual Peace in Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau later adapted his ideas to call for the creation of confederative government to end the “perpetual dissensions, brigandage, usurpations, rebellions, wars, and murders” of Europe which had long distracted people from more productive pursuits. While such a model of international cooperation based on the rule of law failed to materialize in Europe, the founding of the United States represented a critical experiment in governance. What emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was a system that sought to balance the interests of states with the need to have a strong central government that would operate under the rule of law and with clearly identified limitations on its powers, to guard against the dangers of authoritarianism and the infringement of individual civil liberties.
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787

The League of Nations

 Acting on this model to remedy the nationalist maladies that precipitated World War I, US president Woodrow Wilson championed the institutionalization of global governance. He sought to abandon isolationism in favor of more robust engagement with the world. In his vision, the League of Nations “would be founded on a moral principle, the universal opposition to military aggression as such, whatever its source, its target, or its proclaimed justification”. The League eventually failed because of the destructive power of lingering nationalism and militarism, deeply embedded in the national consciousness of its member countries, something that the League was too weak to reverse or cure on its own. As conceived in its Covenant, the League had very weak enforcement mechanisms for violation of its articles and thus was not an effective mechanism to restrain some of its signatories from violating some of its key provisions as happened with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland and Mussolini’s incursions in Ethiopia. The 1930s were a trying period on a more systemic level as well. As states grappled with the full global ramifications of the Great Depression, the rise of protectionism and economic nationalism exacerbated international tensions and, against the background of a struggling League, highlighted the weaknesses of existing arrangements to ensure peace and economic stability. The League’s death bell rang with the rise of fascism and the descent into World War II.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1882-1945

The United Nations

  Within three weeks of entering the war, US President Franklin Roosevelt set up in early 1942 an Advisory Committee on Post-War Foreign Policy under the direction of then-Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary Sumner Welles. The aim of the Committee and, in particular, its Permanent International Organization subcommittee was to work on the design of an organization that would secure global peace and security while avoiding some of the weaknesses associated with the League of Nations. It is important to note that, until October of 1943, much of the global governance focus centered on the future establishment of some type of international entity founded on federalist principles, not unlike in conception to the model adopted by the United States during its Constitutional Convention in 1787. This would have implied the creation of a legislative body with substantial powers to enact laws that would be binding on member states. Grenville Clark argued that “to be effective in the maintenance of peace the ‘general international organization’ must have some definite and substantial powers to make decisions binding upon the member countries in matters of war and peace.”  Those assembled at Dumbarton Oaks, however, simply were not ready to contemplate the creation of an organization with binding enforcement powers over its member states, in which nationals would become citizens of a world state, in which the legislature would presumably have the authority to tax and to coerce individuals through the power of international law as national governments were already doing so within the boundaries of the nation-state, a vision that would most likely necessitate the creation of a world police and some form of world military force. Finally burying these lofty aspirations was the fact that the Soviet Union would only accede to a defanged, minimalist United Nations.
Opening Session of the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations, 1944

Reconsidering the UN

 Following the establishment of the United Nations, the global governance debate has continued to evolve. The key objective remains striking a balance between the need to ensure that the UN will be able to deliver peace and security, and the need to retain powers at the national level in those areas where it made sense to preserve a large measure of national control. Dissatisfied with the UN Charter and against the background of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of intellectuals formed The Committee to Frame a World Constitution. The committee met from November 1945 to July 1947 to discuss what a Federal Republic of the World might look like. Similarly, in October of 1945, Grenville Clark organized the Dublin Conference “to explore how best to remedy the weaknesses of the United Nations Organization and to seek agreement upon and to formulate definite amendments to the Charter or other proposals to remedy these weaknesses.” Neither the work of the Committee nor of the Dublin Declaration had any major immediate effect. However, their significance lies in their prescience regarding the problems which would come to face an ineffective United Nations in the decades that followed.
The United Nations’ 193 flags

Looking Forward

Today, we are again at a turning point. Multilateralism is under threat. Passions of narrow nationalism, however maladapted to a globalized world, are currently experiencing a resurgence in some quarters rather than receding. The future of global governance, and perhaps of civilization itself, depends on our ability to reconcile somehow political realism, the scientific facts of a limited planet under serious stress, the fears generated by rapid change and the hopes of finally achieving a just and intensively cooperating world. Without reform in global governance, we risk a downward spiral of disintegration into an intensified anarchy of absolute national sovereignty in a globalized world, made more dangerous by our advanced technologies for destruction and the destabilization of the life support systems of our planetary environment.

Important Historical Documents

View some of the original texts that have shaped the course of governance as we know it today.

Grenville Clark: Dumbarton Oaks Plans Held in Need of Modification (1944)
United Nations Charter (1945)
The Treaty of Rome (1957)
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017)
Cord Meyer: A Serviceman Looks at Peace (1945)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Join the Conversation

Sign up to stay in touch and learn more about the Global Governance Forum.

Stay Up to Date