“International Relations” vs. “Global Governance”, or How Science Hides Reality

NOTE: This article was first published with “Open Democracy” on June 19, 2014.

Around four centuries ago a great philosopher and scientist René Descartes noted: “Let’s agree on definitions, and we will spare the world from half of its illusions.” The same approach is still valid today. While human language is abundant with various terms and concepts, some of them may become outdated and misleading. The notion of “international relations” is a classic example in this regard. While IR it is still widely used in political science, “global governance” appears to be a more suitable word to reflect the global transformations and complex inter-linkages of the contemporary world.

It’s all in the definition

The Webster dictionary defines international relations as “an area of study or knowledge concerned with relations between different countries”. Another definition suggested by Webster is “a branch of political science concerned with relations between nations and primarily with foreign policies”. The Collins dictionary follows the same logic and defines IR as “diplomatic and business relationships between and among countries”. To give another example, Encyclopedia Britannica  outlines international relations as “the study of the relations of states with each other and with international organizations and certain subnational entities (e.g., bureaucracies, political parties, and interest groups)”.

All these definitions represent a traditional understanding of international relations as relations among states, nations, or nation-states. Since nation-states are viewed as the main actors in the world of politics, the relations among them are called inter-national. Encyclopedia Britannica seems to go a bit beyond the dimension of the state itself by adding bureaucracies, political parties, and interest groups. However, these are affiliated with the states too, so the state-centric character of the definition prevails. In this regard, the explanation offered by Wikipedia is quite a contrast:

International relations (IR) is the study of relationships among countries, the roles of sovereign states, inter-governmental organizations (IGO), international non-governmental organizations (INGO), non-governmental organizations (NGO), and multinational corporations (MNC).

Several questions arise here. Can we still talk about inter-national relations if nation-states are no longer the only players out there, as Wikipedia suggest? Or is the term still appropriate as nation-states are still key players, although not the only ones? What if nation-states are no longer the primary actors?

The actors on the stage

Although Wikipedia offers the most comprehensive definition of international relations at first sight, the main focus is still “the study of relationships among countries”, which justifies the word ‘international’. Still, it has been widely accepted that globalization has weakened drastically the national dimension of nation-states. The majority of scholars agree that nation-states are undergoing epochal transformations. Some speak about the world government, others advocate for civilizations, while still others highlight the emergence of regional economies or even of the corporation-state, a candidate for replacing the ‘outdated’ nation-state that reached its peak of development in the period of 1850-1970’s. All in all, while in the past international relations were confined to just states (countries, nation-states), the political landscape is rather different today. Some of the new yet powerful actors include:

  • International organizations such (NGO and INGO), such as Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, CARE International, etc.)
  • Inter-governmental organizations (IGO) and regional alliances, such as UN, EU, NATO
  • Multinational or transnational corporations (MNC or TNC)
  • Scientific bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
    important heads of state
  • Terrorist organizations

All of these players have had  a great involvement in international relations for decades now. As a result, international relations as a broad term of political science needs to be reassessed and replaced by a more suitable one. The reality has changed; the words that describe reality must therefore change too. Shall it be transnational relations, global relations, inter-corporate relations, supranational relations? While the mainstream definition of international relations has been challenged from a range of perspectives, there is no dominant alternative yet. The notion of global governance may be an answer in this regard.

Global governance vs. international relations

A common view of global governance is that of a set of  laws, rules, or regulations designed to tackle global problems that cannot be solved by nation-states otherwise. For example, the problems of global warming, human trafficking, or terrorism. More importantly, however, global governance is an analytical concept that provides a specific perspective on the world politics different from the conventional notion of international relations. Let us have a look at the main differences here.

First, while the concept of international relations by definition covers politics among nations, with non-state actors being secondary, the term global governance avoids such hierarchy. In contrast, it gives equal importance to NGOs, TNCs and other actors. Thus, the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), decisions of the International Criminal Court (ICC), or regulations by the World Trade Organization (WTO) have all significant impact on international and national policies. In this way global governance takes a multi-actor perspective on world politics instead of focusing primarily on nation-states.

Second, while the term international relations views international reaction as a separate level, the term global governance views world politics as a multi-level system where local, regional, national, and global processes cannot be separated from each other. The scope of interest here is therefore on the different and complex linkages between different levels of social interaction. For example, this includes understanding of how WTO rules influence communities in different regions, and vice versa – how these communities affect WTO rules. Or, as an other example, researching on how solutions to global problems take into account local differences and settings. In this way global governance looks into all levels in order to understand how the whole system works.

Finally, while international relations traditionally seeks to explain the behavior of nation-states from power relations point of view, global governance rather focus on norms, rules, and standards that structure social activity. This against stresses the non-actor-centered approach of global governance.

To make a conclusion, the main idea behind adopting the term global governance more widely is to reflect the need of more cooperation among governments, governmental and non-state actors. Global governance can be a useful concept to understand interactions and transformations we observe in world politics, and guide our analysis of political processes beyond the state.


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