Case Study

The United Nations and global governance

The theoretical discourse on the importance of intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) in international relations represents, perhaps, the archetypal debate in the International Relations discipline. On the one hand, IGOs have proliferated with globalisation but, on the other, as with globalisation itself, there are profound differences of opinion as to how significant this is in terms of understanding why international political events occur in the ways that they do. Liberals see the evolution of IGOs as a natural phenomenon occurring as globalisation erodes sovereignty and the capability of states to function effectively as political entities and satisfy the needs of individual people. From this view, therefore, we are today in the early stages of a new era of global governance succeeding the Westphalian system of states which has been in operation for nearly four centuries. For most Realists, though, it is too early to write off the state and we wish it away at our peril since global governance through IGOs risks ushering in a return to the lawlessness and chaos of the pre-1648 world, an era dominated by often savage inter- and intra-religious conflicts. A middle way between these two perspectives considers that the future of international relations need not be about one or the other forms of actor taking centre stage and may see IGOs and states coexist and both thrive in a symbiotic relationship.

A leading International Relations academic, the Realist-leaning Social Constructivist, Alexander Wendt (2003), forecasts the eventual inevitability of a ‘world state’. He argues this, not as a likely consequence of a gradual abandonment of the idea of the nation state, but through a process of evolution whereby governments will – rationally and self-servingly – begin to redefine the idea of their sovereignty and accept a stronger role for international organisations to deal with the complexities of contemporary globalisation. While Wendt’s prediction of a world state is less than 15 years old and may still come to pass, evidence so far points to an opposite conclusion: increasing fragmentation of collective identity and growing reversion to single-minded national interest pursuits. At the moment, a ‘world state’ looks a long way off.


Wendt, A. (2003) ‘Why a world state is inevitable’, European Journal of International Relations, 9(4): 491–542.