Interview: Michael Zürn on Global Governance and “Orders Beyond Borders”

In the first episode of our new interview series, host Lynda Iroulo is interviewing Michael Zürn, Director of the Global Governance Research Unit at the WZB and Professor of International Relations at the Free University in Berlin. Topics include the new blog, populism and international relations – and finding out with which early political theorist Michael would like to dine.

Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Iroulo: Could you briefly introduce the Global Governance Unit and the Blog?

Zürn: The Global Governance Unit at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre consists of a group of scholars who work essentially on issues related to international institutions – such as how they work, what effect they have on world politics, and how they collaborate in a global governance system – as well as on the institutional theory of international politics. We are a lively and diverse group of approximately twenty-five people, consisting of doctoral students, postdocs, research assistants, and myself.

Iroulo: What is the Blog going to be about?

Zürn: One of the main purposes of the Blog is to provide a forum for the Global Governance Unit to present their work in a way that is easily understandable by and accessible to the public. In particular, the Blog is meant to provide a means for those who are interested in our research to get the main messages without having to read 400-page books that some of the doctoral students write after finishing their PhDs. Secondly, the Blog is meant to be a way that we can convey some of the practical and political ideas that follow from the type of work we are doing. In this context, the Blog will address some of the political implications associated with the research going on within the Global Governance Unit. For example, over lunch break, the unit often engages in very lively discussions pertaining to the political implications of our work, which sometimes develop into much longer term deliberations. Part of our objective is to bring some of these interesting and relevant debates into the Blog. It thus would have some kind of a political dimension as well. In addition, it is important to us that the Blog also acts as a platform for interacting and engaging with the community. In this way, it would not only be a forum for our researchers to present their work and political ideas, but it also would encourage contributions from friends, guests, and colleagues.

Iroulo: It would be interesting for listeners to get to know more about the Director of the Global Governance Unit. I would like to start off by asking you what your research interests are.

 Zürn: My research interests are of course related to those of the group as a whole. While I work – and have worked – on a number of different issues, I could probably summarize my overall interests in three different themes. My academic writing started out – so to speak – on issues related to international regimes. In particular, I focused on answering one question that attracted a lot of attention during the 1980s and 1990s: Why do States really cooperate with each other? More specifically, if States are self-interested units, why are they able to cooperate with each other and create institutions that help them cooperate more easily? Following this early phase of my research, I began to wonder increasingly about what this actually means in normative terms. What I mean is, are the outcomes of these negotiations justifiable in terms of justice? Are they essentially only a means for Western States to control the Global South? What does it actually mean for democratic decision-making processes? Thirdly, I began then to think not only about why States cooperate with each other, but rather about why there are some institutions that in fact exercise authority over States. I became particularly interested in the institutionalization of these international institutions into an almost political system that begins to exercise authoritarian rule over States and people.

Iroulo: The question on why States cooperate is an interesting one, and you mentioned that you have been involved in research surrounding this question in the 1990s. Has anything changed your opinion regarding why States cooperate?

 Zürn: To an extent, yes. When the discipline was focused on the cooperation between States in the 1990s, it essentially assumed that there are units in the system that are represented by certain actors, and that these units negotiate with one another. In that sense, there was an attempt to find common interests and solutions that would help those actors sitting at the negotiation table. It was, however, only the interaction between “identifiable actors” that was taken into consideration. With the development of global governance in the 1990s, including increased authority of international institutions, these international negotiations became more public. “The people” suddenly acquired much more control over these institutions. NGOs and transnational social movements, for example, would mobilize to influence negotiations, while right-wing populists would organize nationally to stop them. All these things happened essentially from the 1990s onward, and as a result of that, it is no longer possible to understand international institutions only as the outcome of negotiations between States.

Iroulo: Bringing it back to current issues – Brexit, Trump, the issue of the EU: Do you think that international institutions are here to stay?

 Zürn: One way to understand Trump and Brexit – as well as Erdoğan, Orbán, and some other right-wing populist leaders – is to see them not as something that just emerged out of nowhere and an enemy to cosmopolitan thinking, but rather, to some extent, as a product of the deficiencies associated with the global governance system that emerged in the 1990s. In this system, there was still too much bias towards western interests; too little institutional control of the Security Council; and maybe too much neoliberal intrusiveness by some of the Bretton Woods institutions. In that sense, I think it is even possible to understand and explain the rise of the “Trumps”, and other right-wing populists of the world, by considering on the one hand the increasing strength of the global governance institutions, and on the other hand, the deficiencies associated with this system, including its failure to include all the people whom it needed in order to be successful in the long term.

Iroulo: Let us move to an even more difficult question: If you could have dinner with any early political theorist, who would it be, and why?

 Zürn: Actually, I think I would have to take two: Immanuel Kant and Alexander von Humboldt. These are two cosmopolitans with completely different intellectual backgrounds: one, the theorist sitting in Königsberg, never leaving this place, but supporting cosmopolitanism on the basis of essentially deductive reasoning, which probably remains the most important basis for all liberal thinking; and the other, who essentially came to the same sort of open and cosmopolitan way of thinking, not, however, through focusing on the theory, but rather by travelling around the world. It would be very interesting to bring these two together, especially with respect to the instances where they agree so much.

This interview was conducted by Lynda Iroulo and Cédric Koch, Scholarship Holders of the Global Governance Research Unit and Members of the Orders Beyond Borders-Team.

If you want to listen to the full interview, please click here.

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