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Ivan Medynskyi: Global Security Governance and the Role of the United States

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PHOTO: Erakogu

The discussion of global governance is intrinsically connected to the debate about the international order and distribution of power within it.

In contrast to the relatively stable system of global power management of the previous century, contemporary international politics are characterized by volatility, unpredictability, and mutual vulnerability. In this age of uncertainty, an inclusive and effective security framework at the global scale is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. This article evaluates the existing approaches to global security governance, while also elaborating on the role of the United States as a potential leader of the global security community.  To address the opportunities and constraints which the United States faces in this endeavor, it aims to answer the following questions: Can the American national security interests be integrated in the global governance agenda? Is there a place for common security interests in the twenty-first century? What format of global security governance is the most viable in the light of contemporary security challenges?

Formats of Global Security Governance

The idea of collective actions against threats is not new. The birth and the progress of human civilization was contingent upon the ability for effective coordination, management, and regulation of collective activities aimed at harvesting crops, industrial production or mobilizing troops. The origin of a sovereign state was primarily attributed to centralization of power and resources under a single system of governance. The pivotal role of the state, following what Max Weber called the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” allowed the existence of a single security environment for a given society. Without delving into the discussion of the historically oppressive nature of the government, it is imperative to mention several crucial benefits that it provided. Thus, the sovereign state established a more secure environment by creating a monopoly on force and protection from external threats, reduced the uncertainty between the elements of society by providing the rules of the game and contract enforcement, and ultimately offered a variety of public goods, including individual and collective security.

Despite the benefits that sovereign state provided for its constituents, relations between nations through most of the history remained anarchic and, therefore, competitive in nature. Unequal distribution of power at the international arena; Hobbesian state of the world; and absence of mechanism to generate trust and interdependence have excluded the possibility for establishing a global system of governance. Occasional military alliances were forged by the balance of power calculations, but inevitably collapsed once the shift in power distribution occurred. The security governance was limited to collective defense as each actor has viewed participation in these alliances as an attempt to counter a mutual external threat (primarily from the other state or group of states).

Only in the second half of the twentieth century, the dynamics of international relations shifted the power away from the states. Following the devastating Second World War, the great powers formed the United Nations Organization that was aimed at amelioration of war, economic and social development, and later at elevating the status of human rights and combating global challenges like economic development, environment degradation, and pandemics. Behind the altruistic façade of the peace promoting statements, great powers were reluctant to abandon the “legitimate force monopoly” and a divisive pursuit of zero-sum national interests. The rhetoric and practices of the United States and Soviet Union were antagonistic and lacked a shared vision about the collective management of global threats, except in the sphere of nuclear weapons. The ensuing ideological confrontation developed into the Cold War and deemed the United Nations and other trust building institutions as powerless. At the same time, an increase in global trade and development of international legal system have directly affected the diversification of power at the international level. Amplified by the forces of globalization and access to information, new cohort of actors such as international organizations, NGOs, and international corporations started to share a greater role in managing the ensuing international order where the power was diffused.

The twenty-first century brought unparalleled challenges to the existing world order, eroded the foundations of a sovereign state, and also altered the security environment through asymmetric threats. Collective defense frameworks that evolved along the lines of traditional challenges from states are desperately trying to find the raison d’etre in the light of the changing nature of security environment. Many experts believed that NATO lost its original purpose with the dissolution of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and vehemently strived to determine its role in the twenty-first century. In the light of the terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, NATO was sought to be a framework not only for collective defense against non-state asymmetric threats, but also to enhance a cooperative security through Partnership for Peace program. During the apex of the NATO enlargement to the East and its transformation beyond an exclusively military function, the Alliance was aspired to escape the Northern Atlantic dimension to become genuinely global security arrangement. While the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated that NATO members view its role as primarily of collective defense, the events of the Arab Spring suggested that the Alliance is ready to manage and coordinate security environment outside of its region. Similarly, the new impetus for the NATO relevance as the classical collective defense framework was triggered by the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and involvement in eastern Ukraine. In the light of increasing bellicosity of Moscow near the eastern borders of the Alliance and its involvement in the Syrian crisis, NATO members on the both sides of the Atlantic agree that this organization should remain true to its original purpose that was established in 1949.

Transformation of NATO from collective defense to collective security structure represents one of the possible, yet unlikely scenarios for the development of global security governance due to the abovementioned challenges. The second possible scenario is the regionalization of security environment through cooperative security frameworks such as ANZUS, SEATO, and more recent: African Union, CARICOM, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is noteworthy, that regionalization can be both an obstacle to as well an opportunity for global governance. While SCO was an attempt of China to find friends against the growing system of alliances led by the United States, it might be used as an integral regional formation and a first step toward creating an overarching framework of Eurasian security institutions along with NATO, CIS, OSCE in order to “contribute to the creation of a single set of norms governing statecraft in the region” (Kirchner and Sperling 2007, 15). In contrast, Ikenberry (2010, 30) suggests that the American-led hierarchical cooperative security arrangements are more liberal in nature as the U.S. “operates within agreed-on rules and institutions while opening itself up to ‘voice opportunities’ from subordinate states.” The regionalization principle of global security governance formation is a rather distant possibility. It is quite feasible that North Atlantic region will be the epicenter for the inter-blocking as the main instruments of EU, NATO, and OSCE would converge, while at the same time partnership programs would aim at bringing the neighboring regional formations closer in terms of norms and practices.

The third and the most probable scenario for global governance is cooperation within the framework of G7 (formerly G8) and G20. The unequal distribution of power in the world reduces the pool of potential architects of global governance to a handful of major states. In the light of stalemate in the UNSC and the rise of new influentials, a new format of interaction has evolved. In comparison to other forms of global governance, security dimension appears to be the least developed. To evaluate the performance of the global security governance one has to analyze the coordination of actions between international actors and the existence of at least certain degree of common interests and norms. For example, the financial global governance appears to be the avenue through which international actors attempt to manage the contemporary economic challenges in the environment of interdependence and mutual vulnerability. Thus, a Comprehensive Development Framework proposed by World Bank in 1999, “which mapped key policy issues and areas in relation to four actors: the international development community, governments, civil society, and the private sector” offered a first step toward an inclusive global governance initiative (Cammack 2002, 36). Coordination of mutual actions in the financial sphere is reflected through the plethora of agencies of global economic governance such as WTO, IMF, and OECD. At the same, the most interesting among all the institutional arrangements is what Andrew Cooper and Alan Alexandroff (2010) called the G-x process. While all the G-x arrangements are not aspiring for universalism, they nevertheless provide a forum for comprehensive approaches to global challenges as well as indirectly allowing for harmonization of interests and norms.

In comparison to economic, environment, or health dimensions, the global management of security seems to be a rather distant perspective. It is certainly true if we look at the security in terms of traditional threats from states defined through purely military variables. However, international security in the twenty-first century is not bound to exclusively state domain or military function. It is equally defined through asymmetrical threats from international terrorism, global warming, global economic crises, resource scarcity, pandemics, and violations of human rights. The broader understanding of security expands the scope of global security governance to financial, environmental, health, and human dimensions. Such comprehensive approach implies the existence of the mutual coordination of actions, comprehensive frameworks of international actors, and the commonality of interests and norms from one dimension to another.

The diffusion of power at international level and the erosion of sovereign state open the avenue for new international actors to take a share in the global governance. International organizations, private sector (business groups), nongovernmental organizations along with sovereign states are engaging in a system of rule for coordination, management, and regulation of security challenges. However, the influence of different types of actors is uneven across the various dimensions of global security governance. The diamond diagram below (Figure 1) approximates the level of involvement of four types of actors (states, international organizations, private sector, and NGOs) in four dimensions of global governance (traditional security, economy, environment, and health).

The dynamics of global trends and primarily the erosion of the sovereign state have a direct impact on the shifts in interaction between international actors. Thus, in the traditional security dimension the role of the state will diminish, while the share of private sector and civil society will increase. Moreover, we will observe two-way interaction between the states and international organizations, but more unequal and unidirectional between the latter and the private sector. Finally, as the role of public will increase, it is possible to assume that it would have a greater influence over the other types of actors.

The United States as a Leader in Global Governance

The discussion of the mechanisms, dynamics, and the viability of global security governance ultimately rests upon the foreign policy prerogatives of international actors, primarily states and international organizations. Reflecting upon the earlier analysis of the preconditions of the global governance, coordination of norms and rules, foreign policy defined through common interests, and global capabilities are the core constituents for the state to be the leader in the intentional system of rule to address global security challenges. It is imperative to juxtapose the current foreign policy orientation of the United States under the President Barack Obama with the theoretical framework of global security governance to explain the American pivot from the unilateralism in international arena to embracing multilateral avenues.

Traditionally, American foreign policy has been embedded in the idea of isolationism. The strong sense of regionalization of the world, reflected in Monroe Doctrine and Pax Americana, has instilled a worldview that was consistent with the dogma of “us versus them.” Even in the twentieth century, following two devastating global conflicts, the United States found itself in the dichotomy of Cold War. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the last divisive factor, the sole superpower could embrace its global reach. While it might seem rather obvious that the opportunities to engage the global community and, for that matter, address global challenges were within the scope, the White House was reluctant to abandon the traditional state-centric and balance of power view of international relations. With the perennial gridlock at the United Nations Security Council finally removed and growth of liberal democracy across the globe evident, the U.S. still hesitated to embrace the possibility of putting a greater emphasis on the international legal framework based on the liberal principles.

The feeling of unipolar moment has evoked an assumption about the triumph of democracy, which coupled with American exceptionalism and messianic views defined the ensuing global security framework in terms of the U.S. national interests. The inevitable backlash from the old rivals such as Russia and China was amplified by the emergence of the new asymmetric enemy in the form of radical Islamic terrorism. The War on Terror appeared to be the new global dichotomy rhetoric, especially following the famous words of former president George W. Bush addressed to international community during his speech in Congress on September 20, 2001: “Across the world, governments have heard this message: You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”[1] In a matter of a decade and a half, the United States have witnessed The End of History, but later realized that they are at the Crossroads.[2]

Not every aspect of international environment was perceived by the Bush administration in purely national interests as the National Security Strategy of 2006 have acknowledged both benefits of globalization as well as non-traditional security challenges such as pandemics, environmental degradation, and drug trafficking. However, the rhetoric of the document alluded to American leadership in addressing challenges with little reference to the necessity of global engagement. The critical change in the definition of the foreign policy goals occurred with the election of President Barack Obama. The overarching security theme of the Obama doctrine is the departure from unilateral agenda and refocusing on the international collaboration and cooperative engagement. These ideas were reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where President Obama emphasized America’s commitments to global security, limitations of unilateral approach to combat modern security threats, and the importance of international organizations like the United Nations and regional security alliances such as NATO. Furthermore, President Obama directly highlighted the first principle for the establishment of global security governance that is the shared vision and coordination of norms and rules embedded in international principles and conventions.

Another critical obstacle to the U.S. national security as well as the global security governance was the aspect of religion. The divide exacerbated by the War on Terror has turned a religion of Islam from being simply a cultural difference into a rank of global threat (bearing in mind the radical form of Islam). The controversies over the operation in Iraq and the increasing “civilizational” tensions that started to manifest themselves as the United States and the Alliance got bogged down in the Middle East inevitably led to the fragmentation of security perception and threat assessment between the major powers and within NATO. In attempt to curb the ramifications of the foreign policy goals of his predecessor, President Obama in the Cairo speech of 2009 has emphasized the increasing interdependence of the world, the necessity to engage in partnerships and share the progress, but most importantly that it was unacceptable to impose one’s vision of system of government upon other countries.

The most recent version of the National Security Strategy stresses the unique leadership role of the United States in the contemporary international system through facilitating cooperation and capacity building, while also punishing the transgressors through targeted sanctions. According to this document, the United States will be guided by the common international norms and institutions in advancing the security in the international arena:

We will lead by example in fulfilling our responsibilities within this architecture, demonstrating to the world it is possible to protect security consistent with robust values. We will work vigorously both within the U.N. and other multilateral institutions, and with member states, to strengthen and modernize capacities—from peacekeeping to humanitarian relief—so they endure to provide protection, stability, and support for future generations.[3]

The focus on shaping and supporting international norms, engaging in the diplomatic and developmental networks, strengthening alliances alludes to the inclusive definition of security in terms of sharing the vision and coordination rather than enhancement of national security at the expense of others. Moreover, other national interests of the United States such as prosperity and values are not confined to the American nation alone, but instead aimed at the exercise of the U.S. leadership as the global provider of the public goods. Understanding that the modern global challenges such as epidemics, global warming, or food security resemble the tragedy of the commons scenario shaping the international architecture and collaborating with international actors, the United States can be an effective leader in the global governance. The final argument for the global security vision of the Obama administration lies in its commitment to seek cooperation on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect as well as reliance on diplomacy and engagement for comprehensive solutions. Thus, the strategic vision of global security governance from the U.S. perspective lies in understanding that while unilateral actions are possible to protect its core interests, collective efforts would be the priority in confronting the instances of aggression, terrorism and disease throughout the globe.

The new national security strategy aims at collective governance of the globalized security challenges, yet it is imperative to outline the ways through which the United States will pursue such policies. While one can subscribe to Ikenberry’s (2010, 30) vision of the U.S.-led hierarchical cooperative security arrangements that operate on the first among equal principle and the “agreed-on rules and institutions while opening itself up to ‘voice opportunities’ from subordinate states,” it is also crucial to analyze the potential of the three formats, namely transformation of the North Atlantic Alliance, regionalization of security frameworks, and securitization of G-x arrangements, in the light of American foreign policy.

NATO as a collective defense framework is critical to the United States national security. An organization that evolved from a mutual defense arrangement into an alliance based on the shared values and norms, crisis management, and cooperative security satisfies the requirements for an effective security governance structure. At the same, despite the ongoing efforts to widen the security community through cooperative security programs like the Mediterranean Dialogue, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative or Partnership for Peace Program, NATO remains a regional security arrangement with distinctively North Atlantic dimension.

Through the course of the Cold War, the United States did not only focus on Europe as the security concern, but also forged alliance with the Far Eastern and Pacific countries that were critical to the U.S. national security. The wider framework of collective defense organizations forged by the U.S. includes South East Treaty Organization, ANZUS, and bilateral collective defense accords with Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. While this framework extends beyond a single region of the world and participants have a shared vision of norms and interests, it nevertheless has not transformed to meet the new security challenges of the twenty-first century and remains largely a collective defense structure. Moreover, it is unlikely that the United States will attempt to transform this framework into a global security governance arrangement through incorporation of the other international organizations like the African Union or Shanghai Cooperation Organization due to the low levels of integration as well as the great divergence of goals, norms, and interests.

Finally, the most probable scenario for the development of the global security governance through the involvement of the United States is the organization on the G-x principle. While the most evident convergence of goals to tackle the global economic challenges is reflected in the activities of the nineteen biggest national economies and the European Union under the framework of G-20, it is quite possible that similar arrangements will emerge in the security field. The coalition of the willing whose common interests are exercised through shared vision and the convergence of the norms, values, and approaches toward the comprehensive solutions could effectively address the contemporary security challenges. While it might be argued that the United Nations Security Council was created with the similar goal, it is clear that the seventy-year old framework does not reflect the current distribution of power and also might impede the global security management by excluding the new influentials from the decision making. At the same, the United States might take a leading role in a similar way to its economic initiatives with G-7(8) and later G-20 and establish a forum for the discussion and addressing the globalization of traditional and emergence of new security challenges by the community of the states, international organizations, and perhaps business corporations and NGOs.

Opportunities and Constraints

The possibility for the G-x security arrangement will be contingent upon several critical factors. The central theme upon which most of the experts agree is the relative power of the United States. In a sense, the argument speculates about the role of hegemon in the international security arena and the tradeoffs between unilateral and multilateral approaches. Murphy (2002) laconically points out: “if the strengthening and democratization of global governance are not in US interests, then there is no particular point in pursuing such goals until the US’ relative power sharply declines.” Indeed, global security governance is sometimes envisioned as the arrangement in which there is no hegemon, but more as a community of actors with shared vision of challenges, convergence of goals, and capabilities required to address these challenges.

The recent changes in the foreign policy of the United States have alluded to the decline of its power. The withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, minimal engagement and delegation of responsibility in Northern Africa, and the refusal to intervene in Syria signals the substantial alterations in the American foreign policy. The financial constraints and consequently the austerity measures have limited the scope of the U.S. involvement. While the repercussions of the global economic crisis will haunt the scope and breadth of the American foreign policy, it is unlikely that any of the new influentials will match the United States either in military or economic capabilities. That said, the prospect of the global security governance does not have to be an indicator of the U.S. decline, but a mere reflection of the changing nature of challenges and a different mode of thinking about global commons. The power of states, international organizations, private sector and NGOs is always in flux at international arena. Contemporary security threats are not reflective of the relative power distribution between international actors, but appear to be independent from it. That is to say pandemics, global climate change, or international terrorism are not harming some states and benefiting others, but in fact endangering international community as a whole. Therefore, the effectiveness of the global security governance is not contingent upon the relative distribution of power, but on the common interests exercised through shared vision and the convergence of norms, values, and approaches toward the comprehensive solutions.


In this article, I do not argue for the existence of global security governance, nor do I emphasize that international actors engage in the global coordination to advance only their national interests. It is important, however, to acknowledge the changing security environment and the emergence of new practices and norms that encourage all international actors to consider establishing a shared vision of threats in response to an interdependent vulnerability of the environment in which they operate. The unique position of the United States in the twenty-first century and the emergence of asymmetric threats from international terrorism, global warming, economic crises or resource scarcity opened unparalleled opportunities for shaping the global security governance.

Diffusion of power, asymmetry of security challenges, complexity of international agenda, globalization of markets and ideas, growth of the global civil society, and unprecedented technological advancement leaves little room for the unchecked unilateral actions even from the most powerful states. However, this does not mean that the United States could no longer utilize its dominant position, especially in the military sphere. On the contrary, Washington should embrace its unique role to lead in the globalized environment where commonality of issues, not national interests, defines the agenda. In the absence of the vertical structure of international relations such as the world government, United States must embrace the position of a leader-mediator of the global transactions at various levels of the multi-polar world. Through pursuing the avant-garde role in global security governance, the United States will enhance its position as a benevolent leader that prefers attraction to coercion and multilateralism to unilateral actions. My analysis suggests that the most probable scenario for the development of the global security governance with the United States as a leader is the organization on the G-x principle. While some skeptics point out to the relative decline of the United States as the precondition for the global governance, I argue that the primary determinants are in fact the common interests exercised through the convergence of the norms, values, and approaches toward the global solutions.

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