Rightful Rules: Authority, Order, and the Foundations of Global Governance


  • David A. Lake

    1. University of California, San Diego
    Search for more papers by this author
    • 1

       Presidential Address, 51st Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, LA, February 18, 2010. I am indebted to the thoughtful and constructive comments on a earlier draft of this paper from my colleagues at UCSD, especially J. Lawrence Broz, Erik Gartzke, Emilie Hafner-Burton, Stephan Haggard, Miles Kahler, Megumi Naoi, Philip Roeder, Christina Schneider, Branislav Slantchev, and David Victor, as well as my graduate students, including Cameron Brown, Mark Culyba, Ming-Cheih Kuo, Yonathan Lupu, and Brigitte Zimmerman, who provided helpful written comments. The penultimate version of the paper was presented at Concordia University in March 2010 and Florida State University in April 2010. I am grateful to the participants in these seminars for their comments and criticisms and, especially, to Norrin Ripsman and Courtenay Conrad who provided detailed commentary.


Global governance is an important and increasingly popular topic of inquiry. Nonetheless, existing research remains too statist, privileging states and limiting other forms of governance to the interstices of state power. Drawing on social contract theory, I offer an alternative approach that begins with the central role of authority in political life and develops a synthetic understanding of governance that applies equally to its myriad forms. I argue that we have, as a discipline, relied on a formal-legal conception of authority that is inappropriate to an international setting and has unduly limited enforcement to violence. I propose that global governance and its many forms can be understood and unified by a concept of relational authority, which treats authority as a social contract in which a governor provides a political order of value to a community in exchange for compliance by the governed with the rules necessary to produce that order. This conception of relational authority is followed by three illustrations of its central logic in (i) state-to-state hierarchy by the United States over Caribbean states, (ii) supranational authority by the World Trade Organization over member states, and (iii) private authority by credit rating agencies over corporations and sovereign borrowers. The conclusion outlines the research agenda that follows from this approach.