Governing the ungovernable: The challenge of a global disaggregation of authority


  • Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the annual conference of the International Society for NeoInstitutional Economics, Tucson, Arizona, USA (30 September to 3 October 2004), and the conference sponsored by the Governance Research Group at the University of Ghent, Belgium (14–15 November 2005).

Professor James N. Rosenau, The George Washington University, Gelman 709C, 2130 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20052, USA. Email:


The processes of globalization have led to a proliferation of spheres of authority and significant challenges for global governance. In this paper is discussed the concept of spheres of authority, the factors that encourage their proliferation, and the prospects for global governance in a world of disaggregated authority. The proliferation of spheres of authority does not mean that global governance is impossible, but that it will not result from a global government. Instead, governance will emerge from the interaction of overlapping spheres of authority; regulation will be achieved not through centralized authority but through the spread of norms, informal rules, and regimes.


There is a pervasive assertion in both popular and academic discussion that world affairs are organized and run by a sole superpower – the USA. However, another pervasive claim holds that the world is undergoing a profound disaggregation of authority. Is it possible, then, to reconcile these two claims? Can a world of disaggregated authority be dominated by a hegemonic superpower? I have argued elsewhere that the influence of the USA is greatly exaggerated and the assumption of dominance erroneous (Rosenau 2005). Instead, the disaggregation of power into myriad spheres of authority (SOA) is the central tendency in world affairs. This paper addresses the prospects for regulating and governing SOA as they proliferate at every level of community, in every realm of activity, and in every part of the world.

Theories of authority

Research in international relations typically follows one of the dominant theoretical perspectives in the field, and each theory has a different approach and answer to questions of authority and governance. Under realism, a theory widely taught and used by US academics, no state has authority –“legitimized power”– over another and governance is impossible because those states exist in an anarchic system (Hall & Biersteker 2002, p. 3; see also Waltz 1979). Other theories, however, are more sympathetic to the possibility of cooperation. Neoliberalism, a perspective closely related to realism, counters that governance is indeed possible because cooperation is in the interest of the states and their interests are not always mutually exclusive (e.g. Keohane 1984). Constructivist scholars go further, contending that interests and identities are not always given and so states can be shaped and adapted to encourage cooperation and reframe problems of authority (e.g. Wendt 1999). Critical theorists offer the most malleable vision of the state, as an entirely subjective structure that exists only because of – and can be changed through – discourse. These theories have their merits, but none of them satisfactorily resolves the question of authority and governance in an increasingly globalized world. More than that, none of them conceptualizes the nature of change and how it can be traced empirically.

Spheres of authority

It was the poverty of the current vocabulary in international relations that led me to coin the phrase “spheres of authority” to describe the entities wherein authority is presently located and may undergo disaggregation. The term “sphere” indicates a particular realm or locus as, for example, Hall and Biersteker (2002, pp. 4–5) distinguish between private and public spheres. Describing these phenomena as spheres helps deterritorialize the concept of authority, reflecting contemporary changes in global politics. As Kobrin (2002, p. 67) asks, “Is there any reason a post-modern person could not deal with subnational, national, regional, international, civil society, and supranational ‘authorities’ simultaneously?” Indeed, there are countless SOA; not only are the local, national and global stages crowded with SOA, but in every realm they are proliferating at an enormous but not easily calculable rate.1 Some of the SOA consist of broad-gauged advocacy networks; others are narrow, special interest organizations; some are active within communities and initiate repercussions that span borders, whereas others are transnational in scope with units in several countries; some are informal networks of like-minded citizens, whereas others are formal and internationally recognized states; some are corporations and others are nongovernmental organizations (NGO). In effect, all SOA are here conceived to be either governments, intergovernmental organizations or, in the literal sense of the term, NGO. In all of these capacities, SOA see situations that require them to engage in regulatory activities.

The distinguishing and prime characteristic of any SOA involves the issuance of directives by its leadership and the compliance of its adherents.2 Directives are usually framed and issued by policy-making bodies, some of which are formally constituted, but most of which are not bound by strict rules of procedure and are thus able to adjust their procedures to the circumstances they are confronting. Both formal and informal types of decision mechanism are vulnerable to controversy and factional in-fighting, but their success in overcoming difficult situations depends on the degree to which those targeted by the directives are ready to comply with them. Compliance is the key to SOA that manage to persist and move to toward their goals. It involves people knowing when, where and how to respond to requests for their compliance, an inclination that fluctuates with the depth of compliance habits, the issues involved, the degree of commitment to the SOA goals and the resources available to both the SOA and the “compliantees”.


To comply with a directive is to engage in an action that can stem from diverse sources. Of course, compliance can be coerced, but it can also result from “institutionalized habit, modeling, redefining of interests, complex interdependency, normative commitments” and “capacity building” (Braithwaite & Drahos 2000, p. 555). In other words, compliance can be intentional or unintentional, conscious or subconscious, or immediate or halting, the result of a host of interactive and reinforcing dynamics.

Importantly, however, compliance is not automatic. No matter how deep-seated compliance habits may be and irrespective of the degree to which the habits are subconscious, a number of diverse circumstances can lead individuals to resist directives and avoid compliance, a fundamental reality that is a prime source of the barriers to governability. SOA are no more effective than the degree to which they can evoke the compliance of their members/supporters. The less formal the basis of their organization, the greater will be their difficulties in generating compliance. Some, like the political–Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), exact significant compliance from their followers; active in more than 40 countries, but lacking a territorial base or state sponsorship, HuT seeks to unify Muslims in a global caliphate (Baran 2005). The Forest Stewarship Council, established to certify wood and paper products from responsibly managed forests, is another example of a nongovernmental SOA that generates the compliance of its adherents (Bernstein & Hannah 2006; Gulbrandsen 2006). Even the most formally organized SOA, nation-states, can fall on the low end of the compliance continuum. Indeed, the recent histories of Haiti, Iraq and France indicate that public turmoil can greatly limit, even paralyze, the capacity of states to generate compliance.

It follows that compliance is profoundly relational. Whether it is effective depends entirely on the relations between those who preside over the SOA and the compliantees. As implied, a huge number of variables can shape compliance, some that stem from the conduct of the authorities and others that are embedded in the orientations and behavior of the compliantees.

Superpower authority

Viewed through the prism of authority relations, the enormous proliferation of SOA emphasizes the severe constraints on the ability of a superpower to generate the compliance necessary for it to maintain order on a global scale or, at least, to realize its goals in myriad situations. The USA has the military capacity to subdue any other SOA, but most of the situations in the world it faces are not amenable to the application of force. Bombs and armies cannot compel allies to join coalitions of the willing, produce desired outcomes in foreign elections, prevent adversaries from rearming or forming alliances, get leaders abroad to offer expressions of support, persuade central banks to lower or raise their exchange rates, promote democratic institutions where none has existed before, encourage governments to lower tariff barriers, generate favorable votes in international organizations, foment public resistance to radical policies pursued by newly victorious foreign leaders, or halt or reverse the spread of epidemics, to mention only a few of the situations in which the USA cannot presently use its military resources and with respect to which it is no more powerful than any other country.

Of course, what some might call “the hegemonic power structure” includes international organizations such the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization as well as powerful states like the USA. These, too, are SOA in the sense that they issue directives to which their members often comply. Nevertheless, as some of their directives are ignored and unenforced, such institutions lack the characteristics of superpowers.

Does the absence of superpowers point to vacuums of authority, to political spaces in which no actor or cluster of actors can effectively resort to authoritative action? Not at all: the vast proliferation of SOA portends less of the influence of superpowers and more of a pervasive competition for the attention and loyalty of compliantees. The doldrums are unlikely to dominate the global stage because diverse SOA perceive diverse ways of getting onto the stage and persuading like-minded others to comply with their appeals for support. Authority vacuums occur when chaos is so prevalent that lines of authority are so obscure that no actor can issue directives with the hope of achieving compliance. Rather, in the absence of a superpower, the key question is whether the leadership of SOA can exercise the authority accorded them by their followers, seize the opportunities to mobilize the support they need and regulate the course of events in their spheres.

Authority in deterritorialized worlds

The limits within which authority can be generated and sustained are not confined to the superpower. All states have had their capacities to exercise monopolistic control diminished at a rate comparable to the rapid acceleration of globalization. Globalizing dynamics are numerous and varied,3 but in combination they weaken the ability of states to manage the flow of people, money, jobs, trade, pollution, ideas, crime and drugs across their borders. More than that, the proliferation of SOA and the weakening of states reduces the relevance of territory and long-standing boundaries. To be sure, territory – the homeland – remains an important attachment for people everywhere, but that attachment is more flexible and less binding than was the case before the acceleration of globalization since the end of the cold war in 1989–1991. Now it is possible – and perhaps increasingly likely – for people to be attached to nonterritorial and imagined or virtual worlds in which they feel close to people who, independent of where they reside, are conceived to share their basic perspectives toward the dynamics that are sustaining and expanding globalization.

The organizational explosion

The vast proliferation of organizations at every level of community, in every realm of activity and in all regions of the world is the product of a number of dynamics presently at work on the world scene. Perhaps the prime dynamic is what I call the “skill revolution” (Rosenau 2003, Ch. 10) – the expanding ability of people in all walks of life to know their own value and perceive where they are best articulated in the competition that marks an ever-more crowded global stage. The result of these expanding skills is, among other things, a mushrooming of organizations, of people coming together to ensure movement toward their goals. Shared concerns about human rights are a major source of the organizational explosion and so are the challenges posed by the natural environment. Indeed, political agendas grow at a rate comparable to the ever-greater complexity of modern life, with the result that there are new organizations in virtually every realm of human activity, with some that encompass large concerns and others that are limited to particularistic issues in particular locales. And by definition, of course, each new organization evolves a SOA charged with protecting and advancing the common interests of its adherents.

It is clear that the organizational explosion is the central source underlying the pervasive processes whereby authority is undergoing continued disaggregation. But these processes would not be so pervasive if people everywhere – young and old, rich and poor, executives and workers, educated and undereducated, conservative and liberal, black and white – lacked the skills necessary to identify and pursue their goals. The skill revolution is worldwide in scope and it rests on the growing capacity of individuals everywhere to know when, where and how to engage in collective action and to comprehend that their pooled actions require a readiness to accede to their leaders who issue directives for them to follow. To be sure, as noted, such a readiness is not automatic. The directives may conflict with those of other SOA to which a person is responsive; they may appear unwise or counterproductive; they may seem hasty and ill-conceived; but however they are experienced and however long it may take for an individual to conclude the collective action is warranted, eventually some directives undergo sufficient modification to generate widespread compliance on the part of those who engage in the collective action. Indeed, it can easily be argued that the ability of SOA to mobilize organizational support becomes increasingly difficult as the skill revolution becomes more engrained and widespread.

This in no way implies that the skill revolution involves people everywhere converging around the same values and interests. The global stage is crowded with SOA precisely because issues and the values that sustain them vary. Rather, the skill revolution is a powerful source of the organizational explosion because people have become more aware of their own cultures, values and/or their nonterritorial orientations, an awareness that in turn prods them into converging with others who are similarly inclined.

The influence of electronic technologies

The Internet, the fax machine, the cell phone and a number of other recent electronic technologies have had powerful consequences for the organizational explosion. Not only have the various technologies greatly reduced time and distance, thus rendering the distant very proximate (and vice versa), but for present purposes they have also led to horizontal networks, to a flattening of most organizations which, in turn, has resulted in an empowerment of their adherents (Castells 1996; Friedman 2005). Some types of organization still retain high degrees of hierarchy, but a preponderance of the pre-Internet organizations and virtually all new ones are founded on more horizontal lines of authority in which individuals can exercise greater influence over their organization’s directives and direction. Their lessened hierarchy may or may not make organizations more open and democratic, but their increased horizontality renders them more flexible and more erratic, more susceptible to shifts in course or, in the worst case, more prone to decisional paralysis. The recent trend in the USA toward shareholders seeking to alter the policies and boards of corporations is a quintessential example of the consequences that can flow from a diminution of organizational hierarchy.

Put differently, organizations are increasingly able to inform and mobilize their adherents as well as recruit new adherents. Contrariwise, adherents are more able to mobilize opposition to their organization’s policies, thus adding to the warp and woof of daily life on the global stage. Indeed, not infrequently intraorganizational squabbles can lead to an organization splitting into two separate entities, thereby extending the trend toward disaggregation and further crowding the global stage.

Governing the ungovernable

Assuming the organizational explosion, the diminution of hierarchy and the disaggregation of authority is worldwide in scope – not an unreasonable assumption despite some exceptions to these trends – the question immediately arises as to how the disarray of an ever-more crowded global stage can be externally regulated and governed. More accurately, along what dimensions can a modicum of external regulation be achieved? Or is the global stage so crowded with diverse SOA that they cannot be subjected to effective government? Indeed, given the density of the global stage, is it possible to envision even a modicum of coordination, much less a government, among them?

Depressing as the evolving global scene may be, it is premature to offer a negative response to these questions. The record of human ingenuity is too impressive to conclude that the coordination of a jam-packed global stage is bound to fail. At the very least, one is inclined to examine alternative responses. Several grounds for a positive response are readily discernible. In the first place, it is erroneous to posit regulation on a global scale – global government – as a criterion for promoting order in the global stage. The world is too complex and diverse to evolve global government consisting of a single global authority. But the criterion of global governance as a mechanism of coordination is plausible. As I have noted elsewhere,

governance is not synonymous with government. Both refer to purposive behavior, to goal-oriented activities, to systems of rule; but government suggests activities that are backed by formal authority, by police powers to ensure the implementation of duly constituted policies, whereas governance refers to activities backed by shared goals that may or may not derive from legal and formally prescribed responsibilities and that do not necessarily rely on police powers to overcome defiance and attain compliance. Governance, in other words, is a more encompassing phenomenon than government. It embraces governmental institutions, but it also subsumes informal, non-governmental mechanisms whereby those persons and organizations within its purview move ahead, satisfy needs, and fulfill their wants (Rosenau & Czempiel 1992, p. 4).

Put more succinctly, by definition all SOA govern “within their respective and often shared domains. Thus ‘governance’ can and does exist within, across, and beyond the jurisdiction of sovereign states, and ‘global governance’ refers to the patterns of SOAs in the world and not to a form of world government” (Ferguson 2002).

Second, the regulatory mechanisms required for effective governance need not be centralized to maintain coordination among them. Effective governance can be as decentralized as the SOA over which control is sought. Posner (2000, p. 3) describes such decentralized governance in societies as the operation of social norms:

In a world with no law and rudimentary government, order of some sort would exist… The order would appear as routine compliance with social norms and the collective infliction of sanctions on those who violate them.

What is true of domestic society is also true for a society of SOA, and the operation of norms is an increasingly important focus for students of world politics. Furthermore, whereas these norms are not themselves laws or regulations, they can inform the development of regulations by governments and other SOA with law-making authority. For example, Keck and Sikkink (1998, pp. 12–13) have persuasively argued for a “boomerang pattern,” wherein “domestic NGOs bypass their state and directly search out international allies to try to bring pressure on their states from outside.” In similar ways, emerging norms can be incorporated into local, domestic or even transnational governance.

Viewed thus, it is hardly surprising that transnational regimes have evolved in a variety of realms of activity – from the protection of whales to the removal of land mines, from a monetary regime to one designed to exert control over the production and distribution of oil, from efforts to reduce corruption to attempts to minimize pollution – not all of which are the result of concerted action by states.4 The disaggregation of authority means that SOA develop in a world, as described by Haufler (2001, p. 121), “in which powerful commercial and activist groups shape the debate and often determine outcomes.” Composed as they are of governments, corporations and interest groups, the structures of such regimes can have limited viability and most are marked by tensions and enduring conflicts between competing factions. In effect, they consist of one or more SOA that seek compliance on the part of adherents that also adhere to SOA of their own, a complex structure that more often than not renders compliance with regime directives variable and tenuous.

Whatever may be their links to regimes, some of the extant SOA are local in scope, others are national, still others are international, but all of them are transnational in the sense that their adherents can and do move across national boundaries in order to pursue or sustain the goals of their SOA. Likewise, some of the SOA are coherent and effective, whereas others are riven by internal tensions and conflict,5 and still others lack the financial resources to circumnavigate the crowded global stage. In short, the innumerable SOA are marked by extensive variability, but this reality need not hamper global governance if the match between the variability and the regulatory mechanisms is a good one.

Such a match does not presently prevail. All too many SOA are either committed to goals that render them unresponsive to external regulatory mechanisms or they are too weak to effectively generate forms of cooperative compliance on the part of their adherents that enable them to act constructively on the global stage. The trend line, however, is in the right direction. Increasingly, demands for transparency and accountability are being made across a wide swathe of the global stage, a trend line that seems bound to lead eventually to ever-greater degrees of coordination. Some maverick SOA will, doubtless, always remain outside the matrix of coordination – such as crime syndicates or terrorist groups – but the mavericks are less a measure of the limits of global governance than the widening breadth of the coordination matrix.

Complexity theory

In recent years, moreover, a theory and a method to investigate the disaggregation of authority have evolved that facilitate tracing movement along the trend line. This is complexity theory, a set of ideas originally developed by natural scientists and also used by some economists, which is making inroads into other social sciences as well. At the core of complexity theory is the complex adaptive system: not a cluster of unrelated activities, but a system; not a simple system, but a complex one; and not a static, unchanging set of arrangements, but a complex adaptive system. Such a system is distinguished by a set of interrelated parts, each one of which is potentially capable of being an autonomous agent that, through acting autonomously, can have an influence on the others, and all of which either engage in patterned behavior as they sustain day-to-day routines or break with the routines when new challenges require new responses and new patterns. The interrelationships of the agents are what make them a system. The capacity of the agents to break with routines and thus initiate unfamiliar feedback processes is what makes the system complex (as in a simple system all the agents consistently act in prescribed ways). The capacity of the agents to cope collectively with the new challenges is what makes them adaptive systems. Such, then, is the modern urban community, the nation-state, and the international system. Like any complex adaptive system in the natural world, the agents that comprise world affairs are brought together into systemic wholes that consist of patterned structures that are ever subject to transformation as a result of feedback processes from their external environments or from internal stimuli that provoke the agents to break with their established routines.6

The disaggregation of authority on a global scale is a quintessential instance of a complex adaptive system. The crowding of the global stage with an ever-greater number and variety of SOA bespeaks complexity on a grand scale. But complexity theory postulates that despite their number and variety, they coevolve through time, thereby becoming increasingly adaptive to each other and, in so doing, achieving a measure of coordination that may be increasingly subject to regulation.

How does one know if the global system is moving in this direction? The most obvious and immediate test is qualitative analysis. More rigorous is the use of quantitative data, but as discussed this is limited or obscured by the proliferation of SOA. A third methodology, unique to complexity theory, is simulation using agent-based models. This technique allows those versed in it (which I am not) to observe the interaction and feedback processes through which the numerous and diverse SOA react to each other as they cope with challenges and seize opportunities. The speed and capacity of modern computers allow for very complicated simulations – in effect, computer-based experiments – which give researchers control over a wide range of variables and the ability to create model systems reflecting the structural constraints of the real world.7 A classic example of this kind of research is Axelrod’s (1984)Evolution of Cooperation, which used a computer simulation to show how cooperation can emerge among self-interested actors. A similar experiment might test whether hierarchical or decentralized organizations are best able to interact with each other in a rapidly changing environment. Another test might determine whether disaggregation of authority leads to heterogeneity or homogeneity among SOA as they evolve. In any case, the technique helps solve a central dilemma of social science research, that we have only the one world to analyze, and nothing with which to compare it.

There is, of course, no magic inherent in complexity theory or its methods. The processes of coevolution and adaptation are slow and cumbersome, so that conceivably, even probably, they will not yield to the degree of regulation one might wish for. Still, the architecture for a modicum of global governance can be discerned in a variety of forms, from SOA concerned with human rights to corporations that have committed to the Global Compact, from the formation of a global network of governments that contests terrorism to international courts of justice, from efforts to preserve a nuclear proliferation regime to sporadic efforts to address transnational environmental problems, from accelerating proposals to reform the United Nations to a growing tendency for countries, in particular regions, to come together to work on mutual problems.8

Summing up

In short, disaggregated global authority is not the same as global chaos. Rather, it is patterned and parts of it are susceptible to regulation. The probability of pervasive regulatory mechanisms evolving may not be very great, but there is a potential for more and more of them coming into being even as it sometimes seems that the world is on the brink of sheer disarray. It is natural, even easy, to focus on situations marked by crises and disarray. Yet, the continued disaggregation and proliferation of SOA ought not be discounted in assessing the prospects of a world without a superpower. The absence of a superpower does not necessarily inhibit trends toward governance on a global scale.


My thanks go to Miles Townes (The George Washington University) for his assistance in revising the manuscript for publication.


  • 1

    The rate is not easily estimated because many – perhaps even most – new SOA do not report their formation to centers that make such compilations.

  • 2

    Given the variety of types of formal and informal SOA, it seems preferable to refer to the persons they encompass by the generic label of “adherents” rather than as members, employees or citizens.

  • 3

    A number of these dynamics are elaborated in Rosenau (2003, Ch. 3).

  • 4

    For an early and broad formulation of the regime concept, see Krasner (1983).

  • 5

    See, for example, Barringer (2004).

  • 6

    For a cogent discussion of complexity theory, see Waldrop (1992).

  • 7

    See, for example, Cederman (2003).

  • 8

    For the contention that an intergovernmental global architecture is slowly emerging, see Etzioni (2004).