Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It Most

Book review

Reviewer: Diletta Fabiani

Publisher: Polity, 2013 ISBN:  9780745662398 
Author's page: Thomas Hale, David Held and Kevin Young 

Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It Most

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In Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It Most, authors Thomas Dale, David Held and Kevin Young ask: Why are international negotiations increasingly stalling at a time when we desperately need them to efficiently tackle current global issues?

According to the authors, international institutions are failing because they are in a state of ‘gridlock’—the concept defined as a ‘specific set of conditions and mechanisms that impede global cooperation in the present day’ (p. 3), its source lying in ‘self-reinforcing interdependence’ cycles dating back to World War II. 

 Self-reinforcing interdependence is actually a consequence of institutions performing well in their beginnings. The post-war proliferation of institutions had the objective of creating a new world order that would not let global war happen again: By deepening the level of interdependence, no single state could ‘order the world for their own interest’ (p. 5). Now, however, these same institutions can't manage this deep level of interdependence, as they were created and designed to face the issues of a specific, now long-gone, historical moment. 

The authors explain that there are four paths that lead to gridlock: growing multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems and fragmentation. As more emerging countries become wealthier, multipolarity in the world increases; with more members involved in decision-making processes, the cost of reaching an agreement grows as well. Institutions are also ‘sticky’—in other words, resistant to change and hard to modify (especially when coupled with formal structures). While this ensures their long-term survival, it can also enlarge the gap between the current needs of the actors and possible institutional responses. 

Problems have become more complex too, with changes in their intensity and extensity; due to globalisation and the consequent interdependence, they have become more transnational and require larger policy adjustments to be solved—adjustments that are harder to make. Fragmented institutions can hinder the birth and growth of stronger governmental solutions; fragmentation includes weak inter-institutional coordination, excessive division in discrete tasks and forum-shopping by actors to avoid institutional constraints.

 The authors analyse gridlock in three different fields: security, economy and environment. In all these sectors, systems that have been built from World War II to the present have changed the nature of the problems they were created to solve, undermining their own utility in the process. Gridlock and the paths leading to it are common to all the fields. 

 In the final chapter, the authors look at the current state of affairs and make predictions for the future. In the short term, the following trends may compound gridlock, exacerbating it and making cooperation harder: a return to rivalry and unilateral actions for great powers; failed states combined with inter-systemic security threats; and deregulation of markets and the possible growth of technocratic solutions over political ones. 

Three nations/regions (US, Europe and China) are analysed in further detail, in order to show how developments at the national level can affect the gridlock in the short term.

Gridlock, however, is not unavoidable, as there are counter-tendency waves that could be ridden to overcome it: integration of national and international political arenas; trans-border governance arrangements; the growing influence of non-state actors; norm diffusion and capacity building in compliance to international agreements; and new types of global governance institutions (Track 2 institutions, for example).

Finally, some ongoing trends might lead to necessary institutional reforms and create pathways through the gridlock: popular protest movements contesting the current global order, small institutional adaptations and limited reform of the organisational principles and structures of global governance. 

The authors conclude that rebuilding the international order is not an impossible feat, as it has been done in the past. However, if policies want to overcome the gridlock by successfully reforming current institutions, they will need to include both bottom-up and top-down political solutions.   

This book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in international institutions, their evident struggle and how to improve their effectiveness. The book does not merely point out problems, but also offers concrete solutions. The comprehensive, detailed chapter on environmental institutions—which was the starting point of the book's creation—is extremely valuable for those interested in such topics.

At the end of the book, one cannot help but be left with some questions. For example: At what tipping point does interdependence go from beneficial to detrimental? Does gridlock negatively affect a state's willingness to cooperate? These questions might pave the way for promising avenues of future research on this topic.   

2017 - Volume 11, Issue 2