Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
Introduction to Political Science

15.1 The Problem of Global Governance

Introduction to Political Science15.1 The Problem of Global Governance

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define global governance.
  • Define and give examples of collective goods and the tragedy of the commons.
  • Discuss global governance as a response to the anarchic nature of the international system.
  • Identify the actors involved in global governance.

States do not operate in isolation. They exist in a global community of sovereign states. As in all communities, each individual actor has their own motivations or goals and is impacted by the broader shared environment. Though the international system is anarchic—that is, there is no overarching international authority to help promote peace and prosperity among states—each state’s efforts to achieve those goals is to some degree dependent upon the actions of other states in the system. Recognizing that the achievement of prosperity and security requires shared action, the global community sets rules and norms of behavior to give some structure to the anarchic system. This global governance is the process by which sovereign states accrue rights and duties in the international community. It provides “peace and security, justice and mediation systems for conflict, functioning markets and unified standards for trade and industry,”2 helping states thrive even under conditions of anarchy.

Like other communities, the international system is tasked with convincing individual members to take some responsibility for solving collective problems. This task is especially difficult when individual members somehow profit from behavior that exacerbates these problems. The tragedy of the commons3 occurs when there is a rivalry for limited resources to which it is inherently difficult to restrict access and individual states prioritize their own short-term economic survival over broader long-term community interests, interests that are often referred to as collective goods. Individual states have incentives to take actions in order to secure these goods for their own benefit that may negatively impact others. For example, individual states may prioritize cost savings for manufacturing plants that use the cheapest energy source, even if doing so contributes to continuing damage to the common environment. China, for instance, engaged in rapid industrialization, dramatically increasing the size of its economy and the quality of life for the Chinese people; however, in the process, China became the world’s leading producer of air pollution. Air pollution cannot be contained to the boundaries of the country producing the pollution, and clean air is a collective good. International issues like air pollution, where one state’s actions to mitigate its role in intensifying a problem may be ineffective if its neighbor does not take similar action, illustrate the complexities of the tragedy of the commons.


Tragedy of the Commons

The more we exploit common resources, the scarcer these resources become.

The anarchic nature of the international system complicates efforts to persuade states to recognize their contribution to a common problem and to take responsibility for their actions. Collective goods benefit everyone, regardless of whether they participate in securing them, and it can be difficult to motivate individual states to make sacrifices to secure those goods if other states are already working on it—a phenomenon called free riding, which is discussed in more depth in Chapter 6: The Fundamentals of Group Political Activity. Through global governance, the international community helps states and people obtain these public goods while maintaining the principle of state sovereignty on which the international system is based.

Multiple actors take part in global governance. States themselves, both as individual actors and through their participation in organizations with other states, are the primary actors. Nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations, national groups, and religious actors also contribute to global governance. International cooperation among these various actors is needed to reach agreement—to develop international law that sets limits on who can do what and establishes punishments for exceeding those limits. Disruptive groups that pose a threat to the common peace and prosperity can only be countered through global governance.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Jan 3, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.