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Permissive or restrictive practices of blending?

To return to my wine-making analogy in this week’s introductory video, are some recipes for blending better than others? Given the extent of difficulties and obstacles in many issue-areas, shouldn’t we encourage very permissive blending efforts, using as many grape varieties as possible, given the difficulty of producing wine?

Of course not, would argue many observers. Again as with grape varieties, some types of instruments do not really work well together – too many tastes together may bring into question whether we are really drinking wine. From this perspective, regulatory action would lack structure and body, therefore ultimately failing to have a behavioural impact. Others would argue that the more the better, as one needs to raise awareness, and in that context a greater number of voices and channels is more likely to catch the attention of those to be governed. To move to the next level, however, requires some orchestration of the variety of sources of rules and norms.

The difference in the two viewpoints is ultimately a question of confidence in the skillfulness of the blenders or orchestrators, as well as an issue of power dynamics between different actors. In the case of food and trade, countries that had the highest influence in the negotiations of the SPS agreement during the Uruguay Round of talks were also the ones dominating the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. They strongly believed in the integration of the two instruments and had little confidence in any other sort of solution.

The situation was different for the issue of labour standards. First, the ILO had gradually lost momentum and had shown its inability to push member states to implement the labour standards embodied in its numerous conventions. In short, it had lost power and influence over the domain. Some member states had been pushing for a more active role to be played by the WTO, drawing upon its enforcement capacity. Yet, others were wary of the dominance of a core set of developed countries within the WTO, who would use labour standards as a way to limit the competitiveness of less developed countries. In that context, markets became the trusted conductor of the orchestra with the perspective that a flurry of standards would compete for allegiance of firms and in turn for the confidence of consumers. Markets, however, tend to deviate from perfect competition or may not induce virtuous behaviour, which has prompted new interventions by states under the form of the insertion of labour clauses into free trade agreements.

The choice of more permissive, wilder, blending with a flurry of different regulatory instruments may not necessarily be bad news for the IOs, as one could infer from the case of labour standards. Indeed, IOs can gain prominence and a new raison d’être by playing the role of orchestrator. To do so, however, they need a sufficient degree of autonomy from their member states. They also need to be more interested in solving problems than in fighting internal bureaucratic turf wars or preserving parcels of power at the international level. Last, they should possess a combination of cognitive, normative and executive influence over states to steer them toward fruitful collaborations with other actors. Collaboration with those other actors is generally easier as accepting the coordinating role of IOs does not pose them any problem of sovereignty. Few existing IOs fare well on those three dimensions but the best placed candidates may be those long considered as weak actors, for instance UN Environment (formerly UN Environment Programme (UNEP)) that has been at the centre of many collaborative initiatives and partnerships in the last ten years. Recent dynamics with respect to the establishment of a social floor may also indicate that after being reluctant to engage with a larger number of stakeholders from civil society, the ILO has come to realise that orchestration could be the last chance to regain prominence.

In sum, thus, there is no straightforward answer to the dilemma between permissive or restrictive blending practices. Global governance offers room for both, as long as skillful actors seize opportunities when they arise. One should acknowledge, however, that potential skillful orchestrators tend to be in short supply.

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International Affairs: Global Governance

The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies