Revue Européenne du Droit
Governance of common goods as a political lever
Issue #2


Issue #2


Thierry de Montbrial

21x29,7cm - 186 pages Issue #2, Spring 2021 24€

1. And the whole earth was of one language, and of one kind of words. 2. And it came to pass, as they journeyed toward the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And thus the brick served them for stone, and slime served them for mortar. 4. And they said ‘Go to, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower, the top of which may reach unto heaven; and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’. 5. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man were building. 6. And the Lord said, Behold, it is one people, and they have all one language, and this is the first thing they undertake to do; and now shall they not be restrained in all which they have imagined to do? 7. Go to, let us go down, and confound there their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. 9. Therefore is the name of it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did the Lord scatter them abroad over the face of all the earth”.

Verses 1 to 9, Chapter XI, Genesis, Hebrew Bible

The Genesis describes a mankind that would have achieved, in short, the utopian goal of globalization with global governance. In this account, naturally symbolic, we see that the pre-Babel humanity constituted a kind of political unit. A well-organized, well-structured political unit, where people made decisions and were able to carry them out. People understood one another, so there was a common culture. Why does God intervene to confuse people, to confuse mankind and to stop them from understanding each other any longer? It is because this construction of the Tower of Babel, which ascends to heaven and penetrates into the sky, means that men take themselves to be God-like: the dispersion of men on Earth is the consequence of the original sin, the sin of pride that pushes man to take himself for more than he is and humanity to take itself for more than it is, in short, man claiming to accomplish by himself the earthly Paradise.

This dispersion following the destruction of the Tower of Babel can be interpreted in contemporary geopolitical terms: all these dispersed peoples, speaking different languages, developing different cultures and not understanding one another. They come to develop different ideologies that lead them to fight, to confront each other in war. In the world of the Tower of Babel, there were no geopolitical problems. Geopolitics is the ideology relating to the territories and the nations that occupy them, it is a situation that arises from the lack of understanding of men in the absence of a common political unit that would ensure legitimate world governance in the eyes of humanity as a whole.

Defining globalization 1

Real globalization is the result of a phenomenon of increased intertwining, where the dispersion of peoples and cultures has given way to a new melting pot, without, however, people being able to understand one another. This mixture has accelerated considerably over the last sixty years with an ever-increasing interdependence. To grasp this phenomenon, we must first provide a definition: globalization can be defined as the tendency for all active units to reason strategically on a planetary scale.

An active unit is a human group that is structured by an identified Common Culture (ability to understand each other) and by an Organization that takes decisions concerning the group both for internal and external affairs. An active unit becomes a political unit when it does not recognize an authority superior to its own. This is, of course, the case of States, which remain the main category of political unit and whose legal definition has been refined, but it is also the case of a growing number of heterogeneous groupings which consider themselves to be sovereign, i.e., do not recognize any authority superior to their own. This is by extension the case of international organizations of all kinds. They can be deemed to be, to a certain extent, political units, first and foremost the United Nations, which remains the basis of international law as it stands today. Terrorist organizations such as Daesh or Al Qaeda also meet this definition of political unit insofar as they consider themselves to be sovereign, i.e., they do not recognize any authority superior to their own, although naturally this is not how they are regarded from the point of view of international law.

So why is there a tendency for all active units on the planet to think strategically on a global scale? The globalization we have been experiencing for half a century is a phenomenon without precedent in the history of humanity. It is first and foremost a phenomenon of constantly accelerating technological transformation, a consequence of the revolution in information and communication technologies. For more than 60 years now, not only have we not seen a slowing down of the transformation, but we see before our eyes today that this transformation is accelerating, despite its upheavals. At the same time, the fall of the USSR, as a consequence of its fundamental inability to reform itself due to the intertwining of its economic and political structures, has contributed to tearing down certain levees and to the rekindling of problems frozen since the end of the Second World War. Large-scale migration phenomena have occurred, including within Europe with the extremely rapid enlargement of the European Union.

Designing and establishing regulatory mechanisms in an increasingly complex international system?

This general openness, this increased quantitatively and qualitatively transformed interdependence, implies a form of regulation. In highly interdependent physical systems, regulatory mechanisms are required since systems that are not regulated explode, i.e., evolve towards chaos. One thinks of major economic crises such as the one in 2007 and the misfortunes of the Middle East since 2011, which are relatively comparable situations. The recent economic crises, the multiplication of conflicts in the Middle East and the Covid-19 pandemic have in common that they are the result of events that were originally insignificant but evolved into gigantic problems.

If the world were already constituted or constituted again – in relation to the metaphorical account of the Tower of Babel – as a single political unit, the problem would be relatively simple. But this is not the case, and the issue of global governance is frighteningly complex. The word complexity comes from the Latin “complexus”. It corresponds to the idea of the impossibility of unfolding, the impossibility of laying it out flat. In a complex system, it is impossible to fully describe the parts that interact and the nature of these interactions. This is now a common feature of hard sciences and human sciences: many phenomena, such as climate or geopolitics, cannot be described as systems, in the precise sense of the term, so as to explain all the interactions.

We cannot, however, renounce partial representations. If we want to have a somewhat precise idea of what is wrongly called “the international system”, we have to start from a sort of first approximation, that of the inter-state system, that is to say the relations between states. This is indeed a system whose structure remains at the heart of the “international system”, despite the multiplication of other influential active units. Consequently, the problem of global governance still lies at the root of the problem of cooperation between States in order to achieve coordination that will enable the “international system” to evolve not only in a direction that is not chaotic, but even in the direction of a certain progression, that of the co-management of common goods.

Thinking about common goods

I call a “good” everything that can be destroyed or transformed by men. It is not only material goods, but also education, values and health on an individual or collective level, which are also fragile.

“Common good” is a general term that concerns a community as a whole. But to what extent can we speak of a common good for a human group that is not structured by a common culture and organization, such as a government in the case of a State? It may be that there are common goods at the intersection of all cultures. But there is necessarily a certain relativism. For someone like me, and perhaps for many of the readers of this text, what is called Western culture is a common good to «us», but not necessarily to “others”. Does this matter deep down in Outer Mongolia? I am not sure. We can try to define the notion of common good more precisely. In economic theory, we oppose “private goods” and “public goods”. A private good is a good that only one person can consume. The public good or collective good was defined by Samuelson as a good that is non-rivalrous and non-exclusive, on the scale of a society, whether political or not.

But beyond this definition, the climate issue suffices to show that in the absence of a global political unit with legitimate governance, the definition of common goods and a fortiori the modes of cooperation to implement public policies on a planetary scale, is not obvious. The example of public health can also be given, such as vaccination in the event of a pandemic. What is still needed are effective organizations responsible for coordinating inter-state cooperation in association with other active units, within a framework that is perceived as legitimate by the citizens of the world. At the same time, we can see that if we are not able to build these cooperation structures and implement these levers quickly enough, the risk of leading to disasters and chaotic world developments is very high. All of this, of course, must begin with awareness.

Is it possible to build an international order compatible with the levers of governance for the common good in the absence of a hegemonic power? It is clear that we are evolving rather towards strategic competition between the United States and China, which aspires to dominate the world in thirty years’ time. Why thirty years? Because 2049 will be the hundredth anniversary of Mao’s victory in China, and the Chinese have the open goal of being the world’s leading power by then.

The construction of Europe must guide us here, without dogmatism or over-simplistic ideology. What we have achieved more or less well with the European Union is a completely original political adventure in the history of mankind. We are seeking to build a new type of political unit that is not an imperial construction, which have always been doomed. A co-construction, a free association, in a democratic spirit. We have already achieved with the European Union types of interdependence which mean that some of the things that seem extraordinarily difficult – if not impossible – in the framework of classic inter-state cooperation can be done at European level by means of mechanisms of solidarity, cultural and naturally legal rapprochement.

If we continue, by improving, correcting, strengthening, preserving at the same time the cultures of the different States, if we manage to build a new type of political unit which in some respects goes beyond the Nation State, perhaps we will be able to better evolve in the direction of a true co-management of these famous common goods and modes of governance with their different levers that will make it possible not only to maintain a viable world but perhaps even to make this world progress in some respects.


  1. Several of the concepts used in what follows are taken from Thierry de Montbrial, L’Action et le système du monde, 4th edition, « Quadrige » collection, PUF, 2011.
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Thierry de Montbrial, Governance of common goods as a political lever, Aug 2021, 145-147.

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