Futures of Global Cooperation – Conference in Duisburg Discusses Strategies for a Complex Research Field

The leading research institutions at the University of Duisburg-Essen have for the past six years turned their attention to the question of 'what holds the world together at its core?' This central question is also what guides the common research process of visiting scholars, who come to Duisburg over a period of 6 to 12 months and, freed from teaching commitments, are able to fully devote themselves to their research topics and publications.

The worldwide political developments over the past years have moved global cooperation - as a relatively young research field - into the focus of public attention and intensified research activities in the field, while at the same time they have also raised new questions and made a correction of existing approaches necessary. It follows, that international politics is to be understood as a frame that is constantly subject to dynamism. Transformations and change are not exceptions but rather the rule. But how do deal with this from a research perspective? The scholarly community has frequently paid inadequate recognition to this 'fluidity' as it pertains to the development of systems. A clear plea from the experts present, was the need to extend static models so as to accommodate dynamic components, and to take into consideration historical developments and process. The Centre was encouraged not to treat the political sphere - within research on cooperation - as isolated sphere, but rather to explore the inherent interdependencies with other social and cultural processes.

To mark the start of the conference, the directors presented the four central themes that will come to guide the Centre’s forthcoming programme. In future, the Centre will be committed to furthering research on the pathways, mechanisms and trajectories of global cooperation; global cooperation in contexts of polycentric governance; questions of critique, justification and legitimacy; as well as global cooperation in a context of competing conceptions of world order. A lively discussion was followed by a public lecture from Michael Zürn, Director of the Berlin Social Science Centre (WZB) and chairperson of the centre’s scientific advisory board on the topic of 'Global governance in Hard Times'. In the subsequent two days, these four thematic lines of the conference were discussed at length in panels and break out groups. The feedback of the panellists and participants was, in turn, summarized conclusively along the four lines.

The contributions that were made on the topic of 'Pathways, Mechanisms and Trajectories: a Process Perspective on Global Cooperation', were concerned with the question of how the processual nature, and thereby also the temporal dimension, of global cooperation can be taken into consideration more accurately in an analysis of the latter’s outcomes. Presentations on this panel were made by Matthew Hoffmann, Tine Hanrieder, Susan Sell and Wolfram Kaiser. Research in this field should, as Sigrid Quack – Managing Director of the Centre – underlined in her summary, focus more sharply on the temporal dimension so as to, for example, explore more accurately in empirical and theoretical terms the notion of recursivity. To do so, an increased cooperation with researchers from the fields of history and sociology was underlined. In addition, what was emphasized, was the need to differentiate more carefully between different types of actor groupings entangled in processes of global cooperation, for individuals, organizations and institutions may operate with different time horizons, in turn, potentially leading to conflicts. Finally, it appears pertinent to explore also the interplay between public discourses and the transformation of institutions along paths of global cooperation.

The contributions made to the second thematic field 'Global Cooperation in Contexts of Polycentric Governance' were focused on how global cooperation is made possible within a context that is ever more complex and which is marked by a growing involvement of non-state actors, the multiplication of decision-making-arenas and -levels, as well as competing claims to authority. Presentations held by Andrea Nightingale, Fariborz Zelli und Kenneth Abbot led to vivid discussions on the panel and in the break-out groups. In his conclusion, Dirk Messner – the centres’ co-director – highlighted that organizational and governance structures cannot simply be equated with one another. The digital sphere, for example – one of the centre’s future policy fields of research – does not present itself in a unitary picture: the sphere functions as a multiplier, generating polycentric structures; but can also work to challenge dispersed structures, for instance through a hierarchisation of decision making processes. In a particular manner, polycentric developments raise normative questions of power (its distribution), legitimacy and unequal chances of participation. Fragmentation as well as unclear accountabilities are amongst the challenges that come with polycentric governance.

The third thematic field 'Critique, Justification and Legitimacy around Global Cooperation' is in the words of Jan Aart Scholte – the new co-director – about the question of how the institutions of global cooperation may, from the perspective of citizens, be seen to work adequately and legitimately so as to garner support and approval, be seen as worthy of collaboration and, thereby, ensure that the rules of the game be upheld. Presentations were held by Steven Bernstein, Heba Raouf Ezzat und Jens Steffek. The panellists and participants underlined the urgency to engage with this thematic topic. Central thereto, the argument went, is serious a discussion around post-colonial theory and – here again re-iterated – that more attention be turned to questions around power, i.e. questions of inclusion/exclusion. In order to develop a better understanding of sources of legitimacy, not only institutional dynamics remain relevant, but also social structures need to be analysed. The topic of political legitimacy appears to similarly demand interdisciplinary research. This may be due to the normative dimensions of the topic, but may also be tied to the very strategies of legitimisation under focus, which make use of a wide variety of different media ‘spaces’.

Democracy is a concept of political participation and representation which has, over the past years, been subject to increasing criticism, partly in the name of neo-authoritarianism and partly in the name of populist communitarian ideals. This development is also a topic of global cooperation studies. One participant defined the new strategy of the People’s Republic of China as a neo liberal form of globalization without democracy. Others see in China’s new silk road a model of global cooperation that holds much promise. The discussions around the fourth thematic field 'Global Cooperation and Competing Conceptions of World Order' turned precisely to these very questions. Inputs were given by L.H.M. Ling, Pablo Holmes, Pinar Bilgin und Rosalba Icaza Garza. The reality of different concepts of world order, which compete with one another, demands, as Ling put it, the capacity for 'a new moral imagination'. But in what manner do such ideas acquire a practical relevance and come to motivate, for instance, the formation of a robust institutional framework? Central to the contributions made on the panel, but also subsequently in the break-out groups, was a discussion of alternatives to the model of the Westphalian state order. Questions pertaining to the origin, desirability and feasibility of these alternatives were controversially discussed. The head of the research unit, Volker Heins, pointed out in his concluding remarks, that the Westphalian state order has historically asserted itself vis-à-vis particular alternatives and is more than merely a notion of world order. A central question for cooperation research, in turn, is then: can it be that in future, different concepts of world order will once again enter into competition with one another? Will the be able to complementarily co-exist, or will antagonisms emerge?

'The engaging discussion of these three days and the positive echo that the thematic lines of the forthcoming program received, is for us very encouraging', the managing director of the Centre, Professor Sigrid Quack, stated delightedly. 'Assured through the many constructive inputs, we can now devote ourselves, during the coming six years, together with international fellows, to researching these important questions'.