My first reaction to this book was skepticism. A volume on the influence that inter- national commissions have had on what Andrew Cooper and John English call ”œthe mind of global gover- nance,” with several contributions from individuals who either have been directly affiliated to the United Nations or who are well known to be strong advocates of the UN and its works, published by the United Nations University Press.

I expected the narrative to run something like this: International commissions like the Bruntland and Palme commissions have shaped glob- al and national policy conversations in important ways, prodding and push- ing states and policy-makers in enlightened directions, but have been limited from having a greater impact by the usual suspects ”” the United States, defenders of states sovereignty, anti-global governance types and sundry reactionaries ”” yet despite these limitations they have shown the promise of global governance and the multilateral resolution of problems whose roots or importance, or both, make them fit subjects to be dealt with by the global community and its agen- cies.

My initial skepticism was probably deepened by the fact that I was in Washington, DC when I read this book, a town where the UN and the concept of global governance can seem terribly irrelevant. It is, of course, quite easy to imagine that ideas in Geneva, Paris the Hague and elsewhere ”” basically anywhere but Washington ”” do not matter very much compared to those that circulate along the couple of miles separating the White House from Capitol Hill. As I listened one morning to a congressional committee chairman hold forth on an issue relat- ed to the War on Terror, I couldn’t help but think that the ideas of those who toil in the UN and its agencies can seem very inconsequential alongside those of someone elected to represent a district in Michigan or Missouri.

But my skepticism about this book was largely misplaced. Most of the chapters in it are pretty fair-minded in their assessment of the impact of interna- tional commissions on how opinion- leaders in various policy domains think and talk about issues. ”œThey have had,” says Edward Luck, ”œmore effect on the way we think about global issues and institutions than on specific policy choices.” Try to imagine a conversation about environmental policy and choic- es in which the concept of sustainable development, popularized by the Bruntland Commission, did not arise. Heather Smith is doubtless correct when she says that the ”œpopularization of sustainable development has not fundamentally altered the state of the world.” But, she concludes, ”œthere is power in ideas even if it is a case of ”˜greenwashing.’”

Well, yes, but how much and what sort of influence vary consider- ably from case to case. And if the most one can say is that the policy conversation has changed as a result of an international commission’s activities, but that it is business as usual on the ground, then this vol- ume’s measured but generally upbeat tone on the impact of international commissions would seem to go beyond what is warranted.

As several of the chapters in this book make clear, the substantive impact of international commissions on policies and behaviour is seldom immediate or direct. ”œMore frequent- ly,” argue Cooper and English, ”œcom- missioners have facilitated and legitimated the extension of soft law or norm creation.” This is already a sig- nificant form of influence. But it is not one that takes place overnight or without the norms and ideas that emerge from a commission undergoing substantial change in the long process or reaction, debate and negotiation that unfolds once its report and rec- ommendations are issued.

Those who believe that the extension of soft law and inter- national norm creation are exactly what the UN and its commissions should be doing will applaud Ramesh Thakur’s statement that, ”œTo the extent that our primary goal is to reposition the normative consensus, the Secretary General is unique- ly important to our task. The office is the custodian of the world conscience and the embodiment of the international interest like no other.” Custodian of the world con- science? I don’t think one has to be Pat Buchanan to choke a bit on these words. But this is one of the few instances of absolutely over-the-top UN-worship in a book that otherwise manages to maintain a pretty level-headed tone.

The FunctionaryThese are challenging times for public servants.

Get news and insights into the workings of the public service from veteran journalist Kathryn May. Delivered to your inbox.

Appropriately, I think, the book concludes on a note of informed skepticism. Edward Luck asks, ”œAre we making a difference in terms of influ- encing policymaking at the United Nations and/or in member state capi- tals?” Based on his extensive experi- ence on commissions of the sort this book examines, Luck offers several pieces of practical advice that appear no where else in this book.

He suggest that in addition to the other forms of representation and diversity that are routinely considered important and even necessary when putting together a commission, that political diversity be added to the mix. ”œSooner or later,” Luck says, ”œour ideas will be challenged and it might well be better to have a few devil’s advocates within the process of deliberation than to face them only after the ideas and phrases are fixed.”

Moreover, Luck asks whether it is really such a good idea to commis- sion ”œmega-studies” that cost mil- lions of dollars. He suggests that the trend toward big, expensive blue rib- bon panels may have the effect ”” presumably unintended ”” of swal- lowing up most of the resources available for research and advocacy, thus producing a less intellectually competitive and less stimulating environment than if smaller, more numerous studies were financed. (Canadian governments, with their addiction to royal commissions, might take heed.)

The reception that a commission’s ideas and recommendations receive may also be compromised, Luck observes, by the perception that the enterprise was cooked from the outset. The line separating inquiry from advo- cacy, he notes, is often unclear and this can seriously impair the credibili- ty of a commission.

Luck adds that the reports and rec- ommendations of international commis- sions too often, if understandably, address themselves to the UN instead of to the member-states who pay the bills and who ulti- mately are the ones that must take the necessary steps to imple- ment commission recommenda- tions. This tendency, Luck argues, ”œtends to exacerbate the gap between US politics and global norm-building processes.” Although the secretary-general may say that the United States is only one of the roughly 190 members of the UN ”” a state- ment that he made just after Pres- ident Bush’s recess appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN ”” this approach is nei- ther realistic nor helpful in terms of getting America onboard in international endeavours.

To which some will say, ”œWell, whose fault is that?” But Luck is, I think, certainly right when he argues that ”œglobal commissions purporting to represent the range of relevant views…[cannot] leave out certain per- spectives ”” including those of US con- servatives and legislators.” Pretending that such perspectives do not exist, do not matter or are not worthy of serious consideration is surely a recipe for lim- iting the policy and institutional impact of international commissions.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License