Polycentric Multilateralism: Reimagining the Roles of International Institutions in Space Governance and BeyondProject leads
Scott J. Shackelford
David Colby Reed
The institutions at the core of space governance are challenged by geopolitical divisions and changes in power distribution and are hard-pressed to deliver what is expected of them, as multilateralism, in general, is contested.
For nearly 50 years, the Ostrom Workshop, based at Indiana University Bloomington, has explored how communities around the world govern themselves and their resources. Now, that exploration extends to the final frontier of outer space. The Ostrom Workshop and partners at Laval University in Canada have received a $200,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York to expand their study of governance in space.
Using the case study of space governance, this project envisions a polycentric approach to the governance of critical transnational challenges. Reimagining the roles of long-standing multilateral international institutions that suffer from decades-long gridlock, this study will explore the capacity of polycentricity to provide efficient responses to the governance of the global commons and global affairs more generally. Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-wining study (Economic Sciences, 2009) found strong empirical proof, in the lab and in the field, across countries and sectors, favoring polycentric governance of local commons. However, it has not been empirically tested for global commons and the potential to apply Ostrom’s theory to global affairs remains untapped, leaving, as Keohane observed, “unexploited opportunities” for investigators seeking to understand issues in global affairs. We propose that polycentric governance would be a practical solution to the collective action problem of governing outer space and space activities. Building, inter alia, on the original Laval Space Governance Dataset, created by Jean-Frédéric Morin and Eytan Tepper, the previous theoretical work of Scott Shackelford and Eytan Tepper, as well as the experience of Danielle Wood’s team with her Space Sustainability Rating, and employing the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD) developed by Elinor Ostrom, the project aims to provide empirical and theoretical support for a polycentric approach to address transnational challenges.
Polycentric governance sees multiple and partly overlapping governance centers that are multi-level, multi-purpose, multi-type, and multi-sectoral in scope, which could complement and support the long-standing multilateral institutions. This polycentric approach reimagines the role of existing international institutions as less of monocentric decision-making centers and more as connecting hubs that support and coordinate emerging polycentric networks. We call it ‘polycentric multilateralism’. We believe that this approach would reinvigorate the existing institutional system to better respond to contemporary and future challenges (i.e., space debris, space security, and space resource exploitation). A polycentric structure would be better adapted to the reality of global politics, including power shifts and power diffusion.
In a briefing to the Security Council on global governance post-COVID-19, UN Secretary-General António Guterres (September 24, 2020)(SG/SM/20278) noted that “[w]e urgently need innovative thinking on global governance and multilateralism, so that they are fit for the twenty-first century. First and foremost, we need a networked multilateralism based on strong links and cooperation between global and regional organizations, international financial institutions, and other global alliances and institutions.” This may be seen as a UN definition or call for ‘polycentric multilateralism’.