The timeless appeal of technocracy in global governance

18 Mar 2019

Event report

The event was part of the Global Governance Colloquium series, organised by the Global Governance Center of the Graduate Institute of International and development Studies (IHEID). It covered the topic of technocracy in global governance, with a presentation by Prof. Jens Steffek (Professor of Transnational Governance and Managing Director, Institute for Political Science at the Technical University of Darmstadt).

Steffek introduced the topic by explaining that the current debate in the literature highlights the crisis of the legitimacy of international organisations (IOs). However, if there is a recognition of a crisis, this justifies a previous legitimacy of IOs. Therefore, this raises questions on the reasons why citizens actively or passively support IOs. He addressed the issue by making linking literature on international history on pro-activism to IOs with a focus on its technocratic variety, where technocracy is meant as an administration by functional experts.

He explained that technological revolutions such as the invention of the telegraph in the 20th century made a huge contribution in connecting the world and fostering enthusiasm for the possibility of better co-operation among international actors. Nonetheless, technologies by themselves cannot drive co-operation, but they need a process of standardisation and IOs able to establish them on a expert base. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the technocratic integration was boosted and largely applied in the 1950s and 1960s; however, times have changed and often, populist argumentations tend to question the legitimacy of technocratic governance in IOs. 

As a result, technocratic internationalism can be described as a tradition of thoughts but not a pyramid of thinking. There are variations over some dominant themes which could be brought to resonate with otherwise very different political ideologies, such as the idea that traditional diplomacy and politics is anachronistic, the idea that new methods are more rational, and the idea of orienting international civil servants towards a public interest. Nonetheless, this represents a modern utopia, an ideal that cannot disregard the complementary feature of IOs as politicised institutions.