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Comity: Multilateralism in the new cold war

October 25, 2021


In his new book, Frank Vibert takes the concept of ‘Comity’ as the entry point for a discussion of international rulemaking in today’s world.

‘Comity’ applies to any situation where different jurisdictions overlap in the same territorial space. This is what we have in the international space at the present time – many overlapping rules and spheres of responsibility. It is a situation often described as ‘incoherent’.

Comity is a familiar concept in legal studies where there is a long history of overlapping jurisdictions. For example, in medieval Europe there existed an overlap between the law of the king, the law of the church, the law of merchant guilds and local law.  It is less familiar in other social sciences.

I choose comity as an organising concept, not only because it aptly describes today’s world of a multitude of international regimes, but also for three further reasons.

First, the concept helps us to focus on the normative element in international rulemaking. Norms are too important to be left out. They help shape the content of international rules, the structure of international institutions and the relationships between the governments and others involved in making the rules.

Secondly, comity centres attention on the use of discretion to avoid open conflict between systems. We do not want a world in conflict but need other ways in which countries can express and defend their values. The main tool for countries to exert influence on others, short of invoking force, is through regulation. For example, the EU aims to assert its influence in the world through such instruments as its regulation on privacy (GDPR) and its proposed carbon border adjustment measure. The analysis highlights the role of ‘permissiveness norms’ as a way to reduce conflict between different regulatory systems.

Thirdly, we have reached a point in international rulemaking where global initiatives have largely stalled. We need a way out of impasse. At the same time, we cannot plausibly claim that a new world order is imminent. Comity helps us to identify a pathway.

The New Cold War.

The book starts by looking at the reason for the current impasse in international rulemaking. In the old Cold War, the impasse reflected different world views. In the new Cold War, the impasse reflects differences in the domestic structure of power – the difference between countries that are broadly democratic and those that are authoritarian and repressive.

For a long time in the post-war world, it was thought that differences in the domestic organisation of power need not stand in the way as an obstacle to moving ahead on international tasks. However, this assumption is no longer valid. It no longer holds true because we have moved to a world where transactions are driven by data, information, and content – the so-called ‘knowledge economy’.

In the knowledge economy, democracies and authoritarian regimes choose different values to apply. For democracies, values such as privacy, the probity of data and contracts, and concepts such as personhood, are vital. Repressive regimes are only concerned with government control. These differences in the choice of values to apply in today’s world spill up and over into the international arena. The knowledge economy effects all spheres of public choice – from finance, to health, to the environment.

Out of Impasse

The book identifies two main ways out of this impasse. One way is to divide large areas of concern on the international agenda, such as trade or the environment, into much smaller sub-topics. In this way issues of principle can often be avoided while agreement can still be reached on narrow specifics. I borrow a phrase, ‘disjointed incrementalism’, from political scientists writing on the policy process, to describe this option.

The analysis in the book centres on a second option. This involves limited groups of like-minded democratic countries getting together to make the rules. They can start by making the rules for themselves and then try to extend their agreement to others, leading ideally in the end to full multilateral agreement. A current example is the proposed agreement on minimum taxes for multinational corporations. Agreement started within OECD and the G7 and has now extended to the G20 and to about 135 countries in all.  The analysis concludes on why this option is to be preferred.


When the Soviet Union collapsed, we hoped that we would see a world of converging global norms and much easier international rulemaking. This has not happened. Norms are not converging. Fully international rulemaking has hit a roadblock. The obstacle is that authoritarian regimes and democratic governments choose different principles to apply in rulemaking.  This book explains what we should do about it.

Frank Vibert, Associate, Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR), London School of Economics, UK

Comity: Multilateralism in the New Cold War is out now

Read Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline

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Philosophy and Public Administration: An unlikely marriage with a happy-ending?

November 24, 2020

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by Edoardo Ongaro.

There is a sense in which ‘Public Administration’ – and its key variations on the theme, namely ‘Public Management’ or ‘Public Governance’ –  are seen as a ‘technical field’, an area of study and professional practice which should have grown into a purely scientific endeavour, but for some weird reason has not yet fully achieved that status. Akin to other fields like environmental studies or labour psychology, also Public Administration would be amenable – this line of reasoning goes – to being studied as a technical-scientific subject. Certain ‘solutions’ would then be found, and any reasonable government in the world would then adopt them – or be held to account by its citizens if it failed to do so.

But is this narrative convincing? The answer looks a bit like a sophism: both yes and no; indeed, surely ‘yes’ and definitely ‘no’ at the same time. ‘Yes’, because Public Administration can be studied with scientific means, and there is a strong technical component to it – after all, it is about addressing ‘how to’ problems, like: how to deliver better public services at lesser costs? And yet the answer is also a round ‘No’, because Public Administration is a human-made world, a social world fraught with value-laden decisions, a system of interacting human beings trying to incorporate the others’ behaviours, decisions and even thoughts into their own decision-making (‘reflexivity’). Public administration belongs to the ‘sciences of the spirit’ (copyright of the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey) as much as it also partakes of the ‘socio-technical sciences’ insofar as it can be seen as an area of interdisciplinary quasi-technical investigation.

Talking about public administration, public governance, public leadership or public services management is to some extent entering a technical area, but at the same time it demands to engage with key issues that are ultimately philosophical in nature; questions like: how can the ‘welfare’ of the people be improved? How can we organise ourselves so that we can live together in better ways than we currently do? These are inherently philosophical questions, inextricably intermingled with socio-technical questions. And the importance of the topic can hardly be overestimated, as shown so clearly by the crucial role performed by public administrative systems in enabling (or not) countries and regions of the world to cope with terrible challenges like the one posed by the covid-19 pandemic.

It is for this reason that the book “Philosophy and Public Administration: An Introduction” – published by Edward Elgar and whose second edition in open access format has been supported by the Open University – can provide, I hope, a much-needed bridge to connect two worlds that are deeply linked, but rarely seen so: philosophical wisdom and public administration. The former is deemed ‘lofty’ and ‘abstract’, but it is not. The latter is deemed technical, even a bit arid, and not that fashionable since an ill-conceived rhetoric starting in the 1980s belittled the standing of the public sector and public services under the derogatory label of ‘bureaucracy’; but this is not the case. Indeed, philosophical wisdom, far from being ‘lofty’ and ‘abstract’, is about very concrete and the most important things of life. And public administration is both very important for attempting to improve at least some of the things that matter in life – for example: how to live together well – and a very exciting topic. The challenge is how to bridge the two, as these two fields have over the recent decades grown in almost complete isolation from one another (though this was not the case in the past, when indeed scholars and practitioners of public administration used to be trained in philosophy and the humanities). A book is not enough to remedy this lack of interconnections – unless it can be the sparkle that kindles a re-engagement of public administration people with philosophy and the humanities, and vice versa, by also getting philosophers into seeing social problems also as public services problems, and constitutively so. My hope is this book may contribute its small bit to help re-activate these connections and elicit a much-needed dialogue.

The publication open access of this book has been made possible by a collaboration between the Open University and Edward Elgar Publishing. It is the mission and in the best tradition of an innovative university like the Open University to support the diffusion of knowledge that may change lives, and in the best tradition of a leading publisher as Elgar to courageously publish challenging books on innovative topics. I am grateful to both, and I hope you may find this book great reading.

Edoardo Ongaro, Professor of Public Management, The Open University, UK

Philosophy and Public Administration is out now. The book has been published under our Open Access programme and is freely available to read on Elgaronline.

Find out more about our Open Access publishing

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