DISSERTATION RESEARCH: Possibilities of Global Governance: World Heritage and the Politics of Universal Value and Expertise

The world heritage regime, founded in 1972, posits that certain natural and cultural heritage sites possess ‘outstanding universal value,’ constitute common human heritage and are, therefore, worthy of international protection. I limit my research to cultural heritage, based on the observation that culture – understood both as political culture and thick forms of cultural identification – constitutes a global political axis of division. In the case of world heritage, the regime relies on universal aesthetics, civilizational history and expert adjudication to gauge “universal value.” I argue that the changing fortunes of the regime, from a largely uncontentious governance project that could generate shared understanding of cultural value to one that is now the site of deep contestations, arise out of world political dynamics. It is because culture is a political axis that is at once salient and home to competing conceptions, and not because of a shift in the global distribution of power or interest, that participants challenge the feasibility of a universal cultural value and the authority of its expert evaluations. I ground my argument on archival research, analysis of meeting records (1978-2017), 14 open-ended elite interviews, case studies, observation of three expert meetings and of the 2018 world heritage committee meeting. 

My theoretical framework foregrounds the substantive relation between world orders and global governance. World orders are political projects, with undergirding ideational bases, that produce specific forms of authority and attendant inequalities. Global governance projects put these ideational bases to work in particular policy areas to generate shared value, mold actors and foster forms of desired behavior. My conceptualization departs from two tendencies in existing scholarship, which either assume the grounding principles of the liberal international as broadly accepted or conceive of the world order in terms of distribution of material power and national interests.

Important implications for the theory and practice of global governance follow from conceptualizing governance regimes as sites where the world order is put to work. Specifically, in analyzing contestations within regimes as a) demonstrative of the substance of global political divisions and as b) indicative of values, actors and relations that might form the basis of shared understanding and cooperation in a potential future world order, my research demonstrates that global governance regimes can become fundamentally reconfigured in the context of global political divisions. In the case of world heritage, “representativity” emerges as a competing conception of credibility to “universality.” Concerning the production of authority, local experts are invoked, in contradistinction to international experts, as the actors that should be putting forth authoritative adjudications of value. The original relations of authority, based on the separation of the political and expert realms, are also challenged by demands for dialogue between the two spheres to produce shared understanding. Lastly, global political dynamics reconstitute the regime as a site where competing histories and conceptions of the world order are brought forth for recognition. If these dynamics make governance regimes intractable as theorized and implemented under a less divided international order, they also position the regimes as key sites for analyzing the substantive contours, potential values and cooperation mechanisms of a possible future global order.