International Handbook on Informal Governance
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International Handbook on Informal Governance

Edited by Thomas Christiansen and Christine Neuhold

Acknowledging that governance relies not only on formal rules and institutions but to a significant degree also on informal practices and arrangements, this unique Handbook examines and analyses a wide variety of theoretical, conceptual and normative perspectives on informal governance.
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Chapter 12: Informal Governance at the United Nations

Courtney B. Smith


† 1 Courtney B. Smith INTRODUCTION Multilateral negotiations at the United Nations are typically a curious affair. Participants in the process often begin the negotiations with entrenched positions far removed from each other. It is not uncommon for delegates to offer uncompromising proposals whose intended audience is domestic rather than international, all the while talking past each other in endless debates of questionable value. Press coverage frequently stresses the degree of divergence in views, indicating that the chance for agreement is marginal at best. While some of these efforts go on to end in an unsurprising failure, UN debates can achieve positive outcomes; these range from vague ‘agreements to disagree’ or ‘general statements of principles’ to rather ambitious plans of action or concrete international treaties. The degree of agreement which results can appear both dramatic and sudden in the eyes of those not directly involved in the negotiations. All of this begs the question: what makes it possible for these agreements to emerge seemingly out of nowhere so late in the negotiations when failure appeared certain? Developing a better understanding of how these dynamics unfold at the UN is challenging because so much of the negotiation process takes place in private and informal settings closed to all but those directly involved. Nearly every account of UN decision-making authored by former practitioners and members of the press is replete with examples of situations where ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations provided a catalyst for the formal decisions that were made (for example, see Meisler...

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