What is a global challenge?

Europe of Knowledge |

Alina Isakova, Malte Neuwinger, Robin Schulze Waltrup, and Oday Uraiqat

Climate change, authoritarianism, poverty, terrorism, energy-shortages, genocide, population growth. These are only some of the global challenges the world is currently facing. Lists of global challenges seek to identify the greatest of them, international organizations like the United Nations take them as the starting point for their Sustainable Development Goals, and non-governmental groups like the World Economic Forum put them at the top of their political agenda. The language of global challenges has become part of agenda-setting, programming, funding initiatives, and the wider societal working vocabulary.

In our book, Constructing Global Challenges in World Politics, we inquire as to the social, political, and historical significance of global challenges. Scholars from the humanities and social sciences have certainly explored this topic before. Global challenges, as scholars have shown, are multidimensional and spatially unbounded, just as they require large-scale cooperation to solve. More specifically, Inga Ulnicane has studied the rise and diffusion of global challenges at the intersection of scientific communities, national governments, and international organizations. And David Kaldewey has attended to the meaning behind the spread of global challenges in scientific and technological discourses.

What these accounts have failed to grapple with are far more fundamental questions: How do global challenges come about socially? and by extension, What does their prominence teach us about world politics?


A constructivist approach

In our work, we start out with the contention of improbability. Global challenges aren’t just there. The evolution of an issue, such as aging or terrorism, into a global challenge is itself highly improbable. It requires enormous political maneuvering and continuous discursive legitimation for such issues to be viewed as truly global phenomena, solvable only through global cooperation. The volume brings together eleven contributions that tackle this problem from a number of disciplinary vantage points—history, sociology, and International Relations. As diverse as these disciplines may be, they are all united by a constructivist approach.

In fact, we have endeavored to build upon a social-scientific body of literature that is well-established but seems often overlooked in studies of global challenges. As early as the 1970s, social scientists began employing a constructivist lens to social problems. An issue deemed a social problem, prominent sociologist Herbert Blumer went, is not simply a reflection of objective reality out there. Nor do, by that same token, worsening conditions on the ground guarantee an issue the status of a social problem. Social problems gain that status in the wake of laborious processes of social recognition. The contemporary scholarly interest in global challenges can thus benefit from insights generated by this research.

Modes of constructing global challenges

We argue that actors apply different modes of construction to turn issues into global challenges. We also observe how particular issues are constructed as challenges to the institutionalized global order—or, in broader terms, how “the global” is imagined.

The first mode is universalizing, which involves framing an issue as everyone’s concern. The second mode is bundling, a strategy of linking issues that have traditionally been perceived as unconnected. The third mode, upscaling, describes how actors elevate local, national, or regional problems to the global level. The fourth mode, creating urgency, highlights the framing of an issue as so urgent that it must be addressed immediately.

These modes of construction are operationalized in different ways by all the chapters in the book. The first two chapters investigate the predecessors of contemporary global challenges, exploring the case of “unequal treaties” (Simon Hecke and James Stafford) and the interplay of conceptions of modernity between the West and Japan (Frank Meyhöfer and Benjamin Schiffl). Furthermore, Kathryn Lavelle demonstrates how the governance of the Arctic has evolved into a global challenge on account of bundling and upscaling practices by various actors.

Other contributions investigate the construction of such diverse issues as mass atrocities, terrorism and violent extremism, climate change, or population aging. Some authors point to the tendency of bundling security and non-security issues (human rights, development, energy provision, and climate change) when pushing them forward on the global agenda (Ann-Kathrin Rothermel; Alina Isakova, Katerina Volkov, Martin Koch). Issues seen as global also allow the actors dealing with them—be it nation-states, cities, or international organizations—to claim legitimacy and agency in global terms (ibid., Tatiana Saraseko). This often goes hand in hand with proposing solutions: The Responsibility to Protect is presented as a solution to prevent mass atrocities by norm entrepreneurs (Jonas Fritzler); the economic growth paradigm is related by the OECD as one crucial solution to existing challenges (Robin Schulze Waltrup); and “active aging” is presented as a neoliberal solution to the global challenge of long-term care (Cansu Erdoğan).

In other, more conceptual considerations, Tobias Werron compares the emergence of the contemporary global challenges discourse with what Holly Case (2018) has called “The Age of Questions”. Malte Neuwinger warns scholars not to assume that the change in terminology from global problems to challenges is necessarily meaningful, suggesting that actors may simply be “bullshitting.”


A conservative radicalism

What do these studies teach us about world politics? Certainly, they show the continuities and discontinuities, as well as the fragility, of contemporary global challenges talk. Global challenges are a new phenomenon, but not radically new. Nor are they just there, they must be created and carefully cultivated. Moreover, the global challenges discourse highlights the ambivalences of contemporary world politics. It seeks to address our greatest problems and seemingly puts the injustices wrought upon the oppressed on the global political agenda. But it does so in a language more reminiscent of sports and largely remains within the confines of a market-based economic order and liberal internationalism.

Whether this thinking is antiquated or appropriate given an increasingly multipolar world order (another global challenge?) remains to be seen. What does seem clear, however, is that global challenges reflect the attempt on the part of Western leaders to frame our present predicament in their very own terms: as one that is severe and requiring considerable ingenuity, but that will ultimately be tackled with the tried-and-tested tools of the same power holders. Framing politics in terms of global challenges, in this sense, is an attempt to change everything so that everything can stay the same.


Alina Isakova is a doctoral researcher with the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology and a research associate with the project “A Theory of World Entities” (ATOWE) at Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research interests lie in construction of global governance, inter- and non-governmental organizations, cooperation, conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

Malte Neuwinger is a doctoral researcher with the Research Training Group “World Politics” at Bielefeld University, Germany. He studies labor and social policy, the social implications of technological developments, and the interaction between social science and politics.

Robin Schulze Waltrup is a postdoctoral researcher with the Working Group “German and Transnational Social Policy” at Bielefeld University, Germany. Previously, he was a Visiting Researcher at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. His research interests include global governance, eco-social policy, and sustainable welfare.

Oday Uraiqat is a doctoral researcher with the Research Training Group “World Politics” at Bielefeld University, Germany. He studies relations among national liberation struggles as a distinct dimension of globalization. His research interests lie at the intersection of sociological theory, world society theory, and historical sociology.