Calls for a New Bretton Woods for Internet Governance

Channeling the Energy for International Institutions

Author: John W. Head, KU School of Law

A recent article appearing on the website of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) – see In the Age of Connection, Disconnected Digital Governance Isn’t Working | Centre for International Governance Innovation ( – notes some recent calls for a “new Bretton Woods” – this one focused not on monetary matters but on governance of the internet:

At the fourth (and virtual) meeting of the International Grand Committee (IGC) on Disinformation, policy makers from across the globe met to discuss the current “infodemic” that is undermining public health, social cohesion, and trust in institutions and democracy. IGC members urged the international community to enter into a new cooperative effort, adding their voices to those calling for a “Bretton Woods” for the digital age.

The first Bretton Woods, the meeting of Allied countries in 1944 that created the global financial architecture, was a response to the catastrophic fallout from World War II. The meeting was underpinned by the belief that a stable, global financial system would foster international cooperation and enable peaceful trade. As Taylor Owen and Rohinton P. Medhora noted in a recent article, a modern reboot would provide an opportunity to create a similar institutional framework to manage the world’s digital infrastructure as it recovers from the financial and societal impacts of the current pandemic.

The account given in that excerpt about the “first Bretton Woods” gives more emphasis than I would give to the global financial architecture, since (1) the original idea of the International Monetary Fund was fairly narrow in scope – to manage a “par value” system of national currency values (thereby facilitating trade, which was thought to be a means of avoiding a World War III) – and (2) the original idea of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (later, the World Bank) was to rebuild the infrastructure of Europe, laid waste by the bombing of World War II. Still, the description given above rings true in indicating that the delegates to the Bretton Woods conference in New Hampshire in the summer of 1944 held “the belief that a stable, global financial system would foster international cooperation and enable peaceful trade”.

How does this relate to the Global RESTORATION Project? Bear in mind that the initiatives we believe need immediate attention – Responsible Energy, for instance, and Organic Restorative Agriculture – require global cooperative structures. Some GRP publications (see the “Publications page of the GRP website, available here) provide detailed designs for exactly that: global cooperative structures. Specifically, the structures would include (1) a new international institution – better built and better operated than the post-WWII institutions we’re familiar with today – to help coordinate at the global level key agroecological matters, which would in turn be handled by (2) a collection of biogeographically-defined “ecological states” with jurisdiction over agroecological matters “at ground level” … that is, where the real work of creating a restorative agriculture and an effective system of ecological protection would actually occur.

Numerous calls for a “new Bretton Woods” have arisen over the 75 years since the IMF and the IBRD were first put in place. Why? Because despite their warts and inequities, those institutions have tremendous power to influence world events. An approach favored by the Global RESTORATION Project is to channel such power into new uses and policies – smart technology, responsible energy, agricultural reform, etc. … in other words, to apply the power of supranational institutional structures in attacking the existential issues of our own day. A “new Bretton Woods” of this sort would place agroecology, smart technology, and responsible energy production & use front and center.