Global Governance and the Problem of Second Best 14 November 2018

Global Governance and the Problem of the Second Best

Authors: Karen J. Alter & Cristina Lafont (Northwestern University)

Speakers: Karen J. Alter (Northwester University)

Most people would agree that global governance institutions fall well short of any procedural or substantive normative ideal. This paper defines the problem of the second best as it pertains to global governance institutions. The problem of the second best presumes that first-best alternatives are unavailable and it warns against the possibility that piecemeal reforms aimed at approximating first-best ideals might do more harm than good. In order to avoid what we call the “approximation trap”, we defend second best global governance that produces publicity, contestation about legal rules, and domestic legal checks, and argue that second-best systems that produce these outcomes are better than the alternatives of either trying to approximate a less than optimal ideals, such as a world state or a multilateral governance system with international legal rules that are globally dominant . We articulate some normative requirements for reform of global governance institutions: 1) that no reform may undermine the benefits of second best global governance that we identify; 2) any fundamental change in global governance must occur as a constructive vote of no-confidence, a replacement that is an improvement in terms of enhancing democratic input and the protections of the most vulnerable, 3) we add a substantive non-retrogression criteria in that reforms cannot lead to less protections of the rights of the most vulnerable. The paper makes two contributions. First, we point to the need to address (and avoid) the problem of the second best while crafting feasible proposals for institutional reform. Second, we offer some criteria for global governance to count as second best and to avoid the pitfalls of approximation approaches. We illustrate the argument by addressing contemporary challenges of the World Trade Organization.


The event will take place 14 November 2018, 15:00 – 18:00 in G.05, 50 George Square, University of Edinburgh.

This event is free and all are welcome.