Global governance as ethical commitment – A new vision on solidarity for sustainable development

The missing goal: a new global governance for sustainable development

One of the results of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, as presented in the outcome document entitled The Future We Want, was a mandate for the UN to establish an open working group to develop a set of sustainable development goals for consideration and appropriate action by the General Assembly at its sixty-eighth session. The document further specified that the sustainable development goals should be coherent with and integrated into the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015. The work of the open working group, organized in 13 interactive sessions with participation of member states and civil society between March 2013 and July 2014, resulted in the document entitled Open Working Group Proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals. Looking at the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we can say that ‘the intentions are good’, and one can discuss whether specific targets are too ambitious or not ambitious enough, but the striking thing is that there is not a single reflection in the goals about an eventual need for political reform to ensure fair and effective governance towards the realization of these goals. In other words: the assumption is that the Sustainable Development Goals can be reached without a need to reform the way we do politics on the global and national level today.

The inherent contradiction

In the attached discussion paper Global Governance as Ethical Commitment, I want to develop the argument that a serious critical political self-inquiry and consequent reform for fair and effective global governance is needed, and I will consequently propose an alternative vision on what needs to be done. Many politicians, entrepreneurs, academia and activists will state that the goals are clear, and that the only danger is in a ‘lack of political will’ to realize them in practice. That critique is too simple, however, as it overlooks the inherent contradiction in the way global politics is done today, and that contradiction is determined by four problematic ideologies that endanger global governance as such:

  1. The first is the ideology that sees global governance as a pragmatic negotiation process between nation states that, all in their own specific way, came into being through a process of independency and that, in this historically determined political setting, were never meant to cooperate in a situation of urge. In this ideology of ‘global governance as pragmatic accommodation’, nation states privilege themselves (and each other) to still focus on preserving national integrity and on enabling strategic alliances in a global market ‘despite’ the fact that they have to cooperate for a higher good. The sense for this privilege of sovereignty drives as well developed as developing nations, and all of them profit from the fact that, in this setting, they can only be indirectly hold accountable for their local politics.
  1. The second is the ideology of the competitive market and economic growth as drivers for prosperity and well-being. While now even die-hard liberals would recognize the need for minimum regulation, in general that regulation is still seen as a way to enable the liberal game of competition and to correct ‘eventual’ socially adverse effects of that game, and not as an instrument of democracy to a-priori enforce the ethical boundary conditions and rules of that game.
  1. The third is the ideology of democracy as conflict, or thus the ideology that sees democracy within the nation state as a form of organized conflict between political parties that profile themselves towards the citizenry by way of strategic interpretations of the general interest and of consequent societal needs. On a global level, the ‘national position’ of a nation state is consequently the position of the political party or coalition that ‘won’ the competition in the latest elections, which gives their ‘national view’ on global issues an ad-hoc character in the context of global negotiations.
  1. Last but not least, there is the often overlooked ideology of scientific truth as a driver for political action. While the global challenges we face are typically marked by uncertainty due to incomplete and speculative knowledge, more and more, science comes under pressure to deliver evidence at the service of strategic positioning and competition in politics and the market.

Taking into account the practical manifestations of these ideologies, the contradiction in the way we do global politics today becomes clear: global governance as pragmatic accommodation pretends to aspire to global social and economic justice and environmental protection, although from the vision that one has to ‘pragmatically accept’ that we live in a world driven by the strategies of conflict, competition and self-preservation. If we take the Sustainable Development Goals serious, than we have reasons to believe that global governance towards their realization is bound to fail if done through these modes of conflict, competition and self-preservation. The central argument I develop to underpin this critique is that, while these modes do not obstruct the formulation of good intentions per se, it is their very existence and working that hinders their fulfillment, as their ‘internal logic’ is unable to deal with the complexity of our global social problems in a fair and effective way.

Following on the description of global governance done in the first part of the text and based on the critique sketched above, I propose to consider the possibility of an ethical understanding of global governance that does not hide itself behind the diplomacy of pragmatic accommodation in a world of conflict, competition and self-preservation but that, alternatively, could start from an assessment of the character of complexity of the various social challenges we face, in order to enable an evaluation of what would be a ‘fair way’ of making sense of that complexity in the first place. As an alternative to global governance as pragmatic accommodation, I thus propose to take a step back in order to enable a blank start in making sense of the why and how of global governance. My argument is that we cannot reach the Sustainable Development Goals or any other vision on global social and economic justice and environmental protection without a new vision on solidarity. That solidarity is not the pseudo-solidarity that would tolerate global governance as a pragmatic accommodation from out of the comfort zones constructed around political and economic interests, but an intellectual solidarity that would allow new modes of decision making and knowledge generation that would have the potential to be fair and effective at the same time. Political deliberation liberated from the confinement of political parties and nation states and enriched with opinions from civil society and citizens and with well-considered and (self)critical scientific advice would have the potential to be fair in the way it would enforce actors to give account of how they rationalise their interests from out of strategic positions, but also in the way it would enable actors to do so from out of vulnerable positions. And it would be effective as it would have the potential to generate societal trust based on its method instead of on promised outcomes. In this sense, intellectual solidarity is not some high-brow elite form of intellectual cooperation. It simply denotes our joint preparedness to accept the complexity of coexistence and the fact that no one has a privileged position to make sense of it. That preparedness would be the prerequisite to enable, foster and use our human intellectual capital in this world, not in the interest of competition (there are no other creatures humanity should compete with) but in the interest of the self-preservation of humanity as a whole and of respect for the dignity of everyone of its individual human beings. We must be solidary in the way we hold each other accountable, but also in the way we give each other the right to be responsible. In that sense, intellectual solidarity is the joint acceptance that we have no reference other than each other.

Download the paper > here <.

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