Video - Lecture by Karen Alter and Cristina Lafont

Global Governance and the Problem of the Second Best

Most, and perhaps all, global governance institutions fall short of normative ideals. Yet what scholars call “the problem of the second best” warns us of the pitfalls of using ideal goals as a reform guide. Applying the problem of the second best to global governance institutions, we warn against what we call the “approximation trap;” institutional reforms designed to move in the direction of a first-best ideal can lock in dynamics that lead to policies and outcomes that are worse than the unreformed second-best system. The solution, we argue, is to identify elements of second-best governance that need protection as well as deviant elements that can serve important countervailing functions under non-ideal circumstances. We provide some criteria for identifying institutional elements of both kinds and illustrate the attractiveness of this approach with the example of the WTO. We defend institutional elements that protect important global governance goals–multilateralism publicity, contestation over rules and national checks–as well as deviating elements such as the right to affordable noncompliance with WTO legal obligations, and a bar against eliminating the WTO without offering an improved replacement. 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.

Karen J. Alter is Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University, Cristina Lafont is Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. They directors of the Global Capitalism & Law Research Group based at the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs.

The lecture is part of the Lecture Series Rethinking Law, Democracy and Capitalism organized jointly by Jan Komárek (iCourts) and Niklas Olsen (CEMES).

Centre of Excellence for International Courts