Global and going nowhere: sustainable development, global governance & liberal democracy.

Author:Kraska, James C.

"How we decide and who gets to decide often determines what we decide." (1)


    Nearly one hundred years ago, Roscoe Pound discerned between "law in the books" and "law in action." (3) Roscoe Pound was a Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Prophesying the emergence of legal realism, Dean Pound was a pragmatist who was concerned that lawyers were hiding behind deductive models disconnected from reality. Pound also was a botanist. He understood that the sciences had long since abandoned such deductive modes of thinking in search of inductive reasoning and empirical verification. The "law in the books" was too often at variance with how the law actually unfolds in the real world. (4) Lawyers were admonished by Pound not to behave as "legal monks," disconnected from the real world. (5) Dean Pound worried about the application of unrealistic models of law and how they confounded the attainment of social justice in the United States, but his wisdom carries valuable lessons for today's international lawyers and policymakers who are busily constructing the global legal architecture of sustainable development.

    There is no doubt that Dean Pound, who dedicated a career to realizing social justice in action, would today be disappointed to cast his gaze at the widening gulf between carefully designed international economic, environmental and human rights regimes on the one hand, and the appalling human condition and environmental degradation that pervades much of the globe, on the other. This article is devoted to better understanding the variance between international policy and law "in the books" and how those international rules are developed and applied "in action" within the sphere of global sustainable development. Understanding the nature of this disconnection produces important insights and has critical implications for global governance.

    This article rejects the widely accepted international development orthodoxy and supports a new discourse emerging in development thought that argues that democracy promotion is the best way to achieve sustainable development. Part I reviews the origins of the prevailing orthodoxy of sustainable development. Part II critiques the application of the orthodoxy and introduces fresh narratives and empirical perspectives on sustainable development grounded in human freedom and democracy. Part III concludes with a call to embrace the emerging democratic development norm.

    Since World War II, world development has been captive to an orthodox approach emanating from two levels of analysis--at the international level, a Marxist-derived world systems model, and at the state level, an authoritarian regime model. World systems analysis contributes to the orthodoxy by suggesting under-development is a function of world systemic or structural defects that "cause" under-development. It originated in Marxist theory and goes by the names dependency theory, neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism. At the state level of analysis, modernization theory has celebrated the development virtues of authoritarian regimes.

    Global environmentalism, which harbors a deep skepticism, and even hostility, toward economic growth and international trade, has reinforced the dependency theorists' attack on the world system. The result is a powerful international front that has sabotaged the development prospects of many underdeveloped states. The state level of analysis has contributed to the orthodoxy by positing that authoritarian regimes are better at producing development, when in fact, they are not. The conventional state-level analysis holds that development is a chaotic and unsettling affair; dictatorships are better at managing the period of unstable transition. Democracy, which is also disruptive, can only come later, if at all. This article suggests that the impact of these two approaches--one focusing on the world system and the other on the state--has been counter-productive, actually serving to defeat the goals of sustainable development for many of the poorest nations. A far better approach--centered on democracy--has begun to emerge. This alternative, challenging the conventional paradigm, should be nurtured and promoted.

    The orthodoxy has a controlling influence on national and international approaches to sustainable development. Despite the avalanche of empirical research supporting the connection between democracy and development, changing the consensus is not easy. The international law, global rules and international programs that have sprung from the orthodoxy--the "law in the books"--have failed Dean Pound's real world test of "law in action."

    An alternative model of development focusing on democracy requires a radical reassessment at the state level of analysis. Liberal democratic regimes better promote vertical and horizontal economic development, and do so while better managing and preserving the natural environment. Moreover, these systems generate prosperity and stability that create the foundation for sustainable development. The emergence of democracy in one country tends to facilitate trade and economic growth regionally. A political system that promotes freedom spins off positive externalities of peace and stability that have a positive impact on neighboring states. Perhaps most importantly, democracy as a modality for development departs from the prevailing approach by promoting a genuinely liberal agenda that celebrates the centrality of individual human freedom, dignity and self-actualization as the central goal of development.

    Today we are in the midst of a new normative campaign on sustainable development within the United Nations and around the world, comparable to the campaign for decolonization in the 1960s and anti-apartheid in the 1980s (6) It is particularly critical now that we shape the architecture of sustainable development in a way that best achieves the objectives of economic growth, social development and a secure environment. After thirty years of passionate effort, much well-guided but plenty misguided, as well as some success and no small amount of abject failure, it is worthwhile to take stock of the ideas that gave birth to sustainable development, trace their evolution, and most importantly, to test their assumptions. The interdisciplinary challenge of sustainable development has remained bounded by prevailing normative political and economic assumptions marked by ambivalence and hostility toward solutions based on human freedom. These accepted conventions have weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the moribund notion of central planning. Over the last decade, however, the growing appreciation for the productive power of human freedom and democracy has frayed the orthodoxy. Consequently, now is a promising time in which to engage in a fresh conversation to redefine modalities of sustainable development.

    1. Development Paradigms and the Global Orthodoxy

      This is the story of how the progressive idea of freedom as the dispositive ingredient in human development slowly crept from the corners of polite debate on sustainable development to challenge the orthodox view. Along the way, unlikely allies including Democratic and Republican presidents in the United States, the Pope, a labor leader in Poland and a dissident in Burma, all converged to engage the orthodoxy and enlarge the idea of democracy as a development norm.

      Ironically, the very global institutions that should have been at the forefront of this campaign were absent from its inception and are even now not entirely committed to the enterprise. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations (UN) only recently have begun to nod in the right direction. Their progress has been slow. Much of the hard work and immense resources funneled through these organizations over previous decades has been wasted, entwined in the grip of banal approaches to development.

      Historically, the discourse of sustainable development has congregated around a number of discrete themes springing from environmentalism and central economic and social planning. The environmentalists' view that economic growth is destructive to the environment was popularized by the Club of Rome study, Limits to Growth. (7) Grandiloquent French and German "meta-narratives" which sought to reshape man and redesign society remain in vogue in modernization theory, even after the fallacy of central planning lay threadbare. The redistribution of wealth from the North to the South is a product of world systems theories, and still a common feature in sustainable development.

      The remainder of Part I discusses the history and maturity of the orthodoxy of sustainable development. Part II turns away from the orthodoxy to explore the interrelationship between democracy, economic growth, ecological sustainability and regional security. The research suggests not just casual linkages among them, but strong correlations, and even causality. Some of this research is new and exciting and not well known; some is older but perhaps mostly ignored by many because it does not complement the accepted paradigm. Liberal democratic government is the fulcrum on which these concepts pivot.

      The conclusion, Part III, advocates unapologetically for embracing economic and political models of human freedom in pursuit of development. It is imperative that we seek universal acceptance of the democratic development norm. It will be especially challenging to dismantle the orthodoxy. The global sustainable development movement is populated with a membership that shares a common mind-set. Challenges to the conventional wisdom are excluded or rationalized as mistaken. This article joins the few voices beginning to emerge from outside the paradigm; thus, it has somewhat the quality of an outsider looking in.

      While research suggests that everyone is susceptible to falling into the cognitive...

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