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The Global Common Good in a Divided World

David Hollenbach SJ

Presentation sponsored by The Australian Catholic University
and Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre

22 August 2005
ACU North Sydney Campus

The phenomenon of globalization is one of the most important signs of the times in the early twenty-first century.  It is one of the central new realities that all countries, both developed and developing, must address as we seek to chart our course into the future.  My thesis today is that the increased interactions among peoples in a globalizing world require a deepened understanding of the common good shared across borders.  In particular, I will suggest we pay particular attention to the link between the idea of the common good and understandings of solidarity and justice.

I will present a three-part argument.  First, a brief clarification of the meaning of "globalization" will be offered.  Second, several key ideas about the linkage of the common good, solidarity and justice developed in the tradition of Catholic social thought that are relevant to these concerns will be outlined. Third, some practical suggestions will be made about the way key institutions can contribute to the solidarity and justice we need.

1.  Dimensions of Globalization

First, a brief clarification of the meaning of globalization is in order, since it is the focal point of considerable intellectual and political controversy.  Frequently in anti-globalization discourse, especially in developing countries, the term is used to name economic changes that are expected to lead to further impoverishment of those who are already desperately poor.  This usage of the term appeals to recent economic developments that have been accompanied by both increased poverty and inequality in developing countries.  If globalization is identified with such phenomena, the term takes on powerfully negative connotations.  On the other hand, more optimistic thinkers point to the success stories among some developing countries to argue that integration into global markets through trade and finance can lead to positive economic outcomes.  References were often made to the east Asian "tigers" before the crisis of 1997.  A positive stance toward globalization also arises from the hope that communications technology is bringing a worldwide human community into being in a way that has never been seen before.  The identification of the meaning of "globalization" with such desirable outcomes can give the term a very positive meaning.

In the midst of such controversies, the term "globalization" needs to be defined.  Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye have provided some useful precision by defining globalization as the increase in networks of interdependence among people at multicontinental distances. [1]   This general description highlights the fact that globalization involves complex networks of interdependence, not single strands of interconnection.  Globalization is occurring on multiple levels of social life—the economic (including the diverse dimensions of trade, finance, investment, production, and consumption), the environmental, the social-cultural, the political, the military, and the technological. [2]   Our evaluations of globalization are in fact sharply influenced by which strand of the growing global network we focus upon.

For example, economic globalization has been accompanied by both increased poverty and increased inequality in some developing countries, especially in Africa.  The number of people worldwide with incomes of less than $1 per day has been rising, despite the modest decline of the percentage that are poor. [3]   The Structural Adjustment Programs of the IMF and World Bank of the 1980s and early 1990s put constraints on the economic decisions of the governments of developing countries through the conditions they set for loans, debt relief, and other forms of financial assistance.  In hindsight, several economists highly placed within the World Bank have written scathing critiques of the policies followed by the major international financial institutions in the 80s and early 90s. [4]   In their view, these policies have not alleviated and may even have contributed to inequality, poverty, and suffering in parts of the developing world.  Such phenomena surely give the term globalization a very bad name.

Such critiques have led to some new directions at the major international financial institutions. For example, the World Bank’s recent efforts to formulate a Comprehensive Development Framework and its 2001 annual World Development Report entitled “Attacking Poverty” seek to put the issue of equality back on the development agenda. [5]   Indeed, this change of stated policy objectives has lead some to argue that today’s World Bank leadership has become overly ambitious in pursuit of equality and insufficiently committed to free markets. [6]   The same critique has been directed at the Millennium Development Goals established by the U.N. and Jeffrey Sachs’s strategy for achieving them. 

Or consider aspects of globalization evident in the emergence of environmental issues such as global warming or the health crises due to the transmission of AIDS across national boundaries.  A United Nations Development Program study identifies protection of the environment and human health as “global public goods.” [7] An individual nation shares in a global public good precisely because that nation is part of the global whole in which the good is present.  Thus the protection of the environment, climate, and ozone layer for one country is intertwined with the global protection of these realities. In an analogous way, we can speak of global public bads.

Thus ethical judgments with important policy implications must be made on the basis of increasingly transnational information.  This might itself be called the globalization of the task of ethical inquiry.  This kind of globalization is highly desirable and we do not have enough of it.

There are also explicitly political dimensions of globalization.  For example, the idea of universal human rights is raising complex challenges to the sovereignty of nation states.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the charter document of an international human rights regime composed of overlapping global, regional, national, and nongovernmental institutions including Church-related institutions. [8]   These institutions, often working together, have raised increasingly strong challenges to the sovereignty of states.  A number of these agencies insist that human rights are not limited to the civil political rights favored by the liberal tradition but include the social and economic rights long stressed in the Catholic tradition.  The significance of this human rights movement has been visible in the maneuvering that took place across the borders of Spain, the United Kingdom, and Chile regarding the fate of Augusto Pinochet.  The establishment of the International Criminal Court (despite U.S. opposition) is moving toward institutionalizing such accountability for severe human rights abuses in a permanent way.  The political aspects of globalization also include consideration of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention to protect people threatened by the gravest human rights violations such as genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The role of human rights in the evolving international regime thus directly challenges state sovereignty on the legal-political level.  At least as important in the long run, I believe, is the way the idea of universal human rights stretches cultural understandings of the scope of moral responsibility.  In U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's words:  "State sovereignty . . . is being redefined . . . by the forces of globalization and international co-operation. States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa."  [9]   In this way of thinking, human beings are, first, members of the worldwide human community with rights that derive from their humanity as such, and second, members of the communities of existing nation states.  Nation states, of course, are not about to fade off the scene any time soon.  Nevertheless, states do not have impermeable boundaries that may never be legitimately crossed.  Annan argues that these boundaries indeed ought to be crossed, preferably by diplomats, or in extreme cases by soldiers, to prevent massive human rights violations, to protect refugees, to keep or make the peace.  This is in effect an appeal for the globalization of citizenship—for granting membership in the human community a higher value than citizenship in a particular nation state, at least in extreme situations where humanity itself is threatened.  Again, we see that the moral significance of globalization depends on which dimension of the global network we focus upon.

These economic, environmental, and political matters are but three of the strands in the emerging network of globalization. The point here is that globalization is a many-dimensional reality; it cannot be reduced to a single line of analysis such as the economic without distorting it in ways that will lead to serious misunderstanding.

2. What Kind of Globalization?  Normative Considerations

Such trans-border interconnections in the economic, environmental, and political domains are forms of de facto interdependence.  The key questions thus become how to move from patterns of interdependence marked by inequality or oppression to conditions of interdependence based on equality, solidarity, and reciprocity.  Unequal interdependence is evident where policies sustain poverty or deepen the gaps between rich and poor.  They are evident when whole nations are trapped in a cycle of poverty by their debts to international financial institutions. [10]   To be sure, markets and trade can be engines of improved well-being for those who already have access to them.  The effort to reduce European and U.S. tariffs on the agricultural products of poor nations is based on the harm that restrictions on trade can do to poor countries.  When heavy subsidies to the agricultural sector in the rich countries keeps developing country agricultural exports meager, the benefits of trade will flow only to those who are already better off. 

Here it will be useful to say a few words about how Catholic social thought can contribute to our normative reflection on globalization.   The idea of solidarity has an important place in the vision of a just society in Catholic social ethics.  John Paul II, for example, often affirmed that solidarity is a prerequisite for a democratic society characterized by human rights and that the individualism of most theories of the free market is insufficient.  To be sure, the Pope acknowledged the efficiency and productivity of market economies.  But he often warned against uncritical support for liberal ideologies that see markets by themselves as the solution to poverty, political oppression, and violence.  Catholic social thought has long held that the market can create problems for democracy and human rights unless it is regulated by norms of justice that emerge from a vision of human solidarity – a vision that we are all in the same boat together.

For example, during his 1998 visit to Cuba, John Paul II appealed forcefully for human rights and democracy, as he did much earlier in his native Poland when it was still under Communist rule.  But in Cuba the Pope also stressed that political freedom plus markets is an inadequate formula for a just form of development.  Here is how he put it in Havana in the presence of Fidel Castro:

[V]arious places are witnessing the resurgence of a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces and conditions the development of peoples on those forces.  From its centres of power, such neoliberalism often places unbearable burdens upon less favored countries.  Hence, at times, unsustainable economic programmes are imposed on nations as a condition for further assistance.  In the international community, we thus see a small number of countries growing exceedingly rich at the cost of the increasing impoverishment of a great number of other countries; as a result the wealthy grow ever wealthier, while the poor grow ever poorer. [11]

The Pope, of course, was no Marxist.  Nevertheless, he observed that in market-based societies it easily comes about that many persons are unable to participate in the marketplace because they lack the resources needed to do so – "if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads.” [12]  

This presents us with a formidable agenda.  The shape of the world’s evolving economic and political systems is still very much up for grabs.  One possible future is a new hegemony by the powerful over the weak, in which the economic and military power of the few is used to control and dominate the many.  This, of course, is what many of the critics of globalization fear is actually occurring.  But it also seems unlikely that efforts simply to withdraw from the global web will secure a decent life for those who are presently on the weaker side of the distribution of power.

Thus beyond the critiques of the negative consequences of globalization we need to develop positive ways to envision living with it and putting it to the service of the well being of all the people.  John Paul II has suggested the outline of such a positive vision in his call for “globalization in solidarity, globalization without marginalization.”  He says that globalization of this kind requires asking “Will everyone be able to take advantage of a global market?  . . .  Will relations between States become more equitable, or will economic competition and rivalries between peoples and nations lead humanity toward a situation of even greater instability.” [13]   Giving positive answers to the first of these questions means developing new forms of cooperation, partnership and solidarity in the emerging global network.

How can we respond to this challenge to pursue a form of globalization based on solidarity?  I have several suggestions.

The Catholic tradition's stress on the common good and social solidarity has important influence on the way we understand what justice requires in the economic and political domains of the global network.  An adequate discussion of the meaning of justice is obviously impossible here.  The task can be simplified, however, by noting the United States Catholic Bishops’ description of the bottom-line demands of justice.  They said "Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons."  Put negatively, "The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were nonmembers of the human race." [14]   Catholic social thought calls this exclusion "marginalization" – exclusion from active participation in the common good of the human community.

Such unjust exclusion can take many forms.  There is political marginalization: the denial of the vote, restriction of free speech, the tyrannical concentration of power in the hands of a ruling elite.  The most extreme forms of such exclusion are evident in the ethnic cleansing, and the abomination of genocide that we have witnessed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and that is occurring again today in Darfur.  Less dramatic are economic policies that sustain or increase poverty, lack of education, no access to basic health care, and unemployment.  When we possess the resources to address these deprivations but fail to do so, those who suffer the continuing deprivation are effectively marginalized.  The community implicitly tells them: we don't need your talent, we don't need your initiative, we don't need you.   Put positively, we need a vision of justice that maintains that every person counts, and that all have a moral claim to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of their communities at least to the level needed to protect the most basic requirements of human dignity.  Injecting a vision of justice such as this into the current debates about economic relations in a globalizing world could be one of the chief contributions we can make to the debates about globalization today.

3. Institutional Implications

This understanding of justice also calls for the development of political and economic institutions that will give developing countries and their citizens greater voice when decisions are being made about indebtedness, trade, environment, labor standards, and other forms of interdependence.  As Keohane and Nye have pointed out, the venues where such decisions are made presently often look like clubs with membership limited to political and economic elites.  Trade ministers meet at the World Trade Organization, finance ministers at the International Monetary fund, and heads of the most developed countries at G8 summit meetings.  Though these organizations are formally accountable to the states that are their members, they represent only certain constituencies within those states, frequently conduct their business in closed sessions, and operate as distant bureaucracies.  Votes in these international agencies are often distributed in proportion to the wealth or budgetary contributions of the member states and the poor are rarely officially represented at all.  This has been called "globalization's democratic deficit." [15]   Control over the decisions of these international organizations by many of the people whose well-being they affect is at best attenuated and at worst non-existent. [16] A normative understanding of social justice, therefore, calls for greater transparency, accountability, and access in these institutions than exists today.

Formal democratization of the governance of international institutions is, however, only part of the solution.  The situation also will require strengthening the capacity of less formal modes of influence.  NGOs have the capacity to press both national governments and international organizations for action on numerous issues. [17]   They also have the capacity to influence the public debate in the larger societies on these matters.  The church and its many agencies can and should be key actors in the effort to shape evolving transnational and international institutions in ways that enhance participation by poor countries.  In the same way, the universities and other centers of intellectual activity of our world have important global reach that can have considerable influence for greater justice.

In fact there is some evidence that movement toward this greater solidarity is not only a moral imperative but, in at least some domains, an empirical reality.  For example, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton, has argued that we need to “stop imagining the international system as a system of states—unitary entities like billiard balls or black boxes.” [18]   Seeing the world as it is calls for recognizing that the international system is a complex network whose many strands are various parts of governments, as well as intergovernmental and nongovernmental groups and agencies.   Slaughter calls the trend leading to this form of politics a movement to a networked world and that the emerging global networks composed of parts of states as well as NGOs can help contribute to more just and peaceful world order.  

These networks help government officials see how national interests and the interests of peoples elsewhere are often linked rather than opposed.  Similarly, nongovernmental advocacy groups are tied into networks with each other and with both national governments and international organizations. [19]   In an earlier work I described this picture of the emerging global scene as “a network of crisscrossing communities.” [20]

In such a world, positive engagement and solidarity with peoples in other nations will often be necessary to achieve the good of one’s own nation.  Thus, in a hesitant but real way, the pursuit of the national interest is becoming an increasingly transnational task, precisely because the national good is increasingly a transnational reality.  This is one of the dimensions of the globalization phenomenon that hold out genuine moral hope.

Let me conclude with what may be a provocative appeal to historical memory.  The distinguished Australian theorist of international politics, Hedley Bull, has asked whether there may be an analogy between the international system of the future and that which prevailed in the West before the modern nation state had come into existence. [21]   In such a future, authority would be shared among numerous overlapping communities, including national governments, intergovernmental organizations, and transnational organizations and movements.  The significant actors in such a world would include not only states but also intergovernmental actors like the Organization of American States and the World Trade Organization, and also nongovernmental bodies like Amnesty International, the international women's movement, international scholarly associations, the Catholic church, the Islamic community, and (more ominously) terrorist organizations such as Al Qaida.  Bull calls this neo-medievalism, because in the medieval system political authority was diffused among multiple agents of government, including barons and dukes, princes, the Holy Roman Emperors, bishops, and the pope. Transnationalism was part of the routine. [22]

This does not mean, of course, that in our globalizing world the European ancien régime can or should be reestablished.  The world is far too religiously and culturally pluralistic to revive Christendom.  The medieval analogy, however, does suggest a fruitful way of thinking about the structural and political organization of the future international system.  This analogy is based on certain similarities in the way the emerging structures of the world today generate multiple and overlapping loyalties.  Political and communal loyalties today are becoming simultaneously more local and more transnational than the focused loyalty that patriots and nationalists of the modern era had to their state or their nation.

Today, an accountable form of governance will have to be multilayered, including formal governmental bodies on local, national, regional, and international levels, but also comprised of intergovernmental regimes in which civil society-based NGOs play a key role. [23]   Citizens in this world will have commitments to more than one community, including patriotic loyalties to a nation state, but also likely including loyalties to a cultural or ethnic community, a profession, and one or more advocacy communities such as a labor union or a normatively committed group such as Amnesty International. [24]   For many, these loyalties will include commitment to a community of faith such as Catholicism, whose values transcend all other loyalties but that advocates a form of universal solidarity among all persons as fellow creatures of the transcendent God.

In light of this institutional evolution, is it far-fetched to suggest that the Catholic tradition – with its strong commitment to the common good and solidarity – could make a distinctive and valuable contribution to greater justice in our globalizing world?  This contribution could be a vision of social solidarity and justice based on the equal dignity of every member of the human family.

The links that connect ideas of the common good, solidarity, and justice are especially important in the efforts to address the new forms of economic, social, and cultural interdependence that come with globalization.  Because of its sensitivity to these links, a case can be made that Catholic social ethics can make a creative contribution in our globalizing world. So, at least, I would like to propose and to hope.



[1] Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, “Globalization: What’s New? What’s Not? (And So What?)” Foreign Policy (Spring, 2000), 104-119, at 105.

[2] For an in-depth analysis of the diverse dimensions of globalization, see David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton, Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).  Similar though not identical dimensions of globalization are distinguished and analyzed in Joseph S. Nye and John D. Donahue, eds., Governance in a Globalizing World (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), Part One, "Trends in Globalization."

[3] See The World Bank, World Development Report 2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), Table 1.1, p. 23.

[4] See Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002); William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

[5] See Ravi Kanbur and Nora Lustig, “Why Is Inequality Back on the Agenda?” paper presented at the Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics, World Bank, Washington, D. C., April 28-30, 1999.  Kanbur and Lustig had oversight of the drafting of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2000/2001.

[6] Jessica Einhorn, "The World Bank's Mission Creep," Foreign Affairs 80, no. 5 (September/October 2001): 22-35, Stephen Fidler, "Who's Minding the Bank?" Foreign Policy 126, (September/October 2001): 40-50.

[7] See Inge Kaul, Isabelle Grunberg, and Marc A. Stern, eds., Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), especially the essays on environment and health.

[8] See Ivan Vallier "The Roman Catholic Church: A Transnational Actor," in Joseph S. Nye and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Transnational Relations and World Politics: An Introduction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), and, for a more contemporary analysis, J. Bryan Hehir, "Overview," in Religion in World Affairs, findings of a conference organized by the DACOR Bacon House Foundation, Washington, D.C., October 6, 1995, 11-24, esp. 16-18.

[9] Kofi A. Annan, “Two Concepts of Sovereignty,” The Economist, September 18, 1999.

[10] See Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference, "A Jubilee Call for Debt Forgiveness" (April 1999), sec. I.  Available on the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference website, at http://www.nccbuscc.org (downloaded July 24, 2001).  This statement presents an overview of a common-good based approach to the indebtedness of developing countries. 

[11] John Paul , Homily in the José Marti Square, Havana, Cuba, Sunday, 25 January, 1998, no. 4. Downloaded from the website of the Holy See, http://www.vatican.va.

[12] Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, no. 33.

[13] John Paul II, “From the Justice of Each Comes the Peace of All,”  World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 1998, no. 3.

[14] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All, no. 77, emphasis in the original.  In David O’Brien and Thomas Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 576-77.

[15] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "Globalization's Democratic Deficit: How to Make International Institutions More Accountable," Foreign Affairs 80, no. 4 (July/August, 2001), 2-6.

[16] Robert O. Keohane, "International Institutions: Can Interdependence Work?" Foreign Policy 110 (Spring, 1998), 92. Keohane and Joseph Nye develop the "club" characterization somewhat more fully in their "Introduction" to Governance in a Globalizing World, esp. 26-36.

[17] Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), 2-3, 16-25.  For a similar breakdown of the roles played by transnational NGOs see L. David Brown, Sanjeev Khagram, Mark H. Moore, and Peter Frumkin, "Globalization, NGOs, and Multisectoral Relations," in Governance in a Globalizing World, Nye and Donahue, eds., 271-296, at 283.

[18] Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 5.

[19] Slaughter, A New World Order, 19-22 and 10.  For a study of the emerging role of NGOs, see Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

[20] David Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 229.

[21] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (London: Macmillan, 1977), 254.

[22] See Held, et al., Global Transformations, 85, and Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), esp. 209-217.

[23] The term "multilayered governance" is from Held, et al, Global Transformations, 62-77.

For provocative discussions of these plural loyalties see Onora O'Neill, Bounds of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2000), esp. chaps. 9 and 10; Amartya Sen, "Global Justice: Beyond International Equity," in Kaul, et al., Global Public Goods, 116-125.


Professor David Hollenbach SJ is the Margaret O’Brien Flatley Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College.

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