Setting the Bar

Katharina Pistor

Global Impact

A new law school center led by professor Katharina Pistor focuses on areas where governance and globalization overlap

By Peter Kiefer

Summer 2011

In 1988, when the first cracks in the communist regime’s facade were becoming apparent, Katharina Pistor was just starting out in academia, and the downfall of that socio-political order became a focal point for her research and scholarship. Now, more than 20 years later, as the Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, the transformation of another socio-political order is consuming Pistor’s work: western market economies.

Last year, Pistor received grant clearance for the creation of the Center on Global Legal Transformation (CGLT), which examines the transformative effects of globalization on law and legal systems.

But when Pistor speaks about this new endeavor—which, she fully admits, does not lend itself to a 20-second elevator pitch—it immediately becomes clear that the center’s mission is greater than simply to analyze globalization. What Pistor and the CGLT will do is map the contours of our increasingly connected global landscape and lay the framework for a global dialogue on how best to exist in this new world
order where the concepts of the sovereign nation state are becoming more and
more blurred.

“In an increasingly interdependent world with a lot of governance being delegated and taken up by non-state actors, how we order social economics has changed a lot,” says Pistor, surrounded by stacks of books and manuscripts in her office. “It is not the classic Westphalian state system anymore. Just as in the time before the
nation states, we have either explicitly delegated or allowed particular legal orders
to emerge. This is about understanding emergent order from overlapping
legal regimes.”

The global financial crisis was the primary spark behind the center’s creation, but the initial spurs date back to the 1980s, when the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions ushered in an era of deregulation. As the traditional Western nation states retreated to allow markets to function more autonomously, a whole host of non-state organizations—from the Institute for International Finance to private arbiters and non-governmental organizations—began to assume a greater role in world affairs. The center, under Pistor’s leadership, will stake its claim in this area where the functions of the nation state meet the activities of private stakeholder organizations.

The CGLT plans to harness the energies of interdisciplinary experts and scholars—from sociologists to historians to economists and practicing lawyers—and organize colloquia, conferences, and workshops. It is launching collaborative research projects and sponsoring post-doctorate fellows specializing in the field. Three substantive issues Pistor is focusing on are the relation between finance and law, globalizing property rights, and governing interdependencies.

“The institution of private property has become a universal form of social ordering—whether for discoveries and inventions, the terms on which foreign investments operate in different countries, or the protection of the environment through privately held carbon emission rights,” Pistor says. “What does this particular mode of thinking and mode of practice really mean for resolving some of these big issues?”

One might think that an expert in both the capitulation of communism and the current existential crisis afflicting capitalism would be somewhat jaded about the long-term state of human affairs. Not Pistor. For now, she remains agnostic on the moral and ethical implications of globalization.

“I’m not saying it is good or bad,” Pistor notes. “But we have to think about what it means for global legal ordering.”

Peter Kiefer is a New York–based journalist who has written for the Rome bureau of The New York Times.

Illustration by Imagezoo Illustration