Most realists and neo-realists dismiss fairness or equity as a force to be reckoned with in explaining or predicting the course of events in world affairs. Whatever their feelings about the attractions of various principles of fairness or equity in normative terms, they see no need to resort to such considerations in accounting for what actually happens at the international level. Nor are they inclined to alter this general assessment in analysing the role of international regimes or, more broadly, institutions operating in international society. What is more, this view is shared in large measure by an array of analysts who do not regard themselves as realists or neo-realists. David Victor, for example, has recently written that ‘for most states most of the time, the decisionmaking process is mainly a selfish one. Consequently, there exists very little evidence that fairness exerts a strong influence on international policy decisions’ (Victor, 1996:3).
Yet interest in the role of fairness at the international level is both strong and growing stronger. Practitioners who devote their time and energy either to creating international regimes or to operating institutional arrangements once they are in place persist in employing concepts of fairness or equity in characterizing the activities in which they are engaged. Of course, some may see this as little more than a form of self-serving behaviour or even self-delusion on the part of those who are actually engaged in hard-nosed political processes. But interest in the role of fairness is now spreading rapidly within the academic community concerned with the establishment of international regimes designed to solve various problems. As Victor puts it in his discussion of the climate change convention, ‘The search for “fair” or “equitable” agreements to slow global warming has become a cottage industry’ (Victor, 1996:1). Much the same can be said of efforts to solve other large-scale or global problems, like ozone depletion or the loss of biological diversity.
How can this be? Are those who focus on considerations of fairness or equity in discussing these issues operating exclusively in the realm of normative analysis, engaging in a form of wishful thinking, or simply fooling themselves? Or is there something significant going on here that the realists, neo-realists