The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations present a novel approach to global governance where goal-setting features as a key strategy. ‘Governance through goals’, as exemplified by the SDGs, is new and unique for a number of characteristics such as the inclusive goal-setting process, the non-binding nature of the goals, the reliance on weak institutional arrangements, and the extensive leeway that states enjoy. While the SDGs hold a great potential, their collective success will depend on a number of institutional factors such as the extent to which states formalize their commitments, strengthen related global governance arrangements, translate the global ambitions into national contexts, integrate sectoral policies, and maintain flexibility in governance mechanisms. Research communities also have an important role to play, especially with regard to measuring genuine progress, aligning the goals with existing governance arrangements, and integrating the economic, social, and environmental dimensions.

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