No individual country can independently manage transnational policy challenges. Climate change, pandemic disease, terrorism, and financial volatility do not respect national borders—or bend with the political wind. Effective action to alleviate shared global challenges requires international cooperation. Unfortunately, the architecture of global governance has struggled to adapt to novel threats and new players. The resurgence of geopolitical rivalry and the rise of angry populism are complicating multilateral policy coordination, even as technological advances continue to shrink distance, build connections among once far-flung communities, and increase the global salience of formerly localized problems.
It was with these trends in mind that thirty-nine delegates from twenty countries gathered in New York in May for the Council of Councils (CoC) Fifth Annual Conference. Their task was to consider how the world might better address several pressing challenges—notably, managing flows of refugees and migrants, preventing the next global economic crisis, ameliorating the Syrian civil war and its spillover effects, improving global internet governance, and stabilizing Asian security. The conclusionsunderscored the findings of the two previous CoC conferences: geopolitical tensions and the rapid diffusion of power have stymied established global governance mechanisms and the current wave of populism is likely to further constrain international cooperation. Yet despite these challenges, countries are finding ways to cooperate through more flexible and informal channels in parallel with international institutions.
Geopolitical rivalry and competition continues to rise, with disturbing implications for global order and international cooperation. This is most obvious in tensions between Russia and the West and in China’s more assertive posture in East Asia. These geopolitical rivalries have occasionally paralyzed international institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council, threatening their credibility and legitimacy.
Despite such frictions, conference participants noted that global powers had sometimes proven capable of compartmentalizing their relations with one another, so that they could cooperate on global issues of mutual concern. The U.S.-China relationship is a case in point. Notwithstanding disagreements over the South China Sea and other topics, the two were committed to ongoing talks on issues like North Korean sanctions, investment, and cyberespionage. With respect to U.S.-Russian relations, participants expressed hope that a joint interest in preventing lasting turmoil and extremism in the Middle East might lead the two powers to increase cooperation in the UN Security Council and with the International Syria Support Group, with the aim of achieving cessation of hostilities while attempting to find a durable political solution.
The ongoing diffusion of global power has hindered international cooperation by diminishing the appetite of established powers, including the United States, for leadership. At the same time, established and emerging powers continue to debate reallocation of voice and weight—as well as burden sharing—within outdated international institutions.
These tensions are particularly relevant in Asia, where the rise of China, as well as India, creates dilemmas for global cooperation. Several participants noted that failure of international institutions to adapt could raise tensions, as well as stimulate the proliferation of parallel institutions, such as the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, weakening opportunities for—and perhaps interest in—broader policy coordination.
Volatile domestic politics in many countries is complicating global governance, as national leaders find themselves whipsawed between the need for international cooperation and populist sentiments, particularly among domestic constituencies who worry that globalization leaves them vulnerable to economic vicissitudes and outside influences that threaten their livelihoods and traditional ways of life.
Conference participants noted widespread evidence of this populist wave, which had upended the 2016 U.S. election cycle, helped elect Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines, and raised the prospect that British citizens might vote to leave the European Union (as a majority of them in fact did in late June). Although the global economy has rebounded from the 2008 financial crisis, employment gains and opportunities for social progress are uneven and continue to fall well short of expectations in many countries. One result of this discontent is waning support for international cooperation, globalization, and free trade in favor of support for more nationalist, inward looking, and protectionist policies.
For their part, national leaders have failed to communicate a persuasive case that the benefits of economic openness outweigh the risks. These failures cast into doubt prospects for planned mega-trade deals, most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
The Leave campaign’s ultimate victory in the Brexit debate, which many interpreted as a referendum on globalization, may well further embolden skeptics of international cooperation and global integration—at the precise moment that the world needs vigorous leadership on shared problems.
Informal Multilateral Cooperation
Ongoing power shifts, conflicting interests, and normative disagreements make it difficult to establish legally binding international agreements. However, there are still opportunities for breakthrough in more voluntary arrangements, whereby countries work in parallel with international treaties and organizations by making informal, customized commitments according to each country’s capacity. Perhaps the most prominent recent example of this trend is the Paris agreement on climate change reached in late 2015, which allowed all countries to set their own independent, nationally determined contributions.
The Paris experience suggests that while obstacles to international cooperation are formidable, progress on global problems is possible. This informal route helps explain the relatively high grades the Council of Councils awarded the world in its second annual report card on international cooperation, released at the May conference. Against the backdrop of continued war in Syria, the global humanitarian crisis, and a resurgent terrorist threat, the leaders of this global network of twenty-six think tanks offered a surprisingly upbeat assessment, noting impressive gains in multilateral efforts to mitigate climate change, reduce nuclear proliferation, and advance global development.