A report card that evaluates multilateral efforts to address 10 of the world’s most pressing challenges — from countering transnational terrorism to advancing global health — is issued each year by the Council of Councils, a network of 26 international policy institutes that draws on the best thinking from around the world. The president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation offers his assessment below.
2016 Overall Grade on International Cooperation
On one level, nothing changed during 2016. Cooperation in the economic policy arena continued to be weak, a decent recovery in the United States continued, and there were no meltdowns in Europe or China. Global trade is sputtering but has not degenerated into damaging protectionism. An aspirational agreement on climate change, which contains a high element of economic cooperation, came into force in many countries. Miserable conflicts in many parts of the world got worse or festered, but seldom improved. And frontier subjects such as the Internet and intellectual property require more concerted attention than they have received so far.
On another level, everything changed. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, along with anti-globalist governments or movements in many countries, have put in place the foundations of a more confrontational and nationalist global governance order than we have ever witnessed in the post-World War II era. We are entering uncharted territory.
2017 Opportunities for Breakthrough
With Brexit, the election of Trump as president of the United States, and populist, nativist leadership in many countries around the world, it is hard to imagine a breakthrough in any area during 2017.
The best we might hope for is that things do not become substantially worse in any area, and that the foundations are laid for a new generation of international cooperation or, at least, understanding.
2017 Top Global Challenges
Internal Violent Conflict
Prescription: A coherent and robust use of the responsibility to protect.
Commentary: At the end of another miserable year in this field, Aleppo came to symbolize all that is wrong with how the world manages intrastate conflict. Conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Syria embody a rich mix of genuinely domestic and combustible elements such as political repression and social marginalization, proxy wars among outside powers and an inability by regional or international players to achieve lasting peace. Tellingly, the responsibility-to-protect doctrine is not even evoked as a guidepost for (or against) outside intervention anymore.
Violent Conflict between States
Prescription: It is hard to think of a single reform that might make a difference, because the causes and nature of interstate conflicts vary considerably.
Commentary: Last year was no better than 2015 in terms of preventing or responding to interstate conflict. Ukraine, continuing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and the lack of progress in resolving disputes in the South China Sea are all potential flashpoints for extended future conflict.
Prescription: Reach an international understanding on the Internet akin to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Commentary: Cyber attacks and cybercrime rates rose in most countries that measure them. The risk of fragmentation of the Internet is real. Yet, we are no closer to a system of governance of the Internet — save the US-China agreement on cyber industrial espionage, and it is likely to fall apart in 2017. Cyber is a true gap in global governance that has to be addressed before highly undesirable default options kick in.
Prescription: An environmental goods and services agreement.
Commentary: Global trade has plateaued and the Global Trade Alert reports an increase in protectionist measures around the world. The Doha Round is dead, with nothing in sight to replace it. During 2016, the Information Technology Agreement was expanding its reach, but a global trade agreement in environmental goods and services stalled. Interestingly, regionalism, which was seen as a threat to the World Trade Organization (WTO)-centred global trading order, also fizzled in 2016. In addition to President Trump’s pronouncements, which have effectively killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and put the North American Free Trade Agreement in question, concerns over investor-state dispute resolution schemes, intellectual property provisions and wider nativist sentiments have brought to a close the European integration project and, possibly, the Canada-EU economic agreement. The coming years will be defined by three things: how the Brexit negotiations go; whether alternative trade and investment arrangements spearheaded by China succeed; and how the international community manages a framework for the fastest-growing feature of global trade, intellectual property.
Prescription: A World Health Organization (WHO) strengthened by deeper monitoring and more rapid-response systems for potential pandemics.
Commentary: The official end of the Ebola outbreak late in 2015 was good news, but two fundamental issues remain worrisome. First, we are no closer to having a global prevention and response system for the next such outbreak, for there will always be a next time. Second, the incidence of non-communicable diseases (diseases associated with becoming richer) continued to rise globally, driven by trends in developing countries. There might not be much scope for international cooperation in the latter case, but the lack of progress in strengthening the WHO-centred global health system is a failure of will to act multilaterally.
Prescription: A clear and coherent approach to green finance and technology transfer by national and international lenders.
Commentary: Broadly, the indicators of development are improving. The transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals signals a shift from emphasizing basic needs to emphasizing sustainable development and good governance. This would not have been possible if developing countries were mired in a poverty cycle. Aid programs in formerly developing countries are growing, new development institutions are being created, old ones are being marginalized — all are interesting shifts in the ecology of global poverty. As with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the incumbent head of the World Bank was reappointed for a second term in a patently fixed process of selection — thus confirming, despite rhetoric to the contrary, that the traditional powers in Western Europe and the United States do not give high priority to institutional reform. It remains to be seen how — even if — new-development lending institutions, such as the New Development Bank (established by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, will transform the development finance landscape or developmental outcomes.
Prescription: A global price for carbon, backed by a WTO-centred border tax adjustment regime.
Commentary: If countries act on their commitments to the Paris Agreement, it bodes well for the world’s commitment to climate change measures and the ability of multilateral processes to deliver them. However, the Environmental Goods Agreement has stalled, and there is no meaningful discussion on green technology transfer yet. China unveiled a large program of investments in alternative fuels that might have beneficial spillover effects in other countries, either through positive externalities or competition, if some of these technologies embody first-mover advantage. The Group of Twenty (G20) is ideally positioned to make climate change and environmental issues a part of mainstream macroeconomic, growth, financial regulatory policies. However, so far its track record has been modest.
Prescription: A global sovereign debt-resolution regime.
Commentary: It would take an act of charity to suggest that the global economic system is being “managed.” The troika — the European Central Bank, the European Commission and and the IMF — muddled along on Greek debt, as the banking system in some European countries became weaker, laying bare the weak institutional underpinnings of European economic integration. Europe, or developments in China’s opaque and shaky shadow bank system, might yet spawn the next global economic crisis. The G20 continues to work on important technical issues such as tax havens, but it is irresolute on the big macroeconomic coordination questions of the day. To top this cynical and troublesome state of affairs, Christine Lagarde was reappointed managing director of the IMF for a second term with support from all the major member countries, and retained her post thereafter, despite a conviction in a French court for fiscal negligence during her tenure as France’s finance minister. The G20 is failing to deliver on its commitments to generate an additional two percentage points of growth by 2018 over the 2013 baseline.
Prescription: Address intrastate and interstate conflict first.
Commentary: Transnational terrorism continued unabated during 2016, fuelled by grievance, unresolved conflict and the stoking of outside parties. Despite several high-profile incidents in Europe, the overwhelming number of the estimated 16,000 fatalities from terrorist incidents during 2016 were in developing countries. We are neither getting combatting terrorism right nor addressing terrorism’s root causes.
Prescription: An incident-free year for the Iran nuclear agreement.
Commentary: The agreement with Iran — controversial as it was and with no guarantee of compliance — held. It is better than the alternatives: no agreement and/or escalating sanctions and tensions. No evidence emerged during the year of rogue or other states acquiring nuclear weapons. The year ended on a worrying note, with the odd exchange between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Trump regarding their willingness and ability to start a nuclear arms race all over again.
The full Report Card on International Cooperation 2016-2017, with perspectives from 26 international research institutes and combined grades on international cooperation and top global challenges, is published by the Council of Councils.