The following is a guest post by Terrence Mullan, assistant director for International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Great power tensions continue to crescendo. Economic inequality and backlash against globalization fuel nationalist, populist, and protectionist forces in many nations. Multilateralism remains gridlocked. The world muddles along, crisis looming on the horizon.
That was the message of the Report Card on International Cooperation 2018-2019, which awarded a gentleman’s C to international efforts to solve the world’s most pressing challenges in 2018. This grade was an increase over the previous year’s C– and marked the first time the grade has increased since the survey began. Also for the first year, the Report Card identified an environmental issue—the struggle against climate change—as the top priority for world leaders in the coming year.
Each year since 2015, the Council of Councils (CoC)—a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) initiative comprising twenty-eight policy institutes from some of the world's most influential countries—asks think tank heads to answer three questions: how would you evaluate and grade overall international cooperation and cooperation on ten critical global challenges in the previous year; how should world leaders prioritize these ten issues; and which of the issues offer the best opportunity for breakthrough in the coming year? This year, we also asked CoC institutes what one reform or initiative would most improve the global order.
The results are surprising, given the ostensibly dismal state of international cooperation. Not only did the grade on overall cooperation increase for 2018, but grades for seven of the ten global challenges—ranging from managing cyber governance to preventing nuclear proliferation and even expanding global trade—increased or stayed the same as the previous year.
As the Report Card notes, “This reflected in part a recognition that the world could be disorderly but that progress is still possible. Moreover, other countries were at times prepared to take the initiative on transnational challenges such as climate change, even in the absence of U.S. participation.” European nations, for instance, are attempting to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. The European Union and Japan are expanding global trade through new agreements. Many countries, subnational actors, and businesses are stepping up their efforts to tackle climate change. China is advancing development with its (admittedly contentious) Belt and Road Initiative. International cooperation, it seems, abhors a vacuum.
A little context, however, puts the report card’s assessment into perspective. The marks for 2018 came after a daunting 2017 that saw U.S. President Donald J. Trump withdraw from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and exchange nuclear Twitter threats with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The greatest impediment to better international cooperation, most think tank leaders agree, is the Trump revolution in U.S. foreign policy. “The America First and anti-multilateralist approach adopted by the Trump administration has accelerated fragmentation and polarization, undermined trust, and spurred underlying centrifugal pressures across societies that result in international engagement and cooperation becoming more antagonistic,” explains Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs. As Trump continues to abdicate much of the traditional U.S. role of upholding the international order, Richard Haass, president of CFR, laments that the “gap between global challenges and responses grew larger” over the past year.
Recognizing the need for introspection at this crossroads for global governance, we at the Internationalist plan to explore the results of the Report Card over the next several weeks. We will share which issues think tank leaders rank as top global challenges, which issues they view as most ripe for a breakthrough, and which potential reforms to world order offer the most promise in the coming year. We will also give context to why each of the ten top global issue areas received the grades and rankings they did—and how policymakers can advance international cooperation writ large.
In the meantime, please feel free to visit the online CoC Report Card interactive for the full assessment of international cooperation on all ten issues: climate change, nuclear proliferation, development, global health, global trade, global economy, cyber governance, transnational terrorism, violent conflict between states, and internal violent conflict. Each issue page includes a section we call “By the Numbers,” with revealing statistics about the specific global dilemma, as well as in-depth analysis that places the grades and rankings into context. The Report Card also includes an interactive map displaying the comments and prescriptions from all the think tank leaders, filterable by issue or specific country.