The last-minute deal struck at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, offers a glimmer of hope for the future not just of climate action, but also of global governance.
After a year in which leaders reverted time and again to the failed policies of the past to address shared challenges, COP24 showed that there might still be room for innovative instruments for responding to common threats. To navigate the current era of global turbulence, the world will need forward-facing ideas. Looking backward will get the international community nowhere.
There is, however, a general lack of political will to take bold action, and domestic upheaval, such as the “Yellow Vest” protests in France, reinforces this reluctance. At the same time, today’s leaders lack ideas.
Amid shifting global power dynamics, diminished political legitimacy, and disruptive technological change, it is more difficult than ever to devise promising solutions. Unless and until that changes, we will not escape our current cycle of dysfunction and insecurity.
A couple of years ago, the world seemed to be stepping up to the challenge with innovative governance models in a range of areas that rested heavily on soft or non-binding mechanisms, rather than the strict rules of the past. Some of these models incorporated non-state actors. All of them are now on life support, replaced by traditional policy measures that have proven ineffective in the past.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a leading example. After nearly two decades of failed efforts to conclude a deal covering all of the international community’s grievances against Iran, negotiators decided to aim for a narrower, nuclear-focused agreement. This would lay the groundwork for future talks on other issues, such as Iran’s missile development and support for terrorist groups.
But then, after winning the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump decided that unless the JCPOA addressed every issue exactly as he would have wanted, it was worthless. So he decided unilaterally to withdraw the US from the deal and re-impose strict economic sanctions on Iran.
But the sanctions-based approach didn’t work even when there was an international consensus behind it. With the US going it alone, it will be virtually impossible to generate the pressure needed to compel Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement.
Europe’s effort to keep the JCPOA alive by shielding European companies from American penalties is also unlikely to succeed. A unilateral sanctions regime will most probably lead Iran to restart its nuclear program, implying renewed hostility with the West.
Likewise, until Trump took power, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) represented a next-generation trade agreement linking the United States with 11 other Pacific Rim economies.
Following the failure of the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation negotiations, the international trade agenda came to hinge on the pursuit of mega-regional deals. The TPP, in particular, would not only offer a new approach to multilateral trade negotiations; it would also counter China’s growing influence in Asia.
Here, too, by withdrawing the US from the TPP immediately after taking office, Trump crippled the agreement. Though the other 11 countries have continued to move the deal forward, in the form of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), America’s departure has undermined momentum toward greater trade multilateralism. Trump’s subsequent actions, most notably his trade war with China, recall the disastrous protectionism of the 1930s.
Cooperation on migration has similarly regressed. On September 19, 2016, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants – a tentative step toward broad, non-binding, internationally accepted general principles for responding to the growing migration challenge. In July, the General Assembly took this a step further, producing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which set out universal best practices.
The Compact was supposed to be adopted at an inter-governmental conference in Marrakesh earlier this month. But as the conference approached, a growing number of countries, led by the US, complained that the Compact enabled the imposition of binding obligations in the future, thus infringing on their sovereignty. While the agreement was ultimately adopted, there is little reason to believe that countries will, overall, choose a common approach.
That brings us to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which was hailed as both a breakthrough in addressing climate action and a pioneering approach to global governance. By establishing a framework of overlapping soft and hard obligations, the Paris accord evaded objections that had previously blocked progress.
But, again, Trump decided to withdraw the US from the agreement, undermining its legitimacy and effectiveness. Although the US cannot officially renounce the Paris accord until 2020, Trump’s move hampered the next phase of the process: agreement, at the climate conference in Katowice, on specific rules for implementation and monitoring.
At first, prospects looked bleak, as leaders became distracted by peripheral dramas, such as Poland’s promotion of coal and a Saudi-US-Russian-Kuwaiti effort to block a key scientific report. But, motivated by rapidly worsening climate conditions – global carbon dioxide emissions rose in 2017 for the first time in four years – negotiators ultimately managed to secure a last-minute deal.
The JCPOA, TPP, New York Declaration, and the Paris agreement all have their flaws. But they reflect the kind of foresight and experimentation that will be needed to address transnational challenges in a deeply interconnected and fast-changing world. Allowing them to be undermined in favour of retrograde policies is a recipe for disaster.
The deal struck in Katowice – to which even the US agreed – shows that, when the stakes are high enough, cooperation is possible. Successfully addressing the world’s myriad shared challenges requires nothing less. But it also requires something more: new ideas about how global governance should be organised. We can no longer afford the failed approaches of the past. - Project Syndicate