When America fails to lead, the whole world suffers

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Story highlights

  • Stewart Patrick and Megan Roberts: A chaotic populist wave has rocked Western democracies
  • Experts give the world poor grades for international cooperation in 2016 -- and predict even fewer breakthroughs in 2017, they write

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger Senior Fellow and Director and Megan Roberts the Associate Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)Today US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Fairbanks, Alaska to attend the Arctic Council's tenth ministerial meeting. The meeting comes amid new research that climate change is reshaping the arctic much faster than expected, and as Trump administration officials engage in an unusually public debate about whether the United States will remain in the Paris climate agreement. After pledging to 'cancel' the agreement during his campaign, Trump has now softened his tone, noting that he had an open mind about the global agreement to limit the effects of climate change. Rival factions within the administration are pitted against one another as President Trump closes in on a decision expected later this month.

Stewart Patrick
Megan Roberts
The administration's waffling on US climate commitments illustrates two important lessons that the global turbulence of the past year has taught us. First, the biggest threats to an open, liberal world no longer come from adversaries abroad (though those threats exist), but from skeptics at home. From Britain's epochal "Brexit" decision to Donald Trump's "America First" election to the political mainstreaming of Marine Le Pen's hard-right nationalism, a chaotic populist wave has rocked Western democracies. The storm surge is propelled by anxiety that globalization has not brought citizens shared prosperity, just dangers to their doorsteps.
Second, when America fails to lead, the world becomes less predictable and more conflict-prone. Once upon a time, the United States managed and defended global order. President Trump, however, has staked out a far more insular, transactional and sovereignty-minded posture, and the consequences have already reverberated globally. Longstanding alliances are adrift, international organizations are moribund, and Russia and China seek to fill the vacuum, advancing authoritarian alternatives to liberalism. In this new world, injustices will go unanswered, and pressing challenges such as climate change go unaddressed.
Against this depressing backdrop, it's little wonder that prominent global experts give the world poor grades for international cooperation in 2016 -- and predict even fewer breakthroughs in 2017. These are the sobering findings of the third annual Report Card on International Cooperation, recently released by the Council of Councils (CoC), a global consortium of 29 think tanks from 25 countries founded by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The CoC's Report Card reveals a deep-seated pessimism about the state of the world: overall international cooperation earned a barely-passing C-, a steep drop from the B conferred just a year ago. Global performance across ten specific issue areas also plummeted. Asked to rank these same ten challenges in terms of their importance, global experts identified preventing violent conflict between states and combating transnational terrorism as the world's top two priorities. Coming in third and fourth, respectively, were the challenges of reducing internal violence and (with a nervous eye on North Korea) reversing nuclear proliferation. In only one of these areas -- combating transnational terrorism -- did the world's grades improve.
For the second straight year, the CoC network bestows dismal grades on multilateral efforts to prevent and respond to violent conflict -- underscoring the world's failure to end bloodshed in Syria, as well as in Afghanistan, Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen. The network also condemns the world's inability to govern cyberspace, an abject gap exposed in the Russian interference in US and French elections. But the steepest decline in grades came in efforts to promote international trade, reflecting US abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mega-regional deal that the Obama administration had championed as the new "gold standard" for multilateral trading arrangements.
Perhaps most worrisome was the CoC's doubt that the world would make any significant progress on these tasks in 2017 -- with the exception of combating terrorism. Even that may reflect the triumph of hope over experience, given the continued ability of terrorists to attack global targets. But the one area the CoC ranked dead last in terms of opportunities for breakthrough was trade -- an unsurprising finding, as anti-globalist fervor sweeps to new corners of the world. They also anticipate that the world's most important economic powers would continue to muddle through a period of modest if hardly spectacular growth.
Although it is hard to find glimmers of hope in this world in disarray, this year's Report Card did identify a few bright spots, most notably some promise in the areas of promoting global health and advancing global development.
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In today's world, policymakers face a nearly impossible test: to strike a balance between volatile domestic politics, which in many cases brought them to office, and the inescapable need for multilateral cooperation in the face of the world's most pressing challenges. The dynamics of the bitter debates within the Trump administration about whether the United States will remain in the Paris climate agreement may well be replicated as the administration is confronted with challenges in other areas. Without a map for how to navigate this terrain and no country ready to take the wheel as the United States slides into the passenger seat, the world faces a very rough road ahead.