Editor’s Note: Stewart Patrick is a senior fellow and Terrence Mullan is assistant director in the international institutions and global governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In a world of troubles, the battle against climate change must take priority. That is the clear message of the 28 leading global think tanks that together comprise the Council of Councils (CoC). The CoC’s 2018-2019 Report Card on International Cooperation, released today, designates global warming as the top international priority for the first time in the report card’s five-year history. Alas, those same experts see little opportunity for progress in the coming year.
Each year since 2015, the Council on Foreign Relations has asked the heads of CoC institutes to answer three questions: First, how would you grade international cooperation in the previous year, both overall and across 10 major issue areas? Second, how should world leaders prioritize these 10 global challenges? Third, which of these issues offer the most hope for progress in the coming year?
This year’s results leave much to be desired. The world earned a gentleman’s “C” for its overall performance. While this was a small improvement over last year’s discomfiting C minus, and the first time the grade had increased since the survey began, a little context puts the result into perspective. The passing mark came after a frightening 2017 that saw the United States and North Korea bandying about threats of nuclear war, underscoring the need for further improvement.
International cooperation on individual issues areas was also mediocre. The highest individual grade, for promoting global health, was a B minus. The biggest disappointment was in mitigating climate change. Less than four years after the Paris Agreement, the Earth is poised to overshoot the 2 degrees Celsius rise in average temperatures that negotiators set as a fallback target. Moreover, recent reports on ocean warming, collapsing biodiversity, and natural disasters paint a dire picture of the planet’s future. Mitigating and adapting to climate change received a C in 2018.
The world also earned lackluster marks on expanding global trade, improving cyber governance, stemming nuclear proliferation, and managing internal conflict. This uninspiring performance reflects the fraying international and domestic foundations of world order. Abroad, geopolitical tensions and regional rivalries are deepening. At home, surging populism, protectionism, and nationalism are reducing the appetite for compromise.
But the biggest impediment to multilateral cooperation, most think-tank experts agree, is President Trump’s “America First” agenda. By abdicating US global leadership, testing Western solidarity, and escalating trade tensions, the American President is undermining the legitimacy and stability of the existing multilateral system, contributing to the sense of a world adrift. The world has benefited for decades from “an international order in which the rules of the road are well established and widely observed,” explains Michael Fullilove, director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia. “But increasingly those rules are under challenge, including by those who wrote them.”
The news isn’t all bad. Faced with US retrenchment, the world muddles along. Other countries are prepared at times to advance cooperation. The European Union (EU) and Japan, for instance, are expanding global trade through new bilateral and regional agreements. China is advancing development with its (admittedly contentious) Belt and Road Initiative. The EU, meanwhile, is improving cyber governance through its General Data Protection Regulation.
The CoC report card signals a shifting global agenda alongside this changing international landscape. Five years ago, think-tank leaders were preoccupied with combating terrorism and mitigating violent conflict. Today, they define the premier challenge as ecological: cooperating on climate change to ensure a sustainable environment for both nature and humanity. Their second priority is managing the global economy in the face of rising inequality, a situation underlined by the startling fact that the world’s richest 26 people own as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity (3.8 billion), according to Oxfam. Their third main concern is preserving the nuclear non-proliferation regime, at a time when existing treaties risk unraveling and North Korea is testing the world’s will.
By contrast, terrorism’s perceived importance has declined precipitously. This is partly a function of success: Counter-terrorism efforts, including the elimination of the Islamic State caliphate, have reduced the jihadist threat. No other international challenge has registered similar improvements in “grades” since 2015. Almost two decades after 9/11, terrorism seems less of an existential danger.
The report card’s biggest takeaway, perhaps, comes in its implications for the US. It underscores the shortcomings of Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, as well as the costs of going it alone. Consider global trade. The Trump administration correctly identified market-distorting practices by China. Rather than rallying potential European (and other) allies, however, it alienated them by imposing discriminatory steel and aluminum tariffs.
International politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The longer the United States remains on the sidelines, the greater the opportunities for other powers to take to the field and shape rules and global events to their advantage. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria empowers Russia and Iran in the region. As the US distances itself from international institutions such as the United Nations, China gains power and influence. What has been missing from Washington is any positive vision of a cooperative world order and a renewed US commitment to forging and defending its norms and principles.