Don’t expect to see improvement in international cooperation anytime soon

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. (Credit: Government of Canada)

In the face of tremendous global turmoil related to conflict, migration and trade, nations increasingly turned their backs on one another and international cooperation suffered in 2016, according to a new survey.

The world score a C- in 2016 on its report card on international cooperation from the leaders from 26 international policy institutes, down from a B in 2015. The success of Brexit and Donald Trump dragged down scores in global trade and conflict prevention, and it is expected that the trend will continue this year.

“Very little progress was achieved on many of the key challenges faced by the international community, especially when compared to the many shortcomings or even regressions that could be witnessed,” Gulf Research Center Chairman Abdulaziz Sager, wrote in his analysis for the survey. “International institutions have continued to lose their relevance and effectiveness. Many countries undertook steps that undermined existing international norms and rules.”

There were some positive developments in 2016, notably the midyear ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. After a grueling deliberation process to get the deal, countries moved quickly to ratify the agreement.

The survey, led by the Council on Foreign Relations, emphasizes the importance of international cooperation to deal with global challenges. Issues like nuclear proliferation, terrorism, conflict, trade and development are too big and too complicated for countries to address on their own.

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Survey participants graded global performance on 10 challenges and then ranked them in order of importance. They were then able to explain their assessments and identify potential areas of improvement. Most were concerned by statements and actions of leaders that pull back from international organizations and agreements. Particularly worrying was that doing so would weaken global institutions at a time when conflicts are driving record high humanitarian needs.

“Amidst the global economic downturn, countries should work toward maintaining the aid volume at the current level,” said Sook Jong Lee of the East Asia Institute.

Development and global health were the other high performers due to the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, grades for both areas declined from the previous year. The promise of the Sustainable Development Goals is limited by the challenges of implementation and the ability to track progress. Progress reducing poverty seen over the past few decades may slow down due to increasing inequality,  Ferdinando Nelli Feroci of the Institute of International Affairs in Italy said.

The grade for global health fell because the proposed reforms to the World Health Organization after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have yet to lead to meaningful change. It was faster at responding to the emerging Zika threat, but the fact that it became endemic in the Americas showed the limits of the WHO and its emergency response systems. The reform process is hampered by a lack of funding, making it hard for the WHO to do its job.

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“Health sector programs need to be strengthened. Additionally, the push for reform of the WHO, whose deficiencies were starkly revealed during the Ebola epidemic and Zika outbreak, needs to translate into tangible changes in 2017,” said Lee. “Reforms such as the outsourcing of WHO’s key activities to other agencies better suited for a task and the strengthening of WHO’s surveillance and response capacities are necessary.”

Looking ahead to 2017, the respondents emphasized the importance of security and conflict prevention. Many were pessimistic about potential changes across the majority of the categories over the next year. The emerging threat of North Korea and ongoing civil war in Syria were oft-cited concerns. Each case, like the other areas evaluated, requires cooperation by multiple and often opposing countries to find a solution. The trend moving away from cooperation makes matters difficult.

“Nationalist electoral campaigns throughout the world sailed to victory on promises to retreat from international commitments,” Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said. “This suggests 2017 will face even more fundamental challenges to international cooperation.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.