ECC Platform Library


Stopping the Great Splintering: A 5-Step Plan to Revive Multilateralism

24 May, 2019
Oli Brown, SDG Knowledge Hub / IISD

SDG Conference, MDGs, Rio, sustainable development

SDG Conference, MDGs, Rio, sustainable development
A view of the General Assembly following the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda. The 17 SDGs established by the 2030 Agenda were prepared in a thorough and inclusive international negotiation process following the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (or Rio+20 Summit) and replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). | © Cia Pak/UN Photo

A new publication on SDGs and foreign policy, prepared by researchers at the German thinktank adelphi, highlights a phenomenon I call this the ‘Great Splintering’ – the fracturing of political will for collective action on the global stage. This article outlines five steps we could take to revive multilateralism.

I miss 2015. It was a landmark year. In the space of 12 short months governments signed a slew of groundbreaking agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

At the time, many of us interpreted these agreements as milestones towards an inevitable outcome: a community of nations that finally would be able to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems.

How wrong we were. Since 2015, people around the world have voted for populist leaders, nativist platforms or decisions that explicitly renounce a collective approach to common challenges: the UK’s choice to leave the EU (“Brexit”), Trump’s election as President of the US, and the elections of Duterte in the Philippines, Salvini in Italy, and Bolsonaro in Brazil. Far-right populist parties are now in power, or sharing power, in seven EU nations.

A defining characteristic of populist politics, on both the right and the left, is the depiction of multilateralism as driven by global elites at the expense of the “common man.” Countries under the influence of populist messages are retreating from the global stage and defining their politics in terms of opposition to foreigners and a distrust of multilateral organizations – the UN, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the EU in particular.

Countries have pulled out of critical accords like the Paris Agreement and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Jair Bolsonaro threatened to withdraw Brazil from the UN. Donald Trump is openly hostile to the Organization. For example, in May 2019 –to the delight of the US National Rifle Association – Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the UN’s 2013 arms control treaty that aims to stem the illegal trade in conventional weapons.

A new publication on SDGs and foreign policy, prepared by researchers at the German thinktank adelphi, highlights the phenomenon described above. I call this the ‘Great Splintering’ – the fracturing of political will for collective action on the global stage. The fragile ties binding countries together are fraying, with serious impacts: divisive politics, trade wars, disintegrating anti-proliferation treaties, an explosion of hate speech, conflict and division. While the dissolution of the EU or the UN may be unlikely, these trends risk undermining those institutions to the extent that they become ineffective and irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the world’s most pressing cross-border challenges – international terrorism, climate change, species loss, financial contagion, pandemics, growing inequality – have not gone away. Indeed, most are getting worse. Many of the SDGs are off-track, and we risk losing momentum on the implementation of what is perhaps our most important blueprint for a better world.

Is this a passing phase, or an enduring pivot in world politics? Is a new iron curtain falling between us? Is there anything we can do to revive multilateralism?

Here are five steps we could take.

Step 1: Admit You Have a Problem

As any alcoholic knows, the first step to recovery is acknowledging a problem. Those who believe in the ideals of multilateralism assume that the value of working together to tackle common problems is self-evident. This is reinforced as we often work, travel and talk among small circles of the “converted.”

But it’s not so clear to everyone else. Take for example, the fact that in many countries being labelled a “globalist” has—amazingly—become an insult. Many of us live this fiction that the arc of history bends inevitably towards greater cooperation across borders. But the direction of this arc is not automatic, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Step 2: Meet People Where They Are

People working in multilateral organisations tend to respond to criticism of multilateralism by retreating to defensive speaking points about accepted mandates, institutional history and abstract achievements (reports published, conferences hosted, etc.).

This is the wrong strategy. We need to meet people where they are: people experience global challenges locally, even if the only effective response to many of those challenges is collective action on the part of many countries. We need to move beyond preaching to the converted and understand how we can better frame multilateral action in a way that makes sense to people’s real-life experiences.

Step 3: Rebuild Trust in Multilateral Institutions

Part of the necessary reframing is dealing with real problems in the multilateral system, which is suffering from a deficit of popular trust – some of it deserved, much of it not. Reform of these global organizations should be a matter of priority. It is more important than ever that they be more inclusive and totally transparent, reduce bureaucratic friction, and walk their own talk. Foreign policy professionals, as the recent publication from the German thinktank adelphi points out, can and should play a critical role in ensuring that happens.

Step 4: Focus on Results

Multilateralism is based on the idea that common problems are best solved by collective action that generates benefits for every country. The multilateral system needs to find concrete, communicable ways to demonstrate that this is true: that global action delivers meaningful change for people around the world, and thus directly serves the interests of individual nations. This means fewer self-important conferences and more on-the-ground projects. It means fewer “generals” and more “foot soldiers.” It requires a relentless focus on results that change people’s lives.

Step 5: Rinse and Repeat

The current multilateral system was built from the ashes of two World Wars with a combined death toll of more than a 100 million people. This searing experience led people to create an entirely new architecture for cooperation to ensure that such devastation was never again unleashed on the world. That architecture is in graver danger than many of us realize.

The fabric of international cooperation, painstakingly woven over the past 70 years, is beginning to unravel. In 1918 and again in 1945, war-traumatized countries said, “Never again.” It is incumbent on all of us to redouble our efforts to ensure that dialogue trumps division, and that cooperation beats conflict.


[This article originally appeared on SDG Knowlege Hub / IISD]

The author of this guest article, Oli Brown, is an Associate Fellow with the Energy, Environment and Resources Department of Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs). His blog and other writing can be found here:

Oli Brown and Stella Schaller (adelphi) contributed an essay to the publication titled, ‘Driving Transformative Change: Foreign Affairs and the 2030 Agenda,’ which was launched on 30 April 2019. The study was written by adelphi in cooperation with partner institutions including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, Chatham House, TMG Think Tank for Sustainability, and CDP Worldwide. It was supported by a grant from the German Federal Foreign Office.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Diplomacy

Global Issues


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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

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Conflict Transformation

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

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Private Sector

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Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

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North America

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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