Global cooperation is at a crossroads. Many of the world's biggest challenges are not a result of disagreements about how to cooperate, but a profound loss of direction about why to cooperate in the first place. Citizens in wealthy and poorer countries alike are less inclined than ever to trust, much less follow, traditional elites. And with populism and nationalism on the march, a growing number of governments lack the domestic backing required to forge stronger multilateral ties abroad.

There are many reasons why political and business elites have fallen out of favour. Too many were blind to the frustration of whole swaths of their own societies feeling left behind. They missed tectonic political shifts and inequalities driven by the fast-shifting global and digital economy. With some exceptions, they also disregarded creeping killers like air pollution, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels that are undermining the liveability of so many communities.

A global reset button doesn’t exist. But it is possible to reset the global narrative in order to strengthen collective action from the ground up. Fortunately, a novel political compass is available. It's called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and includes economic, social, and environmental targets agreed by all 193 country governments at the UN in 2015, with a time horizon looking out to 2030. And while the SDGs have their critics, they may end up being the world's best bet to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

The SDGs are not your typical international agreement. For one, they are remarkable in their sheer breadth of ambition – although with good reason, since the world faces so many complex threats at once. They set 17 massive problems to solve, including poverty and inequality reduction, job creation, greater access to health, education and gender equality and clear progress on liveable cities, security, justice, ocean protection and climate action. They provide a much needed roadmap to guide governments, business and civil societies toward a common purpose.

Image: United Nations

The SDGs are even bolder than they might first appear. They are both globalist and anti-globalist at the same time. While the goals were crafted through international cooperation, they seek to address problems left unsolved, if not worsened, by recent patterns of international cooperation. Their overarching aim is profoundly anti-elitist: to “leave no one behind.”

Some pundits dismiss the SDGs as yet another utopian UN creation. This is a mischaracterization. The goals were developed at the UN, rather than by the UN. And the formulation of the SDGs explicitly rejected closed-door processes. To the consternation of many diplomats (who are used to hammering out deals among one another), the goals were constructed through one of the most inclusive consultation processes the world has ever seen.

In this volatile and divisive era, the SDGs offer a much needed platform for cultivating trust and building common priorities among nations. So far, more than 150 countries have embraced this spirit by either sharing or agreeing to present their own SDG assessments with other countries. This is impressive at a time when so many multilateral efforts are struggling to find consensus on much of anything.

The vast majority of UN member states are gradually embracing the SDGs, including nearly all G20 affiliates like Canada, China, India, and Japan – while notably excluding the United States. Ironically, the US demurral persists despite the fact that the goals seek to redress many of the same grievances of people feeling left behind that helped propel President Donald Trump to office in the first place.

But if the SDGs are going to help guide the world’s change for the better, then governments, businesses and civil societies will need to dramatically accelerate their activities. At least three steps can help move things forward this year.

First, the UN can position itself as the foremost friend of all people left behind – in all countries, for all reasons. Of course, the UN charter insists that it not interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. Even so, the UN can help guide the spotlight toward everyone who is falling behind, wherever they may happen to be. Together, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed are uniquely suited to lead such efforts.

Second, the SDGs need to rise to the top of the agenda across the world’s largest economies. This year’s G-20 summit in Japan offers a perfect opportunity to do this since it will gather countries representing 90% of the global economy and two thirds of the world’s population. Member countries could, for example, adopt a “20 for 20” vision, prioritizing 20 measurable SDG targets to ensure no one is left behind. If the G20 does this, the rest of the world will likely follow. The Japanese business community is already on board with the goals. And growing numbers of cities are also "localizing" the SDGs: they are the frontline where so many outcomes will be won or lost.

Third, the world’s presidents and prime ministers will meet at the UN this September for the first major check-up on SDG progress, as agreed back in 2015. When they do, they can commit to report back in 2020 with transparent national assessments of how many women, men, and children are being left behind on each SDG in each of their own countries. These kinds of high-level diagnostics would not only give voice to the most vulnerable in their societies, but also spark national debates to bend policies toward success.

In 2019, longstanding rules and norms governing the world’s economy and politics are coming unstuck, all of which threatens to unleash a dangerous backlash. Rather than ignore the warning signs, everyone needs to accept that many of the norms that drove some groups’ prosperity have failed too many people for too long. The rules of the game need to change and new ideas are required. At a time when so many people are rebelling against being left behind, the SDGs might be the best tool the world has for a more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable world for all.