Global Cooperation

Why a centrist approach can restore global cooperation

Global cooperation can be fostered even among adversaries.

Global cooperation can be fostered even among adversaries. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Børge Brende
President, World Economic Forum
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  • There is a growing global divide characterized by increased competition and confrontation rather than cooperation but global challenges necessitate a collaborative approach.
  • A centrist approach to geopolitics – focusing on practical solutions and partnerships of purpose rather than ideological alignment – can restore global cooperation.
  • Effective collaboration that meets stakeholder needs and delivers results will increase support and trust, encouraging leaders to work together on shared objectives for inclusive community benefits.

The current era faces a paradox: just when global cooperation is crucial for climate action, economic strength, and technological advancement, the willingness to collaborate is waning.

Instead, we see increased competition and confrontation, prompting the International Monetary Fund to caution against fragmentation “that would leave everyone poorer and less secure.”

There are many reasons for this growing global divide but a key factor is a steep decline in trust in the global mechanisms that foster cooperation, stemming from the belief that they are failing and worsening the world’s plight. The UN has warned that this “trust deficit” could severely hinder social and economic progress and undermine the Sustainable Development Goals and other global objectives.

However, countries’ desire to turn inward should not be surprising. While the cooperative global system – especially the interconnected economic landscape – has been essential in reducing extreme poverty and other benefits, it hasn’t always worked as it should.

Globalization has been argued for and against time and again, but one stark example that highlights the system’s merits and failings is vaccine development during the pandemic. COVID-19 vaccines were developed at miraculous speed, facilitated by coordination among governments, businesses and research institutions, as well as the global trade system – the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine is composed of 280 components from 19 different countries.

However, the urgency and cooperation in vaccine development did not carry through to distribution. In the first year of vaccine availability, high-income countries achieved 75-80% vaccination rates, whereas low-income countries saw rates below 10%. The global health space became one of zero-sum competition, which only prolonged the pandemic, harming everyone.

We are now in the middle of a negative loop, where missteps in past cooperative efforts are fueling distrust and preventing future collaboration.

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Pursuing centrist geopolitics

Restoring global cooperation and underlying trust won’t be easy or quick but it is necessary, especially to solve the “polycrisis,” as the compounding economic, environmental and security challenges ahead can only be tackled in concert even if all views don’t align.

What, then, can leaders do to increase the effectiveness of and faith in global cooperation?

Domestic politics sheds some insight. Namely, the centrist approach in many countries focuses on forming partnerships of purpose, even with opponents, for practical solutions rather than ideological alignment.

This approach may sound intuitive but geopolitical partnerships can be driven by shared values, ideologies and vision rather than a commitment to results. There is immense benefit in partnerships of the like-minded, which are also often trust-based rather than transactional. They can, therefore, increase respective and collective security. However, shared values can only achieve so much without wanting to resolve shared challenges or advance collective benefit.

Precedent has shown that the centrist approach is effective. For example, the private sector has a long history of “coopetition,” with competitors collaborating to fend off shared risk, access new markets, or address broader priorities such as climate change.

Regarding the latter, companies, including competitors – e.g. Airbus and Boeing, Microsoft and Apple – are part of the First Movers Coalition, an initiative launched by the World Economic Forum and US State Department at the 2021 UN Climate Conference (COP26) to decarbonize heavy industry and long-distance transport through purchase commitments for green technologies.

We know centrist collaboration can work in geopolitics. Perhaps most notably, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union coordinated on broader environmental preservation and global health, among other areas. The 1987 Montreal Protocol was one consequence of this collaboration and results of reduced ozone damage were seen. Another example is the global campaign of smallpox inoculation. This US and Soviet coordination led the World Health Organization to declare the disease eradicated in 1980.

Constructive engagement

But we don’t have to return to the middle of the last century. Former Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid has articulated the case for centrist global collaboration well, calling it “connectivity statecraft.”

The Negev Forum, which has drawn lines of cooperation across the Middle East, connecting Israel with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others in the region to pursue common economic, energy and security agendas, is just one example.

Still, actualizing centrist approaches can be a challenge, particularly among rivals. Of the delicate coordination between the United States and China on climate action, the US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, said in 2023, “This has to be cooperative, notwithstanding other differences that do exist.”

This cooperation seemed promising initially, and the United States and China – the world’s two largest carbon emitters – announced, to much fanfare, a joint commitment to climate action at COP26. Shortly afterwards, however, discussions were suspended before resuming mid-2023, and since then, they have been fragile – a reminder of the challenges inherent in such constructive engagement.

Risk is part and parcel of reaching across the geopolitical divide – political, reputational or otherwise. Critics can emerge from actors’ own factions, allies and opponents – Kerry faced similar criticism when pursuing climate talks with China.

Domestic politics provides another lesson for mitigating these risks: the adage that “all politics is local.” Voters often pay the closest attention to what affects them and their communities, rewarding those leaders who do as well.

On global collaboration, leaders should ensure they deliver meaningful results, accounting for stakeholders’ interests – this aim should be their North Star. Thus, trade agreements are increasingly incorporating measures to advance gender equity and climate action priorities to ensure these accords deliver equitable benefits to people and communities. As collaboration yields meaningful and equitable benefits, the likelihood of support for the same cooperation will increase.

Towards sustainable trust

Globalization has plateaued in recent years due to weakened political support for a cooperative system (what the International Monetary Fund has called “slowbalization”). However, our economies and societies are still inextricably linked. Trade, travel and data flows (and global pandemics) bind us and there is little apparent desire to disrupt these connections. According to courier company DHL, “International flows have proved remarkably resilient despite recent shocks, with trade and many other flows already well above pre-pandemic levels.”

These interconnections mean that what happens globally reverberates locally, as the COVID-19 pandemic, the global financial crisis,and the effects of climate change make clear.

If done properly, addressing issues such as rising debt, declining economic outlooks and the impact of global warming on vulnerable communities can deliver local benefits. Leaders must chart effective, collaborative paths towards addressing these shared challenges, making their case to their voting public.

This extract is taken from “The Centre Must Hold: Why Centrism is the Answer to Extremism and Polarisation, edited by Yair Zivan. It is published in hardback and ebook on 27 June and is available at https://geni.us/TheCentreMustHold.

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