Multilateralism and Global Risks

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Report: * Shooting the Rapids: Multilateralism and Global Risks. A paper presented to heads of state at the Progressive Governance Summit, 5 April 2008. By Alex Evans and David Steven.


Executive summary

"The international system is becoming more complex, as growing numbers of actors are confronted by fluid and interlinked threats.

Two drivers of change stand out: scarcity, limits to the sustainable consumption of highly strategic commodities such as energy, land, water, food and ‘atmospheric space’ for emissions; and instability, the tendency for complex systems to experience unpredictable and unsettling shifts.

As a result, the multilateral system needs to get better at managing global risks and building resilience to their impacts. But we need reform to cut deeper and move faster than it has in the past.

The first step, we argue, is to start with function rather than form. In other words, leaders should focus on the outcomes they want from the international system, rather than its organisations, structures, and other institutional paraphernalia.

Three kinds of outcome are important:

1. Shared operating systems for global risks: the beliefs, thinking and structures that represent an institutional ‘solution’ for a particular problem. The end point is to rewire our collective response and create a framework for joint action.

2. To do that, we need shared awareness. This is not about a report or ‘stakeholder dialogue’, but about a concerted attempt to build a common understanding of an issue around which a coalition can coalesce.

3. Once the necessary degree of shared awareness exists, it will be possible to move to shared platforms: the networks of state and non-state actors who can campaign around a collective goal or vision, providing the foundation on which a new operating system can be built.

Leaders have an important role to play. They can force debate on the most contentious questions, while setting out ideas that coalitions can cluster around. However, they must aim for a distributed approach, cultivating alliances around global challenges.

Change is most likely to happen at a time of crisis, but only if like-minded governments have plans in place for when space opens up for radical solutions. This requires a renewed commitment to progressive values and a willingness to fight for an international system that has a vision of the future at its heart.