Global Governance | Readout and Recommendations

The Future of Collective Action on Global Challenges

Mark M. Seaman | January 2020


Global challenges requiring collective action are those issues, problems, or threats that impact a large portion of humankind and compel action by multiple actors: for example, avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, mitigating climate change, and preventing mass violence and atrocities. For the majority of our lifetimes, these challenges have been perceived to be the responsibility of national governments working together under bilateral or multilateral frameworks—either of their own accord through agreements or treaties or with the aid of an institution that exists to facilitate multilateral processes, such as the United Nations and its organs.

Multilateral frameworks have failed in their attempts to develop, enforce, and sustain durable solutions to certain global challenges fast enough to effectively address the growing consequences those challenges create. The pace at which these frameworks adapt will not speed up anytime soon, owing in large part to the decline of the liberal international order. Whether temporary or permanent, the decline is the result of a surge in authoritarian and nationalist expression; or an evolving set of societal values that places increasing primacy on diversity, equity, and inclusion; or still (and most likely), the acute polarizing effect of these two simultaneous and relatively rapid movements in Western thinking and reality. Given this slowdown, perceptions of who is responsible for solving many global challenges are shifting to new kinds of self-organizing collectives that may or may not include national governments. These emerging groups of stakeholders are catalyzing multilateral frameworks through their collective actions on certain issues and, in many cases, identifying and implementing solutions themselves.

At its 50th Global Issues Conference, held April 3–5, 2019, in Tarrytown, New York, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security brought together a diverse group of innovators and thinkers working on some of the world’s greatest global challenges. Organizers asked them to consider which global challenges could benefit from the growing demand for collective action, what collective action requires, and how it can be enhanced. The group of journalists, engineers, activists, entrepreneurs, academics, and humanitarians identified both usual and unexpected opportunities for collective action, each requiring contextual understanding and application, a bottom-up approach, and accountability. Members of the group agreed that while collective action does not require universal participation, a unified global vision respectful and inclusive of all human situations could serve as a guiding star. And by empowering individuals and new institutions to act, that star would be less obscured by the clouds of international politics and nationalist ambitions that currently impede global progression. This Readout & Recommendations contains the themes that emerged and the key takeaways that stemmed from small- and full-group discussions at the conference.