Global Governance | Other Publication

A Constructive US Contribution to Global Collective Action

Keith Porter and Mark M. Seaman | November 2020

The US role in global cooperation has yo-yoed from recalcitrance to allied dealmaker for decades, though arguably never to such extremes as in the last four years. At the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, we focus on bringing together diverse perspectives to exchange ideas, foster innovation, and take collective action on three global challenges—mitigating climate change, avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, and preventing mass violence and atrocities.

In our more than 60 years of work, we have always viewed the United States as one actor, albeit one with outsized influence. And while our work rarely focuses solely on US foreign policy, we have affirmed—as one of our core values—the need for a constructive, globally-minded US contribution to collective action on the greatest threats to humankind.

Here is what have we learned about how the US contribution to global collective action can be most constructive…lessons galvanized by observation of the last four years:

Multilateralism matters

The challenges facing the world are too big for any one national government to fix on its own. No single government, no matter how powerful, can halt a pandemic. No single government can fix climate change, halt the spread of nuclear weapons, or compel universal protection of human rights. Isolation is not an option, especially for a country like the United States with interests in every part of the globe. The institutions, relationships, and norms that facilitate peaceful and productive international relations require care, attention, and investment. We have learned the hard way that attempts to bully or walk away from institutions and allies leave a national government unprepared and unprotected when crisis strikes.

Non-state and subnational action matters

National governments are still powerful forces in world affairs, but other actors are increasingly powerful as well. States or provinces, municipalities, the private sector, and civil society can martial attention and resources beyond national government control. California, Tokyo, Facebook, ExxonMobil, Ontario, the Ford Foundation, Black Lives Matter, Rio de Janeiro, Amnesty International, and more all have access to levers of power which can enhance—or thwart—national action and international agreements. When the Paris Agreement was forged in 2015, it recognized that national governments alone were not sufficient for reaching ambitious climate goals and created pathways for these other actors to do their part. When the United States announced it was leaving the Paris Agreement, cities and states across the country, along with vast swaths of the private sector, continued to meet and enhance the Paris Agreement commitments. Civil society can bring thousands of peaceful protesters to the streets. Global standards in science and medicine are set by trusted, professional institutions. The Gates Foundation and other large philanthropies have enormous impact on public health policy. We are learning more about the limitations of national governments’ power and the capabilities of other stakeholders to press past those limitations when they are at odds with the needs of the world.

Expertise matters

Science provides valuable guidance when trusted. Likewise, expertise in diplomacy and international relations can consider deeply complex scenarios in the practice of foreign policy, at its best protecting national interests and preventing war. Knowledge of the culture and history of other regions and countries can prevent deadly missteps or embarrassing pitfalls. Attacking international institutions and alliances that the United States is part of for short-term political gain has consequences. Sending inexperienced representatives to international institutions and foreign governments not only harms national interests, but also opens the door for other countries to gain advantage. Putting political appointees with little interest in relying on those with expertise in charge of complex global problems leads to photo opportunities and flashy short-term gains at the expense of integrity and progress. We have learned that we can do better.

A free and independent press matters

Independent and accurate journalism builds more informed, just, and accountable societies and is a critical part of strong global governance. Casting doubt on those reporting the truth, lifting up disinformation when it suits a political cause, and closing space once reserved for the media are trends of authoritarianism. Access to information and transparency in government lead journalists to the important and sometimes difficult stories the world needs to hear—and strengthens the institutions that underlie democracy.

Empathy matters

Another of the Stanley Center’s core values is promoting empathy in human relationships and interactions. We value the rights and responsibilities of all people, and we declare the importance of collective action in creating a better world. These traits have been sorely lacking in US foreign policy for generations. Continued systemic racism coupled with rising tendency toward misogyny and xenophobia lead to violence, even more so when they are rooted in foreign policy approaches. Recognizing the pain and suffering and valuing the hope of other people as co-equal to our own is the only reasonable means for shared and lasting global peace.

No matter the outcome of the 2020 US elections, the risk of mass violence, nuclear weapons use, and runaway climate change have risen steadily and must be confronted…if not by national governments, then by the individuals, organizations, institutions, cities, states, provinces, businesses, and other actors that have every potential and much vested interest in making a better world for all people. The Stanley Center will remain committed to that charge and our core value of encouraging the United States to do the same.