from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

What Will The World Decide in 2012?

January 4, 2012

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The New Year's Eve Ball in New York City (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters).

“Summit fatigue” may be widespread, but demands on the world’s leaders just keep growing. Here are a half a dozen major meetings on the global agenda slated for 2012.

The 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

From March 26 to 27, 2012, President Obama will join more than fifty heads of state and international organizations in Seoul, South Korea to discuss nuclear security—the first follow up to his historic Washington summit of April 2010. The specter of instability in North Korea, and the need to protect its nuclear arsenal will top the agenda, but the threat posed by unsecured nuclear weapons and fissile material is a far broader one. Fissile material needed to create a nuclear weapon is stored in dozens of countries, and has been stolen or lost at least eighteen times. And once a terrorist acquires such material, it “isn’t difficult” to build a nuclear weapon similar to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to Harvard Associate Professor Matthew Bunn. Nations will look to bolster three pillars of cooperation: combating the threat of nuclear terrorism, protecting nuclear materials and related facilities, and preventing illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. While the focus will remain on nuclear security, the meeting also offers a forum to discuss the safety of nuclear facilities, in the wake of last year’s disaster at the Japanese Fukushima nuclear facility.

The G8 Summit

Later in the spring, Chicago hosts back-to-back summits of the G8 and NATO from May 19-20 and 20-21. As the city gears up for this logistical and security nightmare, leaders from two of the world’s older multilateral groups will meet to reassess their relevance in an evolving world. Although the G8 was given up for dead after the G20 was designated the world’s “premier forum” for global economic cooperation, last year’s Deauville summit proved there was life in ye ole body yet—and that a small group of advanced market democracies (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) could play a unique role in addressing sensitive political and even security matters. This year, G8 leaders will again be preoccupied with ongoing—and faltering—reform efforts in the Arab world. In 2011 the G8 pledged almost $80 billion to help Arab countries manage the transition to democracy, but much of the aid has stalled—thanks partly to uncertain political reform prospects in the region, particularly in Egypt. As radical Islamist parties seek to exploit democratic openings, al-Qaeda exploits turbulence in Yemen, and the crackdown in Syria persists, G8 leaders may need to reassess strategies and lower expectations.

The NATO Summit

Chicago will also host the Atlantic alliance, amid growing doubts of its relevance in today’s security environment. In a farewell address last June in Brussels, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blasted U.S. allies for cutbacks in defense expenditures and “caveats” placed on national contingents deployed in NATO military operations. He warned that the organization faced “a dim if not dismal future” if it did not correct shortcomings in military spending and political will. To be sure, the NATO storyline is not entirely glum. The victorious if protracted aerial campaign in Libya restored some luster to the alliance, while reinforcing the value of multilateral force projection in an age of national budgetary constraints. But it also exposed critical capability gaps, as U.S. allies began running out of bombs just weeks into the campaign. NATO has recently adopted a new Strategic Concept, promising to adapt to new threats like cyber war, energy insecurity, and protracted insurgency. Whether the alliance is the right instrument to respond to these contingencies—or whether its members are ready to invest in traditional capacities that inspire confidence in Washington—remains to be seen. In Chicago, look for the alliance to make a rhetorical commitment to stay “engaged” in Afghanistan after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal of U.S. troops, and to offer new forms of partnerships with Libya and other countries emerging from the Arab Spring.

The G20

The G20 Summit of the world’s twenty major economies will take place in Los Cabos, Mexico, from June 18 to 19, 2012, and will be the first such summit to occur in Latin America. The G20 is responsible for the mammoth task of managing global finance as the world continues its rocky economic recovery. Its 2012 agenda priorities include stabilizing the world economy, strengthening financial systems, and improving financial architecture to prevent economic turmoil like the 2008 banking crisis. Other issues, like commodity price stability and development are also on its books.  Still, Mexico’s G20 Sherpa, Lourdes Aranda, has pledged to keep the summit focused, and avoid the “mission creep” that historically afflicted the G8. One gauge of success in Los Cabos will be whether G20 members follow through on their pledge to give the IMF robust surveillance authority to monitor their performance under the agreed Mutual Assessment Process. Another is whether the G20 agrees to give the Financial Stability Board the tools it needs to serve as a global financial watchdog. Unfortunately, as I noted in an earlier blog about the November Cannes Summit, for political reasons neither China nor the United States is likely to make credible commitments to compromise on two of the largest items on the G20 agenda—exchange rate flexibility and macroeconomic rebalancing. The pending leadership transition in Beijing makes bold Chinese concessions on the value of the renminbi implausible, while the approaching U.S. presidential elections means Obama will be unlikely to compromise on this political sensitivity.


From June 20 to 22 the world gathers in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The gathering marks the twentieth anniversary of the first “Earth Summit” in Rio. Hailed as a “landmark” in global environmental governance, the 1992 conference generated a set of ambitious commitments designed to promote poverty reduction and social development while protecting the world’s atmosphere, biodiversity, and fragile ecosystems. Two decades later, with the planet under unprecedented environmental stress, leaders will gather to assess the world’s uneven progress towards these commitments and their follow up pledges at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. But they will also grapple with a huge range of “new and emerging challenges,” encompassing the global food and energy crises, water scarcity and desertification, mass migration, health security, climate security, natural disasters, and biodiversity and ecosystem loss.

Beyond assessing progress on past commitments, the Rio+20 agenda envisions reaching agreement on “principles for a green economy” that can deliver both sustainable development and poverty eradication. Unfortunately, as the organizers concede, “There is as of yet no agreed definition of what constitutes a green economy”—much less how to achieve one on a global or national scale. Given the large number of outside “stakeholders” invited to participate—including multilateral agencies, civil society groups, corporations and nongovernmental organizations—a cacophony of ideas could drive out sensible ones. Rio’s most controversial agenda item, however, may be the aspiration to reform “the system of global governance for sustainable development.” Proposals for global institutional reform range from the incremental—reforming and upgrading the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) or strengthening the Commission on Sustainable Development—to the unrealistically grandiose—like establishing a fully-fledged World Environmental Organization (WEO), something France has previously championed.

Whether one mega-conference can possibly do justice to all these issues seems doubtful.

 COP 18

The eighteenth Conference of Parties (COP 18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) will take place from November 26 to 27, 2012 in Qatar. The UNFCCC faces similar political challenges as the Rio+20 summit, as evidenced by uneven success at the recent meeting in Durban, South Africa. At COP 18, leaders from the United Nations’ 193 countries will meet to discuss numerous issues—many of which COP 17 decided to punt for a year. These include extracting firm  funding commitments for the Green Climate Fund, which was established in Cancun in 2010 and further clarified at Durban, but has not actually been implemented yet; clarifying what the successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol will look like, and spelling out what the pledge to give it “legal force” actually means; and finally whether to extend the current Kyoto Protocol to 2017 or 2020, pending progress on a new universal emissions reduction accord. Canada’s bold move to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, just barely after the ink dried on the COP 17 Durban Enhanced Platform for Action, will add a fresh layer of complexity to COP 18 and may increase pressure on UNFCCC parties to reach a consensus. Delegations from the United States, China, and India may also find themselves sweating not just from the weather in Qatar, but from growing international criticism over their ongoing refusal to accept binding emissions reduction targets. Deferring real action on climate change to a future COP 19 may seem like a good short term fix, but could prove disastrous for the international climate change regime.

In the end, the biggest item on the 2012 global governance calendar might be a national event—the U.S. presidential elections in November. As James Traub notes in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, the top Republican candidates are uniformly skeptical of multilateral cooperation and traditional U.S. allies—suggesting that under a GOP president the United States “may be more certain where it stands than it is today; but it will stand alone.” President Obama, in contrast, has accepted that the UN and other international institutions tend, for all their limitations, to be force multipliers for U.S. power.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

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