from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Council of Councils Sixth Annual Conference

Insights From a Council of Councils Workshop

From left, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Voktor Orban, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May pose for a photo during the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, on May 25, 2017. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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Global Governance

Diplomacy and International Institutions

On May 7–9, 2017, the Council on Foreign Relations hosted the sixth annual conference of the Council of Councils. The conference was made possible by the generous support of the Robina Foundation for CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program. The views described here are those of workshop participants only and are not CFR or Robina Foundation positions. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government. In addition, the suggested policy prescriptions are the views of individual participants and do not necessarily represent a consensus of the attending members.

Conference Takeaways and Overview

  • The future of international cooperation remains uncertain in light of the past year’s events, most notably the Brexit referendum, and the lack of clarity in U.S. objectives and intentions after the election of U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
  • Job losses in industrialized countries, paralyzed national and international institutions, and the perceived weakness of the democratic legitimacy of the European Union (EU) threaten to derail further global economic integration.
  • Although the internet has become indispensable to billions of people around the world, conflicting national positions on cybersecurity, internet governance, and crime have frustrated the emergence of common norms of state conduct in cyberspace.
  • A peaceful resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and an end to violence in the Middle East will require concerted action by regional and global powers, including a willingness to find compromises among their often divergent geopolitical objectives.

The sixth annual conference of the Council of Councils devoted individual sessions on how to rebuild domestic support for trade, construct multilateral rules of the road in cyberspace, respond to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, adapt EU institutions to new political realities, and mitigate turmoil in the Middle East. To discuss these issues, forty-two delegates from twenty-three countries gathered for the conference in Washington, DC.

Participants prepare for the start of the Council of Councils' sixth annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2017. (Kaveh Sardari)
Participants prepare for the start of the Council of Councils' sixth annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2017. Kaveh Sardari

Rebuilding Domestic Support for Global Trade

Although skepticism toward trade liberalization and globalization more generally has grown in advanced economies, as evinced by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, most conference participants were confident that this is only a temporary deviation from deepening global integration rather than its epitaph. As one participant observed, protectionism is unlikely to run rampant, thanks to demographic changes and surging demand in emerging markets and heavy investment by multinational corporations in global supply chains. However, all participants agreed that national governments should do more to mitigate the adverse social and economic effects of globalization so that workers and communities can adjust to intensifying foreign competition. They also concurred that the challenges of globalization and automation are interrelated and thus cannot be dealt with in isolation.

​​​​​​Recommendations for Rebuilding Support for Global Trade

  • National leaders need to be more forthright about the risks and opportunities of trade liberalization instead of only stating the benefits. While trade integration is beneficial overall, it creates losers as well as winners and the costs tend to be acute and thus more politically salient.
  • National leaders should focus on adapting domestic social policy—for example, education, retraining, training, and social safety net policies—to specific country contexts to create more resilient, thriving, and equitable economies.
  • Governments and international institutions should work to harmonize national and international policy interventions to support domestic job creation and maintenance. For instance, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) could establish and promote new norms on taxation that help prevent an international race to the bottom on tax rates. One participant suggested that governments and international institutions could also promote new norms designed to manage or neutralize technological advances that harm national employment.
  • Advanced economies should focus trade liberalization efforts on emerging economies instead of attempting to converge norms with other advanced economies. Emerging economies tend to both be more enthusiastic about openness and have higher tariffs and nontariff barriers (NTBs). Indeed, some participants argued that emerging country governments should take more ambitious steps to lower tariffs and remove NTBs as their own contributions to liberalization.
  • The World Trade Organization should continue sector- or issue-specific negotiations. One potential step would be to modernize the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

Crafting Multilateral Rules of the Road in Cyberspace

Internet governance is only as strong as its weakest link, and national capacities for combating cybercrime vary.

Russia’s alleged interference in U.S. and French presidential elections and radical groups’ use of social media to spread terror have placed cybersecurity front and center on the global agenda. Participants generally agreed that there needs to be a multilateral framework to help states govern the internet. However, participants also acknowledged that the existence of multiple private and public actors, the challenge of attributing attacks to perpetrators, and the lack of agreement over legitimate responses (much less multilateral enforcement) posed enormous obstacles to genuine cybersecurity. These problems are likely to worsen over the next few years, as accelerating technological advances exacerbate security vulnerabilities and accentuate mistrust among users, tech companies, and governments. Participants noted that internet governance is only as strong as its weakest link and that national capacities for combating cybercrime vary markedly. This reality complicates efforts to assign state responsibility for incidents occurring within national jurisdictions. It also underscores the need to focus international efforts on capacity-building.

Recommendations for Advancing Multilateral Rules in Cyberspace

  • International institutions and governments should follow a multistakeholder approach that involves governments, the private sector, and civil society to counter mass manipulation, minimize disruptive behaviors, and protect human rights in cyberspace. However, one participant argued that this broad cooperation should be adequately balanced with the important role that national governments play in cybersecurity, given the dynamics between the government and private sector differ in each country.
  • International institutions and governments should establish cooperative approaches to cyber regulation. One potential model is the code of conduct that the European Commission negotiated in May 2016 with internet intermediaries to help counter illegal online hate speech.
  • The United Nations, or some subset of its member states, should create a technological attribution council that would convene cyber experts to conduct apolitical reviews of cyber incidents. Such a body would be constructive even if it is used solely to name and shame some states.
  • The United Nations should consider resolutions as an interim step to establishing tough multilateral norms and principles on cyber conflict. Additional objectives might ultimately include creating a to rein in cyberwarfare, negotiating a multilateral treaty on cyberwarfare and cyber research activities modeled on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and creating norms to restrict some intelligence and military operations in cyberspace.
  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s set of confidence-building measures [PDF] to reduce the risk of conflict stemming from the use of information and communication technology should be expanded beyond Europe and substantively broadened.

How the World Should Respond to North Korea

Since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, denuclearizing the peninsula has remained atop the world’s nonproliferation and counter-proliferation agenda. A nuclear North Korea not only threatens U.S. allies Japan and South Korea but also risks destabilizing Northeast Asia, a major global economic hub with China at its core. Despite multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions punishing North Korea for its numerous weapons tests, Pyongyang’s leaders cling tightly to the country’s nuclear arsenal for political survival. This downward spiral has made North Korea the world’s most isolated economy, and Pyongyang relies heavily on Chinese supplies of aid, food, and fuel. Participants agreed that any resolution will require intimate cooperation between Beijing and Washington as well as U.S. allies in the region, but participants also noted that the two powers’ misaligned priorities and geostrategic mistrust have made it difficult to reach a durable solution. Given North Korean insecurity and the complex nature of the threat, any diplomatic solution is likely to involve protracted negotiations.

Recommendations for Responding to North Korea

Washington’s goal should be to contain Pyongyang, given the current trajectory of North Korea’s weapons program.
  • The United States and China should agree to maintain a continuous bilateral dialogue and work closely to refine sanctions against North Korea that specifically target the regime’s financial assets.
  • The United States should make clear that there will be no use of force against North Korea as long as the regime refrains from further nuclear tests. Multiple participants discussed the need for such reassurance in the face of North Korea’s insecurities.
  • Diplomatic negotiations should link North Korean denuclearization with external assurances of the regime’s political survival. One participant also recommended a twenty-year moratorium on any steps toward Korean reunification, which could ultimately be decided by a referendum on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel.
  • Washington’s goal should be to contain Pyongyang, given the current trajectory of North Korea’s weapons program, and to reinforce security guarantees for U.S. allies, ensuring that Seoul and Tokyo refrain from seeking nuclear capabilities.

What Should Be Done to Save the European Union

A confluence of internal and external woes—ranging from anemic eurozone economic growth to uncontrolled migration, rising populism, and Brexit—has exposed structural deficiencies and created a crisis of confidence in the EU. Despite these centrifugal forces, the EU persists as a vital institution that embodies a community of values, rights, freedom, and justice—albeit one often used as a scapegoat for shortcomings in national governance.

EU leaders should explore ways to give their citizens more direct or indirect democratic control over EU institutions.

Participants agreed that the EU needs to prioritize reforms that improve the security and livelihoods of its citizens, even as they acknowledged that the direction and pace of integration remain far from clear. Given disagreements among member states about how to achieve an “ever closer union,” participants considered the viability of a scenario in which EU states pursue a more differentiated form of integration, aiming in the same general policy direction but avoiding a single blueprint. However, participants cautioned that differentiated integration could come in various forms—including “multi-speed Europe” or “variable geometry” (Europe à la carte)—each with its own unique implications, opportunities, and risks. Some participants saw French President Emmanuel Macron’s election as a potential opportunity to “relaunch” the EU as well as to give momentum to efforts by eurozone members to complete the promised banking union and take steps toward fiscal union. Others cautioned that Brexit negotiations will take up much of the EU’s time and energy for the next several years.

Recommendations for Preserving the European Union

  • EU member states should undertake the necessary domestic reforms identified in the Lisbon Strategy of 2000, which aimed to improve the productivity and competitiveness of the EU economy.
  • EU member states should complete unfinished collective EU-level reforms. This move includes creating a single digital market and establishing a capital markets union or a free market in services.
  • EU leaders should explore new ways to give their citizens more direct or indirect democratic control over EU institutions. Initiatives could include allowing a majority of national parliaments to block new European Commission–led directives or regulations or preventing the European Court of Justice from pushing integration forward through proactive treaty interpretation.
  • EU members should continue to bolster the bloc’s collective capacity to protect, reinforce, and more effectively manage its external borders and security. They should fully implement their plans to build a European border and coast guard agency and agree to share more equitably the burden of dealing with migration flows.
  • EU institutions and national governments should improve national defense integration. This step should include more effectively implementing and improving the Schengen Information System, the 2008 Prum Treaty arrangements on sharing criminal data, and the permanent structured cooperation [PDF].
  • Members of the eurozone should complete their plans for banking union, including the appointment of a eurozone finance minister, and take steps toward fiscal union.

Setting Realistic Goals for Stabilizing the Middle East

Participants anticipated that no actionable plans within the next year will be able to allay the current period of disorder and transition in the Middle East. Instability will continue for a prolonged period until the state system in the region is able to regain control over national and regional developments. Although the U.S. invasion of Iraq contributed to regional disorder, participants emphasized that other external and local factors have also contributed, notably the collapse of the moderate center after the Arab Spring, demographic strains, the spread of transnational Islamism, a drop in oil prices, poor governance, and regional power competition through proxies. These challenges make stabilization highly unlikely within the next year. Faced with a political vacuum, people in the Middle East have tended to side with their own religions or tribes, increasing sectarian mobilization, empowering nonstate actors, and destabilizing central governments.

Several participants argued that the election of Trump is an opportunity for the Middle East. The president could reassert U.S. regional leadership through a mixture of hard power and diplomacy, fight extremism and counter terrorism, and resist Iranian hegemony. One participant hoped the United States would learn from the Russian example that military power can help achieve political goals. Others countered that further U.S. intervention risked exacerbating regional Sunni-Shia competition. Participants also disagreed on Syrian regime change. Some called for the immediate removal of Bashar al-Assad, and one participant called for a military transition council. Others wanted to defer any leadership change until after de-escalation, noting that the Syrian regime would be an essential partner in any settlement and that any peace was better than war.

The Trump administration should aim to improve the situation rather than seek to resolve it immediately and completely.

Additionally, a few participants proposed that the UN Security Council pass a resolution classifying militias in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, as terrorist groups and calling on them to disband. Other participants disagreed, noting widely differing international perceptions over which militias should be designated as terrorists.

Recommendations for Advancing Stability in the Middle East

  • The P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) should devote significant resources to monitoring Iran to ensure that any violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are punished and that strategies are in place to mitigate the dangers inherent in the agreement’s sunset clauses.
  • The United States and its partners should actively work for a cease-fire in Yemen. Some argued that redoubling support for the Saudi and Emirati campaign against the Houthis would strengthen the Gulf states against Iran and create enough leverage for all sides to accept a cease-fire, but others questioned whether this would only result in more destruction and an unending quagmire.
  • The Trump administration should set realistic goals regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that aim to improve the situation and its trajectory rather than seeking to resolve it immediately and completely. For example, the Trump administration could preserve the future possibility of a two-state solution by pursuing several negotiation tracks simultaneously.
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