Council of Councils Thirteenth Annual Conference

Insights From a Council of Councils Conference

Group of Twenty leaders during the summit in New Delhi, India on September 9, 2023. Evan Vucci/Pool via Reuters

Coordination is needed on growing transnational challenges, but domestic political priorities could hinder reaching consensus on managing global challenges.

June 30, 2024

Group of Twenty leaders during the summit in New Delhi, India on September 9, 2023. Evan Vucci/Pool via Reuters
Report

From May 19 to 21, 2024, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) hosted the thirteenth annual conference of the Council of Councils (CoC) in Washington. The conference was made possible by the generous support of the René Kern Family Foundation. The views described in this report are those of workshop participants only and are not CFR or René Kern Family Foundation positions. CFR 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 or their home institutions. 

Introduction

The Council of Councils

The world is witnessing an accelerating transformation toward more divergence and fragmentation. Coordination is needed on growing transnational challenges, but the reality is domestic issues are taking precedence over the global agenda, and domestic political constraints could hinder reaching consensus on managing global challenges. While emerging and middle powers are gaining power and influence, they need to not only determine what kind of order they want, but also be prepared to defend it. This will be difficult given the number of middle powers and the divergences among them.

More on:

World Order

International Economic Policy

Global Governance

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The War in Ukraine

The CoC thirteenth annual conference included sessions on geopolitics and world order, the Russia-Ukraine war, diplomacy and artificial intelligence (AI), global economic consensus, and the Israel-Hamas war. Forty-one participants from twenty-one countries gathered to discuss those issues.

Geopolitics and the Future of World Order

The current world order is under threat. The return of strategic competition, increase in conflicts, and disregard for international norms and global governance mechanisms jeopardize the order that has governed—or attempted to govern—the world for the past seventy-nine years.

Participants mostly agreed that those trends—which can be seen in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas war, and instability in the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific—are symptoms of a fragmenting world order. The outcomes of those events could set disastrous precedents that undermine an already fractured order.

Perspectives differed on the role of China in growing global disorder. Most participants viewed China as an increasingly assertive and combative challenger to the world order, while some viewed China as a rising advocate for other emerging powers.

Other participants identified additional drivers of disorder, including complicated geoeconomic ties amid great power competition, nuclear proliferation, and a lack of accountability for gross violations of international law. Potential resolutions to these challenges included reviving multilateral cooperation and dialogue, particularly in East Asia; modernizing alliances and clearly defining their purposes; and strengthening regional organizations’ participation in dialogues to better acknowledge voices from developing and emerging powers.

More on:

World Order

International Economic Policy

Global Governance

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The War in Ukraine

Participants debated whether the international order is truly becoming multipolar. One participant called the structure polyamorous, citing the increased flexibility of middle powers in interacting with great powers. Another participant argued that no world order ever existed, pointing to the United States’ pattern of alternating between flaunting the rules-based order and disregarding it based on convenience and self-interest. Another held that rather than multiple poles emerging, middle powers are becoming regional hegemons. Another conversation centered around how to deal with an existing world order that is unfair to the emerging and middle powers that were excluded from its inception. Participants recommended a bottom-up approach when constructing new rules and norms going forward, with an emphasis on utilizing ideas from middle powers. One participant acknowledged that the Group of Twenty (G20) is already a strong starting point for future frameworks, as it provides some middle powers, which make up half of the group, a forum to voice concerns and priorities.

The United Nations is no longer seen by many as the best instrument to drive world order. Fewer countries use it to express their agency, and participants pointed to recent instances of the United Nations failing to secure peace and security in the world, such as in Gaza. Participants agreed there needs to be effective UN reform to make it a stronger system and prevent gridlock. However, regional organizations and minilateral efforts should also be supported and strengthened, as they exhibit potential in effectively addressing issues on which the United Nations could fall short.

Recommendations

  • Governments and international institutions should support regional organizations. Such organizations allow emerging and middle powers more leeway and agency in voicing their perspectives, setting the agenda, and tackling their priorities both regionally and globally.
  • Governments and leaders should make a greater effort to re-establish multilateral and bilateral dialogues. The lack of effective and transparent discussion leads to diverging perceptions and the breakdown of diplomacy.
  • Governments and think tanks should reject the view that conflict between the United States and China is inevitable.
  • Governments and international organizations should make a concerted effort to reinforce and strengthen governance structures for non-military issues such as climate change, water and energy management, global health, AI, and global public goods. Some of those issues, particularly climate change, currently lack the global cooperation needed to prevent future problems and disturbances to the world order.
Participants at the CoC thirteenth annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2024. Kaveh Sardari
Participants at the CoC thirteenth annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2024. Kaveh Sardari

The Russia-Ukraine War

The Russia-Ukraine war has discredited the idea that disputes will be solved peacefully, and many participants were concerned that global powers will return to enforcing their demands by force. Most participants asserted that middle powers should help Ukraine win the war not only because Ukraine should be an independent country, but also to reinforce the principle of territorial integrity. However, much of the world does not see this war as a norm-defining event.

Several participants argued that the obvious goal is for Ukraine to defeat Russia. One participant lamented that no alternative existed given Russia’s failure to abide by previous agreements, and that without defeat, Russia would likely escalate its aggression. Discussion also centered around the possibility of a frozen conflict, with no side able to declare victory. Many participants recognized this is unlikely at least for the next couple of years given the resources, manpower, and national goals at play. Others saw a stalemate as the most likely outcome but questioned whether European governments and allies would be able to contain and deter Russia from further aggression. A nonaggression pact between NATO and Russia is one way forward, but participants doubted there was a security order acceptable to Ukraine and its allies that would simultaneously reassure Russia and limit its forceful influence in the region.

A prolonged war appears probable for various reasons. First, neither defeating nor reassuring Russia are immediately available options for Ukraine and its partners. Second, while the level of Ukrainian resistance surprised many, Ukraine is running out of resources and war fatigue is setting in across Western governments. Third, Russia appears to have the momentum and is unwilling to hold real negotiations. Fourth, Russia’s diplomatic efforts have succeeded in accessing new markets and blocking more unified opposition, so it does not feel pressured to end its military operations.

The future of European security architecture was a major question for participants. While the base for transatlantic cooperation is NATO, a stronger relationship between NATO and the European Union is needed for the sustainable future of both institutions.

Recommendations

  • Ukraine should decide what kind of peace agreement it would like to see and should be involved in any negotiations.
  • NATO allies and other countries should continue to support Ukraine economically and militarily.

Geopolitics, Diplomacy, and AI

AI presents the world with a unique opportunity. It is a wide-ranging technology that can be used for good, but the failure to adequately regulate and govern the use of AI also poses threats to equality, democracy, security, and human rights.

Participants discussed how AI can be harnessed to improve global development and combat inequalities around the world—citing the AI for Good Summit’s aim to use the technology to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Participants cautioned that those efforts should not leave out low- and middle-income countries, as the world cannot risk repeating the mistakes made when asymmetrically distributing vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All participants agreed that governments and other organizations need to become more proficient in AI technology to properly legislate and regulate it. Federal governments need more resources to better understand AI and ensure AI developers maintain a desired level of transparency and explainability. Chief AI officers and diplomatic AI teams in national and international institutions can be tasked with overseeing regulatory frameworks and ensuring the ethical and safe use of AI in their jurisdictions. Some governments are already forming AI safety institutes to better understand the potential benefits and harms of AI.

Participants compared the different types of government configurations attempting to regulate AI. Most agreed that the Council of Europe AI Treaty’s private sector obligations are timid compared to those for governments, which is noteworthy because most AI development is occurring in the private sector. Participants also discussed the EU AI Act, suggesting that although it creates useful guidelines for AI safety, it could be difficult to enforce.

Recommendations

  • Governments, international institutions, and private corporations should create departments and teams within their organizations for the express purpose of understanding AI safety, ensuring AI ethics, and creating mechanisms for effective AI regulation. Those efforts could include creating positions like chief AI officers, AI ambassadors, or diplomatic AI teams that are well-versed in the technology.
  • International organizations and forums such as the United Nations, the Group of Seven (G7), the G20, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) should continue to be involved in creating guidelines, recommendations, and, potentially, regulations to better understand how to protect vulnerable populations from safety issues arising from AI, and how to harness AI technology for the development of humanity.
  • International institutions, national governments, and private entities should focus on empowering low- and middle-income countries to develop their own AI industries, rather than allowing the emerging and middle powers to grow dependent on the West for the technology.
Shao Yuqun, Thomas Gomart, and Michael Fullilove at the annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 20, 2024.
Shao Yuqun, Thomas Gomart, and Michael Fullilove at the annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 20, 2024. Kaveh Sadari

The Breakdown of the Global Economic Consensus

The global economic order is at an inflection point. While no universal consensus on a set of economic principles among countries existed, for the past three decades, Washington and the West have championed the so-called Washington Consensus, which favors free markets, open borders, and fiscal discipline. Those policies favor markets over states and the efficiency of global integration over domestic priorities. The world is now recalibrating, partly as countries outside the West grow in political and economic influence, and to counter inequality, and partly as the United States and other Western countries increasingly question the benefits of neoliberal economic policies. Countries want to make the market more subordinate to the state, give more weight to domestic priorities, and carve out space in the global economy for their industries. Participants agreed those are legitimate policy concerns. However, separating them from issues of great power competition will be difficult. Domestic political constraints could lead to a less optimal international economic system for all, but countries appear willing to bear the economic costs for political reasons. The question remains whether a stable middle ground can be found between an open world and domestic priorities.

While most participants agreed that elements of globalization will continue despite headwinds, others argued that the era of globalization is over. They held that the world will transition to a more rebalanced globalization, marked by greater national and economic security considerations and managed economic competition. This global landscape will present great difficulties to forging a global economic consensus. While achieving consensus is challenging, a basic level of coordination or harmonization is necessary to prevent externalities and spillovers spreading across countries.

For consensus to occur, countries need clarity on what policies and frameworks they want. An updated model would need to reflect a multipolar world and most likely start with broad agreement between the United States and China. Participants were pessimistic that anything could be agreed to, but argued that baseline principles and reforms were possible and could include macro information sharing through the G20, climate mitigation, cooperation on the SDGs, or quota-based voting reform at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Most participants agreed that the world is headed to further fragmentation. Some participants suggested that blocs are logical given they would coordinate industrial policy and national security among politically aligned groups. Some participants argued that blocs are not in the best interest of middle powers given both the organizations and middle powers would have less influence overall. Others suggested that collaboration on specific areas or on a regional basis is a fruitful, balanced way forward given distrust across the international system. This cooperation could serve as a building block for future multilateral efforts. The problem is that bloc groupings will likely struggle to accept a heterogeneous political world, which will make it nearly impossible to have truly global rules.

Recommendations

  • Governments should make room for other countries to prioritize their own political and economic agendas but look for shared building blocks for global coordination. This includes separating legitimate domestic goals from beggar-thy-neighbor policies and targeting those issues to find an international set of constraints.
  • A new consensus should prioritize environmental sustainability alongside economic growth. This could involve widely accepted carbon-pricing mechanisms, green investment and financing principles, and green global-value chains. Climate change mitigation policies should also be placed under initiatives that reduce income inequality and foster economic growth in developing countries to attract their active participation.
  • If consensus on outcomes is unattainable, governments should focus on producing mechanisms that at least emerge from a procedural consensus.
  • Think tanks should work on simultaneous and symmetrical reforms at the IMF and World Trade Organization (WTO) as part of a quid-pro-quo deal that offers benefits and concessions to both developing and developed countries. For example, developing countries could get higher quotas and voting shares at the IMF and developed countries could get the reforms that they want at the WTO.

The Israel-Hamas War

After eight months of war in Gaza, Hamas continues to hold Israelis and the Israeli military has failed to eliminate Hamas. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens, and the conflict could further escalate and spread across the region. Prospects for security in the region, the potential of a Palestinian state, and a general postwar scenario remain unclear.

Participants discussed various potential resolutions to the conflict. Of particular concern was the fact that Israeli popular support for a two-state solution is at historic lows. This Israeli skepticism about the two-state solution reflects the trauma from October 7, the absence of what Israel sees as a reliable and effective Palestinian partner, and a lack of trust in international negotiations surrounding the conflict. Yet participants still concluded that a two-state solution is the most realistic for lasting peace in the region.

All participants agreed Israel should do more to minimize casualties among civilians and aid workers and to do more to provide humanitarian relief to Palestinians in Gaza. Participants also considered the distribution of humanitarian aid in a postwar scenario, as a new Palestinian state would likely need assistance from civil organizations to provide relief to its citizens.

An additional concern was how the conflict might contribute to instability elsewhere. Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 energized al-Qaeda, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and other Islamist groups, leading them to call for attacks outside the Middle East to show support for Hamas.

Recommendations

  • The Israeli government should move toward fulfilling immediate objectives regarding the ongoing war, including reducing Hamas’s military capabilities while minimizing casualties among civilians and humanitarian aid workers, working toward a deal that frees the hostages, and coordinating with other governments in the region to create a postwar plan for the next ruling entity in Gaza.
  • The Israeli government should move to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia while acknowledging a two-state solution is the most sustainable approach to stability for Israelis, Palestinians, and the region. This new agreement should create a new architecture that counters Iranian influence and aggression in the region.
  • Western and Arab states should help reform and revitalize the Palestinian Authority to establish the conditions for stability in the broader region. The coalition could also help provide humanitarian assistance and ensure the demilitarization of Hamas.

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