From October 30 to November 1, 2022, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) cohosted the thirteenth regional conference of the Council of Councils (CoC) in Jakarta, Indonesia. The CoC initiative was made possible by the generous support of the René Kern Family Foundation and the Robina Foundation, and the session on “Managing Geopolitics and Emerging Health Threats in the Post-COVID-19 Era” was part of the Project on the Future of Global Health Security, which was made possible by a generous grant from the Koret Foundation. The views described here are those of workshop participants only and are not CFR, René Kern Family Foundation, Koret Foundation, or Robina 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.
The world is witnessing a revival of traditional geopolitics: great power competition, imperial ambition, and a shifting global distribution of power. That revival is threatening prospects for cooperation on global challenges. Multilateralism is preferable, but geopolitics make collaboration difficult. Partnerships of like-minded parties allow countries to work more effectively in flexible arrangements, but they are exclusive and risk undermining instead of reinvigorating the international system.
The CoC Thirteenth Regional Conference included sessions on the future of international cooperation, managing geopolitics and emerging health threats, the role of regional economic initiatives, managing potential conflicts in the Indo-Pacific, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the future of climate, energy, and geopolitics. Forty-five participants from twenty-two countries gathered to discuss those issues.
The Future of International Cooperation: Broad Multilateralism Versus Minilateralism
Countries are increasingly resorting to minilateralism—small international groups assembled to achieve limited but significant strategic objectives—as opposed to bilateral alliances or broader and more formal multilateral associations. That shift allows countries with a limited ability to address global challenges alone to work more effectively together in flexible arrangements. Three trends are driving minilateralism in the Asia-Pacific: the inadequacy of existing multilateral institutions; the weakness of existing regional multilateral security arrangements; and the relative decline of Western countries.
Although no consensus definition emerged, several participants narrowed minilateralism to three forms: general crisis management, platforms for solving specific challenges, and mechanisms reflecting strategic realignments to strengthen one’s own position. The latter arrangement is becoming more prevalent. Two prominent examples are the quadrilateral security dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, widely known as the Quad, and the trilateral security pact known as AUKUS that Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States established in 2021—although their categorization was disputed.
Minilateralism has three shortcomings. First, and most important, is its exclusionary nature. Strengthening cooperation is challenging when many minilateral arrangements exclude China. Minilateralism could also force countries to choose between the United States and China. Second, minilateral arrangements are too small to solidify new rules of international cooperation. Third, they risk exacerbating regional instability and prompt harmful responses from excluded countries. New minilateral groupings—such as the Quad and AUKUS—are quickly emerging to resolve challenges and fill governance gaps but are simultaneously antagonizing other great powers. Participants acknowledged that the inclusive dialogues and regional platforms of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) still play a vital role that minilateral formats cannot replace.
All participants agreed that it is too early to tell how successful or effective minilateralism will be. Some hoped that the bottom-up approach could create the building blocks of broader and more inclusive cooperative frameworks. However, several participants lamented that the proliferation of minilateral arrangements will most likely lead to an increasingly divided world.
- Countries with mutual interests, shared values, or relevant capabilities should use minilateralism to bypass sclerotic multilateral institutions and major power rivalry to increase cooperation on mitigating regional and global challenges, but doing so is not a panacea for meeting all global challenges.
- Minilateral groupings should better communicate their priorities and threat perceptions to excluded countries and broader multilateral bodies to promote mutual understanding and synergize efforts where possible.
Managing Geopolitics and Emerging Health Threats in the Post-COVID-19 Era
Geopolitical tensions undermine the world’s ability to respond to emerging health threats at a time when global cooperation is most needed. The United States’ and China’s use of health diplomacy as a geopolitical tool encourages competitive dynamics that exacerbate the global inequity in public health resources distribution and erodes the mutual trust necessary for effective international health cooperation. The geopoliticization of pandemics is also decreasing the incentives of transparency, a vital component in preventing and responding to pandemics. When efforts at the international level are stalled, strengthening regional health governance can help increase national governments’ capacity to prevent future threats.
While the world is still dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19, mpox (formerly known as monkeypox), and polio, many more threats loom on the horizon, including zoonotic spillover, food insecurity, and biosafety and biosecurity risks. Unfortunately, three geopolitical challenges undermine global efforts to address these threats: rising U.S.-China competition, a growing rift between Russia and the West, and the shifting global distribution of power. The U.S.-led alliance against authoritarian states also risks worsening the divided global governance problem. Fortunately, history has proven that great power rivals can contribute significantly to global health security while competing in other areas. Forums such as the Group of Twenty should provide a platform for geopolitical competitors to coordinate as providers of global public health goods.
- All countries, but particularly the United States and China, should build or renew forward-looking and results-orientated dialogues on global health security—including track 1.5 dialogues featuring nongovernment actors and government officials.
- World Health Organization (WHO) members should create incentives and codify mechanisms to encourage transparency and public health reporting.
- The WHO should convene WHO member states, industry, and civil society to negotiate to retrofit the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework to enable emerging and developing countries to quickly access the most effective vaccines and therapeutics.
- Countries should revitalize the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), expand its membership, broaden its mandate, and increase its funding to better tackle multiple global health threats. Securitizing global health only encourages global competition and increases mistrust, and an expanded GHSA would make health diplomacy more inclusive.
- Countries should develop new international norms that support investment in pandemic preparedness and response. The proposed pandemic treaty or new International Health Regulations should consider including articles focused on tackling the drivers of emerging global health threats, such as deforestation, wildlife trade, and lab safety problems.
Building a Sustainable Global Economy: The Role of Regional Economic Initiatives
A surge of economic interventions has rattled and divided the global economic order. Although some piecemeal resolutions were reached at the World Trade Organization’s 2022 Ministerial Conference, multilateralism and globalization seem to be on the decline. As geopolitical tensions increase, multilateral negotiations stall, and globalization weakens, regional economic initiatives can boost economic growth and foster and build on consensus in areas such as rules of origin, ecommerce, environmental goods, and services, and eventually expand those best practices at the multilateral level. Unfortunately, regional arrangements are suboptimal, and expectations of deeper integration should be modest. They create different regional regulations and standards that can be expensive and difficult for multinational businesses to navigate.
Geopolitical competition and pandemic-related disturbances to energy, food, and medicine distribution are disrupting global supply chains. Viewpoints diverged on supply-chain resilience strategies. Some participants argued that supply-chain diversification increases security and stability. They predicted an increase in onshoring, nearshoring, and “friendshoring”—i.e., making products only in countries allied with one’s own—but that those efforts would focus on strategic sectors like medicine. Other participants, however, argued that these alliance-based resilience efforts are discriminatory, close off parts of regional markets to strategic competitors, and as a result, will heighten economic uncertainty. Even proponents of resilience efforts admitted they entailed costs and inefficiencies.
Over the previous thirty years, economic interdependence was promoted to increase stability and economic growth. Geopolitical competition now drives governments to weaponize interdependence, particularly in global supply chains. Examples include U.S. sanctions and export controls, Chinese customs clearance systems, and Russian energy supplies. Those measures could enhance fragmentation and set up discriminatory rules that harm regional integration. Unfortunately, participants insisted, competition is the reality of the geopolitical world.
- Countries should be transparent in promoting supply-chain resilience and practice nearshoring or friendshoring sparingly, mainly to protect national security.
- Countries should continue to use regional economic initiatives as incubators for expanding innovative rules and structures on the multilateral level where consensus exists. Databases of standards and best trade practices in trade agreements could be set up to more easily proliferate in other negotiations.
- Countries should prioritize environmental protection issues in bilateral and regional trade agreements.
Future Flashpoints: Managing Potential Conflicts in the Indo-Pacific
East Asia’s security landscape presents the world with a potential arc of instability—featuring U.S.-China rivalry, territorial disputes in the South and East China seas, and cross-strait tensions, among other factors. Normal crisis management mechanisms such as hotlines are important to prevent accidental escalation, but political understanding and strategic clarity are necessary to prevent conflict. Although all countries call for building trust and emphasize universal principles, the Indo-Pacific is plagued by discrepancies in interpretations of international law. The United States and China therefore need to hold dialogues and involve other countries in broader negotiations like the ASEAN Code of Conduct.
Although international or regional institutes can play no productive role in the Taiwan Strait, they can help promote stability in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, ASEAN is impaired by internal dysfunction and great power competition. U.S.-China bilateral relations will be the crucial determinant of whether conflict will arise in the Indo-Pacific. Worryingly, domestic political pressure in both countries to show strength could raise tensions.
Middle powers can promote regional stability by privately insisting the United States and China avoid actions that could lead to conflict. They can also call out force and coercion. Minilateralism is another way forward. In that vein, ASEAN should allow for more subregional and ASEAN-minus approaches, where only territorial claimants come together to negotiate. Collective deterrence could also be necessary to prevent conflict, but the risks involved need to be closely managed. If the primary mission of minilateral alliances such as the Quad is to constrain other countries, their actions could increase the potential for conflict.
- The United States and China should have regular person-to-person dialogues—coordinated with allies and partners—to clarify strategic priorities, increase understanding of motivations and goals, make red lines clear, and, with time, lessen the fundamentally different interpretations of regional issues and international law.
- Countries should strengthen regional economic integration. Economic pacts can promote stability, increase trust, and boost economic growth.
- Countries should restore the central role of ASEAN in regional coordination. Its convening power is unmatched, and it could be the only platform able to bridge the gap between all regional parties.
- ASEAN and other regional platforms should broaden the negotiation of regional rules of the road beyond diplomats to navies, coast guards, and civilians, because they implement rules on the ground.
Conflict Management: The Russia-Ukraine War
The prospects for a quick, negotiated end to the war are dim. Russia hopes its domestic mobilization will buy it time to stabilize the front, but the retreat from Kherson, Ukraine, raises concerns in Moscow. The resilience and resolve of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States will face critical tests in the winter amid high energy prices and inflation.
Russian threats to use nuclear weapons create a new reality from which nuclear escalation cannot be excluded. Although viewpoints diverged on the likelihood of their use, Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions could provide Vladimir Putin potential justification to employ nuclear weapons. Worryingly, many of Russia’s red lines are no longer seen as credible, which could increase pressure on Russia to react.
From the Western perspective, any resolution to the war should meet at least three criteria: be enduring and not allow Russia to regroup; provide justice in terms of territorial occupations; and provide for the reconstruction of Ukraine. Although many participants reiterated the importance of achieving justice, others noted it could prolong the fighting. Because the situation is not ripe for negotiations, many participants recommended the West continue military, financial, and diplomatic support for Ukraine. At the same time, direct communication between the United States and Russia remains crucial because Russia sees the United States as leading the coalition it faces.
Although the transatlantic alliance is united in opposition to Russia’s invasion, many other countries in the Global South have not taken strong positions. They are faced with difficult trade-offs navigating a conflict that reminds them of the Cold War.
- The United States and Russia should continue direct dialogue and ensure communications at the military, political, and diplomatic levels remain open. A top priority should be to de-escalate the nuclear threat.
- Countries beyond the transatlantic alliance should be more vocal in opposing Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and continue to reiterate that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
- The United States and Europe should be clear in all communications that at the end of this conflict they are prepared to deal with Russia’s legitimate security concerns. That can be done by resurrecting arms control measures and other transparency mechanisms.
- All countries should think more about how to create an enduring and just end to the fighting. Given the territorial issues, negotiations will likely begin with Russia still occupying some Ukrainian territory, so the ground should be prepared to hold genuine referenda with international observation to discover the true will of the people.
The Future of Energy, Climate, and Geopolitics
The world is witnessing a transformative moment in energy. Ten years ago, many people were hopeful at the prospect of a clean-energy world. The International Energy Agency projected that fossil fuel usage could drop to 20 percent if all Paris Agreement and net-zero commitments were met. Geopolitical competition and the growing securitization of energy most likely make that goal unobtainable.
Russia’s weaponization of its energy supply, the growing confrontation between the United States and OPEC+, and the West’s sanctions on Russian oil and gas have combined to break the oil and gas system. The growing geopolitical tensions triggered as fossil fuel usage decreases is further fragmenting markets. Countries have responded by seeking self-sufficiency and reverting to coal. Not only will coal keep climate goals out of reach, but it will also put the basic security and affordability of quality energy at risk.
The market for clean-energy technology is also fragmented. Several countries are seeking to control the supply of minerals and metals critical to manufacturing. The clean-energy race is creating tensions between the developed and developing world. The biggest issue is access to capital. Most clean-technology innovation and financing is from the Global North while demand for energy is growing fastest in the Global South.
Countries could form loose communities of trust, values, and norms around energy. Although the efficiencies of global markets would be lost, building a network of common suppliers and creating regulatory standards could prevent the redundancies of going it alone. Some participants noted that idea was just a more sympathetic framing of minilateral cooperation. Those coalitions will build trust among members but could increase mistrust with countries outside.
- Countries can advance the clean-energy transition by providing regulatory frameworks, investing funds that complement the private sector, and incentivizing and de-risking clean-energy investments.
- Governments should coordinate efforts to set regulations and establish public-private sector investments to ramp up the recycling capacity of clean technologies.
- Group of Seven members should continue to establish an open and cooperative international climate club that advances ambitious climate change mitigation policies, accelerates decarbonization, and promotes a just energy transition.
- Development banks, multilateral funds, and private companies should further employ blended finance, which uses public funding to leverage commercial funds for projects deemed high risk.