Council of Councils Twelfth Annual Conference

Insights From a Council of Councils Conference

Indian Prime Minister Modi speaks with French President Macron as U.S. President Biden speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Albanese, and European Commission President von der Leyen. Brendan Smialowski/Pool via Reuters

Sessions were held on the future of AI governance, accountability for war crimes in the invasion of Ukraine, reworking the Sustainable Development Goals and the global development model, revitalizing the World Trade Organization, and strengthening the global geopolitical order.

June 27, 2023

Indian Prime Minister Modi speaks with French President Macron as U.S. President Biden speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Albanese, and European Commission President von der Leyen. Brendan Smialowski/Pool via Reuters

From May 7 to 9, 2023, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) hosted the twelfth annual conference of the Council of Councils (CoC) in New York. The CoC initiative was made possible by the generous support of the René Kern Family Foundation and the Robina Foundation. The views described in this report are those of workshop participants only and are not CFR, René Kern Family 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 Council of Councils

At a time when advanced technology has the potential to help ameliorate global challenges, rising geopolitical tensions and competing national interests threaten to fragment the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s failure to lead on other transnational challenges imperil the multilateral system and call into question the basic rules of international order. As the world shifts toward multipolarity, those divisions will make global challenges more unpredictable and unmanageable at a time when economies are more interdependent and cooperation is needed more than ever.

More on:

World Order

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

International Criminal Court

Sustainable Development Goals (UN)

World Trade Organization (WTO)

The CoC twelfth annual conference included sessions on governing artificial intelligence, holding those responsible for war crimes accountable, reversing the breakdown of the global development model, revitalizing the World Trade Organization (WTO), and increasing global divisions and the future of world order. Forty-nine participants from twenty-two countries gathered to discuss those issues.

The Governance of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the transformative potential to spur both beneficial and harmful changes for society. How AI will be governed within and among nations will be vital to ensuring its benefits are inclusive and its adverse risks abated. Unfortunately, all conference participants agreed that distinct national values and priorities will make finding consensus on the breadth and scope of regulations for AI difficult. Other complicating factors include the uncertainty generated by the exponential pace of AI innovation, growing distrust between the United States and China, and AI’s implications for military power.

Participants concluded that AI governance depends on how urgent nations perceive the risks and threats it poses. Those that view AI as an existential threat tend to want state-centric precautionary regulation before problems get out of hand. Those that view AI as more of a transition would prefer a flexible regulatory model based on learning from experience.

With the lion’s share of AI innovation originating in only the United States and China, other countries fear being left behind. One participant suggested encouraging tech firms to include developing countries in dialogues to help create policy from a more bottom-up process.

Participants agreed that international institutions are not well placed to regulate AI. The fact that like-minded countries in the Group of Seven (G7) struggle to agree on AI governance indicates the challenge for broader groupings to find consensus.

More on:

World Order

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

International Criminal Court

Sustainable Development Goals (UN)

World Trade Organization (WTO)

Given the pace of innovation, the private sector and civil society should each play a critical role in educating the public and helping close the AI knowledge and skills gap in the government. However, as AI technology is centralized in only a few organizations, policymakers should ensure that AI is developed and deployed with not only commercial mandates in mind, but should also prioritize fairness, transparency, and human safety. International standard-setting organizations or educational bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) could be helpful with regulatory arrangements, but some participants cautioned that many such bodies are driven mainly by private and Western interests.


  • National governments, international institutions, and the private sector should collaborate on prioritizing standards for AI. The G7 or Group of Twenty (G20) nations could establish a digital stability board based on lessons learned from previous informal coordinating groups such as the Financial Stability Board. Existing bodies could also be leveraged, including groups such as the IEEE’s Open Community for Ethics in Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. 
  • National governments and the private sector should develop common areas of interest and consensus on basic principles of AI governance. Possible starting points include protecting human life, preventing bias and discrimination in large language models, and fighting disinformation. It will be important to discuss and develop off-limit areas, particularly in military applications like autonomous weapons. 
  • The private sector and civil society should participate in a public, transparent evaluation of AI systems. Such a discussion could provide critical information to researchers and the public about the effects of AI and how urgent the challenges are, as well as enable AI companies and developers to take steps to fix issues.
Participants at the Council of Councils twelfth annual conference in New York on May 8, 2023.
Participants at the Council of Councils twelfth annual conference in New York on May 8, 2023. Howard Heyman

Holding Those Responsible for War Crimes Accountable

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to signal a transformation in international willingness to act forcefully to prevent, stop, and establish accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity more generally. Unfortunately, many participants lamented that international legal hopes are still largely aspirational, and that accountability will be stalled by military, political, and jurisdictional matters.

The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for allegedly facilitating the unlawful deportation and transfer of children out of occupied areas of Ukraine is a major change in the court’s policy. It is the first warrant ever issued against the sitting leader of a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However, this process involves many complicated trade-offs. A common concern is that war crimes prosecutions could be detrimental to finding a negotiated settlement if those responsible are at risk of prosecution. The ICC’s credibility could also be damaged given the many obstacles that stand between an arrest warrant and a possible conviction of Putin.

Most participants agreed that war crimes accountability should be a priority in Ukraine, suggesting, if left unaddressed, other authoritarian leaders could emulate Putin’s behavior. Others suggested it would be unsatisfactory to prosecute only the ICC’s indictment while not addressing the most supreme international crime of aggression. Unfortunately, consensus did not exist on the appropriate forum for prosecuting Russia’s crime of aggression. Options included a Ukrainian court, a special international tribunal, a hybrid of the two, or the ICC, but each has its political and legal difficulties. Additionally, any prosecution outside the ICC could further splinter the international criminal justice system. 

The invasion of Ukraine has also exposed double standards in the administration of international criminal law. Many participants argued that conflicts outside the West are not treated with the same urgency. While some participants contended that Putin’s indictment is proof that the ICC is starting to hold great power leaders accountable, others suggested they would only be convinced when Western powers are held accountable for their actions. Many agreed that the United States embracing the ICC and ratifying important human rights treaties would bolster the effectiveness, credibility, and legitimacy of the global justice system.


  • UN member countries should continue to negotiate setting up a special tribunal to prosecute Russian military and political leaders responsible for the crime of aggression. Those efforts are important to set a precedent.
  • National governments and civil society should work on filling the gaps in the international criminal justice system that Russia’s war in Ukraine has exposed.
  • National governments, notably the United States, should not exempt themselves from universally accepted international law so as to increase the legitimacy and credibility of the international criminal justice system. Where acceptable to member states, the ICC’s jurisdiction should be expanded.
  • If accountability for war crimes becomes the sticking point preventing a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Ukraine, national governments and international institutions should prioritize ending the violence to save lives rather than achieving justice for those already lost.

Reversing the Breakdown of the Global Development Model

This year marks the halfway point for the implementation of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its center. All participants agreed the world is not on track to meet those goals. Many blamed COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; however, the world has been off track since 2019.

The real problem lies with the SDGs themselves. Their broad scope (encompassing 169 associated targets) is an attempt to do everything everywhere all at once. The SDGs also incorporate advanced-country priorities that have no real place in what should be a strategy to help the poorest people in the world.

The next five years present even more challenges. Global interest rate hikes and efforts to increase economic resilience could make development efforts more costly and hinder economic growth. Not only will a lack of progress on the SDGs be born heavily by already marginalized communities, but a failure to achieve the SDGs would also call into question the world’s ability to act together to fix important collective problems.

Participants agreed that scrapping the SDGs and starting over is politically impossible. Many participants suggested prioritizing the SDGs that focus on poverty alleviation or on targets that save the most lives. Closing the digital divide and equitably sharing technology should also be priorities because their benefits affect many fields, including education, procurement, and sustainable growth.

With 60 percent of low-income countries already in debt distress, saddling them with more debt should be avoided. The World Bank has stepped up efforts to mobilize the private sector for global development, but more reforms are necessary. Unfortunately, World Bank capital increases face political and economic constraints.

Several participants suggested that growing great power rivalry could benefit developing countries. U.S.-China competition could drive them to compete via development aid. However, U.S.-China competition also presents challenges to the developing world. The United States’ return to protectionist industrial policy and push to build alliances against Chinese products could also make sustainable development much more costly.


  • The United Nations should prioritize a short list of the existing SDGs and targets that are achievable by 2030, easily measurable, attractive across the political spectrum, affordable, and built on what is known to work.
  • Major World Bank shareholders should protect the poorest against further marginalization as the bank faces more competitive demands. The World Bank’s reform agenda should be tailored to alleviating extreme poverty and worsening indebtedness in low-income countries. Major shareholders should increase cash contributions to the upcoming twenty-first International Development Association replenishment.
  • Development programs should be more transparent and include narratives that help those in donor states realize how helpful aid can be to encourage further giving from Western countries.
Michael Fullilove, Chen Dongxiao, Richard Haass, Leslie Vinjamuri, and Margaret Hoover discuss international cooperation.
Michael Fullilove, Chen Dongxiao, Richard Haass, Leslie Vinjamuri, and Margaret Hoover discuss international cooperation in an era of great power rivalry at the public session of the Council of Councils twelfth annual conference in New York on May 8, 2023 Howard Heyman

Revitalizing the World Trade Organization

As trade restrictions are increasing in a context of economic uncertainty exacerbated by global challenges, the WTO is under pressure for its limited ability to enforce and adapt to a changing world. Revitalizing the WTO means first coming to grips with why it is broken. Many participants stressed the root of the problem can be traced to a backlash against globalization.

At the domestic level, widening income inequality has weakened the political foundations of trade liberalization. However, the WTO system boosts economic growth, cuts the cost of doing business internationally, and increases the bargaining power of smaller countries. Given those benefits, several participants recommended middle powers and large developing countries should fill the gap voided by the United States and China and collaborate to help the WTO function better. One compromise that large developing countries could make with high-income countries over WTO rules could include developing countries giving up special and differential treatment provisions in exchange for greater voting shares at the Bretton Woods institutions.

Multiple participants recommended the WTO should move toward a form of re-globalization, which would involve stronger regional links and the formation of economic blocs for sensitive and strategically important sectors. Viewpoints diverged on efforts to diversify supply chains to be more resilient. While participants agreed that supply chain securitization is necessary for certain sectors such as energy, food, and medicine, oversecuritization is a real risk. Participants agreed that the WTO should help national governments and the private sector find a collective balance between productivity and security. All participants worried that the world is in danger of entering a vicious spiral of tit-for-tat subsidies, and the WTO should discuss how to rein in competing nations.


  • The WTO should establish transparent and predictable standards on the conditions under which national security provisions can be triggered to prevent over-securitization. Specifically, the WTO should clearly set out what measures can be recognized as national security exceptions and establish mechanisms to assess whether they are proportionate to that national security threat.
  • The WTO should consider weighted voting in certain circumstances. For example, it could be used only when all members have been unable to reach consensus on major decisions related to urgent issues or other relevant issues after a considerable period of negotiation.
  • WTO members should reform the dispute settlement body with speediness, efficiency, simplicity, cost, and attainability in mind. More means of facilitation could be introduced, such as online arbitration tribunals and online document disclosure. The Appellate Body could also be expanded to reduce workloads and promote efficiency.

Global Divisions and the Future of World Order

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has divided the world. On one side, the United States, Europe, and other like-minded countries have responded to Russia’s aggression with a combination of sanctions and assistance to Ukraine. On the other side, a diverse range of countries maintain prudent ambivalence on the war to avoid picking sides and preserve strategic autonomy.

The conversation centered on the question of why the world is more divided in the current response to Russia’s invasion compared to Iraqi’s invasion of Kuwait thirty years ago when they both involve the same basic principle of not forcefully changing borders. Participants discussed many possible reasons. President Joe Biden’s push to frame the conflict as democracy versus authoritarianism alienates much of the world. Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council and major power status have also complicated the international response. The United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the vaccine nationalism exhibited by the West to COVID-19 sowed discord with the Global South before Russia’s invasion. The Global South’s growing economic and political clout also warrants more influence on the international stage than thirty years ago. They rightly desire more influence in a world order that they perceive has primarily only served Western interests and values.

The lack of global solidarity is worrying. The ordering principle of territorial sovereignty could no longer be respected, and the international ambivalence over the invasion of Ukraine is a warning sign for an inability to act collectively to mitigate global challenges. One participant argued that upholding the sanctity of borders is in everyone’s interest, particularly smaller states. While several participants raised the West’s double standard for only caring about universal principles of sovereignty in Europe, others suggested that the West’s track record in previous conflicts was no excuse to react with ambivalence in this case. Several participants agreed that the only way to respond to the violation of these norms is to give enough support to Ukraine to ensure Russia loses. They argued the world should demonstrate that the invasion of sovereign territory and wars of aggression will not be tolerated.

Looking forward, participants expressed dismay for the future geopolitical order. Not only will there be more challenges than willing capacity, but uncertainty surrounds the future role of the United States after the 2024 presidential election.


  • Civil society groups should play a larger role in establishing dialogue between the United States and China, the West and Russia, and the West and the Global South. A lack of communication and understanding leads to a trust deficit and adversarial mindset.
  • National governments, international institutions, and regional organizations should explore more narrow and focused cooperative efforts where consensus exists. This includes working together on fishing rights, health cooperation, and natural disaster recovery to build trust between countries.
  • Think tanks should continue to promote dialogue and a long-term outlook on foreign affairs to offset the radical foreign policy changes countries are experiencing in their leadership transitions and the tendency of political polarization to subordinate the foreign policy process.

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