from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Council of Councils Twelfth Regional Conference

Insights From a Council of Councils Conference

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel look on as U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk at the NATO leaders summit in Watford, United Kingdom, on December 4, 2019. Christian Hartmann/Reuters/Pool TPX Images of the Day

Sessions were held on the future of the European Union, a global governance of migration, the weaponization of economic interdependence, the French nuclear deterrence strategy, European strategic autonomy, the challenges of meeting the Paris Agreement goals, and the future of think tanks. 

January 30, 2020

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel look on as U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk at the NATO leaders summit in Watford, United Kingdom, on December 4, 2019. Christian Hartmann/Reuters/Pool TPX Images of the Day

On November 17–19, 2019, the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), hosted the twelfth regional conference of the Council of Councils (CoC) in Paris, France. The CoC initiative is funded by a generous grant from 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 IFRI, 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.


The Council of Councils

Resurgent great power rivalry, rising climate concerns, and financial and economic coercion are fragmenting the international system. The old order is both breaking down and not keeping up—and it is unclear what will take its place. The twelfth regional conference of the Council of Councils included sessions on the future of the European Union (EU), prospects for a global governance of migration, the weaponization of economic interdependence, the push for European strategic autonomy, and requirements for meeting the Paris Agreement goals. Forty-one participants from twenty-one countries gathered to discuss these issues.

The Future of the European Union

More on:

Global Governance

Refugees and Displaced Persons

Immigration and Migration

European Union

Paris Climate Agreement

Although pro-European center parties largely maintained their dominant position after the 2019 European Parliament elections, nationalist and Euroskeptic political forces remain strong. These election results manifest a European Parliament that promises to be more fragmented and less supportive of a cohesive and globally assertive European Union.

The European Union’s collective approach to shared challenges clashes with the Donald J. Trump administration’s preference for unilateral action. This disconnect constitutes a serious impediment to the transatlantic partnership and undermines many collaborative policies that EU member states support, such as open trade, nuclear arms control and disarmament, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Nevertheless, the United States and Europe are likely to remain strategic partners for the foreseeable future, despite relational strains. Similarly, while many European countries perceive Russia as a strategic threat, it remains an important partner in addressing regional and global challenges.

European integration is poised to proceed on a limited basis due to the desire of member states to retain national competencies. There are, however, opportunities for substantive EU policy advancement in enacting a digital agenda—for example, on taxing tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, and Google—and the European Green Deal—which the new College of Commissioners adopted in December 2019. Trade promotion and other areas, however, could see little progress amid growing opposition from populist parties in national parliaments. 

Looking beyond individual election cycles, the European Union faces a challenge in formulating a common vision of its global role when certain EU member states are reluctant to relinquish sovereign authority. The mid-twentieth-century model of EU integration—though extremely successful—has become defunct because of its failure to reflect new regional and global political and economic realities. Interdependence, long championed as decreasing tensions and increasing stability, now appears to leave countries more vulnerable to conflict, economic or otherwise. Furthermore, new models of growth and governance in rising powers, such as China and India, challenge the notion that the liberal order, market economies, and democratic institutions are necessary ingredients for global success, which strikes at the heart of EU values and soft power. 


  • The European Union should continue to advance common policies in limited areas for which it has particular competencies. For example, a European collective cyber defense could enhance cybersecurity and reduce redundancies across member states. Creating such a defense could entail upgrading the functions of the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security or creating a new EU body.
  • The European Union should continue to increase transparency and involve more national actors, such as national and subnational parliaments, to increase EU accountability and mollify internal disagreements over EU policy.
  • The European Union should implement more innovation, research and development, and training programs to enhance member state economic competitiveness and productivity. Such programs could include public and private investments in infrastructure and social programs.

More on:

Global Governance

Refugees and Displaced Persons

Immigration and Migration

European Union

Paris Climate Agreement

Toward a Global Governance of Migration

Unlike the global refugee regime, the global governance of migration is a patchwork of norms and institutions. Obtaining agreement on global objectives and processes requires countries to look past narrow concerns and national prerogatives. In this regard, they have made meaningful strides over the past few years, including the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). Significant hostility toward both multilateralism and migration, however, jeopardizes further cooperation.

The GCM neglects migration’s precipitating factors.

In addition to establishing general rules, norms, and principles for migration, the GCM has great symbolic importance. Although several conference participants downplayed the GCM’s significance—observing that it is neither global nor a compact, lacks support from important countries such as the United States, and is nonbinding—it legitimates global-minded actions and provides a basis for future negotiations. Participants also observed that the GCM neglects migration’s precipitating factors: living conditions, employment, and state failure. Several delegates noted that the world seems to be experiencing a so-called GCM hangover, or at least a global sense of complacency after its adoption. Perceived complacency notwithstanding, the GCM’s overall utility remains a matter of speculation. At a minimum, though, the GCM shifts the conversation of migration from the rights of people enshrined in the UN Charter to more practical managerial considerations. Beyond the GCM, many participants underscored the importance of regional governance of migration. The European Solidarity Mechanism, which promises to reform migratory burden-sharing within the European Union, is one example. Many participants lamented that cooperation among countries in the absence of clear global leadership or greater political will is destined to remain haphazard, rather than institutionalized as a permanent collective arrangement.

Finally, participants—most from high-income countries—emphasized that migration is not the most important global challenge. In fact, some leaders from developing nations are concerned about people leaving their countries to live abroad. Considerable evidence points toward migration leading to economic benefits for both origin countries—which are net receivers of remittances—and destination countries—which gain human capital.

Participants gather around a large table at the twelfth annual Council of Councils regional conference.
Participants at the CoC twelfth regional conference, in Paris. Council on Foreign Relations


  • Cities and nongovernmental organizations should play more prominent roles in multilateral discussions on migration. They are first responders to migration crises, possess information unavailable to state authorities, and help bridge the divide between the global and the local.
  • National governments and regional and global institutions should start to shift from crisis management to forward-looking migration governance.
  • Leaders should discuss migration as symptomatic of other problems rather than as a problem itself, to avoid stirring emotions and fears.

The Weaponization of Economic Interdependence

In the past few years, the world has witnessed the unprecedented weaponization of interdependence, as countries have turned cross-border trade, investment, and technology transfers into instruments of coercive statecraft. Conference participants viewed the United States as abusing its leverage over the international monetary system to force its will on countries with which it has political disagreements. They also tended to agree that China’s use of government regulations and debt diplomacy to penalize other countries represents economic abuse, but on a smaller scale than that of the United States.

The consequences of these policies could spiral out of control if more countries start entangling economic competitiveness with national security. Conference participants also discussed how the United States, China, and Russia exploit communications infrastructure and their status as network hubs to pressure smaller states. Middle and minor powers depend on a rules-based system, but international norms and governance mechanisms have not kept pace with global economic integration or rapid technological advance. While one participant added that only the United Nations should enact legal sanctions, others dismissed the multilateral body’s role in this context.

Whether the weaponization of economic interdependence represents diplomacy by other means, an alternative to outright war, or something else altogether was another topic of discussion. One participant wondered whether an international convention could govern economic warfare, though no one was hopeful for such a convention in today’s geopolitical and economic climate. 

Participants were not hopeful for a suspension of economic hostilities anytime soon.

Unless the United States feels secure in its relative power vis-à-vis China, concedes equal status to China, or decouples their economies altogether, the weaponization of economic interdependence is apt to continue and perhaps become more pronounced. Participants were not hopeful for a suspension of economic hostilities anytime soon. One lamented that the economic governance system could be only partially saved at best. The World Trade Organization is under-equipped to handle national security issues, and the International Monetary Fund is less capable still. Fragmentation into economic blocs could occur if interdependence continues to provide abundant avenues for coercion.


  • National governments, particularly those of the United States and China, should implement confidence-building measures to reduce coercive behaviors and distrust.
  • Major powers should find common ground on issues such as intellectual property rights, state-owned enterprises, and digital technologies to limit fragmentation.

European Strategic Autonomy and Transatlantic Relations

As U.S.-China tensions rise and the Trump administration creates or underscores rifts in the transatlantic relationship, pundits in the United States and Europe have suggested the European Union assume greater security and foreign policy autonomy. Participants acknowledged that strategic autonomy is aspirational and agreed that any debate should not dwell on the conceptual definition. Ambiguity can be useful for policymakers because European countries vary in their level of ambition and commitment to autonomy. On the other hand, such ambiguity allows European leaders to see what they want and leads U.S. policymakers to see what they fear—a Europe less interested in partnership and more independent from or at odds with the United States.

Thierry de Montbrial, founder and executive chairman of the French Institute of International Relations, gives remarks at the Council of Councils twelfth regional conference, in Paris.
Thierry de Montbrial, founder and executive chairman of the French Institute of International Relations, gives remarks at the Council of Councils twelfth regional conference, in Paris. Council on Foreign Relations

Many participants viewed European security as more in peril now than at any other time since the Cold War. They saw the European Union as lacking the capability to manage local crises or hybrid threats by itself, never mind acting militarily on a global scale. Europe has long relied on U.S. security guarantees, and its relative military might has atrophied, though the extent of that atrophy is unclear. What ultimately matters, though, is increasing European countries’ individual military capacities through stronger political commitments to defense, increases in defense spending, ambitious research and development and procurement plans, realistic training, and increased readiness. European participants recognized the need for greater burden-sharing with the United States. Several were cautiously optimistic in welcoming recent measures—such as the creation of a permanent EU military headquarters, the launch of the project-based Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the proposed European Defense Fund—that are functional and collaborative steps toward an EU defensive union. Some participants were also hopeful that French President Emmanuel Macron’s joint military project, the European Intervention Initiative, could also increase cooperation between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU’s official defense capacity. Participants agreed that debate regarding EU collective defense supplanting NATO should be discouraged. It wastes time and energy on hypothetical arguments and does not address challenges of the new security environment.

Growing U.S.-China tensions pose other challenges for Europe and its role in the world.

Growing U.S.-China tensions pose other challenges for Europe and its role in the world. European countries have a different view than the United States on the potential threat China poses to national (or European) interests. They struggle to both cooperate with China where advisable and stand with the United States to oppose China’s state-led model of growth. Some participants were surprised to see the United States’ antagonism to

Europe increasing its ability to operate autonomously, particularly at a time when the United States is focusing more on China than Europe. They believed strengthening EU defense initiatives, especially in its own neighborhood, would reinforce the alliance as a whole. 


  • The European community needs to seriously build up its military capability. But it also needs to be more careful in describing its security initiatives, to allay U.S. fears.
  • PESCO should develop a full-spectrum force package—including offensive, defensive, stability, and support operations—complementary to NATO capabilities, which will continue to be the cornerstone of collective defense for its members.
  • European countries should continue to advance their military participation in the European Intervention Initiative, with the ultimate aim of establishing a shared strategic culture to act together on missions as part of EU defense forces, NATO, UN, or other coalitions.
  • European countries and the United States should frame strategic autonomy in terms of the benefits resulting from a stronger and more resilient transatlantic alliance able to tackle a greater array of threats.

Meeting the Paris Agreement Goals

Almost four years after signing the Paris Agreement, the world is way offtrack in meeting its goals. All participants agreed stronger global action is needed, but noted growing opposition to global climate governance in several countries. Even with President Trump’s move to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, most participants were confident in the resiliency of the accord, citing the action and leadership of countries in Western Europe and Asia, along with subnational and nonstate actors in the United States.

Unfortunately, time is running out to put the necessary technologies and policies in place to meet the accord’s goals, and no easy policy choices remain. The immediate challenge is taking basic steps to ensure that countries meet existing nationally determined commitments (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement. Clearing this low hurdle, however, is insufficient. Fulfilling current NDCs could result in an increase in global average temperatures well beyond the agreed target of 1.5 degrees Celsius rise from preindustrial levels. The world needs more and better investment in renewable energy and technological innovation, financing for developing countries, and private company leadership. Current investment levels are one-third of those needed to realize Paris Agreement commitments, and are insubstantial in Africa and the Middle East. Participants emphasized access to climate financing as a top priority—transitioning to a low-carbon economy will require an estimated $90 trillion in infrastructure spending alone. Although border carbon adjustments are not politically feasible at present, many experts believe them to be the single best international policy option to mitigate climate change.

The climate debate needs to change.

The climate debate needs to change to reflect not only the status of climate change as a threat multiplier poised to increase political and financial instability, but also the potential economic benefits of climate action. Bold global action to shift to a low-carbon economy could deliver at least $26 trillion in economic benefits. The world also needs to change how it thinks about economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Humanity’s well-being relies on ecosystem services that will diminish or disappear in the absence of corrective action. Inequality and climate justice remain pressing matters as well.


  • Civil society and private sector organizations should pressure decision-makers with strong, direct messaging on the need to fulfill Paris Agreement obligations. But they should temper rhetoric of crisis and responsibility with talk of the opportunities and advantages that meeting NDCs would bring.
  • National governments and international institutions should work toward modernizing the multilateral system to include more provisions compatible with meeting Paris Agreement obligations and biodiversity targets. For example, international actors should continue to work toward universal adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
  • National governments and international institutions should establish a global partnership on green technology research, which would hold patents in the public interest. CGIAR, formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, could serve as a model for such a partnership.

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