For more than a decade, the very idea of multilateralism often seemed to be on life support — damaged by the Iraq invasion and its messy aftermath, buffeted by the global economic crisis and bruised by the difficulty of coming to agreement on critical trade and climate issues in Doha and Rio, respectively. Now, the world’s attention is riveted on whether the United States and Russia’s agreement to avert the immediate crisis triggered by the use of chemical weapons in Syria can be effectively overseen by the United Nations Security Council.
But a more consequential test for multilateral cooperation is looming, one that will shape the world for decades to come. That is whether, by 2015, the international community — from the halls of U.N. headquarters to the poorest corners of the globe — can identify our shared challenges and collectively act to solve them.
2015 marks the deadline for important negotiations on development, climate change, finance and trade. And the jury is still out on whether the world’s nations can reach agreement in any of these areas — much less all of them. Given the enormous stakes involved, all the U.N. member states must seize this opportunity to revive global partnership.
One of the last great examples of international cooperation could provide the spark to get multilateralism back on track by the 2015 deadline. In 2000, 189 U.N. members agreed to the Millennium Development Goals, an ambitious agenda that included halving the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, ensuring boys and girls have universal access to primary school and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.
While the Millennium framework was not perfect, and results have been uneven, the goals have largely succeeded in uniting the world behind a common agenda. As a result — and despite the global financial crisis — the drop in extreme poverty over the last decade has been the steepest in human history.
With these goals set to expire in 2015, member states and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have begun consulting with civil society experts and leaders around the globe to explore what the next development agenda should look like. I took part in this process, serving on a high-level panel of representatives from 27 countries. In May, we issued our vision for helping end extreme poverty in the context of sustainable development, along with a concrete, illustrative set of global development goals.
As became clear during our sessions, the best chance for breaking the logjam in international talks — not just on global development, but also on trade, climate and finance — is by marrying an aspirational vision with a practical road map. The new development agenda will need to reflect the profound changes seen since the 2000 Millennium goals were released. These new goals need to take on crucial challenges — creating jobs and equitable growth; making energy both more available and more sustainable, and building the basic infrastructure to connect citizens to their countries’ economic and political lives.
Most critically, this agenda must be truly universal. Aimed not just at the developing world, it should include non-binding goals that can be applied to every member state and that seek transparency and accountability from multilateral institutions, governments, the private sector, philanthropies and civil society organizations.
This next round of global development goals cannot substitute for separate deals on climate and trade. But it can help shape those talks and - crucially — demonstrate that the international community can agree on how to approach difficult problems.
We have already seen progress. There is an emerging consensus that we can end extreme poverty by 2030, as President Barack Obama called for in his State of the Union address, while simultaneously embracing more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. In addition, U.N. members can make clear that their vision for the world is one where robust — and far more equitable — economic growth can be effectively combined with better stewardship of our natural resources. This is why the global development goals should take on hard issues — like eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and vastly reducing agricultural waste.
As world leaders now gather in Manhattan for the U.N. General Assembly, the emerging global development agenda and the effort to get multilateralism back on track will face major tests. Global challenges like climate change, environmental degradation, economic and social inequality, extreme poverty and endemic conflict need global solutions — and multilateral approaches and agreements are the best tools we have at hand.
The challenge for Ban and leaders from around the globe is to demonstrate that they can be aspirational from the podium — but eminently practical when it comes to navigating the politics of deal-making. If we can’t agree to a successor to the popular — and fairly successful — Millennium Development Goals, multilateralism may be headed for yet more years in the wilderness.
John Podesta is the chairman of the Center for American Progress. He served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, 1998-2001.