John W. McArthur is a Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution, and a Senior Advisor at the UN Foundation. You may follow him on Twitter @McArthur
THE MOST important thing to recognize about today’s “multilateral system” is that it is no longer a singular system. Instead, it is an interwoven system of systems. In 2016, this distinction forms a crucial backdrop for two key reasons. First, the international community will soon select a new UN Secretary-General, long seen as the leading figure among official multilateral actors. This person will take office at a pivotal moment in the course of global collective action. Second, and relatedly, this year marks the first implementation year of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which all 193 UN member states recently established as part of the ambitious UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. If the SDGs are to have any hope of being achieved, new approaches to multilateral cooperation are needed urgently.
As a political consensus, the SDGs serve as shorthand for the current global agenda—promoting peaceful prosperity and sustainability, while tackling inequalities and exclusion. These are common priorities for all countries. Concurrently, as a policy construct, the SDGs pull together 17 disparate academic, industry, public sector, and civil society constituencies like no agenda ever before.
For the new Secretary-General, the challenge will be to figure out how to support global efforts so that all the relevant constituencies can make the necessary progress at the same time. This is a daunting task, one that can best begin with recognition of the deep tectonic shifts underway in the world’s economic, social, and environmental systems. It then requires a basic mapping of the various kinds of ongoing efforts that aim to address frontier challenges. This context is essential for charting a needed strategy that can bridge gaps and spur coalitions forward.
Any global policy leader taking office in 2017 will face a profoundly different operating context than their recent predecessors. As I have written elsewhere, along with Margaret Biggs of Queen’s University, Eric Werker of Simon Fraser University, and other colleagues, the first megatrend to keep in mind is the rise of so-called “developing economies” and the corresponding rebalancing of global power.