Post-Rio+20: The Future of Multilateralism

Post-Rio+20: The Future of Multilateralism

Because of inspiring work by our grantees, we at the Connect U.S. Fund were keenly interested in how Rio and the G20 meetings in Mexico could help answer three key climate questions :

We are looking forward to sharing updates and next steps on each of these issues through Climate Access and our partners over the coming weeks and months.

At the big picture level, the conversations I have most frequent found myself in since Rio include:

  • What does/should Rio mean (if anything) for the future of multilateralism and global cooperation on climate change?  What international forum, if any, is the “right one?”
  • Do our governments lack leadership? Do we need to focus on individual actions? Or are corporations to blame?
  • How does how you see (or don’t) the Rio outcome depend on who you are, and where you are?

Without endeavoring to fully answer these questions, here I offer a few initial framing ideas to help kick start a broader conversation about how to focus our collective next steps.

The future of multilateralism

Take a moment to do a Google News search for “Rio” and “multilateralism.” Words you will find: failure, doom, stagnation, disaster, death…end. Is Rio proof multilateralism isn’t working? From my perch in D.C., both schools of thought appear well populated right now. But perhaps the more important question is: If multilateralism isn’t helping us solve global problems, shouldn’t we be helping it work better?  What is there to be gained by abandoning it?

At the Connect U.S. Fund, we support communities who work on problems including human rights violations, nuclear proliferation, and climate change—issues that are global and complex, where U.S. leadership can drive world progress, and where any one country acting alone does not a solution make. For these kinds of problems, it is difficult to see how we can achieve comprehensive, timely solutions absent some global coordination mechanism.

Moreover, I believe at the symbolic level, international institutions and policy processes—however flawed in practice—represent three important ideas worth striving for: That there are parts of the human experience worth protecting, that everyone should have access to, and that no one person or country acting alone can secure; that people can work across borders for these common ends; and that these efforts should give voice to poor people as well as rich people, small countries as well as big countries.

Realistically, the post-Rio “multilateralism is dead” doomsday talk is just that: All international cooperation is not stopping anytime soon. Nor, considering its legacy in the 20th Century, do I think any of us would want it to. But on climate change, the question remains—should we still be looking to sustainability summits and framework conventions to provide the answers?  

It is not time to give up yet. Getting strong, equitable agreements out of flawed processes is a tricky thing—possible, with luck and exhaustive effort—but never likely. Is the lesson of Rio that an international process can’t provide the answers? Or is it that this process, as currently structured, is ill-equipped to provide them? I think it’s the latter. I look forward to collaborating with others in the Climate Access community to more closely diagnose process shortcomings and inequities and implement solutions. Focusing on processes is not glamorous, but ultimately better process = better policy. For the sake of discussion, I also take process to include the politics, global geopolitics, corporate influence, and interpersonal relationships and power dynamics.

The view from here (where “here” = D.C. funder world)

As a funder, I weighed many different approaches in the lead-up to Rio: Was it my rightful role to support a grantee in going to the meetings, rather than attending? Or should I go—did I need to be in the mix to make the best possible decisions in supporting international climate policy work thereafter? 

Ultimately, I realized that I would have a hard time getting the straight story on the Rio meetings if I wasn’t there—but that perspective was something I needed to understand, too.

The world of international summits is its own world, but it is not the world. It is admittedly easy to forget this, at least for those of us who frequently wear U.N. badges and speaking the lingo, who tweet and blog from conference center hallways and chat with delegates over lunch, who literately and figuratively cross national borders as a matter of routine.  

What the public does or does not think about Rio and about meetings like it arguably matters as much as what happened in Rio. What is clear?  What isn’t?  How many versions of the same story are there in the media? Who’s listening, and who isn’t? Inside the beltway, Rio spawned a dizzying array of tweets and blogs, news commentary and strategy emails. I wonder what the story looks like from the outside of the Beltway, or beyond U.S. borders—and from families’ living rooms, as compared with offices such as mine.

I eagerly await your stories, thoughts and updates!


Meg Boyle is program officer with the Connect U.S. Fund.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires