What Works and Why

In the search for clues to enhanced global cooperation,
here's what's already working

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 42
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Harlan Cleveland has built his long political and academic career around the study of national and global trends and solutions; he’s a former US ambassador to NATO, assistant US secretary of state, and foreign aid manager under the Marshall Plan.

In his latest book, Birth of a New World, published by Jossey-Bass this year, Cleveland draws from his experiences and looks at what he calls an "open moment" in history, a time to re-examine the political and economic structures that have shaped our current global crises.

These examples, which were excerpted, with permission of the author and publisher, from Birth of a New World show that there’s every reason to believe that international cooperation is possible. After all, when governments have put their minds to it, they’ve shown that they can make all kinds of progress through cooperation!

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of world affairs may not be love, or even tolerance, humanity, and cooperation. Most of the news about international cooperation is its absence: distrust, suspicion, controversy, conflict, terrorism, war.

Collaborative success, what’s actually working, is seldom highlighted. Yet if you stand back and look at the whole scene, you see all kinds of international systems and arrangements that are working more or less the way they are supposed to work:

  • Eradication of infectious diseases. Diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria have been wiped out, and malaria and others have been tackled by combining medical science with a massive worldwide public health information system. Coordinated through the World Health Organization, the system requires the continuous cooperation of almost every nation on earth. Next on this never-ending agenda: AIDS.

  • The Law of the Sea. By an extraordinary act of consensus, the world’s nations spent 15 years rewriting ocean law in a book-length treaty, the most complex single document ever negotiated among nations. The UN General Assembly declared the deep ocean and its seabed to be "the common heritage of mankind." By unanimous consent, the world’s governments also provided for stronger environmental protection and for military and scientific use of the open ocean and the important narrow places in the world’s seas.

    Despite the absence of a US signature (because of its disagreement with regulations on the use of the seabed) the White House later declared that all the rest of the long treaty text had become "customary law."

  • The Ozone Treaty. In 1974 two chemists first guessed that human activities might be eroding the ozone shield that protects humanity from receiving too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun. In 1987, only 13 years later, 50 nations agreed by treaty to slow down the use of ozone eaters, such as CFCs, by setting emission targets but leaving to the market the task of reducing CFCs. For reasons of fairness, those targets were tougher on the richer countries than on the poorer ones and were left open for future revision in a flexible and dynamic process.

    The issues, says US diplomat Richard Benedick, were "staggeringly complex," the science still speculative, the evidence of damage missing. Yet this remarkable achievement was possible because there was an international scientific consensus, information on the subject flowed freely, the fact-finding process pulled in the nongovernments (notably the industries using CFCs), and an active international gadfly – the UN Environment Program (UNEP) – helped push governments to set aside their conflicts on other matters and cooperate on this one.

  • The Antarctic Treaty. Twelve countries agreed in 1959 to suspend their pie-shaped national claims to parts of Antarctica and open up the entire continent for scientific research, including the core sampling of ancient ice to help meteorologists and astronauts. The countries also banned all military activity, nuclear tests, and disposal of nuclear wastes in this frozen no-man’s-land.

    The treaty process is unusual in that there is no international staff; all the political and administrative business is conducted at periodic meetings hosted by the member countries in turn. When the treaty was reviewed in 1991, all signers stayed hitched and even added a 50-year ban on digging for minerals.

  • UN peacekeeping and peacemaking. "Soldiers without enemies" have been stationed in many contentious corners of the world. And UN observers and mediators – at times the secretary general himself or his personal representative – have been active in dampening conflict and sometimes settling disputes all around the world. (See also "UN Peacekeeping: Promise and Peril" on page 50.)

  • The High Commissioner for Refugees. The General Assembly set up this office as a way of recognizing a universal responsibility toward refugees and displaced persons for whom new homes had still to be found after World War II. Today, with a very different ethnic mix of peoples, there are more international refugees than there were forty years ago – more than twice as many if people displaced inside their own countries are counted. The UNHCR has stimulated actions that have saved many millions of people from international homelessness and many from disease and death. The High Commissioner’s office twice has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • International civil aviation. Planes of all nations use each other’s air space, control towers, and airfields with astonishingly few mishaps. There is even an agreement that all communication between planes and controllers will be in a common language: English.

  • Allocation of the frequency spectrum. The International Telecommunications Union periodically assembles an all-nations gathering called "Administrative Radio Conference" to divide up the electromagnetic frequency spectrum among all users and purposes. This international public regulation makes possible an international market in radio and TV reception, satellite, phone, and fax connections. It also makes space probes and modern military communication possible.

  • Weather forecasting. Beginning with a 1963 initiative of the Kennedy Administration, the World Meteorological Organization developed the World Weather Watch, which put to work picture-taking, communication, and remote-sensing satellites.

    A world weather system now merges observations every day from more than 100 countries, ships at sea, and balloons, with cloud pictures and wind and moisture data from satellites.

  • Globally oriented technology and communications. New systems of measurement, modeling, and mathematics have generated an "ecumenical movement" among the earth sciences, enabling experts to think seriously and systematically about very large environmental issues in the framework of a global commons.

  • Cooperation in outer space. A generation ago, the United Nations declared outer space and "celestial bodies" including the Moon "the common province of mankind." There followed formal treaties on issues such as damage to the Earth, and returning errant astronauts and cosmonauts to their home countries.

    As space began to fill up, other kinds of international cooperation seemed necessary: banning bombs in orbit, keeping track of launches (which the United Nations does), and crop forecasting. A 1978 French proposal to provide the UN secretary general with the capacity to observe military movements by satellite could turn out to be practical politics in the 1990s.


Why does international cooperation work – when it does? These characteristics, when taken together, are the priceless ingredients for advances in global cooperation:

  • There is a consensus on desired outcomes. People who disagree on almost everything else can agree, for example, that smallpox is a threat to all, more accurate weather forecasts would be useful, civil aircraft should not collide, and somebody should help refugees.

  • No one loses. Each success story turned out to be a win-win game. For instance, we did not begin to see real progress on disarmament until both the Soviet Union and NATO concluded that their security would actually be enhanced by eliminating dangerous but unusable weapons.

  • Sovereignty is pooled. Cooperation does not mean giving up independence of action but pooling it – that is, using sovereign rights together to avoid losing them separately.

  • Cooperation is stimulated by "a cocktail of fear and hope." Alone, fear produces irrational – sometimes aggressive – behavior, and hope produces good-hearted but unrealistic advocacy. Combined, reality-based fear and hope seem to provide the motivation to cooperate.

  • Individuals make things happen. In the early stages of each success story, a few key individuals acted internationally to lead, insist, inspire, share knowledge, and generate a climate of trust that brushed past the prevailing distrust. On the World Weather Watch these were mostly scientific statesmen; on smallpox eradication, public health doctors; on the Law of the Sea, visionary lawyers including key players from the developing world.

  • Modern information technologies are of the essence. The marriage of computers and electronic telecommunications is driving the world toward larger systems of cooperation.

  • Nongovernments play a key role. The recent story of international cooperation is replete with the contributions of scientific academies, research institutes, women’s groups, international companies, and "experts" who don’t feel the need to act as instructed representatives of their governments.

  • Educated local talent is essential. Especially where developing countries have major global roles to play, cooperation works best when they develop and use their own experts and systems managers.