International cooperation has stalled. From climate change and trade to nuclear nonproliferation and U.N. reform, macroeconomic rebalancing and development funding -- and the list could go on -- nearly every major initiative to solve the new century's most pressing problems has ground to a standstill amid political gridlock, summit pageantry, and perfunctory news conferences.
We're trapped in a debilitating paradox. People around the world increasingly perceive their interconnectedness and interdependence. In principle, they recognize that this implies a need for closer international cooperation. Yet governance at all levels -- public and private as well as global, national, and local -- is struggling to adapt.
For a moment after the financial crash of late 2008, humanity was seized with the transformational nature of our times. Out of the economic crisis emerged a consensus across governments and the business world that deep reforms were needed in existing systems of international cooperation. This view helped prompt the historic expansion of the G-8, which had been the world's economic steering committee, to 20 countries and the pledge of the new G-20 leaders in London to "lay the foundation for a fair and sustainable world economy."
But as the emergency has receded, so too has the appetite for fundamental reform. Numerous promises made by G-20 leaders remain unfulfilled and might be abandoned outright. They pledged to "take strong action to address the threat of dangerous climate change." They committed to "refrain from competitive devaluation of our currencies and promote a stable and well-functioning international monetary system." They promised to tackle "the social dimension of the crisis" by strengthening safety nets and implementing the International Labor Organization's global jobs agenda. And they vowed to vanquish poverty by "mobilizing all resources for development," particularly through the Millennium Development Goals. Across the board, they haven't done what they said they'd do -- or else come up dramatically short.
Even on financial regulatory reform, where progress has been substantial, many of the most important issues have yet to be fully addressed, from ending the notion of banks that are "too big to fail" to shining a bright light on the murky financial instruments that caused the crisis to giving the international financial system's new watchdog, the Financial Stability Board, the independent authority and capacity it needs to do its job. And on and on.
The world has already paid a severe price for its complacency about well-known systemic financial and macroeconomic risks. It would be a historic error -- a generational abdication of responsibility -- to revert to business as usual. And while we dither, other global risks are accumulating that will surely not be adequately addressed by the weak institutions we now possess, whether the challenges of water scarcity and malnutrition or those of nuclear proliferation and biodiversity loss, never mind the crises of failing education systems and stubborn unemployment or the rapidly expanding threat of chronic diseases and cyberattacks.
But we don't need a big-bang demolition and replacement of the existing international architecture, as some are advocating. Instead, we must recognize that solving problems like global warming and economic imbalances is going to require much more multifaceted solutions than are being contemplated today. The old way of tackling important issues -- holding a summit, issuing a statement, starting a new government program -- no longer cuts it.