The growing interconnectedness of our world is a source of both tension and hope. The challenges we face can only be resolved if we find ways to cooperate based on an awareness of that interconnection. This issue of the SGI Quarterly looks at how we are beginning to do that.

Imperatives for Cooperation

By Sai Felicia Krishna-Hensel
photo Aid agencies and military medics in Aceh, Indonesia, coordinate their efforts to dispense health care to survivors in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami   [Dermot Tatlow/Panos Pictures]

Global cooperation is a response to the recognition that many of the crises of the modern world have implications for the security and well-being of all peoples. Added to this is the redefinition of the term security, to extend beyond military security of borders and nations to encompass eco-security, human rights and survival of the species as a whole.

The 21st-century global community is confronted with unprecedented challenges, as well as unique opportunities. The degree to which it can establish and institutionalize norms and mechanisms designed to promote and sustain meaningful global cooperation will, in large measure, determine the future course of civilization.

The primary challenge facing the contemporary international system is the need to construct an effective policy framework to deal with the increasingly large number of transnational problems. Many issues that were historically confined to nations and regions have progressively acquired a global character.

As nations confront the challenge of developing policies from a global perspective, there is increasing pressure to engage in multilateral consultation. This is evidenced by the growth in the number of international organizations and institutions engaged in dealing with transnational issues.

As the process of globalization continues to shrink the planet, the direction of national policy will increasingly have to incorporate a shift toward cooperative international strategy. The existing structures of cooperation are often incapable of promptly addressing the new realities facing the global community, and over time it will become progressively more necessary to assemble new institutional structures and devise innovative solutions. Hence, there is a sense of urgency associated with the imperative for global cooperation.

Advances in information technology and a wider availability of data flows have enabled us to see the importance of cooperation, as humankind faces challenges that pertain to the survival of the entire planet rather than specific groups or civilizations as has been the case in previous centuries. The challenges fall into a couple of categories, those with an immediate impact and those that pose long-term risks.

The basic problem categories, such as poverty, education and human rights, represent challenges to global principles, although they are primarily manifest at the national and regional level. Environmental problems on the other hand may have local roots but expand to the level of a global transformational process, such as climate change, atmospheric pollution or scarcity of water. Finally, warfare and conflict, technological development, terrorism and disease pandemics represent the transnational threats that require an immediate global response. The difficulties confronting the policymaking community as it seriously considers the looming specter of substantive inroads into state sovereignty form the background of this discussion.


The dramatic changes brought about by technological advances have contributed to many of the problems confronting humankind in the 21st century. While promoting a vastly more interconnected and interdependent world, communications technology has also exposed the absence of an integrated global culture. Cooperation toward ensuring free access to information, whether it is educational, health-related or environmental knowledge, can only facilitate the establishment of a truly global society. The challenges of an interconnected world encompass security issues, global pandemics and environmental degradation, to name just a few areas of concern, but the promise of the interconnected world is that it may result in more cooperative approaches toward dealing with these challenges.


History is replete with examples of conflicts that have been based on a collective consensus between nations joining together to contain a perceived global injustice.

The most prominent conflict area of the 21st century is terrorism. While there is reason to explain the challenge of terrorism in religious terms, it is probably most comprehensible when we analyze it against the process of global change and the threat of cultural domination and destruction of traditional power and knowledge perceived by peoples that feel overwhelmed by the juggernaut of technological progress.

The most effective way to contain and prevent terrorism has been through cooperative sharing of intelligence and collaboration between the law enforcement agencies of various nations.

Human Rights

The contemporary focus on protecting the rights of minorities and enslaved peoples came into play during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following World War II and the persecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazi regime, there was a concerted movement to prevent such occurrences from ever happening again. This led to a global consensus reflected in the UN Charter of 1945 of a "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. . ." While the sentiment was shared by many in a general sense, there was disagreement within the states who were signatories to the Charter on who would be responsible for ensuring that the principles would be consistently enforced. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as a set of principles to be achieved rather than as a binding legal document.


Many problems are related to the growing population of the planet, a growth that places a burden on natural and societal resources. Providing food, energy, water, health care, basic human rights and education has become an increasingly daunting task for nations and international organizations.

Conflicts for scarce resources are much more likely, including the very real prospect of water or energy wars. Finally, populations migrating in search of better opportunities bring with them the possibility of diseases foreign to their new place of settlement, ethnic and religious tensions and friction over available jobs.

Global Disease

With greater interaction of peoples through trade and migration, diseases traveled far from their place of origin. The post-World War II period saw the establishment of international organizations dedicated to global health issues. These bodies of experts set priorities designed to eradicate diseases that they perceived to be imminent threats, such as malaria, smallpox, polio and, more recently, AIDS.

Much of the contemporary responsibility for disease eradication has rested in international organizations like WHO and UNICEF, with funding from the World Bank, USAID and other institutions. These efforts have been enhanced through the involvement of private foundations. The result has been the emergence of a transnational coalition of interested actors dedicated to the control and alleviation of selected global diseases.

By the end of the 20th century, smallpox and polio were mostly eradicated. Malaria and tuberculosis were supposedly under control, but all these diseases appear to have reemerged as a global threat.

The global spread of HIV/AIDS, especially in developing countries, is one of the greatest challenges facing the health care community. The need for global cooperation has been identified and acted upon to the extent that UN-based initiatives have been supported by international financial institutions, government subsidies and private philanthropy, as well as the participation of health care personnel. This congruence of interests can be seen as a model for future cooperative initiatives.

Successful efforts to combat disease and ensure basic health in populations are dependent in large measure on building a consensus on policies and instruments. National health care agencies and international organizations such as UNICEF and WHO have collaborated on identifying and implementing global strategies for immunization, family planning, oral rehydration therapy, female literacy and other low-technology solutions to assist the global poor. The measure of success has been that these strategies are now widely dispersed throughout the world community.

The Environment

Industrialization, technological development and demographic growth are contributors to the problem of pollution and climate change. The number of environmental treaties has soared over the last few decades. UNEP estimates that there are now over 500 international treaties and other agreements related to the environment, more than 300 of which have been agreed to since the first UN convention on the environment in 1972. It is in this area that cooperative solutions are most likely to occur and where innovative cooperative institutions and protocols are being developed.

Access to freshwater is another global problem that has the potential to be a serious challenge in the coming decades. The surging global population, combined with the reduction of freshwater resources, is creating a threat probability that will be difficult to resolve. The uneven distribution of freshwater supplies is a potential source of conflict and is only resolvable through some cooperative sharing and allocation between the areas possessing abundant supplies and those with limited or nonexistent sources.

The energy-dependent world of the 21st century is faced with some hard choices on conservation and development of alternative resources.

The growing demand for energy coupled with the depletion of energy resources has economic and environmental implications, further increasing the gap between rich and poor nations. A global development policy is needed to arbitrate these conflicting needs.

The Actors

The expanding range of actors involved in global cooperative institutions and policymaking has come to include individuals, NGOs, governments at a variety of levels and international organizations. The boundary between public and private is also becoming increasingly less important as collective initiatives are formulated.

Individuals are the basic building blocks of cooperative action and policy. To achieve a high level of individual involvement, it is necessary to articulate the problem and the solution in clear and understandable terms and ensure that there is a wide dissemination of this information in the community. Providing knowledge empowers the individual and gives the community a stake in the outcome. The next step follows from this as energized communities engage in self-help, as well as lobbying their representatives toward adopting long-term policy initiatives. Some of this process is reflected in the efforts that preceded the adoption of the Landmine Treaty, a process that was initiated outside the framework of traditional governmental institutions, but succeeded in being adopted by concerned nations. The process succeeded in mobilizing public opinion effectively so that in a period of less than a decade a treaty banning the production and use of landmines had been adopted by a majority of nations.

The challenge of global cooperation for human security raises the question of the advisability of forming a central organization responsible for global governance and dealing with issues that may require the restriction of national sovereignty in the interests of implementing cooperative policy. In theory, as well as in practice, this is a remote possibility since an organizational structure does not ensure agreement or consensus in the absence of a collective perception of danger. Many of the existing international bodies encounter this problem repeatedly. A world governmental organization would be equally susceptible to such challenges.

The future of global cooperation is most likely to be a multilevel effort, flexible in its responses and capable of creating short-term response teams of multiple actors, while simultaneously striving to define global priorities and policies which could be interpreted as appropriate. Global cooperation in the future needs to be primarily a risk management enterprise, with a network structure replacing the traditional hierarchical decision-making model that has dominated the international environment.

Prof. Sai Felicia Krishna-Hensel is president of the Comparative Interdisciplinary Studies Section of the International Studies Association. This article is excerpted from Global Cooperation: Challenges And Opportunities in the Twenty-first Century (Ashgate, 2006), of which she is the editor.