This month the Stanley Foundation, an Iowa-based organization focused on the study of global governance, published a new report on emerging areas of cooperation between developed and developing countries. In sum, while challenges exist, the report argues for cautious optimism on a basket of global issues, as there are promising avenues for cooperation to address them.

The report—authored by Stanley Foundation staff members David Shorr and Rei Tang, and Georgetown University PhD student Rebecca Friedman—is based on discussions with experts in a variety of countries (including Australia, Brazil, China, India, Korea, Russia, South Africa, and the United States). The central question animating the study is how to identify and analyze what policy questions the international community is currently best-equipped to cooperate on, despite the many frustrations to-date with multilateral fora.

From the report, the general theme that arises from the post-Cold War era of international cooperation is not principally security related, though that is clearly part of the discussion. Rather, it is how the pursuit of economic growth on a national level impacts policies and relationships at the international level. The most pressing issues under this rubric, as identified by Shorr, Tang, and Friedman, are climate and energy, economic and human development, and the global commons (specifically, maritime and Internet governance issues).

Many of these issues fit within current international frameworks that are mired in developed-versus-developing-country arguments (think of the effort to find a follow-on climate change agreement in 2015). Others, like Internet governance, are still in their infancy, and in flux after revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden left emerging powers questioning the extent of their participation in an Internet open to the technical expertise of U.S intelligence agencies.

The challenges of these issues, however, should not obscure the fact that there are several areas in which important cooperation may be possible. On climate change, for example, the authors seem to endorse what many others have written about regarding a la carte approaches to cooperation. If an internationally agreed-upon, binding treaty is out of reach, as the Warsaw Conference outcome seemed to suggest, that should not prevent like-minded nations from pursuing other strategies. The United States successfully cooperated with China on an agreement regarding hydro-fluorocarbons, for example, that will chip away at the drivers of climate change even in the absence of an over-arching pact.

The path forward that the authors identify lies in finding and emphasizing the “co-benefits” of further international cooperation. International agreement beyond the maintenance of peace and security is not entirely an end in itself. Agreements reflect some domestic benefit to be reaped, either through reduced pollution by close partnerships on clean energy financing, or the specialization gains from freer trade. The idea is that progress can be made if the pain of compromise is assuaged by the resulting benefits to all parties.

Policymaker should take away two key points from the authors’ analysis. The first is that as more areas become fodder for multilateral discussions, policy expertise will have to become more interdisciplinary and reinforced with more regional expertise. Negotiations will require diplomats who can speak to a wide variety of political, economic, social, and even ecological issues. The second is that while global politics is in a different era of uncertainty than it was during the Cold War, there is still a place for old-fashioned diplomacy, much of it in the same fashion as John Kerry’s valedictory blitz as secretary of state. Most of the relevant statistics suggest that interstate armed conflict is on the decline. While military buildups still occur in hotspots such as South Asia and the South China Sea, nations are still more likely to seek negotiated solutions to conflicts.

The challenge for U.S. diplomacy will be engaging a growing multitude of nations, not all of them on the same page, toward shared goals, however modest. The United States should work toward strengthening those international fora that exist, and to work, if necessary, on building new ones to address new challenges. In addition to staking out a strong, cooperative position at the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, the United States could reassess its position as a non-signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which has been in effect since 1994. The Obama Administration should keep the focus of its East Asian rebalancing on strengthening political and diplomatic ties, instead of stressing its principally military aspects. 

The Obama Administration’s diplomatic inclinations are strong, if uneven. If the Stanley Foundation’s report is anything to go by, they will need to rely on them more and more in coming years.