daniel_haun's picture
Professor of Early Child Development and Culture, Director, Leipzig Research Center for Early Child Development, Leipzig University
Global Cooperation Is Failing And We Don't Know Why

More than ever we depend on the successful cooperation of nations on planetary scale decisions. Many of today’s most dire problems cannot be solved by actions taken within single countries, but will only find solutions if the global community joins forces in a collective action. More often than not, however, global cooperation is failing, even if the problem is well defined, and the options for action fairly well understood. Why? One answer that comes to mind very easily is that humans’ narrow pursuit of their own interests will trump any possibility for collective action. This explanation is as insufficient as it is pessimistic. If this was the heart of the problem, failure would be inevitable. We are not going to change human nature in time.

The good news is that inherent human self-interest, while not exactly making things easy, is not the only reason global cooperation is failing. As well as inherently self-interested, humans, turns out, are also inherently cooperative. From an early age, children are able and, even more importantly, highly motivated to interact with others in order to accomplish common goals. Kids enjoy cooperating. Moreover, other primates seem to share many of the basic abilities necessary for cooperation. Hence, cooperation appears to have been part of humans’ biological history for a long time, and many of the necessary abilities and motivations heritable. Even human adults choose cooperation over defection unless they are given too much time to think about it. When making decisions quickly, people’s gut reaction is to cooperate. The point is that we cooperate much more than we might predict based on self-interest alone. Cooperation is as much part of human nature as is self-interest. So the fact that global cooperation is failing is not a foregone conclusion. The challenge is to build a context for global cooperation that brings out the cooperative side in us.  

The bad news is that we have no idea how to do that. That’s because we don’t know how cooperation works when you go from small groups of people to a planetary level. We lack the knowledge for successful intervention. We come to this problem at crunch time with empty hands. We should worry about that. 

What we do know is how to build a context that promotes cooperation amongst limited groups of individuals (local cooperation). For example, local cooperation works well when the chance for reciprocation is high and the cooperators trust each other. Individuals cooperate better when the channels for communication are effective, the cooperators think of themselves as similar to each other and the system allows for cheaters to be punished. What we don’t know is how these factors operate in a global cooperation scenario. But isn’t global cooperation just like local cooperation except with lots more individuals? Can’t we just take what we know about local cooperation and extrapolate to a group of 7 billion? The reason global cooperation fails could simply be that reciprocation, trust, communication, punishment, and inter-individual similarity are all compromised on that scale. If this was the heart of the problem, again, failure would be inevitable. Luckily it isn’t. Because that’s not how global cooperation works. 

Yes, no one can hide from the consequences of failing global cooperation. Yes, everybody will in some way become part of global solutions. But what is the actual scale at which global cooperation happens? Global cooperation involves multiple layers of decision-making instances. Decisions are frequently delegated to representatives of larger communities to coordinate action at local, regional, national and global levels. Thus, while the consequences of what we call “global cooperation” are in fact global, the decision-making process itself is done in relatively small groups of people. So why does it not work? What are the differences between local cooperation as we know and experience it every day and global cooperation, if the size of the group of cooperators is roughly the same? 

The difference is that the individuals that are interacting in a global cooperation scenario respond to a different, more complex problem space. International representatives that carry out the bulk of negotiations interact in principle like individuals, but they simultaneously carry the burden of speaking for a much larger constituency. These people act both as members of a small group of experts and as representatives of the interests of thousands or millions of people. The interests of the masses are one of the factors taken into account by those making decisions on their behalf. This added layer of responsibility might fundamentally change the structure of cooperation. We desperately need to know how. 

Besides their own and their constituents’ stakes in mitigating global climate change, these representatives also have to worry much more about the popularity of their decisions than is typical in every-day local cooperation. While everyone worries to some extent about the social consequences of their decisions, the career of the representatives in global cooperative scenarios depends on their popularity - the re-election problem. The consideration of re-election seriously narrows any representative’s decision space in an already increasingly difficult scenario. Hence the institutions we built to succeed in solving local cooperative dilemmas are potentially inadequate for global cooperation.  

While we understand local cooperation quite well, the factors mentioned above, and likely many others, turn global cooperation into another beast all together. While we battle to strap a saddle on its back, the chances of success are minimal unless we learn how humans interact in these new and extraordinary scenarios and use that information to build structures for global cooperation that bring out the cooperative side of human nature.