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Rethinking Foreign Policy to Drive Transformative Change – Side Event in New York

The challenges facing the international community are growing while the willingness to cooperate seems to be waning. Foreign policy must help bridge this gap. One way to accomplish this is by pushing forward a major achievement of multilateralism: the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. At a side event during the 2019 High-Level Political Forum, diplomats and policy experts discussed the role of foreign policy in the global sustainability architecture.

The essence of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – greater welfare, security and sustainability for all – aligns with core foreign policy objectives. And yet, the role of foreign policy in the global sustainability architecture is not well defined meaning that the potential benefits of a new type of “Sustainable Foreign Policy” are insufficiently tapped.

A side event at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on 9 July 2019 in the German Permanent Mission to the UN, organized by adelphi in cooperation with the Federal Foreign Office, served as platform to discuss how foreign policy actors can take leadership and increase political will at a global scale, steering international action to implement the goals. The discussion drew on a recent study by adelphi and its partners, titled “Driving Transformative Change: Foreign Affairs and the 2030 Agenda."

“We have to look at a broader definition of security”

H.E. Dr. Christoph Heusgen (Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN) stressed that it was crucial to understand SDG linkages and break sectoral or organisational silos in order to achieve peace. Germany was very committed to building awareness of SDG interdependence into security debates, for instance in the UN Security Council. Especially SDG 5 on gender equality and SDG 13 on climate change are the top priorities for Germany’s UNSC membership. “It is extremely important to improve women’s participation in our peacekeeping efforts, if we want sustainable peace. And we need more women briefers to the Security Council.” Regarding climate change, the Ambassador stressed the existential threats posed by rising sea levels and droughts, leading to forced displacement and conflicts. The repercussions for foreign policy, he said, were immense and diplomats were key players for connecting these dots.

“To do more, and to do it faster, governments have to tackle systematic gaps”

To set the scene, Ms.Stella Schaller (Project Manager at adelphi) underlined that the shift in development pathways had to advance at higher speed and scale. Governments needed to implement more radical and ambitious global solutions and, to achieve that end, foreign policy was needed. While SDG implementation was primarily a national task and responsibility, it required concerted international cooperation and multilateral cooperation. Many of the SDG challenges were systemic problems. “The shift away from path dependencies requires people who see the bigger picture - people who can work across geographical, linguistic and cultural borders. Foreign policy actors are the ones to imagine what could be possible beyond the status quo.” She added that violent conflicts have become more complex and protracted, and are linked to global challenges such as climate change or transnational organised crime. Without the transformation the SDGs aim for, international peace cannot be secured in the long-term. “The Agenda can therefore be considered a framework for prevention.”

“The 2030 Agenda is the central reference point for Swiss international cooperation”

H.E. Mr. Jürg Lauber (Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN) first highlighted the importance of a whole-of-government approach to achieve the SDGs, which he considered a major success of diplomacy and multilateralism. “We need to reach out to all ministries – finance, migration, justice – and bring them on board.” Sustainable development policy has long been a public priority in Switzerland – the domestic civil society support gave legitimacy to its foreign policy actors to drive the 2030 Agenda very ambitiously in international negotiations. It was seen as the most important reference point for external action. However, he added, not all ministries and policy-makers were yet fully engaged. For instance, the security pillar was still one of the most challenging. More understanding and awareness on the interdependency of peace and SDGs was needed. H. E. Lauber also shared that the 2030 Agenda was a useful door opener: “We can use this framework as basis for discussion and cooperation with other countries on various subjects.”

“Foreign policy needs to make the link between peace and development”

For Jordan, the SDGs were not merely nice-to-have but a necessity, as H.E. Dr. Sima Bahous (Ambassador, Permanent Representative of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the United Nations) explained. With 1.3 million refugees and ongoing conflict in the surrounding region, Jordan’s development trajectory was under severe pressure. One important aspect of the peace-development nexus was violent extremism, rooted in development problems such as a lack of education. H. E. Bahous emphasized that foreign policy needed to ensure that the SDGs were on top of the agenda and not derailed because of other urgent issues. The links between peace and the SDGs were so evident that diplomats had a strong responsibility to bring them into their day-to-day work, and engage in international partnerships and transboundary water cooperation. “Water is very important. It affects employment, climate, and agriculture. It helps understand the nexus of development, human rights and peace.”

“The 2030 Agenda has the potential to transform foreign policy”

The next speaker put emphasis on the national institutional set-up to implement the SDGs. Ms. Jimena Roesch (Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute and lead negotiator for Guatemala for the SDGs) stressed that in countries where the President, all ministries, as well as civil society organisations were involved, the foundation was very strong to implement the 2030 Agenda. Foreign policy in particular would benefit from its mainstreaming and implementation: forced migration for instance could be tackled better if migration policies were grounded on the 2030 Agenda. “When you only speak about militarised approaches, peace and security, the roots of conflicts are invisible.” The SDGs, which are a preventative framework, should not only be used in Guatemala but also in whole of Latin America and Africa. As the UN will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year, there was a risk of reinventing the wheel, whereas the major focus should rather lie on implementing the strong existing frameworks.

“We need to get practical about implementation. We need cross-cutting solutions and craft prevention communities.”

The SDG16+ framework includes all targets with an implicit reference to SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. It thereby enables the world to see “the bigger picture” and turn words into action. Mr. David Steven (Senior Fellow and Associate Director, Center on International Cooperation at NYU), founder of the Pathfinders who aims to boost implementation of SDG16+, highlighted three main challenges: How can we halve violence and break silos between different prevention activities? How to shift systems so they can offer true justice? How can we change governance and institutions to be able to deliver on complex tasks such those called for in the 2030 Agenda? The 16+ initiative offered concrete entry points to address these questions. A major success factor, Mr. Steven emphasized, was inclusivity. “People are feeling disaffected and let down. The 2030 Agenda implementation must become inclusive.” Mr. Steven also highlighted the importance of addressing SDG 13 on climate change - an accelerator of violence and one of the biggest risks to security and justice. “If we do succeed in tackling climate change, our institutions would look different. Our current institutions are not equipped to deliver a less polluting world.”

“Be mindful of tensions and trade-offs.”

Ms. Anne Hammill (Director, Resilience, International Institute for Sustainable Development) explained how inherent inconsistencies across the SDGs would lead to trade-off situations and tensions if unmanaged. “Achieving one SDG may present some problems in achieving others,” she said, adding that “if we have a blind spot, we might be undermining progress elsewhere”. A recent research project showed that the global shift to renewable energies could create winners and losers with potentially destabilising effects. Resource allocation and redistributive effects during transformation thus needed to be anticipated, analysed and managed to shape more robust pathways to success. Foreign policy was needed to conduct regular and integrated analysis, use its convening power and facilitate dialogues, and provide leadership and vision for the whole agenda while keeping a focus on some aspects with a strong international dimension such as responsible sourcing of minerals.


The SDGs recognise that all countries are somewhere on a spectrum of development. All countries have a responsibility to improve the lot of their own citizens. For that, good data and analysis, political will and international cooperation are main ingredients for success. The side event discussion showed various entry points for foreign policy to engage with the 2030 Agenda and steer transformative change. adelphi and the Federal Foreign Office plan to continue their thought leadership on the issue in the coming year.


The event was moderated by Oli Brown, associate fellow with the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House.

Event photo credits: adelphi