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SDG17 on Global Partnerships – The embodiment of foreign policy

However, from a foreign policy perspective that focuses on (global) geopolitical and (local) conflict cycle implications, some targets stand out. Finance and trade flows that secure an economic and environmental basis for resilience need to inform promotion of foreign trade and investment (targets 17.1-17.5, 17.10-17.12). Policy and institutional coherence (targets 17.13-17.15) and multi-stakeholder partnerships (targets 17.16-17.17) are essential for making a foreign policy contribution to the 2030 Agenda, particularly, to prevent conflict and cope with geopolitical shifts.

Finance & Trade

The extent to which international finance and trade affect both sustainable development opportunities of states and global commons must not be underestimated1. These complex dynamics transcend national boundaries and governance levels, challenging a state-centred world order. Besides, sustainable trade and investment are essential for global peace and stability. Promotion of foreign trade and investment (and economic diplomacy in general) has been gaining importance during the last decades2, has been facilitating economic relations, e.g., through conferences and support of delegation trips, and has become an essential part of diplomacy. Many interest groups are involved with forming trade and investment policies, which can be highly sensitive and include points on balancing strong domestic interests. However, economic foreign policy needs to be guided to a greater extent by resilience and stability priorities as opposed to the mere facilitation of international economic relations between different actors. This also means actively promoting sustainable development.

Currently, trade and investment flows often get locked in unsustainable dynamics, making it more difficult for poorer and fragile countries to develop sustainable, productive economies while fuelling environmental degradation3. This can exacerbate and prolong conflict, undermining progress on SDG 16. Thus, to achieve SDGs, we need to transform global trade and investment. International trade regulations (e.g. WTO regime), regional (e.g. EU trade agreements with other regions) and bilateral trade relations need to promote a sustainable use of developing countries’ natural assets and provide them with a sound economic basis for sustainable development4 5, fostering local development and opportunities for stability and peace. The coherence of investment and sustainability policies needs to be strengthened in export promotion, investment protection, development and humanitarian finance.

This requires a transformation at an enormous scale that will impact geopolitics. Making international investment flows compatible with planetary boundaries will likely bring about devaluation of many national assets as well as a major shift in economic structures in developing and fragile countries, for example, certain forms of agricultural production or extractive activities will change drastically or stop6 7. Without proactive multilateral and multilevel transition governance, this can threaten geopolitical stability8. To minimise stability risks and to be able to steer these highly complex internationalised processes, there is a pronounced need for international solutions. At the same time, if guided accordingly, such transformation can provide significant peace dividends, giving fragile societies the means to satisfy the needs of their populations in the long term and improving institutions as mandated by SGD 16.

Policy and institutional coherence

Foreign policy must work to improve coherence in external action to promote sustainability as well as contribute to resilience and geopolitical perspectives to sustainable development activities. Policy and institutional coherence is a central requirement for implementing the 2030 Agenda. Firstly, all political actors need to prioritise the 2030 Agenda and seek for effective instruments to implement it. Secondly, sustainability in general and implementing the 2030 Agenda, in particular, is per se a balancing act: the overall purpose is only served by achieving all of the different goals together. Inevitable trade-offs thus need to be resolved. For instance, one cannot combat poverty by endangering life on land or promote education that hampers gender equality. Simultaneously achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda requires understanding how negative and positive co-impacts emerge in specific contexts, as the interpretation of goal achievement, concrete measures, and possible feedback loops will differ significantly between countries, sectors, etc. Without increasing policy and institutional coherence, there is little prospect of societies accomplishing this complex exercise. Coherence is also closely linked to the institution-related targets of SDG 16.

From a foreign policy perspective, we can infer the following points: 1) sustainable development needs to become a compass of all foreign policy rather than an ‘add-on’ topic, as it is needed to sustain peace; 2) it is important to increase the understanding of how priorities of peace and stability interact with the implementation on the 2030 Agenda; 3) it is crucial to identify the actions that can make the implementation of the 2030 Agenda compatible with these priorities and 4) these actions need to be coherently implemented across the actors’ spectrum.

While many actors are involved in the external action, foreign policy has the task to lead the way, shape strategies and bring together national priorities and international challenges at hand. Inherently political interaction and professional diplomatic networks cannot be replaced, making foreign policy a suitable driver of policy integration needed to enhance sustainable development in the international realm. Diplomats can help mainstream conflict-sensitive sustainability action into peacebuilding, humanitarian aid and if the respective responsibility lies with them, development cooperation. They also need to integrate sustainable development throughout the strands and forums of foreign policy.

For this, different instruments are available. A portfolio screening, specific to the responsibilities of a given country’s foreign affairs ministry, can be an appropriate starting point. Overarching planning divisions or working groups of ministries of foreign affairs can be tasked with portfolio integration – provided they receive sufficient backing from the leadership. Aligning foreign policy spending with sustainable development goals is a powerful integration instrument. Training activities, tailored to the different target groups, present another major opportunity to mainstream sustainable development into foreign policy. 

Multi-stakeholder partnerships

Strong cross-sectoral partnerships and strong multilateral governance are necessary for implementing the SDGs. Both aspects are crucial from a foreign policy perspective. Making the full use of the diplomatic toolbox is essential to create a broad backing and enable effective, innovative partnerships for sustainable development. But a global sustainable transition is likely to bring about power shifts, with new governance challenges, risk complexes, and other unintended consequences. Strengthening multilateral interaction is essential to being able to cope with this, making sure the international community comes together in the process instead of drifting apart.

Implementing the 2030 Agenda is a whole-of-society effort rather than a top-down task exclusively for national governments. Fully recognising this cross-sectoral dimension can also allow for maximising the peace dividend of sustainable development, promoting SDG 16. Foreign policy can play an important facilitating role for partnerships with investment institutions, the private sector, and the civil society. Balancing of interests is central to a sustainable transformation, as it has distributional implications, that is, creates winners and losers or faces opposition by vested interests. Where these implications are international, diplomacy has a pivotal role to play and is called upon to tap into its capabilities to seek a balance of interests for ambitious action. One of the specific modes is brokering or mediation: here, foreign policy can help achieve an agreement on contested and conflict issues, for instance, in the case of transboundary water agreements.

Moreover, foreign policy needs to come to terms with broader trends of change in international relations. The framework of international engagement includes multiple levels of forums and arenas. The boundaries between actors that we see as ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ are permeable. Managing heterogeneous, fluid and often complex networks is indispensable9 10 11. In regards to this, foreign policy’s role in securing effective multilateral arrangements to promote SDG implementation, cushioning risks, is also vital. 

Joint action and pooling capacities are an essential part of accelerating a transition. These can include:

  • Alliances of front-runner states that seek to accelerate specific technologies and alliances between front-runners and laggards to help the latter to advance;
  • Regional alliances for cooperation on transboundary issues or topics of joint concern (e.g., regional water and energy cooperation, insurance initiatives); 
  • Capacity-building partnerships (e.g., NDC Partnership, research collaboration).

Illustration: entry points for sustainable finance and trade

Trade affects ecosystem services and economic complexity of states including factors such as natural resource dependence or technological capacities, showing its potential to influence resilience. Trade arrangements could support or disrupt local food production in developing and fragile countries. In 2015, WTO members agreed to eliminate agricultural export subsidies, which is considered the most significant reform of agriculture trade rules in the history of WTO12. A regional example is the EU’s association agreement with Central America with provisions to foster sustainable development through trade13. The volatility of commodity prices is another major risk for fragile societies. To secure food supply, there is an interim agreement at the WTO not to challenge public stockholding programmes as trade distortion14. 

Export promotion efforts can concentrate on sustainable technologies. Trade regimes and agreements can promote trade in environmental goods and services, e.g., by tackling tariff and non-tariff barriers. These negotiations are a complex diplomatic task: the lists of products that are considered sustainable and receive preferential tariff treatment are contested, as this benefits or harms trade balances of specific countries15 16.

The criteria applied by finance institutions should ensure investment patterns consistent with SDGs. For example, the OECD restricted export credit finance that is directed to coal power plants. International investment agreements (IIAs) should not undermine national environmental regulations or sustainable taxation as private enterprises often receive broad rights to go to court with national governments over their regulation17.  International investments should not incentivise resource use against resilience principles, e.g., land or water grabs. Sustainability criteria need to play a much stronger role in commodity investment, while investors should closely monitor climate and environmental risks and make them transparent18 19.

Illustration: EU Global Strategy for a more coherent external action 

The EU Global Strategy seeks a consistent security agenda based on resilience and sustainability. The strategy highlights the “notion of a joined-up Union” working across policy sectors, an integrated approach to conflicts and the importance of internal-external nexus. The strategy states: “A prosperous Union also hinges on an open and fair international economic system and sustainable access to the global commons. The EU will foster the resilience of its democracies. Consistently living up to our values will determine our external credibility and influence20.”  Already in the drafting phase, the EEAS gathered input from several Directorates-General (as well as from the civil society and the private sector)21. 

Illustration: harnessing innovative partnerships and approaches to diplomacy

Ad - hoc coalitions: Often, policies such as renewable energy deployment are promoted by groups of states based on a joint understanding of a specific issue, but not supported by a binding agreement or a clear institutional structure (e.g., Mission Innovation). Ad-hoc coalitions offer excellent opportunities to tackle specific barriers to sustainable action as they are flexible in structure, based on a voluntary commitment of like-minded actors and concentrate on particular areas of work. They can kick-start action through several front-runners and decrease the barriers for others.

The “ecosystem approach” of the EU Climate Diplomacy is based on the assumption that climate action and its ambition level are formed by an ecosystem of domestic and external actors from politics, business, administration, civil society, academia and the media. To promote climate action, diplomacy should harness the potential of the whole ecosystem rather than focussing on policymakers. For instance, during the EU Week of Climate Diplomacy, the EU Delegation to Australia organised a broad variety of events on climate security with over 1,000 participants to bring different parts of the “climate-ecosystem” together22.


Foreign policy has a substantial role to play in leveraging broad partnerships for sustainable development, providing coherent strategies for states’ external action and making international finance and trade more compatible with sustainability and resilience. Implementing SDG 17 also offers opportunities to strengthen multilateralism and improve international policy effectiveness. In the end, SDG 17 embodies what foreign policy is about – building and strengthening partnerships for mutual benefit and understanding.


[This article appeared as part of adelphi’s Policy Brief “A foreign policy perspective on the SDGs” (2018) and its comprehensive annex.]



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