Main page content

When agendas align: The SDG Summit and ‘Sustainable Foreign Policy’

Panel speakers during the opening plenary at HLPF 2019.

This year marks the end of the first cycle of the 2030 Agenda implementation. The High-Level Political Forum – the successor to the Commission on Sustainable Development – took place in New York in July 2019 to review global progress on the last set of SDGs and to allow the remaining countries to present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). To inform the Forum, two official SDG progress reports (the UN’s official Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 and the Secretary General’s report) as well as numerous shadow reports (such as the SDG Index Report 2019) help shed light on the progress the world is making.

The global response has not been ambitious enough

According to these reports, advances have been made towards reaching some of the SDGs, but no country is on track to achieve all 17 goals. The reports also suggest that land use and food production are not meeting people’s needs: while agriculture is destroying biodiversity and forests, squandering water resources and driving climate change,  800 million people remain undernourished. Despite high-level political commitment to the SDGs, many governments have not taken the critical steps necessary to implementing them. Most countries have endorsed the SDGs in official statements, but their central budget documents, financing schemes as well as bilateral and international agreements fail to mention the SDGs, let alone live up to their promises.

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

Overall, the shift in development pathways is yet to advance at the speed and scale required. Governments need to implement more radical and ambitious solutions. To that end, foreign policy is urgently needed: foreign policy actors play a key role in taking leadership, in increasing political will at a global scale, and in steering international action to implement the goals. Diplomats can take up a more proactive approach to the SDGs, an approach one could call “Sustainable Foreign Policy”. There are many reasons why such an approach is needed, and here are two of them:

(1) There is urgency for renewed multilateralism and international cooperation: SDG implementation is primarily a national task and responsibility - but its solutions require concerted and coordinated multilateral action. For example, high-income countries often generate environmental and socio-economic spill-overs through commodity imports. Tax havens undermine other countries’ abilities to generate public revenue to finance the SDGs. Poor labour standards in international supply chains have negatively impacted the world’s poor as well as women in many developing countries. All of these are systemic problems which require a shift away from strong path dependencies. In turn, this shift requires people who see the bigger picture - people who can work across geographical, linguistic and cultural borders, and who are doing the constant, persistent, day-to-day work of trust-building, seeking agreement and compromise, coordinating and communicating with various actors.

Foreign affairs actors are well placed to take up this task. They can strengthen and shape the level of international cooperation needed to address global structures, through forums such as the UN, G20, G7 and EU. Just as importantly, they can help build relationships and enable cooperation on the ground.

However, the world is currently facing turbulent times. International cooperation is under threat, as nationalist leaders spread narratives of fear and insecurity. In the light of these challenges, foreign policy must keep up and strengthen multilateral solutions.

(2) SDG implementation prevents conflicts and yields a high peace dividend: Violent conflicts have become more complex and protracted, and are linked to intensifying global challenges such as climate change, natural disasters, and transnational organised crime. Without utilising the transformation that the SDGs aim for, international peace cannot be secured in the long-term. The Agenda can be considered a framework for prevention, or as Oli Brown, an associate fellow with the Energy, Environment and Resources department of the Chatham House, named it, a “planetary health insurance”. In fragile contexts or states which are locked into cycles of conflict, foreign policy is particularly vital to ensure SDG implementation takes place in a conflict-sensitive manner.

Both the SDGs and foreign policy share the same objectives: peace, prosperity and stability. But policymakers oftentimes still see the SDGs as an add-on or as one topic among many others, and they frequently ask themselves how to engage with the goals and their interlinkages. At the same time, there is also a widely held view that SDG implementation is a technical exercise that lies mainly with the ministries of development or environment.

For foreign policy to move towards being more preventive, the 2030 Agenda would serve as an ideal compass for guiding that transition process. This in turn requires a more thorough understanding of the 2030 Agenda, which could bridge knowledge across thematic areas and catalyse integrated action, action foreign policy is well placed to deliver.

As world leaders head to New York for the SDG Summit in September 2019, they have a chance to renew their commitment to the SDGs and revive the spirit of 2015. The September high-level week brings a critical window of opportunity for the transformative change that the agenda envisions. Foreign policy actors have an opening to discuss what could be possible beyond the status quo and drive the political will to make it happen.


In cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office and a number of international think tanks and organisations, adelphi has started an initiative to explore concrete areas of action for foreign policy to engage with the 2030 Agenda. One outcome is the essay volume “Driving Transformative Change: Foreign Affairs and the 2030 Agenda”, which was presented at the HLPF 2019.

The volume comprises six incisive essays which highlight different foreign policy approaches to the SDGs:

  1. Leadership for the SDGs: Why Foreign Policy Must Recharge Multilateral Cooperation Now - by Oli Brown (Chatham House) and Stella Schaller (adelphi)
  2. Beyond 16: The SDGS and the Opportunity to Build a More Peaceful World - By David Steven (Center on International Cooperation, NYU), Rachel Locke (Center on International Cooperation, NYU) and Lukas Rüttinger (adelphi)
  3. Beware the Politics: Leveraging Foreign Policy for SDG Implementation - By Daria Ivleva (adelphi), Alexander Müller (TMG Think Tank for Sustainability), and Benjamin Pohl (adelphi)
  4. Managing the Trade-Offs of Transformation Through Foreign Policy - By Clare Church (IISD), Alec Crawford (IISD) and Stella Schaller (adelphi)
  5. Worth Every Cent: Smarter Approaches to Addressing Fragility - By Sara Batmanglich (OECD)
  6. Beyond Rhetoric: Why Foreign Policy Needs to Foster Private Sector SDG Implementation - By Benno Keppner (adelphi), Daniel Weiß (adelphi) Pietro Bertazzi (CDP), and Bibiana García (adelphi)