Why Foreign Policy Should Embrace the SDGs – Side Event in New York

Panelists at the HLPF 2018 side event 'Global Resilience Agenda: A Foreign Policy Perspective on the SDGs'

Arguments that peace and sustainable development are interlinked have become a commonplace among diplomats, be it in New York, Geneva or Addis Ababa. The inclusion of SDG 16 (peace) into the 2030 agenda and several UN resolutions on “Sustaining Peace” aretestament to an increased awareness that we cannot achieve one without addressing the other. However, the UN is still struggling to break the sectoral silos and reform its organisational practices and programmes. National governments, tasked with implementing the SDGs by engaging across ministries and interest groups and using synergies between the goals, are also challenged to address the issue.

Foreign ministries have a crucial role to play, not simply because all of the 17 SDGs have targets that explicitly refer to an international or transboundary dimension, but because the entire 2030 Agenda has significant geopolitical ramifications. The way we implement SDGs can greatly affect transboundary security and stability. For instance, implementation of SDG 2 may improve food production and create jobs, thus reducing grievances and forced migration. However, if poorly implemented, for example by not taking into account climate change, it can aggravate local livelihoods and small-scale farming. Hence, the ways in which governments implement SDGs may contribute to - or undermine - overall development and stability.

It is in this context that adelphi has published the paper “A Foreign Policy Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals to start a conversation on the SDGs and their foreign policy relevance. The paper takes the six SDGs under review at the UN High-level Political Forum (HLPF) 2018 as entry points and analyses how each of them may affect progress on foreign policy priorities.

A side event at the HLPF on 17 July 2018 in the German Permanent Mission to the UN, organized by adelphi in cooperation with the Federal Foreign Office, served as an opportunity to name problems left out in official UN talks.

“We need to engage the Security Council on this”

Ambassador Dr. Christoph Heusgen acknowledged in his opening remarks an increased recognition of the vital link between foreign policy and the implementation of the other SDGs. In times of crumbling multilateralism, diplomats would have to carry the SDGs home, to their countries and into the communities.

“Not implementing the SDGs and not understanding the relevance of the SDGs to foreign policy poses avery real risk to peace

Janani Vivekananda (Senior Advisor at adelphi), set the scene by pointing out that the success of foreign policy activities - be it de-escalation of conflict, transboundary trade, stabilisation, or conflict prevention ­- depends on the SDGs. Vice-versa, implementing the SDGs would alter geopolitical dynamics, and may affect peace and stability – shaping the landscape in which foreign policy makers operate. This relationship is not sufficiently reflected in SDG processes or foreign policy strategies as of yet.

“We need a Sustainable Foreign Policy that supports linked-up SDG implementation and external action,” said Vivekananda. She added that “not implementing the SDGs and not understanding the relevance of the SDGs to foreign policy poses a very real risk to peace.” She concluded that foreign policy needs to better anticipate and steer the geopolitical implications of the SDGs to minimise the risks and maximise the positive impacts on sustainable development.


“Prevention saves resources”

Looking at the past eight years, Henk-Jan Brinkman (Chief of Policy at the UN Peacebuilding Support Office), stressed that the number of violent conflicts had rapidly been increasing around the world. Moreover, these conflicts are more protracted and harder to resolve. As most poor people live in fragile or conflict-affected states, working in conflict and working on conflict is thus absolutely critical to achieving the SDGs.

“Inclusion is one of the most important entry points to the SDGs to prevent violent conflict and address root causes,” said Brinkman. He added, “we really need to move away from the response and crisis management position.” Highlighting that the international community had spent 233 billion dollars over ten years on peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, and donor assistance to refugees, he argued that prevention saves resources. The role of foreign policy was to support national actors in these efforts since, eventually, countries need to take the driver’s seat. A thorough analysis was essential to this end, especially examining the problems of countries around the Common Country Analysis (CCA).

“It is naive not to consider the geopolitical implications of the SDGs”

Alexander Müller (Managing Director of TMG Think Tank for Sustainability) emphasized that it is national interest that essentially drives all SDG projects. The 2030 agenda had been negotiated in a long political process and shaped by geopolitics. “What are intended and unintended side effects of implementation?” he asked. For example, the agricultural model of the Global North, based on large-scale industrial agriculture, was not an option for most of the Global South. “In India, 50% of the population is employed in agriculture - there is no alternative job market. Not protecting small-scale farmers would have huge geopolitical implications.”

If SDG implementation were blind to these implications and ignored livelihood and land tenure questions, this would result in massive forced migration. “What will happen in Africa and India if you use that industrial model? This is a security issue and we need this debate,” Müller concluded.

“Our EU instruments help make the shift from crisis containment to addressing root causes”

Within the European Union, several processes are underway to better support the SDGs and countries’ efforts to strategically build societal resilience. Elisabeth Pape (Senior Expert, ‎EU Delegation to the UN) pointed out that the EU’s external instruments and policy tools were being reorganized - a major milestone being the issuance of the EU Global Strategy that integrates questions of sustainable development into the EU’s overall foreign and security policy thinking, and that was a clear commitment to multilateralism. Another key document to prevent and resolve conflicts, and thus achieve SDGs, was the EU Consensus on Development. “I was in the Central African Republic recently. This is a good example where the lack of security hinders our development support. The lack of development then adds to the persistence of security problems, as people join armed groups and criminal gangs,” Pape said.


Many topics of the 2030 Agenda have an international or transboundary dimension. Rather than viewing the SDGs as technical and primarily development issues, decision-makers should develop strategic approaches embedded in the specific context of regional politics. Foreign policy is a crucial player in this regard and can start by analysing synergies, side effects, and trade-offs, to account for the interlinkages among the Global Goals. The discussion in New York was a point of departure and will be continued.

Ideas and comments can be directed to climatediplomacy@adelphi.de.