New contours in international cooperation

Nationalism may be on the rise and hindering global consensus, but a pact among the five coastal states on the Caspian Sea represents a shift toward neighborly agreements.

The moon rises over an oil rig at the Kashagan offshore oil field in the Caspian sea in western Kazakhstan.

With a rise in nationalist politicians in world capitals, humble collaboration among countries on global issues can be hard to come by these days. A survey of scholars last year by the Council on Foreign Relations found international efforts to mitigate the world’s most pressing problems, such as cyberthreats, deserve only a “C-minus.”

Global agreements may indeed be more difficult, yet pacts between neighboring nations could be a new norm. Recent examples include those on Arctic fishing, Mediterranean migrants, and African free trade. The 20th-century spirit of international cooperation still exists. It’s just gone local or, shall we say, neighborly.

One regional pact, expected to be signed Aug. 12, follows this trend and is notable because it took 22 years to negotiate.

The five countries that share the Caspian Sea at the heart of the Eurasian continent – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – have agreed on a legal convention for using the natural resources of that unique, landlocked body of water while also safeguarding its ecosystem. Their leaders plan to meet and sign an accord that could change the world’s energy landscape.

The Caspian, which is the size of Japan and holds 40 percent of all the lake water in the world, is known mainly for its sturgeon, which produce the majority of the world’s caviar. But it is the sea’s giant reserves of oil and gas, and the complex geopolitics of building pipelines to energy consumers in Europe and China, that long held up an agreement.

Each of the five countries had to make compromises in order to agree on their respective economic and military zones in the sea. Russia, for example, will no longer be able to block a proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to Europe. In return, the pact allows only the coastal states to have a military presence on the sea.

The shape of multilateral cooperation today may not be as global as in the past. But the need for cooperation still exists. Regional pacts do not often get the attention they deserve in an era of rising geopolitical competition. Yet with a world that is more interconnected than ever, moments of cooperation must be celebrated.

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