The cooperation possibility frontier

Last year, we helped write a paper about the future of global governance.1

As we researched and brainstormed ideas for that paper, we found ourselves continually confronted with a deceptively simple question: Why don’t the countries of the world cooperate more?

On topics as wide-ranging as trade, war, and climate change, it’s evident that humanity could achieve better results if countries “could just work together!”

Unfortunately, none of these problems are as simple as they first appear (as most of our readers probably know). Negotiations stall out for many reasons. In a future post, we hope to explore some of these reasons in much more detail. For the topic at hand, it’s sufficient to note that as you increase the number of nations that need to agree on something, the less likely that agreement becomes – or the more conservative your proposal must become in order to reach agreement.

Considering this, we realized that this challenge could be framed as a trade-off between depth of coordination (i.e. how much independence each player has to give up) and breadth of coordination (i.e. how many players need to work together). When illustrated, this trade-off is strongly reminiscent of the production possibility frontier in economics, which illustrates the total amount of a product that can be produced given a set of resources.

Thus, we termed our idea the cooperation possibility frontier.

Illustrated below is an example of the cooperation possibility frontier. On the horizontal axis is the breadth of coordination – the proportion of all actors that must cooperate in order to achieve something. As we go from left to right on the horizontal axis, coordination problems require an increasing percentage of actors to cooperate. At the lower extreme, best-shot problems require only one actor to take (effective) action. At the upper extreme, weakest-link risks require the cooperation of all actors.

On the vertical axis is the depth of coordination. Deep coordination can present many challenges, including monetary cost, reduced independence of action, and the many costs, delays and frustrations associated with a framework for coordination (e.g., communication channels, procedures, etc.). Since our example is the global cooperation possibility frontier and we’re therefore focusing on the coordination of nation-states, the vertical axis is thus strongly related to the amount of sovereignty that must be ceded by nations in order to solve a particular problem.

On the plot, we’ve also illustrated several salient global coordination problems that we believe provide some insight into the dynamics of coordination. They include:

  • Defending the Earth from Asteroids. This risk is in the lower-left because it requires only a single actor (e.g., one of the space-faring nations like the USA or China) to solve the problem – and there is no significant cost or sovereignty lost in the process. Note that the fact that we still do not yet have all of the requisite technologies to avert this risk is not relevant to the placement of this risk in the lower-left corner of the plot.
  • Preventing wars between great powers and creating the United Nations. Both of these challenges require a significant number of nations to cooperate rather deeply.
  • Protecting the ozone layer. In order to avert the danger of a disappearing ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol required agreement from almost all nations on the planet – but that agreement was not significantly costly in terms of sovereignty or money.2
  • Creating a sovereign global government. This is a hypothetical future goal for humanity, where we choose to build a global government which is the ultimate legal authority in the world – with no possibility of this government being overruled by smaller governments. Some parts of the global risks literature refer to such an entity as a singleton3

The arcs from the upper left down towards the lower-right are illustrated estimations of the global cooperation possibility frontier at a particular time in history (with prospective frontiers expanding out into the future). Each such frontier describes the possibility for global cooperation at a given time, where cooperation problems within (below) the frontier might be solvable but those beyond the frontier are not. The frontier has expanded since the mid-20th century, but further progress is not guaranteed.1

We’ve found that the global cooperation possibility frontier is a useful tool for achieving coherent discussions about global risks and global coordination challenges. In Ruling Ourselves, we deeply explore one question based on this analysis: How can the global cooperation possibility frontier be expanded? To that end, we explore what factors seem to be hampering the expansion of the frontier today and how various actors in the world can act throughout the coming years and decades to deliberately expand the frontier so that humanity will be better positioned to face the coordination challenges of tomorrow. The full work goes into detail on the opportunities for transformative work in these areas:

  • Building our capacity for governance reform at the global level.
  • Pursuing holistic security, where nations pragmatically choose to invest in the most cost-effective ways to help other nations succeed – and thus make everyone more secure.
  • Safeguarding the global digital commons so that humans everywhere can learn about each other’s humanity, thus making us much less likely to dehumanize and dismiss each other’s fears, cares, and dreams.
  • Deploying transformative digital tools to dramatically improve the effectiveness and reach of our collaborative systems – including government.
  • Addressing widespread automation in a way that allows societies to not only survive widespread automation, but to thrive.
  • Pursuing peaceful global political convergence with the long-term goal of ensuring that all of humanity lives under governments of their choosing.

Other questions can and should be asked. Here are a few that have occurred to us:

  • Might it be possible to find ways to bring some coordination problems down-and-to-the-left on this plot, effectively making them easier to solve?
  • Would it be possible to deliberately reshape the frontier on short notice if widespread coordination is required for humanity to avert an imminent existential threat – and what dangers might there be in such a strategy?
  • What is the detailed shape of the frontier today?
  • Does the frontier appear to  manifest concretely across many areas of international coordination, or does the degree of coordination appear to be primarily dependent on the specific topics being considered?
  • How strong is the correlation between a nation cooperating on one topic and their cooperation on other topics?

To close, we’d like to reiterate that this idea (and illustrative plot) is the core of our answer to the question “Why don’t the countries of the world cooperate more?” In brief, cooperation becomes more difficult as you increase the number of players and the costs of cooperation rise. We hope that these insights will help guide future strategy on global coordination challenges – a topic we hope will receive much more attention.

  1. Harack, B., Laskowski, K., Bailey, R., Marcotte, J., Jaques, S., Datta, D., and Kuski, S., 2017. Ruling Ourselves: The deliberate evolution of global cooperation and governance. Available online:  [] []
  2. See the Multilateral Fund for Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, []
  3. Bostrom, N., 2006. What is a singleton. Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations, 5[2], pp.48-54. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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