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World in crisis

Why we need global cooperation

by Hans Dembowski


Climate protesters with Covid-19-masks in Lausanne in late May.

Climate protesters with Covid-19-masks in Lausanne in late May.

I’ll take part in a digitised panel discussion hosted by the Central European University Shattuck Center on Friday 3 July. The topic is “Covid-19 and transactional foreign policy”. I’ve written down the following thoughts to prepare for the event. It starts at 4 pm and will be webcast, so you can watch wherever you may be. The CEU is based in Budapest.
If you want to watch the event, this is where to go: https://www.facebook.com/events/265463564712109/ Should you want to learn more about it first, you’ll find information here: https://ccnr.ceu.edu/6th-lemkin-reunion-session-5

A system that destroys its environment ultimately destroys itself. The reason is that systems are components of the environments in which they exist and on which they depend. That is a very basic tenet of systems theory.

It makes sense to see our species as a single biological system – and obviously, humankind is destroying the natural environment we all depend on. Frightening trends include climate change, the dwindling of biodiversity, the depletion of ocean resources, desertification, deforestation, pollution with long-lasting plastic and more. If these trends are not stopped and reversed, disasters lie ahead. No country will be safe. Without some kind of global governance were all nations have a say, humanity will pay an enormous price.

In a similar way, our species as a whole is exposed to Covid-19. We can only protect our own individual nations if we manage to protect all other nations as well. As long as the pandemic is spreading in some parts of the world, getting a grip on it at the national level is only of limited use. Infections are likely to flare up again elsewhere, and keeping borders closed is not an attractive solution, even though narrow-minded nationalists may like the idea.

They neglect the harm and the pain closed borders cause. Frustration about not being able to travel was an important reason for the collapse of communist rule in East Germany.

It is worth bearing in mind, moreover, that individual nations’ economies are ultimately subsystems of the global economy. Closed borders hurt exporters as well as importers. They reduce opportunity. The bigger markets are, the more opportunities they offer, which is why many emerging markets have benefited from WTO membership. China is the most striking example, but not the only one.

By contrast, there is no example of a developing country that prospered thanks to isolationism and autarky.

As I have argued before, Covid-19 is a double challenge:

  • First of all, health-care systems around the world must cope with the pandemic. Humankind has a common interest in things not spinning out of control anywhere. Nurses and doctors need protective gear everywhere. As research advances and it becomes clearer which therapies work and which don’t, the relevant resources must be made available everywhere. Once there is a vaccine, it must be used to maximum impact. Immunising one nation entirely makes much less sense than to start immunising health-care staff everywhere. The point is that no one is really protected until everyone is.
  • Second, the global economy has taken a hit. Aggregate demand has been radically reduced by lockdowns, and on the supply side, production has stalled in many industries too. There is a need for stimulus spending everywhere. Even more urgent, social protection must be beefed up for those who have lost their normal incomes. Since national economies are interdependent, global cooperation will prove useful.

Global cooperation is required on many other issues, of course. Fighting organised crime, ensuring financial stability and maintaining peace are among the challenges that no national government can rise to successfully on its own.

Digitalisation, moreover, is changing societies everywhere. Global rules concerning data privacy or the deliberate spread of disinformation would be helpful. We do not have them. Even worse, the hugely profitable multinational corporations that dominate the internet hardly pay taxes. Their business practices are disruptive. The global community basically allows them to rake in the benefits, but does not make them contribute to repairing the damage.

In view of all the issues that require global governance, it is bizarre that populist leaders have successfully agitated against multilateralism. It is even more bizarre that media pundits started to theorise that the era of globalists was over and nationalists were now resurgent. What they failed to do was to explain how any kind of “my nation first” approach could ever successfully tackle the big global challenges. Nor could they explain how many leaders who all put their narrowly understood national interest first can ever forge lasting alliances with one another.

It is interesting to note in this context, that Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro, three of the world's most important populist leaders, appear to be having a particularly bad Covid-19 pandemic. In the USA, Britain and Brazil, infection rates are awful, and the death toll terrible. Their governments’ responses to this crisis were guided by wishful thinking, but not well considered.

This is most certain linked to the fact that all three of them have so far thrived politically on aggressive rhetoric. What they never offered is detailed policies designed to solve complex problems. They claim to be making their nation great again. But they do not define greatness in any meaningful way. They show no interest in social inclusion. They do not seem to care about equal opportunities. They promise some kind of world leadership - which is odd, because they do not make any proposals on how to solve humankind's pressing problems.

The international community deserves better. We need prudent global governance – and it can only result from sensible cooperation.

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