How will COVID-19 impact on the future of multilateral cooperation
The last decade has seen the pernicious rise of authoritarian populist nationalism across the globe. Rejecting evidenced based decision-making, urging the drawing up of walls (“big, beautiful walls”), it has driven a coach and horses through international co-operation and collaboration. Trump, Brexit, Putinism, Bolsonaro-the examples are legion.
And at first glance the terrifying spread of COVID 19 has reinforced nationalism and moved us further away from multi-lateral cooperation. China seeking to hide the facts about coronavirus in Wuhan and mislead the international community, Trump constantly ignoring the facts and misleading his fellow citizens, claiming Covid 19 was a “foreign disease” and then brazenly attacking the WHO for having “called it (COVID 19) wrong”, the EU failing to agree EU wide solutions prompting the resignation of the President of the European Research Council, the UK Government refusing to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators because it breached its’ Brexit doctrine. The focus of almost every Government appears to have been based on national responses to COVID 19, rather than seeking global solutions and action.
Perhaps this initial response was inevitable in the face of biggest existential crisis to face every nation in the last 50 years. But in time the responses have to move towards the international and collaborative, bringing I hope and believe, a resurgence of multilateral cooperation. Not out of altruism but out of naked self-interest. Because COVID 19 knows absolutely no national border. In our immensely interconnected world, if we don’t achieve containment and protection from COVID 19 in every nation, we will not ultimately achieve that for any nation.
So what shape do we need from the essential multilateral and cooperative response?
First, genuine transparency through the WHO from every nation state about the evidence of the spread of Covid 19 (total exchange of epidemiological and clinical data) and actions taken in response. And the WHO will need financial means to incentivise this, and a bold “name and shame” approach to nations which do not comply.
Second, the support for and mobilisation internationally of the scientific community for the sharing of materials necessary for research and development, including on vaccines as the OECD has argued.
Third, there has to be a strong focus on supporting the developing world where, with people living so much closer together, the spread of Covid-19 is more likely and the economic consequences more severe. As Professor Stieglitz has powerfully argued full use should be made of the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, with advanced economies like the United States donating or lending their SDR’s to the developing world.
Fourth, with almost every country opting for lockdown and social isolation to tackle the virus, we must ensure that the cure (lockdown) does not end up being worse than the disease (Covid 19). We will therefore urgently need, as citizens of each nation re-emerge and reconnect, a co-ordinated international economic stimulus package to tackle what will arguably be the biggest recession since the Great Depression. The urgency, cohesion and internationalism of Breton Woods is required. And as Gordon Brown, Erik Berglof, and Jeremy Farrar have powerfully advocated we urgently need a G20 task force to co-ordinate the international response, and a Donors Conference to make that effective through an 8 billion dollar initiative-1 billion for the WHO, with the rest to support the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to coordinate efforts to develop, manufacture and distribute effective diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
To achieve all of the above we will need strong political leadership. After the 2008 economic crash it was the G20 which led the way in agreeing the necessary actions which prompted and led to the co-ordinated responses of Governments and key multilateral bodies. And that G20 initiative would not have been possible without active political leadership from the US, the EU, China and others arguably galvanised by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, described at the time by commentators as the “point man” for the G20-Now here I should declare a prejudice and an interest as I was a Foreign Office Minister in his Government at the time. But we desperately need such internationally focussed leadership today.
I am an optimist by nature and I think in time Covid 19, which has brought such pain, suffering, carnage and fear to us all, can lead to a rebirth of multilateral cooperation, which is the best means to enduringly tackle Covid 19. The next few months will determine whether my optimism is justified. Whether we do agree global solutions to the ultimate global challenge, or revert again to self defeating populist nationalism.