At such an unsettling time, former UK Health Secretary Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell notes that respecting differences and collaboration will pave the way forward
IT IS THE DEFINING PARADOX OF OUR TIMES.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world at the same time as our public discourse has become increasingly disconnected and introverted.
Covid is a perfect illustration of the paradox.
The world faces the most profound public health threat we have seen in decades. The virus respects no frontiers; people are dying and societies across the world face a recession unparalleled in modern times.
But, with some notable exceptions, our political leaders seem to feed fantasies of national exceptionalism; they encourage us to avert our eyes from other countries’ experience; their narrative focusses on local concerns rather than wider experience.
It is instructive to compare the policy response to the Covid crisis with the response to the 2008 financial crisis. Ten years ago, countries looked for ways to cooperate and share knowledge. Even instinctive rivals understood that they had a common interest in sharing analysis and experience.
They used the institutions of global cooperation which had grown up over the previous half century. Even at the height of the Cold War, institutions that were established in the 1940s were seen as essential communication channels to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and identify opportunities for ideological rivals to maintain an essential dialogue.
In the 1970s political leaders developed a taste for international meetings, partly to demonstrate to their domestic audiences that they were players on the world stage, and partly to strengthen the institutional framework for international dialogue.
Like all human developments it was imperfect, but it represented recognition that the interests which human beings have in common are ultimately more important than the divisions which political leaders are often tempted to feed.
Most obviously it allowed the cold warriors to recognise their mutual interest in what was then called Détente. It developed in the ‘G series’ (G3, G5, G20 etc – the number depended on who was in and who was out), which provided the framework for economic cooperation at many different levels, and more recently it developed into agreements for action to protect the natural environment and growing awareness of the emerging climate emergency.
Each of these processes left many people disappointed and frustrated. But the fact that they existed demonstrated the willingness of political leaders to commit to the language of collaboration.
It is worth reflecting that collaboration is a word with an interesting history. To my French mother-in-law (who grew up in wartime Paris) the word had a specific and negative meaning; to her grandchildren, the need to collaborate across cultures and frontiers is instinctive, and the word has lost its negative overtones.
This emerging process of collaboration was of course much more than a political fashion. Improved transport technologies meant that people were travelling further and more often, and improved communication technologies meant that more and better information was flowing further and faster all the time. The interconnected world is not a figure of speech; it is a physical reality.
And the interconnected, collaborative world brought tangible benefits. Economies grew faster; more people were employed; more wealth was created and societies across the globe experienced the largest, fastest and most widely distributed improvement in human living standards in history.
But it is no longer a process where evidence alone is sufficient justification. Too many mistakes were made along the way, and too many people in too many countries distrust the arguments of the collaborators.
The arguments need to be made again.
They are the arguments for dialogue and shared interests. They do not require us to surrender our identity or our beliefs, but they do require us to be willing to address difficult questions.
How can we develop improved security for those societies and individuals who currently feel insecure? How can we extend access to economic success to those who have hitherto been excluded from it? How can we achieve these objectives in a way which is consistent with a sustainable natural environment?
These are core questions in every society. Nowhere are they easy, and everywhere they require political leadership that is willing to stretch the boundaries of what is possible.
That requires political leadership – but it also requires skilled diplomacy.
It requires countries to respect their differences – which means understanding that many of those differences will not be resolved by dialogue and must be regarded as facts of the diplomatic landscape.
But recognising differences does not preclude the search for agreement in areas of common interest and the need to conduct that search has never been greater.
The story of the last half century contains both successes and failures, but the rehabilitation of collaboration must be numbered among the significant successes.
Collaboration, dialogue and diplomacy underpin many of the advances of recent decades; it is time to celebrate them.
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