DRD Partnership’s Duncan Fulton and David Landsman ask how can we reboot international relations?

In late April when India extended its lockdown, nearly four billion people – just over half of humanity – were living under some form of COVID-19-related restriction of movement.

To put it in perspective, more people are locked down at the time of writing than were alive during World War II. One of the paradoxes of Coronavirus is that we are currently livingthrough the largest shared global experience in the history of this planet – but it is one spent in isolation.

Isolation not just in the literal meaning of lockdowns, curfews and social distancing but in the sense that the response has so far been overwhelmingly at a national level. We have to a significant degree retreated within our borders, communities, family units and homes. For most, our immediate neighbourhood has become our world.

Understandably, you might well argue, in the face of the impending health crisis, governments dashed to bring home citizens, close or control borders and do all they could to protect lives and livelihoods. The first responsibility of any government is, after all, to protect its people.

Are we really all in this together?

Whilst we are all in this at the same time, it is not at all clear that we’re all in this together. Domestic priorities are all-consuming: some countries have gone as far as to ban the export of medical supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), presumably concluding that the usual habits of international cooperation are a ‘nice to have’ they can’t afford in a crisis.

In times of crisis we tend to gravitate to the familiar, especially perhaps when the threat is to health and life itself. We see this reflected in how many national leaders are enjoying unprecedented public support. Particularly marked in the early stages of the pandemic, IPSOS Mori and Pew polling showed that trust in governments’ handling of the crisis increased significantly. ‘Rallying round the flag’ is not just a British trait.

That said, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s sudden admission to intensive care with coronavirus was a play-within-a-play, a moment of the highest drama that seemed to galvanise a nation.  It has been striking to see on social media how many people who have caricatured him for a lack of grip were genuinely wishing him well and feeling the need for him to be back at work as the authority figure the country needed.

This is one example of how, in times of crisis, we crave to be able to place our faith in the competence of our national institutions. To read the UK media, the Chief Medical and Scientific Officers have become rock stars, the National Health Service both heroic army and national religion.

A macabre international competition

It’s an interesting phenomenon that countries – like many institutions with a strong identity – are filled with pride while simultaneously fearing that they may compare unfavourably with others. And so it is with COVID-19: endlessly reproduced graphs, curves and bar-charts detailing numbers of infections, tests, deaths appear like a twisted league table in some macabre international competition.

What comes next?

We won’t know for some time whether the response to coronavirus is a collective CTRL+ALT+DEL: a global system-reboot, as many are suggesting, perhaps hoping. So far it seems clear that trends that pre-existed the pandemic have been accelerated and amplified.  In many parts of the world, national priorities are being reasserted as multilateral institutions have come under sustained criticism for their cost and their ineffectiveness.

Will that trend continue to accelerate?   Will national self-interest, enlightened or otherwise, be the main feature of the next period?   Or, as countries slowly come out of lockdown and look to reignite their economies, will we see a new phase of international cooperation, perhaps with the G7 and G20 providing the kind of leadership they contributed during the Global Financial Crisis?

It may be too simplistic – and even counterproductive – to see this in black-and-white terms.  For example, if countries and regions emerge from the pandemic at different speeds, we may see more bilateral and plurilateral cooperation rather than the kind of multilateralism some may wish for.  But if we focus on the downsides and play the blame game against those who appear obstructive, we may make international cooperation even harder.

Instead, it may be better to put the emphasis on multilateralism where the ground is most fertile.

The global scientific challenge of developing, mass producing and disseminating a vaccine is one thing – and as Gordon Brown recently put it: “If you can’t agree on health multilateralism, what kind of multilateralism can you agree on?” Coordinating a genuinely multi-national response on an economic and geopolitical level is another.

9/11 brought with it the recognition that our collective security is only as strong as the weakest link. A genuinely global effort to significantly tighten aviation security swiftly followed.

In response to the 2009 financial crisis a coordinated plan was developed based on the understanding that the interconnectedness of international financial markets meant the risk of contagion had to be tackled globally if the entire system was to be saved. In both instances, the first instinct of governments, after the initial shock, became strongly collaborative.

But coronavirus feels different. Take the example of PPE once again. Leaders across Europe, the Americas and Asia have all committed to developing home-grown supply to reduce reliance on Chinese manufacturing. The same is true in other sectors, where the focus is on building resilience and growing domestic supply. This won’t cease immediately when the first phase of the crisis is over, but all the familiar arguments in favour of international trade and openness haven’t gone away – in fact they are only stronger.

Where is the global leadership?

But how will a world still in the grip of ‘coronapanic’ accept the case that coordinated assistance, money, expertise and equipment, will be needed not just at home but in many of the poorest countries if we are to avoid second, third, fourth waves of this pandemic?

At a time when restrictive measures are likely to still be in place, in the face of the deepest recession any of us will have experienced, how will public consent be won?

Economically, medically, morally and strategically it is a false choice to think that safety lies in collectively pulling up the drawbridge and leaving others to their fate.

But managing the next phase of the response, the gradual – but unequal – return to economic activity, will require leadership, communications and diplomacy from all.   We are all increasingly used to talking across the world on Zoom.   Can we also speak to each other like neighbours?

The challenge for diplomacy

An art of diplomacy has always been the ability to frame an argument so that what’s in my interest is also in yours: to create those alignments of mutual advantage, and fuse together the ‘domestic’ and the ‘foreign.’

That is the challenge of diplomacy for this Covid-age: not to fall back on tired multilateralism and clunky institutions, but to renew the case for a common and cooperative response to what is the single greatest moment of shared human experience in history.

Who better than Henry Kissinger, himself a survivor of World War II, to outline the scale of the task ahead: “While the assault on human health will—hopefully—be temporary, the political and economic upheaval it has unleashed could last for generations. No country, not even the US, can in a purely national effort overcome the virus. Addressing the necessities of the moment must ultimately be coupled with a global collaborative vision and program. If we cannot do bothin tandem, we will face the worst of each.

“Now, we live an epochal period. The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.”


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