Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell says it is important to reflect on policy successes and failures as governments develop plans for COVID recovery

We are often told that “things will never be the same again.” Unfortunately, this is seldom true.

In 2009, for example, it was a commonplace that the financial crash made change inevitable. The problem is that ‘desirable’ and ‘inevitable’ are not the same thing – and too often they are not even related.

The crash certainly focussed attention on weaknesses in the banking system – and it is not right to say that no lessons were learnt. Banking managers and regulators have improved the resilience of financial structures and the banking system has proved itself more resilient during the COVID period than would previously have been the case.

But many of the underlying causes of social and political instability which were growing before 2008 have not been addressed, and some have been exacerbated, by the policy response to the crash.

Far from making change inevitable, in many ways it did the reverse. It focussed attention on short term fire-fighting – and allowed policy makers to avoid addressing societal challenges that have continued to develop.

It is important to reflect on this policy failure – for that is what it was – as we develop our plans for recovery from COVID.

There is some ground for cautious optimism.

The first steps of the Biden administration certainly cannot be criticised for being overcautious, and the new President can draw on significant international goodwill. American leadership is an important influence on the agenda of the international community.

But ambition and goodwill are not a substitute for hard choices.

Repeated references by US Presidents to John Winthrop’s image of America as a “shining city on a hill” continue to be undermined by familiar internal challenges while other potential sources of political leadership in Europe and beyond face their own internal pressures.

Meantime, some profound challenges continue to build.

Within western societies the trend towards deepening social inequality and increased polarisation arises from a wide range of factors, only some of which are the result of political choices. There is now extensive evidence that the development of the digital economy has driven a much greater concentration of wealth and power into a small number of hands, and that those same digital technologies have reduced the importance of public space. Like-minded communities exchanging social media messages with each other is not the same thing as public discourse.

There is little room for doubt that these trends towards increased polarisation have been significantly exacerbated by both the financial crash and the COVID pandemic.

These developments present immediate challenges to policy makers. If they are not addressed, there is a serious risk that they will increasingly undermine the basis of consent on which liberal societies are built as well as providing fertile ground for other political forces to feed on developing grievances.

Furthermore, at the same time as our societies face these significant internal challenges, they also face external challenge from social and political cultures which reject their values and have demonstrated their willingness to take risks with geopolitical instability to promote their interests. The global community can only prosper if different countries both respect their differences and agree to live by codes that define areas of common interest.

It is a founding purpose of diplomacy to provide the context in which these codes can be developed – and the need for it has never been more obvious.

The immediate challenge is to ensure that the 2021 round of international meetings demonstrates a commitment to deliver real change.

Most obviously that focuses on COP26 – and the commitment to move to Net Zero by 2050. This is not simply an environmental (‘green’) imperative (although that, by itself represents, literally a ‘drop dead requirement’); it is also both a public health imperative – the associated commitment to improved air quality represents 1.6 million avoided deaths worldwide – and an economic imperative because many agricultural economies simply become unsustainable if Net Zero is not delivered.

But the objectives of the COP process will only be met if the international community develops its willingness to address other issues by dialogue between nations.

Most obviously there needs to be a significant strengthening of the public health infrastructure. The COVID experience has demonstrated the importance of both effective surveillance and timely policy intervention. These are issues on which PPP and Diplomat magazine are working, and which need to be reflected in the new international agenda.

But most fundamental, and most difficult, are the two issues both of which must be addressed if we are to ensure that “things will never be the same again.”

First, we need to create structures for economic development that are sustainable and inclusive.

Second, we need to restate and recommit to the principles set out in the UN Charter, which define conduct between nations.

Neither will work without the other, but if we address both with purpose we can, for once, “build back better.”


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