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Vicious Crises

Treating the pandemic, climate change, lost public trust, and geopolitical tensions as standalone issues will get us nowhere. Each problem operates in a feedback loop with the others, demanding more holistic thinking and novel strategies to make up for the shortcomings of conventional global governance.

LONDON – Those who are disappointed by the inconclusive outcomes of the COP26 climate-change meeting, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent virtual summit, or efforts to achieve COVID-19 vaccine equity need to wake up about the world we live in. Under current circumstances, global governance is guaranteed to disappoint.

In a new report, Our Global Condition, I and my colleagues on the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy attribute these difficulties to the fact that we are in the grip of not one but four crises. The only way forward is to recognize the connections between planetary public health, climate change, declining public trust and democratic legitimacy, and geopolitical instability. These issues are interlinked. Treating them as separate domains will get us nowhere.

Environmental stresses increase the likelihood that zoonotic diseases will spread to humans and become pandemics. The social, political, and economic stresses introduced by a pandemic then foster attitudes and behaviors that undermine social solidarity, making it harder for governments to secure public buy-in for strong decarbonization measures. In countries and political systems where trust in institutions and the authority of expertise has been undermined by the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis and the growth of social media, coping with new crises remains an uphill struggle.

This description is especially apt for the United States, the country to which so many look for leadership. The crisis of trust has weakened the US both internally and on the world stage, contributing to the deteriorating relations between the West and China. Following the logic of feedback loops, tensions over the pandemic and climate change have contributed to the world’s foremost geopolitical crisis. Yet without US-China engagement and mutual understanding, little substantive progress against either the pandemic or climate change can be made.

Similar dynamics are evident in the failure to deliver a sufficient supply of vaccines to poorer countries, a reality made salient by the emergence of the new Omicron variant in southern Africa. According to the Global Commission’s vaccination countdown, Asia, Europe, and the US are on track to have vaccinated 80% of their populations by March-May 2022, whereas most African countries will not have reached that point until mid-2025.

Sino-American cooperation could close this gap, given the two countries’ unmatched capital and logistical resources, and also could deal swiftly with the looming sovereign-debt crisis that is likely to strike low-income countries and then the rest of the world in 2022. Unfortunately, there is no prospect of such agreements any time soon.

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It is a bleak picture, auguring not imminent disaster but rather continuing disappointment and vulnerability. To confront this situation, we must develop new strategies based on four key principles.

The first principle – and the most immediate task – is to get all populations vaccinated, so that we can accelerate the shift from a pandemic to a more manageable endemic public-health issue. Whether they act alone or in groups, all countries need to place the highest priority on delivering vaccines to Africa and other lagging regions, as well as devoting more resources – medical, financial, logistical, and administrative – to support vaccination programs. Eliminating pandemic-driven uncertainties may also be the surest way to create trust and public buy-in for sustained climate measures and other necessary but costly “build back better” policies.

The second (and longer-term) principle is to recognize that the US-China rivalry plays a central role in global affairs. Neither that rivalry nor the continuing importance of either countries can be wished away. The most urgent task therefore is to define an agenda and create a mechanism for the two superpowers to consult each other and collaborate on global challenges, even as they continue to compete in other fields.

The US and the Soviet Union exercised such discipline during the Cold War. But learning to do so took decades. Neither climate change nor international security nor effective governance can wait.

The third principle is that the trust and legitimacy crisis in the West needs to be taken more seriously. Western democracies’ increased vulnerability to extremist politics poses a danger not only to those countries but also to global stability and security. Here, the most urgent tasks are to update democratic rules and institutions for the twenty-first century; regulate social media to make those platforms more responsible; rekindle citizenship through new forms of participation; and expand investments to ensure greater equality of treatment and opportunity.

The fourth principle is a pragmatic one. As with vaccines, countries cannot sit around and wait for proper global governance to provide solutions. Following on the successes of public-private partnerships that delivered safe and highly effective vaccines in record time, confronting today’s interlocking crises demands coalitions of the willing to address common, borderless problems. Other areas that could benefit from intense multi-country collaboration include technology to identify and monitor new pathogens and bigger bets on non-carbon energy technologies, such as nuclear fusion.

Our interlinked crises demand an interlinked, concerted response. If that proves impossible, we should not be surprised if countries decide to pursue less consensual means on their own.