Apocalyptic predictions on the world’s future after COVID-19 are unfounded. Structures of global governance can be reinforced through greater subsidiarity; that is, by enhancing the participation of local authorities, by the involvement of civil society and the private sector and by regionalising initiatives, where appropriate. Furthermore, globalisation’s scope should be extended to comprise the shared governance of all global public goods and elements affecting human security. This essay outlines how this transformation could work for the four policy areas of global trade, food security, public health and climate change.
Many a pundit has advanced the end of the ‘world as we know it’ since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. Those of us who have been in it longer are less prone to such dramatism, though it is obvious that the world will change as a result of the systemic shock that humankind suffered this year. What seems to be wilfully overlooked is that, to a large extent, our individual and collective actions can determine the nature and scope of this transformation.
Rather than providing readers with an account of some of the events I have lived during my time in public office, or an analysis of how I believe geopolitics will evolve in the coming months and years, I would like to share a conception of the world I would like my grandchildren to live in, and how we can attain it from where we currently stand. It is not an easy feat, for it will require a major shift involving all relevant actors within the diplomatic realm — but the objectives are certainly within reach.
The main actors of international politics, and thus diplomacy, have changed throughout history. In the Middle Ages, the focus was on feudal lords. In the 19th century, it was on empires and the power balances between them. In the 20th century, states and — later on — corporations were the backbone of international co-operation and conflict. The 21st century should see that focus shift to a new central unit of analysis and action: human beings.
As post-globalist diplomatic scholarship shows, diplomacy is no longer limited to states and international organisations.1 This is why it is somewhat striking to see that most predictions on what a post-pandemic planet will look like revolve around weakened global governance structures and a more confrontational society of states, with the United States and China as the main hubs in the diplomatic networks.
With increasingly interdependent business supply chains and ever more interconnected societies, particularly through education and labour mobility, as well as the internet, no government can manage to fully isolate its citizens and economic operators from their peers beyond its borders. Westphalian governance models cannot function properly in a post-Westphalian world.
If there is one lesson to be retained from the appearance of the novel coronavirus, it is that humanity is often powerless when nature strikes. What acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or swine flu could not make us understand, COVID-19 seems to have done: we are all guests in our planet, no matter our societal or geographical position, and it is naive to feel in control or to think that borders will compartmentalise the globe’s most pressing problems (i.e., poverty, disease, pollution and global warming).
Two factors have made the coronavirus, rather than previous pandemics, the catalyser of this realisation. First, its incredibly fast spread and contagion rates have led to the biggest pandemic since the 1918 flu. Second, in its early days it affected disproportionately business elites and ruling classes, who were more interconnected than the average citizen. This made government officials acutely aware of the risks of inaction.
In a way, the pandemic has brought us back to basics: governments are primarily tasked today with preventing mortality and morbidity. Of course, governments should always be expected to do much more than that but this focus on individual welfare need not be forgotten after the pandemic. By making the individual the main beneficiary of policy, and the benchmark for measuring success, progress will be identified more easily. Similarly, by enshrining subsidiarity as a guiding principle and localising policy-making when possible, we are less likely to fall in the trap of polarisation. Below, I outline how this could be done for a certain number of policies, which I have chosen because of their relevance to ensuring human security.
Traditionally, notions of security were closely linked to sovereignty. In the late 20th century, two connected but different conceptions of human security appeared: one, linked to the Responsibility to Protect and a rights-based approach to conflict resolution; the other, focused on development and a broad understanding of human rights.2 Developed by the UN Development Programme, this second conception considers seven dimensions of security: economic, food, health, environment, personal, community and political.
Since the pandemic should not fall under conflict management, the second approach is more relevant to frame ‘human diplomacy’. By way of example, and due to space constraints, the analysis is limited to the first four dimensions. First, I set out some recommendations on how to achieve a multilevel global governance of the issues at hand. Afterwards, and for each dimension, I argue for realistic changes on global policies to tackle related challenges, as well as call for reforms of the respective global governance institutions.
2 Multi-level Human Security Governance
Global governance requires a revamp. International trade and financial flows are certainly important but it is time for globalisation to be a lot more than that. Humanity has a shared planet, and a shared destiny. Post-COVID-19 international institutions should take note of this reality, and co-operate to give appropriate answers to today’s most significant issues. Diplomacy should thus become human oriented and abandon its state-centric premises.3 Below are four ideas on how to enhance the global governance system and make it more focused on humankind.
1 An increased role for local authorities.
From setting up a COVID-19 testing centre, to improving waste management systems, passing through sustainable food gardens or the inspection of working conditions in a factory, these are all elements that should be a part of our new globalisation — but they are all better enforced at the local level. Cities should play a bigger part in the enforcement of global governance rules. To circumvent the increasing partisanship and polarisation of national authorities, as well as to enhance the credibility and accountability of domestic action, direct communication should exist between local authorities and the relevant international organisations.
2 The streamlining of civil society’s participation.
Grassroots movements, non-governmental organisations and activists already have a role in global governance. After all, climate change awareness in 2019 would not have been the same without Greta Thunberg’s campaign. However, international institutions should have direct channels of communication with civil society, just like the European Union (EU) already does.
3 The regionalisation of initiatives that are best managed regionally.
Strong regional organisations are not a threat to multilateralism but, rather, they enhance it. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Mercosur, the Eurasian Economic Union and the African Union are as well placed as the EU to tackle certain issues within their geographic areas, such as medicine supply chains, green forms of transport and proximity farm to food strategies. While global recommendations should be considered, it would make little sense to oversee the electrification of railways in Southeast Asia from Geneva or New York City, or to manage it nationally without profiting from ASEAN synergies.
4 The entrenchment of international organisations into the backbone of our global governance system.
States will continue to play an essential role in global governance even if the above-mentioned measures are implemented. Increasingly global, science-based, depoliticised international organisations should exist for the provision of global public goods and to prevent beggar-thy-neighbour policies, which are present even amidst the current pandemic in the form of ‘vaccine nationalism’. We need to make sure that channels for constructive diplomatic dialogue never cease to exist, and that multilateral organizations and fora are hefty, effective and legitimate enough to offer adequate responses to global problems.
While the following analysis looks at trade relations, famine prevention, public health management and tackling climate change, these principles should be applied to all other areas of global governance, particularly those touching human security and global public goods.
3 A Smarter Trade Globalisation
Deglobalisation has been in the public debate for quite some time — in fact, world trade reached its peak as a share of gross domestic product in 2012. Similarly, the notion of ‘decoupling’ the US and Chinese value chains also precedes the COVID-19 crisis. But it was only once COVID-19 ground Chinese industries to a halt that many businesses and countries considered reducing their trade dependency on the Asian giant. And when the disruptions to the global supply chain became more widespread, a new set of strategic priorities seemed to enter the mainstream: increasing self-reliance, protecting national industries and repatriating manufacture.
It is certainly tempting to depend less on other countries in the middle of a pandemic, which is asymmetrically hitting countries with varying degrees of readiness to weather the storm. Nevertheless, comparative advantages still apply. Given how all major economies are closely intertwined, forgoing international trade is practically impossible. However, even a simple reduction of it entails an overall reduction of wealth. Choosing to impoverish ourselves more during the most severe economic crash in 100 years seems, to say the least, reckless.4
Thus, we should not abandon globalisation but, rather, its tenet of unrestrained profit maximisation. Particularly, two modifications should be introduced: one, the mitigation of the risks associated with the ultraspecialised just-in-time model, and, two, the correction of globalisation-led socio-economic inequalities.
To enhance the international trade system’s resilience, supply chains should be diversified, outsourcing production of each component to several suppliers instead of just one, and holding stock of all essential goods needed in an extreme situation like the ‘Great Lockdown’ of this spring. Supply chain risk should be properly managed, abandoning the ‘just-in-time’ zero-stock supply chain model in favour of the more resilient ‘just-in-case’ model, in which stocks of primary and strategic goods are held.
Globalised trade may have increased inequalities in the developed world but it has also lifted hundreds of millions from extreme poverty in developing countries.5 Of course, complacency is not an option: we should indeed strive to correct globalisation’s shortcomings. However, the cure cannot be worse than the disease. The economic contraction that would follow a chaotic deglobalisation would likely increase socio-economic inequalities — both in developed countries and globally. Thus, the underlying logic of globalisation should be safeguarded and inequalities should be addressed through fiscal redistribution, social safety nets, worker retraining and an employment-friendly adaptation to technology and automation.
In parallel, dignity should be streamlined into global labour standards. Competitive wages may be part of a country’s comparative advantage but these must occur in conditions which guarantee all workers’ access to dignified labour. Depriving workers of toilet breaks, running sweatshops with child labour or paying seasonal workers below minimum wage levels are practices that should be banned and prosecuted, first and foremost to protect the human rights of workers, but also to enhance a level playing field of fair competition between countries and operators.
Both the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) should be revamped, and synergies between both of these Geneva-based organisations should be found, to maximise globalisation’s benefits while protecting human rights and ensuring a level playing field. The WTO’s governance should be reformed so that no one country can block progress, and the ILO should gain enhanced supervision powers in its Member States to control corporations’ due diligence processes.6
4 Increasing the Food Supply Chain’s Sustainability and Resilience
Famines are a regular occurrence on our planet. This is unfortunate because food is not lacking — actually, a third of it is simply wasted.7 The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about a global food crisis that risks being in the spotlight for months to come, unless action is swiftly taken.
Lockdowns have pushed millions out of work, many of them living in countries with no fiscal capacity to provide adequate protection to those in need. Restrictions to mobility have also grounded most commercial planes, in which a significant proportion of the world’s food supply chain is transported. A plague of locusts is ravaging African agricultural fields,8 and food exporters have introduced limitations on their exports to safeguard their own strategic reserves.9
The combination of all these factors is already being noticed, from higher grocery basket prices in Western countries, to the devaluation spiral of the Lebanese pound. If, as it seems, world economies keep plunging into mobility restrictions due to new outbreaks, the danger of a global famine is very real, and this would carry a disproportionate effect on the developing world. This is why all relevant institutions, including the UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization should launch a common initiative to prevent a famine while it can still be averted.
5 Global Responses to Global Public Health Issues
Amidst a global pandemic, representatives from all of the world’s powers convened an ad hoc meeting to find common solutions. This sentence does not apply to 2020, where only the already scheduled World Health Assembly took place, but it does apply to 1851, when the first International Sanitary Conference met in Paris to align the global response to an ongoing cholera outbreak.
Our planet has never been so scientifically advanced, and the countries in it have never been so mutually dependent on one another. While scientists, doctors and scientific and medical corporations are co-operating to provide a co-ordinated response to the coronavirus crisis, many countries are not. Meanwhile, other endemic diseases such as cholera or malaria seem to have been forgotten, even though they too kill hundreds of thousands every year. Despite President Donald Trump’s claims, the World Health Organization (WHO) has enhanced the world’s response to COVID-19 and continues to do so. In the past it has overseen the eradication of smallpox, as well as recently bringing under control outbreaks such as those of swine flu in 2009 and Ebola in 2014. The WHO was designed by its founding members as a weak advisory body with insufficient control over states’ policies. Even then, while recognising the organisation’s current limitations, the response to the pandemic would have been more chaotic without it.
The development of vaccines, the supply of affordable, life-saving medications, and medical research are some of the things that should be streamlined into a global knowledge and innovation chain. This certainly applies to COVID-19 but also to other endemic and non-endemic diseases such as malaria, cholera and cancer. To do this, the WHO should become a supranational endeavour with enough actorness to develop its scientific expertise.
This necessarily passes through the WHO’s enhanced ability to enforce binding health regulation on all of its Member States. State interests should not prevail over scientific knowledge, at least as far as human life is concerned. This is why Member State funding to the WHO should be increased, its collaborations with universities and research centres ought to be multiplied, its Secretariat should have more staff on the payroll and its experts should be given inspection and enforcement power in public health emergencies all over the globe.
6 Saving the Planet: The Fight of Our Century
Never in history had there been a planned paralysation of the global economy to the scale of the Great Lockdown. And still, CO2 emissions have barely fallen enough to cover this year’s Paris Agreement reduction targets.10 What is more, post-lockdown emission rebounds are bringing carbon air concentration above pre-coronavirus levels.11 This proves that, while beneficial, individual action alone will not cover the needed reduction in emissions to prevent a climate disaster.
Global warming is closely approaching a point of no return, and the only way to avoid it is an all-encompassing reform of the global economic system. The Great Lockdown provides us with an excellent opportunity to do so. In normal times, it was difficult to make economic operators realize that ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ — as many would wrongly put it — by giving away part of their profit or even their business model was the right thing to do for the long-term good of humanity, the environment and their earnings too.
However, having self-inflicted much of that economic damage to flatten the curve, it is the perfect moment to think on the long-term sustainability of business models. As world governments approve fiscal stimulus packages to put people back to work, we must ask ourselves whether it makes sense to invest in an economic recovery that will fast-track the climatic catastrophe and turn whatever profit is achieved now to loss in the next three to five years.
The numbers are clear: sustainability is profitable.12 Investing in a green recovery will save the planet and enhance growth, profits and job creation in decades to come. Despite the bold action required and the costs we will need to incur, particularly in offsetting short-run inequalities caused by the economic adjustments associated with the ecological transition, doing so will pay off in the long run. And it will do so at a much lower price tag than it would cost to simply reactivate our old economic model and pay for its climate effects in a few years.
In other words, skyrocketing sovereign debt this year will be for nothing unless it funds a green recovery. Otherwise, the money will simply be lost in the next decade, and only our indebtedness will stay. There is a wide array of international initiatives dealing with environmental and climate affairs: it is necessary for all of them, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Environment Programme and the International Energy Agency, to co-ordinate action, efforts and synergies with states and corporations. Unity on that front has never been more needed.
7 Towards Human Diplomacy
The COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly lead to a change of paradigm in global affairs. Actors of diplomacy would do well in abandoning their predictions of doom, for they can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather, these tumultuous times call for intellectual introspection and a cold reflection on what we wish the future to be like. The pre-coronavirus status quo is not just unattainable but undesirable too. However, a descent into international anarchy is avoidable. Co-operation still offers our best chance to achieve a better collective future.
Diplomats should adapt their benchmarks for measuring negotiation and co-operation success, taking them away from trade balances and profit maximisation and bringing them to humans’ shared fate and planet. Repatriating or diversifying strategic sectors of the global supply chain to avoid the chaos we saw in the first half of 2020 does not prevent deepening ties to co-ordinate a green way out of this crisis. Indeed, ten years from now it will be too late to act, no matter how good everybody’s intentions are. The time to act is now.
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is the President of EsadeGeo–Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics (Barcelona-Madrid), President of the Prado Museum Royal Board and Executive President of ISGlobal. He is a Distinguished Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, and the Chairman of the Aspen Institute, Spain. In addition, he is also a Board Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (London, Berlin), the Council on Foreign Relations (New York), the Munich Security Conference, the La Caixa Foundation, and a member of the Telefónica Security Advisory Board. He is a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, where he was awarded an honorary degree in December 2010, and a Fisher Family Fellow at Harvard University. From 1999 to 2009, he was the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union (EU) and the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU. He was the Secretary General of NATO from 1995 to 1999. Prior to this, he held several ministerial positions in the Spanish government, including Minister for Foreign Affairs.