The deployment of COVID-19 vaccines brings hope that the onslaught of the virus will soon cease, but the unsettled world within which the virus emerged remains.
Indeed, while many of the vaccines are proving miraculous in their efficacy, they risk exacerbating pre-existing geopolitical frictions and fault lines. Already, vaccines have been compared to military assets in their ability to strengthen a country’s power and influence, and there is concern that global inequities will grow ever more pronounced as developing economies are not part of the first round of vaccine distribution and are fiscally constrained in how they can respond to economic crises.
The fact that breakthrough medicines are being viewed through a competitive geopolitical lens should, unfortunately, come as no surprise. Much like the global economy, public health has become a space in which friction has overtaken cooperation. This development is part of a larger erosion of post-Cold War cooperative frameworks. Commenting this past fall on the fragmented global response to the coronavirus pandemic, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the world had “essentially failed” when it came to “cooperation, unity and solidarity”.
The problem is that global cooperation is not a luxury; it is the necessary ingredient for recovery today and resiliency tomorrow. Our interconnected public-health landscapes, globalized economy and single planetary environment can only be at their strongest when stakeholders work with, not against, one another.
So, can we reset geopolitical postures — away from competition and toward cooperation?
Thankfully, amid the fracturing there are signs that leaders are exploring multilateral arrangements, whether that be transatlantic, transpacific or Sino-European. As seeds of cooperation are being planted, stakeholders should take deliberate steps to nurture them in the year ahead, and beyond.
Global leaders should first use these opening days of the year to publicly commit to shaping a new geopolitical context — one that advances cooperation and partnership. This proposition — a call for an affirmation of multilateralism — may sound like a weak prescription, given the scope of what ails the body geo-politic, but its relative ease of implementation is precisely the point. Having leaders articulate the importance of working with one another — at a moment that so clearly calls for greater unity but lacks it — can serve as a vital step in rechannelling momentum in the right direction.
Of course, affirmation alone is not enough. Leaders should also focus on identifying — and agreeing to — what cooperation can look like. We have seen the global community develop purpose-built cooperative frameworks before. The introduction of currency swap lines by central banks during the global financial crisis and the upgrading of the G20 during the same period are the most prominent and recent examples of leaders devising cooperative structures that were fit for the crisis at hand.
But moving toward greater collaboration today does not necessarily mean we need a fixed roadmap — one that may quickly become out of sync with the dynamic and evolving geopolitical context. The continued rise of new global actors and the multifaceted nature of the challenges necessitates a compass that can continue to orient leaders as they look to rebuilding economies and societies in the near term and are better positioned to address emerging challenges ahead.
These conclusions are based on the deliberations of a group of approximately 25 leaders from the public and private sectors that the World Economic Forums convened virtually in 2020 as a Global Action Group. Today, the group is releasing a set of guiding principles that are meant to serve as this compass for strengthening multilateral and multi-stakeholder partnership. In particular, the principles call for prioritizing peace and security, equity and sustainability because each of these is advanced by and is needed to advance global cooperation. Conversely, the absence of these — in the form of insecurity, inequity or unsustainability — is a cause of and is caused by global fracture.
In addition, the principles call for greater public-private collaboration because ongoing, sustainable investments are needed in education, health and infrastructure priorities. Again, addressing these issues properly can only be achieved through cooperative global frameworks, and each can facilitate a healthier, more cooperative future.
The fact that these principles were born of ongoing dialogues should not be overlooked. Though today’s constraints make it more challenging, leaders need to find safe ways to convene and confer with one another. Because a brittle, static structure of cooperation is ill-suited for today’s challenges, greater cooperation and attendant mechanisms for advancing economic, environmental and security priorities can only be achieved and maintained through ongoing dialogue.
Ultimately, to exit the pandemic in a stronger position than we entered it, and to be more resilient in the face of potential challenges ahead, the direction we need to head is toward greater dialogue, coordination and collective action.
Borge Brende is president of the World Economic Forum and the convener of the Global Action Group.
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