There is a simple logic to the popular board game ‘Pandemic’. If you work together effectively with your fellow players, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to push back the contagion and win the game. If you fail to cooperate, every player loses.
Released over a decade ago, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Pandemic’ has been getting lots of attention in recent weeks (Vox recently recommended it in its One Good Thing feature). There’s something both enlightening and inspiring in the game’s simple message.
But the so-called ‘collaboration imperative’ is by no means unique to the current crisis. In other circumstances we’d all be rushing to buy different board games (they probably already exist) – ‘cooperate with your family and friends to fight carbon emissions, cyber warfare, transnational terrorist networks’, or any number of other malign threats.
All these challenges demand a pooling of risk, resources, knowledge and skills across social, administrative and – perhaps most of all – territorial boundaries. They spread indiscriminately across geographies and don’t reward national responses. The makers of Pandemic didn’t even bother to mark the borders. They aren’t relevant to the game.
The lack of global solidarity
It’s notable, therefore, that the response to the current pandemic has been to close borders. This is completely necessary as an emergency measure (though countries should consider (a) cooperating to allow essential travel to continue for scientists, medical professionals and politicians and (b) reassessing trade restrictions that are frustrating the flow of crucial provisions to frontline workers).
The risk is that by putting up borders countries are reinforcing trends that have been undermining international cooperation for some time. The resurgence of nationalism in recent years has put global solidarity under real strain.
The US government, which almost single-handedly launched the League of Nations a century ago, now claims “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations… compete for advantage”. Trump himself has called this “a more beautiful world”. A world in which he can pay a German company for exclusive US access to a prospective Covid-19 vaccine, as he allegedly tried to do last week.
When states behave this way, their pessimistic view of global politics becomes a reality. The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading the global fight against the virus, but it’s hobbled by years of underfunding.
The current crisis could make things worse. Just as states tend to take on new powers in situations of war, states are doing the same to respond to the current crisis – and experience suggests newly-acquired coercive powers won’t be freely given up after the crisis ends. But if this is a war, it’s a global war against the pandemic. International organisations should be gaining new powers.
This has happened in the past. The devastating impacts of Ebola, HIV/AIDS, polio and yellow fever were managed by global cooperation. Brokered by international organisations and an obliging US government, countries shared information and resources and coordinated their responses. This was crucial in bringing things under control.
But, just as the financial sector was ill-prepared for the crisis in 2008, international institutions are woefully ill-prepared for the current crisis, right when we need them the most.
Authority, solidarity and national interest
Matthew Taylor recently wrote that the best response to the crisis would be one that balances three core human motivations: authority, solidarity and individual aspiration. Societies that strike a good balance are ‘fully engaged’. When one motivation dominates, you end up with a ‘monoculture’.
The global context is increasingly a ‘monoculture’. As I have said above, international organisations lack the capacity they need to best respond to this crisis. One of the reasons for this is the weakening of global solidarity in recent times. When states aren’t motivated by cross-border solidarity or the advice of international institutions, they become too beholden to their perceived ‘national interest’.
Within countries, a lack of solidarity leads to people stockpiling more food and toilet roll than they could possibly need. At the international level, a lack of solidarity means that whole countries behave the same way.
As most International Relations theorists now accept, states are not motivated in the same way as humans are. Nonetheless, Matthew Taylor’s model can serve as a useful heuristic for understanding our current conundrum. The optimal global response to this crisis will be underpinned by a combination of global solidarity, international authority and a modest kind of ‘national interest’, subject to and legitimised by robust democratic procedures right down to the local level.
Achieving the right balance between these ‘motivations’ is no science and can be disrupted by events within individual countries. The wrong kind of solidarity at the national level, whipped up by populists, will upset attempts to build greater global solidarity. A balance needs to be found not just between the ‘motivations’ but also between domestic and international politics.
As anyone who’s been to a supermarket in the past couple of weeks will have seen, supply chains are truly global. The rest of the economy is the same – so if governments fail to properly coordinate their actions, they are going to make things worse.
Reasons to be hopeful?
Despite these challenges, there are some glimmers of hope. The US Federal Reserve and the central banks of Britain, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the EU together agreed to cut interest rates in an attempt to prop up global markets. The G20 have vowed to collectively inject $5 trillion into the global economy.
Countries around the world have signed up to the WHO-led ‘solidarity trial’ to test the efficacy of four potential coronavirus therapies. The UK is participating in the trial’s European counterpart, ‘Discovery’.
This is exactly the kind of thing we need more of. Other efforts could be made to share information, to produce and distribute testing kits and ventilators, to combine medical research investments, to pool certain medical professionals and to send support to the places and people at greatest risk (most of all, those currently living in refugee camps). We need to do more to help each other out.
In the process, we might learn once again to appreciate the need for global solidarity. We might realise the defects of insular nationalism and remember the importance of international organisations.
If this happens, we will not only be able to coordinate a better response to the current crisis. We will also be in a better place to respond to the challenges of the future.
As a global community of proactive problem solvers, the RSA is hosting a series of conversations to highlight diverse international experiences of this crisis and to explore ways of building solidarity. This Friday, the RSA Japan Fellows’ Network is hosting a Virtual Coffeehouse Conversation for people around the world to share their experiences of the crisis. Next week, RSA Oceania is hosting an event on ‘inclusion and social distancing’.