The devastating global Covid-19 pandemic we are experiencing could turn out to be a tipping point for many countries, with decisions made now likely to influence our societies and economies for decades.
Tensions that were already bubbling beneath the surface both domestically and internationally are being glaringly exposed. A key test for governments now will be whether they choose a nationalistic path, or work together to respond to this collective crisis. A key question for the future is whether any sense of global solidarity fostered by this common threat can usher in new, lasting forms of joint action.
Even before the appearance of coronavirus, Brexit was forcing the UK to rethink its relationship with the wider world. Trade deals and decisions over what “Global Britain” would look like in practice were being made in a period of flux, with new powers rising, old institutions struggling, and the principles of liberal democracy and a rules-based world order under threat from authoritarianism and populism.
In an essay collection published earlier this month by Oxfam and the Foreign Policy Centre, a diverse group of politicians and experts argued for internationalist values to be at the heart of post-Brexit foreign policy, if the UK was to retain global influence. The collection, Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: building a values-based foreign policy, urged the government to articulate a powerful future ambition defined by commitments to democracy and human rights, to free and fair trade, and to making a substantial impact on poverty and inequality.
It called for bold, collaborative action to advance these values, which have been such a key part of what has made Britain great, while also tackling the entrenched unequal power relations in the current international order, including the UK’s own privileged position.
I can see three temptations, or threats, that could prevent the UK adopting an internationalist stance: a mercantilist short-term focus on trade that overshadows other priorities, a retreat to nationalism and protectionist policies, and a nostalgia for perceived past glories that may look like an attempt to create “Empire 2.0”.
The current global pandemic underlines the dangers of such behaviour in an inter-connected world. Isolation can’t work long-term; we are safe only if others are also safe. We have to cooperate, if we are to thrive.
It has also highlighted how these temptations can manifest. As President Trump talks about a “Chinese virus” or attempts to seek exclusive US access to vaccines, we can see the dangers of a nationalist response to a global threat.
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The UK government’s focus now, and rightly so, is on measures to keep the outbreak under control, to support the NHS and those in need of financial or other assistance. We don’t yet know how other activity will be affected, whether trade deals, global climate talks, or development policy.
Now is an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of internationalist leadership that can deliver for the most vulnerable overseas, as well as at home. The UN is calling for $2 billion for its global humanitarian Covid-19 response. The UK must do its fair share to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it most.
Amidst all the uncertainty, the principles espoused by the essays may offer leaders a compass to steer a positive path through the turmoil, and perhaps even to bring a touch of healing.
For example, Stephen Twigg argues that UK aid should prioritise reducing both economic and gender inequality. It is clear that the poorest and most marginalised people in all societies will be hardest hit by this pandemic. Women, who make up the majority of the world’s health workers, are both on the frontline of infection and more likely to be shouldering the lion’s share of care work at home. Who survives, and who is able to bounce back from a crisis, often comes down to the strength of underlying support systems and public services.
With a global recession looking inevitable, we will need cooperation in how we rebuild the economy. Civil society has to have a seat at this table if sustainable development is really about creating fairer, healthier societies everywhere. Those of us in the sector are already working out how best we can support vulnerable people now, and longer-term.
At Oxfam, we are increasing our provision of clean water, soap and hygiene training in many countries, and pushing G20 leaders for a massive injection of funds to help developing countries deal with the virus, cancelling or postponing debt repayments to unlock the required resources.
Despite all the anxieties I feel, both individually and institutionally, I remain optimistic. I remember that it was not by accident that so many development agencies were founded in this country. An internationalist mindset and strong civil society are part of our tradition. I hope that in a choice between nationalist isolation and global solidarity, we will look outward, not inward, and come through this more united.
Listen to the launch of the essays in Parliament with Baroness Anelay, Lord McConnell, Theo Clarke MP, and Dr Emily Jones.