In a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world almost beyond recognition. And yet the international cooperation that is so essential to confront a shared threat has been nowhere to be found. This should not be a surprise: our failure to respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis reflects deeply entrenched — and severely skewed — values and priorities.
In 1952, the American statesman Adlai Stevenson declared: “The great enemies of man are war, poverty, and tyranny, and their assaults on human dignity, which are the most grievous consequences of each.” Nearly seven decades later, those enemies remain as powerful as ever.
War continues to dominate — and disrupt — the human timeline. Despite the horrors we have collectively experienced, violence remains our default response to differences. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons — and the terrifying doctrine of mutual assured destruction — remain a pillar of global security.
Meanwhile, limitations on the use of force agreed to in the United Nations Charter are being ignored, and even held in contempt. Humanitarian law increasingly seems like a relic of the past. Fifteen years after its conception, the “responsibility to protect” against the worst forms of violence and persecution has become a historical footnote. The rich and powerful thumb their noses at the International Criminal Court.
As the world’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis has starkly demonstrated, we consistently prioritize geostrategic and economic interests above human life. Last year, official development assistance amounted to less than 10% of global defense spending.
While significant progress has been made in reducing poverty in recent decades, some 10% of the world’s population were still living in extreme poverty, below the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day, in 2015, and the Bank expects the COVID-19 crisis to increase the total by 40-60 million this year. Meanwhile, sharply rising inequality is pushing many societies toward civil disorder.
Tyranny also seems to be on the rise. One-third of all countries are ruled by repressive, authoritarian regimes, and many democracies are falling prey to populism. Human-rights violations — such as crackdowns on free media and political dissent, the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, police brutality, and targeted killings, to name a few — are met with little more than expressions of concern from the international community.
As war, poverty, and tyranny proliferate, the need for international cooperation is only growing. Today, the most significant threats the world faces — such as climate change, infectious disease, terrorism, and cybercrime — do not respect borders. The only way to mitigate them is to work together.
And yet critical platforms for international cooperation, such as the UN, have been steadily eroded in recent years, as increasing polarization and paralysis, together with dwindling resources, have undermined their authority. Tellingly, it took more than a month for the UN Security Council to convene after the COVID-19 crisis erupted. Two months later, its members have not agreed on a plan for a coordinated response.
Some might argue that repression, competition, violence, discrimination, and exclusion are unavoidable features of the human condition. If so, attempting to build a world based on principles like freedom, equity, and inclusiveness would be tantamount to attempting to change our very nature.
But this argument is facile, at best. After all, we now roundly reject many atrocities — such as slavery and torture — that were once considered natural and unavoidable. While we still have far to go, great strides have been made in addressing discrimination based on factors like gender and ethnicity.
The message is clear: our mindsets are far from immutable. On the contrary, the recalibration of values is an inescapable feature of human evolution.
Such a recalibration is badly needed today, in order to establish a new paradigm for global cooperation based on principles like human dignity, equality, inclusiveness, diversity, and solidarity. For such a system to work, there must be zero tolerance for tyranny, and geopolitical competition must give way to dialogue.
Moreover, the concept of security must be radically rethought. Dependence on nuclear weapons and displays of military power should give way to trust-building by addressing shared problems (such as cyber threats). Appeasement of dictators should have no place in the new paradigm, but nor should external regime change and unilateral sanctions.
More broadly, the concept of security should be extended far beyond the physical, to include a focus on ensuring that basic human needs — such as food, health, education, and employment — are reliably met. Policies like universal basic incomes and wealth taxes could go a long way toward advancing these goals.
All of this will require a new approach to governance. In many democracies, citizens have lost trust in the political class and become increasingly suspicious of the influence of money over their leaders and institutions. The protests in the United States highlight the extent to which many people feel that their voices are not being heard. Reversing this trend will require not only targeted policies to protect democratic processes, but also efforts to improve the balance between direct and representative democracy.
At the international level, institutions must be given the authority and resources to deal with the challenges of a globalized world. Only by boosting the legitimacy and effectiveness of institutions can we effectively counter the forces of populism and xenophobia that have gained ground in recent years.
If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it is that we are one human family. Only by recognizing this — by taking care of one another, as well as the planet on which we all depend — can any of us hope for a better future. In this sense, cooperation is not only an ethical imperative, but also an existential one.
Mohamed ElBaradei is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Text copyright Project Syndicate, 2020.