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In defence of global public goods

Jul 24,2022 - Last updated at Jul 24,2022

MADRID  —  Last month’s NATO summit in Madrid was a resounding success, demonstrating the West’s enduring resolve to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war on Ukraine. But the value of Western unity against Putin will be diminished in a world that is becoming increasingly divided, as the recent meetings of G-20 finance and foreign ministers in Indonesia showed. This trend could carry incalculably high costs, because a highly polarised world cannot meet the most important task of our century: Ensuring the provision of global public goods.

Such goods, including a clean environment, international security and global health, cannot be provided without effective global institutions. One might expect a crisis, with major global consequences, to spur cooperation, as was the case with the G-20’s emergence after the 2008 global financial crisis. But, while crises may have a unifying effect, the Ukraine war is stalling efforts to manage its global consequences.

Globalisation has brought great advances for humanity. But it has also brought new risks and challenges, which can be managed only through effective multilateral institutions. As former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott observed in 2001, not long after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, “Globalisation is like gravity. It is not a policy; it is not a programme. It’s not good; it’s not evil. It’s happening.” But, as the last decade has shown, even if globalisation is an inescapable historical phenomenon, geopolitical rivalries can fracture and fragment the institutions on which it depends, making it impossible to mount effective responses to shared challenges like climate change.

Pursuing the global agenda is incompatible with a fragmented global economy. Already, an economic decoupling is underway. As a result, it has heightened the most important systemic risk the world faces: The shift to “two globalisations”, one organised around the US, and the other around China. If this decoupling is completed, the multilateral institutions that were created to manage globalisation will become obsolete.

But the economy is just the beginning. The war in Ukraine is bolstering the narrative that an inescapable ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies has taken hold. If this perception prevails, the world will inevitably split into geopolitical blocs.

This would be a tragedy for the countries of the Global South, in particular. These countries would face a fateful choice between two mutually exclusive geopolitical blocs. But regardless of which bloc they chose, global problems would still prove to be unmanageable, let alone solvable, without the other bloc. After decades of seeking to assert their sovereignty above all, developing countries are finding that the biggest threats they face, from pandemics to food insecurity, are unaffected by their geopolitical affinities.

It is worth noting, however, that those affinities are not, by and large, to the democratic bloc. Most of the world looks with indifference, and often suspicion, at the West’s robust measures to isolate Putin. For example, as Europe works to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, India is exponentially increasing its purchases of Russian oil at discount prices.

Unlike the West, the Global South does not view the Ukraine war in existential terms. Instead, the conflict represents, above all, increased food shortages and higher energy prices. The political crisis in Sri Lanka, for example, cannot be interpreted solely through the prism of domestic developments. Interdependence remains a central and powerful feature of the international order.

In a culturally and politically diverse world, democratic exclusiveness is not the most effective way to build bridges, especially with those whose immediate material needs are not being met. In this sense, Western countries are doing themselves no favors by giving the impression that the fora in which they convene are, essentially, “democracy summits”.

A better approach would recognise that the most consequential global division today is not between democracies and autocracies, but between rich and poor countries. The COVID-19 pandemic threw this division into sharp relief. In September 2021, just over 3 per cent of people in low-income countries had received at least one vaccine dose, compared to more than 60 per cent in high-income countries. Though the worst of the pandemic is over, the Global South’s resentment toward the vaccine-hoarding North remains. If the North fails to convey a greater sense of urgency to strengthen the provision of global public goods, that resentment will only grow.

Of course, tensions with Russia will complicate the main multilateral organisations’ efforts to reach agreements on shared challenges. But they do not preclude cooperation. That much was clear at last month’s ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, where several valuable agreements were reached. For example, eligible countries can now override patents for the production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

It is useful to remind ourselves of the reason and purpose underpinning sanctions on Russia. The West did not impose sanctions against Putin’s regime merely because it does not meet a particular democratic standard. The measures are a response to Putin’s decision to violate the principle, fundamental to international law, that the borders of an independent and sovereign state cannot be changed by force.

For most of my life, relations between the West and Russia have been defined by mutual suspicion, and sometimes, such as now, open enmity. This will not change for a long time. We must stand up to Putin. But we must also extend our hand to the Global South, by making all efforts to preserve the institutions that are so essential to protect the public goods on which all of us depend.


Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain, is president of EsadeGeo, Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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