The Fierce Urgency Of Transcending Our Differences

The way forward, at this pivotal moment, is responsible international cooperation — global responses to global problems.

Rebekka Dunlap for Noema Magazine
Gordon Brown was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010 and chancellor of the exchequer from 1997 to 2007. This essay is excerpted and adapted from his remarks at the Understanding China Conference on Nov. 20.

There are several ways of managing the world that, at this tumultuous moment, have to be rejected if we are to move forward in harmony, globally and as nations. In the words of Zheng Bijian, we must “transcend the differences in ideology and social systems, and discard the parochial attitude of closing the door to others.”

One of those old ways of managing the world, the Washington consensus — an economic ideology that prioritized liberalization, deregulation, privatization and low inflation — is no longer supported even in Washington. Another I call PPN — protectionist, populist nationalism — has brought us more tariffs, more walls and more isolationism. That defensive form of nationalism has more recently morphed into an aggressive us-versus-them nationalism that subdivides the world into silos: America first, Russia first and so on.

Some talk of an economic Cold War — or as the former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd puts it, Cold War 1.5. Some speak of an economic Iron Curtain, with the world seen through the lens of zero-sum metaphors of strategic military competition instead of the positive-sum metaphors of healthy economic competition. Still others talk of a great unraveling of the so-called global rules-based order, of mutually exclusive and separate systems.

Yet we surely all know the way forward is not the Washington consensus, not nationalism, not a future of “one world, two systems.” It is responsible cooperation — building a society of states based on what Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels call “planetary realism.”

What might an agenda with that target in mind — of states cooperating where possible on areas of common interests while managing areas of competition and potential conflict — look like? There are several issues where I believe China, America, Europe and the rest of the world can cooperate on what I will call global problems that need global responses with globally coordinated solutions.

At the heart of responsible cooperation is a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals — that by 2030 we will have abolished absolute poverty, achieved universal school education, eliminated avoidable infant and maternal mortality and turned the table against climate change. But progress toward those is moving into reverse: Poverty, for example, which was supposed to be at zero by 2030, has not fallen but risen this year, for the first time in over two decades.

“Global problems need global responses with globally coordinated solutions.”

Martin Luther King talked of the “fierce urgency of now,” and reminded us that it is possible to be too late. We are near midnight if we are to act on debt, on the supply of international money and on global fiscal coordination.

As we move from COVID rescue operations to plans for recovery, it’s important to remember that, because we coordinated on monetary and fiscal policies after the global economic crisis in 2007-8, the benefits for trade and growth had double the impact of what they would have had if countries had simply acted on their own. In the recovery from that crisis, only 10% of fiscal stimulus was directed toward the environment. Today, if we are to follow through on commitments to carbon neutrality, the majority of the stimulus should be invested in a Green New Deal.

Climate change is an area where, by next November’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, we can challenge countries not just to agree on intermediate targets, but also to a coordinated Green New Deal that would revive the world economy, reduce subsidies for fossil fuels, encourage proper carbon pricing, back new technologies, join forestry in creating negative emissions and help the poorest countries mitigate and adapt.

But the crisis has shown that we need wholesale reform for our global institutions. Around 80 million of our fellow global citizens, almost as big a number as the population of Germany, are refugees or forcibly displaced, with too little support for what the U.N. needs for humanitarian aid. The gap between what’s needed and what’s provided is rising every year. The U.N. has the humanitarian remit, but not resources; the World Bank has access to the resources, but not the humanitarian remit.

There are three options for what to do: extend the levy that countries already pay for U.N. peacekeeping to include the equally vital humanitarian work; to issue, on behalf of the U.N., a perpetual bond on which interest is paid by member states each year; or — and I think this has best chance, given the World Bank’s ability to raise money in the marketplace — to coordinate the work of the Bank and the U.N.’s humanitarian agencies. Whatever we do, we have to move from a status quo that condemns millions to poverty, malnutrition and early deaths, and we need to refinance global education, for which I propose China consider joining the new International Finance Facility, which will maximize available resources to countries in need.

COVID-19 knows no borders, and nor should our response. I and others have proposed a funding formula for guaranteed finance for global health. Too many of the World Health Organization’s and health-related initiatives like COVAX rely, like the eradication of smallpox, on voluntary contributions, passing the begging bowl round, not a stable foundation for an assault on disease and a search for vaccines and treatments and cures.

Billions of tax revenues that should be used for health and education are lost to tax havens each year. In 2009, the G20 forced the automatic exchange of tax information onto the global agenda. Now, we must set a deadline and send a clear message that we will sanction, exclude and isolate those countries that refuse to exchange tax information automatically and do not insist that the beneficial ownership of companies and trusts is fully disclosed.

“We need wholesale reform for our global institutions.”

We must also work together to update our international institutions and make them fit to prevent a future of “one world, two systems.” As we do so, we need to recognize that the world’s center of gravity is moving from west to east, that already close to 60% of the world’s population lives on the Asian continent and that, though estimates differ, the size of Asia’s middle class (notably including China and India) may reach nearly 2.3 billion people, or 65% of the world’s total, by 2030. By 2050, a list of the world’s 20 biggest economies might contain 10 members from the Asia-Pacific region, with Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines adding their names to South Korea, China, Australia, India and Japan. And Bangladesh would be knocking on the door.

President-elect Joe Biden has talked of a league of democracies — the West plus Japan, India, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea and potentially others. China, meanwhile, has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Silk Road Fund, and it may join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership covers almost a third of the world economy. It is not difficult to imagine the AIIB and the NDB becoming alternative development banks to the World Bank. And it does not require a huge leap of imagination to envision AMRO (the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office) and the Chang Mai Initiative (CMI) evolving into an Asian monetary fund that could in time become an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But the better way forward is to reform the G20, the IMF and the World Bank and make them both more representative and efficient. Between them, Europe, the U.S. and Japan comprise, today, about 15% of the world’s population, but they control around 55% of IMF votes. On the other hand, the BRICS countries, with over 40% of the world’s population, have just 18% of the voting power in the IMF. China alone has almost 20% of the world’s population but just 6% of the votes; a rising country like Indonesia has less than 1% of the votes, but Saudi Arabia, with an eighth of Indonesia’s population, has more than twice its share of votes.

That imbalance cannot endure. But rather than retreat into our own silos, a consensus can be built around more fundamental reform of the U.N. China’s 2019 U.N. reform paper pushed for practical changes that few could disagree with — more transparency, a stronger peace and security pillar and streamlined internal management. Already the second-biggest contributor to peacekeeping after the U.S., China is rightly pushing for more geographic diversity in the hiring practices of peacekeeping forces and more “explicit, feasible and focused mandates” tailored to the particular requirements of specific missions.

We also need a more representative and reformed Security Council — not only by expanding its permanent membership, but also by reappraising the veto. The U.N. would become a stronger force in, for example, preventing nuclear proliferation and promoting a global digital highway through interoperability and common rules for both digital software and hardware in fields like machine learning and 5G. At the same time, as we face new issues like the management of digital trade, cross-border data flows and services like aviation, the WTO should be complimented, not replaced, by regional associations. And we have to find a way for Asia and the West to work together on debt relief and support the development of Africa, perhaps through an expanded and reformed OECD Development Assistance Committee.

What we can achieve when we work together — eradicating smallpox, getting HIV/AIDS under control, polio on the way out, the ozone layer addressed, the debt relief of 2005, the G20 cooperation in 2009, the Paris climate accord of 2015 — all of this gives us hope. We need hope. It is said you can survive for 40 days without food, eight days without water and eight minutes without air, but not a second without hope. Sending a message that we will now work together to agree on global solutions to global problems is what can most give people hope.