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Virus Diaries

Charles Clarke: Former Home Secretary and chair of the ISF Advisory Board

Planetary Solutions Needed

We will all have to learn many lessons from the coronavirus crisis which has invaded every area of our life. In my case the lockdown has made me use videocalls far more intensely than ever before, both for social meetings with family and friends and for work discussions. That’s a change which will be permanent and force me to rethink my whole attitude to social and work networks. More generally the response to the virus is accelerating changes that were already beginning to happen, for example in changing the ways that we work and study. And of course there will be immense thought about the ways to prepare more resilient healthcare systems and better methods of first anticipating and then resisting the threats of epidemic disease. But what I focus on here is the critical need to find ways to work internationally to deal with sometimes existential threats. Coronavirus itself is a classic example. It has dramatically changed lives everywhere and a world approach is needed both to understand what is happening and to find solutions. Half a dozen big challenges have that same global impact including:-

  • climate change, whose causes are pretty well understood, but where we still need good solutions;

  • robust world financial regulation: control and regulation of those systems broke down in 2008 and created the great recession which lasted for five years;

  • migration and people movement, for economic, conflict-avoiding and environmental reasons;

  • contesting serious and organised crime and terrorism which are mainly run by internationally sophisticated and well-resourced organisations outside the control of individual states;

  • promoting international security notably through controlling nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and also some important regional conflicts such as those in the Middle East;

  • governance of the internet, where the negative consequences of the ‘free market’ are growing;

These challenges, and the pandemic threat, are of immense importance to the whole planet. The coronavirus experience highlights the need to find and develop successful international methods of tackling these problems. The existing frameworks, principally the UN and its range of agencies, have so far failed to do enough and need transformation. Two big steps are necessary. The first is to generate a sense of internationalist purpose by demonstrating the importance of international collaboration and cooperation to make a real difference. In light of the coronavirus experience this may seem obvious. But it is not at all straightforward in the current political climate where nationalist politicians - notably Donald Trump and the Brexit advocates, but also many others – have found success by maintaining that only nationalist (and sometimes xenophobic) political approaches can deal with the problems we face. Such arguments rest upon the demonstrably false premise that national approaches can somehow insulate individual countries from global threats. The second is the extremely difficult political question of determining what is to be done in the case of those individual countries who don’t accept the international consensus about the best way to proceed. That means deciding what forms of action – persuasion, sanctions or even military intervention - can succeed in getting everybody to work together to remove threats. It should not be forgotten that the proximate cause of the controversial military action against Iraq in 2003 was Saddam’s repeated refusal to accept the UN positions about how weapons of mass destruction should be controlled. And in the financial field inadequate regulation of the subprime mortgage debt of US financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to world recession. One consequence of the coronavirus pandemic could well be international demands to control the Chinese food markets which some suspect to have been the main source of the virus. In our increasingly internationally interconnected world the issue of enforcement needs to be addressed and the hard problems confronted. Ideally the case for international action needs quick wins since it is the ineffectiveness of international action which has helped generate the nationalist responses which are so damaging. So in the aftermath of coronavirus the biggest opportunity and challenge is to find effective ways of stimulating practical international action. That is where our efforts should be focused and increased collaboration between academic analysts and practitioners is essential to help that.

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Witness(es): The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Former Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Department for Education; The Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Former Education Secretary, De


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