How Should the Global Community Deal with Extremism?

Extremism, in all its forms – political, religious, ethnic, gender, generational – is, in short, an extreme version of a belief system. It can be promoted peacefully, and within the normal bounds of freedom of speech.  And it can, of course, spill over into hate speech and physical violence.

What to do about the second version?  The digital revolution that is upon us has made this issue inordinately more challenging.[1]

There are two lenses for perceiving the threat of violent extremism and developing a viable counter-strategy – global and national.  The relationship between these two levels is critical to success.

So, how are we doing?

Violent extremism and UN collective security

The United Nations has been wrestling with extremism for decades now, in fact since the ‘60s.  Recent milestones along the way include the following:

  • The UN Global Counter-terrorism Strategy, adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 (A/Res/60/288), reviewed in 2008 (A/Res/62/272) and 2010 (A/Res/64/297), and most recently in 2016 (A/Res/70/291);
  • Some twelve treaties on terrorism that identify about fifty offences, for Member States to translate into domestic criminal law;[2]
  • Security Council resolutions 1624 (2005), 2178 of (2014), 2242 (2015) and 2050 (2015), and 2354 (2017).

Essentially, the UN work, in the name of a collective (global) security, aims to promote both a peaceful strategy towards the non-violent version (based on inclusiveness, mutual understanding and a counter-narrative), and the authorized use of force against the violent versions (especially focusing on Daesh (ISIL) and the new concept of ‘foreign terrorist fighters’).[3]

The success of the UN strategy, however, rests on the ability of the major powers to unify, or integrate, or at least collaborate on, their separate political goals and strategic interests into the one ‘collective security interest.[4]  Not an easy thing to achieve.

Take the UN member state with the single biggest influence on counter-terrorism strategy – the US, where I happen to be currently studying these issues.

Violent extremism and US national strategy

The most important weakness in the American effort against extremists, the experience shows, is a lack of cohesive strategy and executive decision-making at all levels of the US Government.

The dynamic interplay between the political cycle, societal changes and military strategy creates a conflicting and disjointed approach in the fight against extremists, providing them with oxygen, while draining popular support and mounting a significant financial and human toll.

If one thing has emerged from the ‘war on terror’, it is that a consistent American strategy against the extremists is non-existent.

This is due to the interrelated and often conflicting elements of the US political cycle, wavering public support, and a military strategy that requires consistency of effort and endless financial support. These dueling elements mean that no administration is afforded the time, nor the space, to clearly plan and execute a strategy that is long-lasting and would lead to success (if success is even defined in any measurable way).

The lengthy election cycle requires administrations to demonstrate to the public that they are working to defeat the enemy and bring troops home. But this undermines the military effort, which is naturally lengthier and requires significant financial and human investment.

Meanwhile, public pressure grows against the mounting financial cost of any campaign, human rights abuses and the risk to American troops. Eventually, a midpoint is reached, where the administration is neither fully committed to the strategy (if it has been defined in any way), nor willing to withdraw conclusively.

This develops into a self-fulfilling downward spiral; where decision-making becomes reactive rather than proactive, and the extremists gain an upper hand simply by biding their time.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that domestic concerns outweigh foreign policy issues during elections, and leaders either delay or make a halfhearted decision in order to not let the war take up further oxygen from the ‘winnable’ issues. If we require a graphic demonstration of the points made here, they are perfectly outlined in the Rolling Stones article on General Stanley McChrystal and in the Afghanistan papers which show the clear lack of strategy and plain deception in the Afghan war.

To further illustrate this lack of strategy, let us observe the American effort against Al-Qaeda (AQ). Successive administrations dating back to George H W Bush did not have a solid understanding of Islamic extremism following the 1992 Yemen hotel bombings.

When the operation in Afghanistan (2002) was launched, the strategy seemed to be defined clearly; capture those responsible for the attack and destroy a base of operations. But this morphed into regime change and nation-building. This was further complicated by the invasion of Iraq (2003), which had all the hallmarks of the Afghan conflict, with the added elements of sectarianism and counterinsurgency. The irony is that the Afghan conflict was authorized by the UN, whereas the Iraq operation was not (being described, in fact, by the Secretary-General at the time as ‘illegal’).

With both conflicts stretching far beyond their expected and announced timelines, the American strategy (again, still not defined in any way) was to look to a political solution to enable a peaceful withdrawal. This was achieved to an elementary level in Iraq, but no sooner had American troops left than a more fearsome enemy in the form of Daesh sprouted.

In Afghanistan, the conflict seems to be neutralized with the recent signing of the peace deal with the Taliban, but almost two decades and trillions of dollars later, this is a tentative and shaky deal at best. Sadly, in both cases, the decision to pursue the diplomatic solution over the military option came after the loss of countless lives.

By committing or de-committing to a strategy that was just incoherent and lacked clarity, it is clear that the biggest weakness in the Americans strategy against the extremists is the lack of cohesive strategy and executive decision-making at all levels of the US Government, which undermines cohesion in the UN collective effort.

All UN member states, not least the Security Council’s ‘permanent five’, should heed the lessons, as they no doubt have been, for some time now.


[1] Beyond anything we have seen”: beheading videos and the visibility of violence in the war against ISIS, Simone M. Friis in International Affairs 91: 4, July 2015, pp. 725–46.

[2] International treaties against terrorism and the use of terrorism during armed conflict and by armed forces, D. O’Donnell, in Red Cross International Review, Vol. 88, No. 864 (Dec. 2006)

[3] Preventing violent extremism through the UN: The rise and fall of a good idea; David H. Ucko, in International Affairs 94: 2 (2018) 251–270

[4] The Security Council and Counter-terrorism: Global & regional approaches, Kennedy Graham, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 17 (Routledge; 2005), pp. 37–65


Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

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The title-phrase derives from Hindu scripture. It is found in the Upanishads, and the full verse remains engraved on the entrance to the Parliament of India.  Essentially, the world is one family.

For centuries, the phrase has shaped India’s spiritual and egalitarian outlook and, during contemporary independence, the country’s diplomatic and foreign policy contours. No wonder that this ancient philosophy also characterises India’s fight against Covid-19.

We live in extraordinary times. Who would have thought it – that neither the ‘US pivot’ in the Indo-Pacific nor China’s Belt and Road Initiative is proving to be the game-changer in our contemporary world, but rather an anti-malarial drug, deferentially known as ‘hydroxychloroquine’ (or HCQ).

So much is being made of the ‘strategic stand-off’ between the US and China, two of some 200 nation-states whose inhabitants comprise the global community.  Such excessive focus is, I believe, a trifle precious.

Actually, with 4.5 m. global cases and 0.3 m. deaths currently, there are, I suggest, two indelible impressions for posterity in the global public memory.  And these are:

  • how so much of the Western world, venerated for its medical science and public healthcare, has become the lingering epicentre of the scourge, for whatever reason(s); and
  • the extent to which India, with 17% of the world population (1.3 b.) and underdeveloped public healthcare, has become a symbol of inspirational leadership with a humane touch, in the face of significant adversity.

Michael Ryan (WHO Exec. Director) noted back in early March how imperative it was that India, with its huge population, successfully tackled the virus, and showed the way forward to the world. In fact, this reflected a not unreasonable trust in India’s capabilities, given its successful record in eradicating smallpox and polio.

A brief review of early action by India:

  • Late January: The first Covid-19 case is reported in Kerala, introduced by a traveller from the Middle East. Numbers begin to multiply, as flights bring returnees from Europe and South-east Asia.
  • March 3, the Government announces mandatory screening of all arriving air passengers, while a general health advisory was issued to seek medical help if one felt unwell.
  • March 1: Vessels and cruise-ships are subject to strict standard operating procedures, including thermal screening at ports.
  • March 12: The Delhi Government shuts schools, malls, cinema halls, universities, and bans any gathering of over 50 people, advising people to work from home.
  • March 15: Prime Minister Modi (who, according to Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen, was the quickest among world leaders in identifying the dangers of the pandemic) closes India’s land borders with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
  • March 18: A 14-day quarantine policy is put in place for all incoming travellers. At the same time, recognising the importance of the early support of 1.3 b. people, Prime Minister Modi in a national address the following day issues nine ‘calls to action’ including social distancing measures, working from home, and personal hygiene advisories.
  • March 22: In an overwhelming show of public solidarity, the Indian nation observes a public curfew (self-quarantine) from 7 am to 9 pm. Emulating Spain and Italy, some 5 m. people clap, ring bells, blow conches, and beat utensils to thank the healthcare, police, and other essential service personnel for their stellar role in dealing with the pandemic onslaught.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly:

  • March 13: the Tablighi Jamaat, a fundamentalist missionary sect, congregates in New Delhi, contravening the Lockdown and generating about a third of India’s coronavirus cases over subsequent weeks as attendees disperse across the country.
  • March 24: Somewhat spooked by the 21-day nation-wide lockdown orders, thousands of daily wage-earners amass along the Delhi border, returning to their original homes, creating a flash humanitarian crisis for the country. While most are subsequently ferried on various modes of transport, a large number make the long walk home, creating heart-wrenching scenes of human plight, not seen in a long time in India.

Amidst such dramatic events, on 5 April India again responds to the Prime Minister’s call to observe an ‘Earth-hour Equivalent’ initiative, switching off lights at 9 pm for 9 minutes and lighting candles, torches and oil lamps to dispel the metaphorical ‘darkness’ caused by Covid-19. While sceptics ridicule the event as nothing but blind faith and superstition, it nonetheless demonstrates a unity of purpose – a much-needed virtue for any nation in testing times.

While India faced a Herculean task of safeguarding so many lives while minimising the economic impact, it remaines sensitive to the well-being of the wider world.  In mid-February onwards, Modi holds marathon telephone conversations with national leaders – in Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, EU, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Portugal, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, (State of) Palestine, Sweden, Thailand, Uganda, UAE, UK, US and Vietnam – to discuss joint strategies against Covid-19, and offering necessary support in the crisis.

A lesser known fact is that on 26 February a special Indian air force flight had carried 15 tonnes of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to Wuhan at the request of President Xi Xinping.  On return, it ferries 76 Indians, 23 Bangladeshis, 6 Chinese, two nationals each from Myanmar and Maldives, and one each from South Africa, USA and Madagascar – all stranded in ‘ground-zero’.

As Delhi goes into complete lockdown on 12 March, India undertakes further initiatives:

  • hosts, at prime ministerial level, a ‘virtual’ regional SAARC initiative against Covid-19, and founds a SAARC Emergency Fund with a $10 m. contribution from India to help regional states deal with the pandemic;
  • puts a Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists with testing kits and PPEs on standby to be flown out to help;
  • offers online training capsules for emergency response; and sharing of software for the Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal (Arogya Setu), a variant of which has been adopted by many states affected by the pandemic, including Australia;
  • convenes a senior health professional SAARC meeting to strengthen intra-regional cooperation across South Asia.

Praise for India’s SAARC initiative, the first of any regional initiative, came from the Australian PM, who urged a similar G-20 initiative (which occurred on March 26). It was a critical and much-needed initiative considering the grouping’s startling statistics—90% of the Covid-19 cases and 88% of deaths have been reported from the G-20 group of nations, which constitutes 80% of global GDP and 60% of population.

In early April, Modi and Morrison also hold an extensive telephone consultation, sharing a mutual commitment to build research collaboration for vaccine development and ensuring a safe return of all stranded citizens. Morrison especially, emphasises that Indian students would be provided all the necessary support and were a ‘vibrant a part of Australia’.

Morrison was essentially backpedalling on earlier remarks that Indian students who could not afford staying during the social distancing phase should return. This had created tension between the two sides, in the context of nearly $A6 b. contribution from Indian students to Australia’s education industry. The most noteworthy outcome of Modi-Morrison conversation was agreement to hold the first-ever ‘virtual summit’ to discuss a joint anti-Covid-19 strategy, and the potential evolution of the Indo-Pacific regional architecture in the post-pandemic phase.

On 28 April, India attends the video meeting of the BRICS foreign ministers to share India’s anti-Covid measures including, Arogya Setu disease surveillance portal, Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief fund (PM Cares), SAARC Covid-19 Information Exchange Platform (COINEX) and pharmaceutical assistance extended to other countries.

India has so far supplied HCQ and anti-pyretic paracetamol to over 85 countries, including 25 nations in Africa alone. While the US President issues a retaliatory note if India declines the supplies, the President of Brazil expresses gratitude for India’s easing of restrictions on HCQ exports, comparing the gesture with the legend of Hanuman, the monkey god in Hindu mythology, who had carried Sanjeevani (medicine) from the Himalayas to save the life of Lord Rama’s wounded brother, in the battle against the demons in Lanka.

India, a producer of nearly 10% of the world’s low-cost generic drugs including HCQ, also despatches medical teams along with PPEs and medical supplies to Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles to deal with the pandemic, as a part of ‘Mission Sagar (ocean)’, inspired by PM Modi’s vision of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region.  Back in 2004, India had undertaken a similar humanitarian, search and rescue mission in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that had devastated the Indian Ocean littorals.

Keeping an eye on the Indo-Pacific, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla holds discussions with the newly formulated ‘Quad-plus’ counterparts in Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan and New Zealand. The common aim is to synergise joint efforts in developing a vaccine, rescue stranded citizens, and discuss ways of insulating the economy from the pandemic’s impact and kick-start the struggling national economies. The group now interacts weekly to keep up with the fast-paced developments.

On 3 May, the Prime Minister participates in the Non-Aligned Movement virtual summit, themed ‘United against Covid-19’. And on 13 May, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar holds talks with counterparts in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to share India’s anti-Covid measures including, a $US266 b. stimulus package (10% of India’s GDP) to revive the economy, make India self-reliant, and provide the much needed sustenance to struggling businesses and citizenry.

India’s ‘glocal’ approach – combining local measures with its ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ global response approach against the pandemic – has drawn broad accolade from world leaders. This has been reinforced by various commentators who have offered their own take on the pandemic:

  • Francis Fukuyama (The Atlantic) maintains that “citizens must believe that their government has the expertise, technical knowledge, capacity, and impartiality to make the best available judgments”. He observed that Lincoln, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt all enjoyed a high level of public trust – which is missing today in the US.
  • Henry Kissinger (Wall Street Journal) emphasises that ‘public trust is crucial to social solidarity’, and the response should be global and collaborative;
  • Fareed Zakaria (Indian TV interview) identifies ‘credibility and trust’ as the two key elements in any leadership to tackle a challenge of this nature successfully.

India’s effective ‘glocal’ response to COVID-19, synergising local through national to global levels of cooperation, draws its thrust from these two elements.

Dr Misra (MA, Banaras Hindu University; PhD, Jawaharlal Nehru University) is CEO of the Institute for Australia India Engagement, based in Brisbane and affiliated with the Griffith Asia Institute. Previous positions include the UN University Leadership Academy (Jordan) and research-adviser to the Indian Parliament and governmental agencies. 

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Systemic Global Change: Two Ingredients

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The international community of states, today, is so heavily engaged in deadly rivalry and competition that we have forgotten the idea of global unity and cooperation.  The latter is, however, a precondition of human survival.

The year 2020 began with Avangard finding its place in the Russian defence forces.  It is the world’s most sophisticated hypersonic glide vehicle. It travels at 27 times speed of sound on the top of an ICBM carrying a 2 Mt. nuclear payload. It cannot be detected by the American missile shield as it determines its own flight path. Russia has now acquired an edge in its arms race with the United States.

Avangard is the latest addition to the arsenal of hypersonic missiles, lethal autonomous weapons, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, cyber-weapons, and China’s DF-100 missile which can bust an aircraft carrier. The growing stockpile of arms is bringing us closer to our collective death. But nobody is paying attention.

Whether it is lethal arms, pandemics, trade or global warming, we seem to forget that cooperation alone can help us find a way out of the predicament we have created for ourselves.

China and the United States have excelled in levelling acrimonious charges and counter-charges over the spread of Covid-19. China accuses the US armed forces of carrying the infection to Wuhan. The US blames China for deliberately holding back the information on the outbreak.

The foreign ministers of the two countries were together in a hotel in Munich (14-16 Feb.) two weeks after the WHO declared a global health emergency and only a month before most of the world brought the global economy to a standstill. But there is no indication of them constructively exploring collaborative solutions to contain the pandemic.  Nor is there evidence of the world leaders endeavouring to produce a joint action plan immediately after the WHO’s proclamation.

The failure to cooperate is not confined to the ongoing pandemic. We have seen it in the handling of trade disputes and climate change. As for the post-nuclear arms race nobody will talk about it.  Until, that is, the Cuban Missile Crisis recurs.  Or will that be the Korean Missile Crisis, next time?

It may appear that nation-states are losing their ability to manage global problems. But I wonder if they are losing the will, not merely the competence, to deal with issues that might impair our civilization.

One reason is the tunnel vision of our leadership. They can only see what appears on the screen and not what is there in the CPU.

  • If they are obsessed with the corona virus, they ignore hypersonic missiles and lethal autonomous weapons poised to cause Apocalypse, either by intent or accident.
  • If they are obsessed with terrorism, they don’t foresee a pandemic even one month before it attacks the world.
  • If they are obsessed with trade, they don’t see global warming.

The second reason is their fondness of nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet and Nobel laureate, described nationalism as a ‘menace’ about a century ago. Around the same time, Albert Einstein called it the ‘measles of mankind’. In modern language, we might call it the ‘corona virus of humankind’.

The third reason is that the international architecture is made of nation-states. What we call the United Nations Organisation is the United Governments Organisation. It does not represent the spirit of humanity. It is a bargaining forum for the nation-states, where each one aims to negotiate and aggrandise its own interests. All other organisations, including the G-20, G-7, World Bank, regional development banks, and Asian International Infrastructure Bank, are all ‘inter-state’ bodies.

The nation-states can decide if they want to swim together, or sink together.

  • SARS and Ebola did not cause mayhem because the nation-states promptly decided to cooperate. Covid-19 is causing disaster because the nation-states did not immediately cooperate.
  • Global trade and financial flows grow when nation-states facilitate their movement. Goods and money do not flow easily when the leading nation-states use agricultural crops and 5G as the pretext for confrontation.
  • Emissions can be contained if nation-states of the world honour their Paris commitments to shift to a low-carbon economy. Emissions do not recognise borders; they proliferate around the planet when nation-states refuse to think beyond their national boundaries.

There is a serious risk of human civilization being ravaged in a nuclear or post–nuclear war, impaired on account of climate change, suspended due to attacks of viruses, or hit by a biological or technological mishap caused by the grand failure of some, critical, AI mechanism.

If we want to avert these risks, there are two pathways.

  • First, in the present architecture, nation-states will need to find ways to trust and work with each other, in a constructive and genuine way.
  • Secondly, we shall have to conceive of a global-governance grid that is beyond the horizon of the United Nations, and which does not depend on the representation of the nation-states. It must represent, and serve, only humankind.

Both are formidable challenges. They may appear utopian when our nationalism, our vanity, and our greed, are on full display.

We have a rather ‘lazy habit’ of finding solutions to the world’s problems once world wars ravage millions of people. If a nuclear bomb, a deadly virus, or an ecological disaster annihilates one billion out of eight billion inhabitants on our planet, we will certainly begin our journey on these pathways.

Do we want to wait until such a tragedy happens?

It is a call for our collective wisdom, our morality, and our conscience.

Sundeep Waslekar is President of Strategic Foresight Group (Mumbai, India), an international think-tank that has advised governments of 65 countries, and a bestseller author in his native Marathi language in India.

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Global Responses to the Pandemic, Pt II

Dr Tapio Kanninen

In Part I, we focused primarily on the effort of the UN and WHO, and its relationship with some of the major member states.  In this part, we explore in more depth the internal dynamics of those powerful countries.

National responses – ideological and political
In terms of national responses to the pandemic, beyond the purely health-related part, which is broadly aligned to WHO guidance, we have so far noticed a rather complex political and ideological landscape:

  • Some authoritarian-leaning leaders – Orban of Hungary, for example – have used the opportunity to strengthen their grip on power and rule by decree.
  • The US President has used the crisis to issue an executive order to ban migration to the United States, a political platform thought to be a key to his re-election in November.
  • A lack of transparency or credibility regarding the infection rates in China, Russia (and more so North Korea) is complicating a systematic worldwide response.

Conspiracy theories have once again become more common among a besieged and insecure citizenry mostly on the right wing of the political spectrum.

  • The left is blamed at congressional and state levels for the handling of the pandemic in the US, with some Trump supporters taking to the streets to demand the immediate lifting of “shelter-in-place” orders. Civil liberties are in danger with an extended government power grab through shutdowns, they claim. The President tweeted that some states should be ‘liberated’ – a thought that was echoed by Elon Musk, reacting to the closure of Tesla’s primary factory.
  • Fox News prime-time anchor Laura Ingraham, a confidant of the President, also thinks that the democrats are initiating a “viral path to socialism”, possible a theme in the coming presidential debate.

Some conspiracy theory professionals, whether on the right or left, have become hyperactive:

  • First, there is a claim that coronavirus statistics and projections are manipulated to sow panic among the public, giving a free pass to those internationalists and liberals who want to institute a monstrous police state.
  • There are also claims that the virus might have started in a Wuhan laboratory rather than through jumping from animals to humans, as is the current scientific consensus. In this line of thinking the Australian Prime Minister has asked for an international investigation into the origins of the virus, and has got the backing of the US Secretary of State.
  • Bill Gates, along with his foundation, has become a target of many fierce conspiracy theorists, partly because he was able to predict the onset of a similar pandemic already (2015) and did co-organize a coronavirus exercise in October ’19, just a few months before the crisis started.

Some, mostly on the political right, argue that the socio-economic costs of the lockdown and social distancing are worse than the spread of the virus itself.  On the other hand, one liberal welfare state has not instituted as strict a lockdown as its neighbours – the final results of this ‘experiment’ will be of interest beyond Sweden.

The US President continues to give mixed messages on these issues, complicating a systematic response from the federal government. State governors are partly left to fend for themselves and they respond by creating their own coalitions or even smaller federations within the US.

Some observers see in all this the end of ‘American exceptionalism’, since the country has managed the pandemic so badly compared to others, with high cases and fatalities, and huge unemployment.

What of the political ‘left’?

In the US, the putative Democratic presidential candidate has said that the crisis provided “an opportunity now to significantly change the mindset of the American people, things they weren’t ready to do, you know, even two, three years ago”.  He mentioned universal healthcare,  plus the need to emulate the New Deal of the 1930s, obviously taking on board many elements of the Green New Deal supported by the US ‘democratic socialists’.

In the EU, an informal European Alliance for a Green Recovery has been launched with the participation of members of the European Parliament from across the political spectrum, business leaders, trade unions, think-tanks and NGOs. The initiative aims to build a post-virus economy based on green recovery, climate neutrality and the protection of biodiversity. The initiative is led by the chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.

The geopolitics of COVID-19: a ‘new world order’?

Henry Kissinger recently suggested that ’The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order’. This is likely to be true, and he is not alone.  But where do the biggest stakes lie, in determining which way the ‘New World Order’ develops?

First benchmark will be the US election (November ‘20).  If the Democrats win the presidency plus a congressional majority, the US may well return to its traditional leadership role in shaping, and contributing to the international system, along with planning more effectively for future crises.

A second critical variable is China’s future.  Facing a sober economic outlook, albeit with air pollution temporarily diminished, will that enormous country begin to experience turbulence such as that occurring in Hong Kong?  Or, with the US in decline, will China’s authoritarian system prove to be effective in filling the global leadership vacuum that currently exists, and also in controlling its own precarious social situation, at least in the short-term?

And thirdly, what of the European Union? Will it manage to unite in solidarity around its most virus-affected regions and will it use its Green Deal to exit from the crisis, or will it simply fade to insignificance? If the former, it may prove to be the third pole that balances the US and China, and provides a more benign “third way” to global leadership by its internal example and by supporting international institutions. If it proves incurably weak, it may well become a battleground in the rivalry of the two superpowers.

One thing is clear: in light of all this, the world, its geopolitics and global governance after COVID-19, will not be the same as before.

The extent to which change to the contemporary international system will be influenced by constructive or destructive forces remains something that only the future will tell.

Dr Tapio Kanninen, former chief of policy planning at the UN in New York, is a member of the Centre’s Advisory Panel.  He is currently President of the Global Crisis Information Network Inc., senior fellow at Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies (CUNY), and founding member of Climate Leadership Coalition Inc. His latest book is ‘Crisis of Global Sustainability’ (2013).
Dr Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability – FOGGS (Brussels) with previous service with the UN Secretariat, think tanks, academic institutions and private consultancies dealing with issues of global governance, sustainability and climate change.

Global Responses to the Pandemic

How have the UN and other international organizations – and indeed the whole global governance system – responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?  What are we learning from this response?

Back in 2010 we examined (Journal of International Organizations Studies) whether, and how well, the UN system can address the interconnected challenges of today and tomorrow. The effectiveness of the system – mechanisms and operating procedures – was measured against its core functions: early warning, policy-planning, decision-making, coordination, implementation, and support for intergovernmental processes.

The study showed there is only partial readiness, and partial or no integration in the implementation, of these core functions across departments and agencies in the face of emerging, interconnected global challenges. In crisis situations the UN Secretary-General has to make use of existing bodies through ad hoc combinations, which may produce sub-optimal results.

Specifically, how have the WHO and the major states responded to the crisis? We offer below some observations on the ideological and political character of those responses. And we explore how the international system might be expected to change as a result.

The WHO response, and the criticism

Because of the medical nature of this crisis, the main response, in the initial stages at least, was expected to come and indeed came from the WHO. As soon as China notified it of the existence of a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan (31 Dec. ’19), WHO procedures were set in motion.

While China was the first to encounter and document the challenge, the official problem-identification and designation as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), came from the WHO, in late-January ‘20.

This relative delay has been criticised by some, notably the US President who saw it as a result of WHO ‘kowtowing’ to China, the most populous country and second biggest national economy in the world but a very small contributor to the  WHO budget, 0.21% compared to the US 14.67%. the President “[placed] a hold on all funding to the WHO while its mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic is investigated”.

In defence, WHO and many supporting it, point to the systematic steps taken to establish the nature and significance of the threat, including with a WHO field mission to Wuhan, the convening of an Emergency Committee of independent experts from around the world, and the progressive raising of the alarm. They also point to China’s cooperation, including by sharing the genetic sequence of the virus, all in January 2020.

Concerning the threat identification phase, apparent ”competitors” to the WHO / country-of-origin cooperation had been the secret services of the US. Without getting into conspiracy theory, it has been credibly argued that the US President had received warning through his intelligence services as early as November 2019 that “a contagion was sweeping China’s Wuhan region”.

In terms of awareness-raising, once the WHO had received the initial notification, it issued regular updates for specialists and the broader public. These were intensified with regular briefings held by the WHO Director-General and senior associates.

A further initiative by WHO was to contact the big tech companies (Facebook, Google, Apple) for support in fighting the ‘infodemic’ of fake news about COVID-19. This supplemented efforts by WHO and health authorities around the world to inform the public about the COVID-19 contagion risks and ways to avoid getting sick via spots on TV and radio channels, as well as the internet.

High-level briefings on the fight against the disease thus became a daily occurrence in many countries, with the participation of senior government leaders and top medical experts.  An eventual public information coalition gelled around the WHO messaging. Conspiracy theories and the promotion of unscientific treatments did not fully subside, with occasional prominent advocates including the US Presidentwith his apparent chloroquine and bleach obsessions.

Who took the leadership in terms of articulating a clear vision and mobilising significant resources to address the emergency?  WHO did produce extensive technical guidance on how to deal with the COVID-19 emergency, for the use of medical services, national authorities and individuals. Controversy did not disappear, as in the case of the use of masks and on travel restrictions. WHO initially advised against imposing bans on air travel, notably from China, something that again infuriated the US in particular, which soon imposed such a ban on Chinese and European travellers as well.

By and large, the WHO did a credible job with the information that it was given. It could have been less diplomatic with China, no doubt, risking the ire of one powerful global actor. It avoided that but stepped on the toes of another  major actor, the US which seems bent on fighting a trade war and perhaps a broader cold war with its ‘strategic rival’, keeping also the US election calendar in mind.

No doubt like any international organization and any large bureaucracy, the WHO could have operated more quickly and effectively.  So could every UN member state.

Other responses from the international system

While measures were increasingly being taken to contain COVID-19 infections, it became clear that the global economy was coming to a standstill. The result was the outbreak of a second crisis, an economic one, which soon turned into a matter of survival for individuals and companies, both large and small. The response came from national treasuries and central banks, though special handouts and quantitative easing, in the case of the US amounting to several trillions of dollars poured into the economy. The IMF established a credit-line of US$1 tr. for the many countries asking for help.

In the midst of all this, and while the WHO was rightly the visible face of the UN system during the initial, clearly health-related stages of the emergency, the UN Secretary-General entered the arena with various statements.  He called on the G-20 to help avert an economic collapse, and on the developed countries to help their counterparts in the developing world deal with the emergency. He also called for a worldwide ceasefire during this period and for attention to the increasing incidents of domestic violence due to home confinement.

Increasingly the focus has turned on the socio-economic consequences of the emergency and the need to ‘recover better’, more sustainably – in the spirit of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. These and other initiatives, including from UN system agencies, funds and programmes, are presented on the UN web pages dedicated to COVID-19. While the General Assembly passed two resolutions related to COVID-19 – on international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment and on global solidarity to face the virus – it is worth noting that the Security Council has been unable to produce any outcome, not even in connection to the pandemic and conflict zones. It is worth recalling UN Headquarters (New York) and its offices elsewhere are also under lockdown because of the crisis.

Actual decision-making on containment and economic revival, therefore, were left to member states – with initially minimal coordination even within tightly-knit groups such as the EU.  In many countries, there was disagreement and conflicting decisions between national and sub-national jurisdictions (notably USA, Brazil).

In each case, the health experts advised the political authorities on adjustment measures to suit national circumstances.  Further processing of emerging good practices took place through the WHO and reputable health institutes around the world, which remained connected despite a surge in nationalism.

Unfortunately, both the best and the worst of humanity come out in the event of a crisis.

  • A perceived lack of solidarity towards Italy by its European partners shook the foundations of the EU and a demand for mutualised debt issuance remains under discussion.
  • Offers of support by China, Russia and others are dismissed by some as propaganda gestures, yet welcomed by those directly benefitting.
  • A new wave of conspiracy theories which we discuss more below.

What became evident to all was that national resilience has a strong local element which does not necessarily align with the push for more globalised efficiency through cross border supply chains.

There will likely be, in the near future, a strong push for national self-sufficiency as part of the national interest of all states, small and large.

We discuss this in Part II.

‘The Future of University: post-Covid’

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The Covid-19 induced crisis presents all walks of society with an opportunity to re-evaluate. No more important is that, than in the university sector.

It is no secret that the university sector globally has been in crisis for some years. Pre-Covid, there were no shortage of predictions of the end of university; of the demise of between 40-50% of tertiary providers in the next 10 years (United States); the turning of industry’s back on universities (New Zealand); mass irrelevancy of qualifications (Australia); and the end of the Humanities (Global) to name but a few.

Predictions of sky-falling disruption have come thick and fast. From the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to the radical development of Artificial Intelligence, futurists have clamoured to predict ‘the end is nigh’ for traditional universities.

Interestingly, the end has not come, and universities remain a key element of the education, industry and economic sectors of the world; but Covid-19 might be the circuit-breaker for the (at best) steady plodding of the sector.

A rethink of the model of higher education toward a change-making, collaborative structure of knowledge discovery, geared toward the development of our collective societal ethics and the resolution of local, national and global problems is not merely required in light of future pandemics. Climate change, inequality, and food security are examples of challenges that should, similarly, challenge us on whether our universities are organised and structured in a way to best prepare us for what we need.

In terms of our research, standard of graduate, sustainability, and employability, the quality of New Zealand’s universities is outstanding. However, our community of Vice-Chancellors have spoken loudly about underfunding, the pressure of recruiting international students, and the imperative to retain our international standing.

It seems however, that these pressures (pressures felt the world over), have actually fed increased conservatism and sameness, rather than true diversification and innovation that we need.

No matter how hard each university attempts to improve its performance, it is clear we are missing a number of collective benefits which, if implemented, would act to further our institutions, and position New Zealand well for the future.

The first priority is likely the structure of universities. Previous suggestions have ranged from the adoption of the Californian structure of central administration and semi-autonomous campuses allowing for greater campus specialisation, to freeing up New Zealand’s system of approving new qualifications (that currently involves all NZ universities sitting in judgment over any new qualification offered).

The Government’s changes to the polytechnic sector have been extensive and have loomed large in the mind of many in the university sector. Whilst a monumental shift to a Cal-State system is not suggested here, we do believe that tangible steps toward a more refined collective approach by our universities are desperately needed.

Of priority is the establishment of a liberal and unified system of course recognition between our institutions. Under such a system, students completing courses at one New Zealand university would face no barriers to having that course recognised for full credit at any other New Zealand university.

The same level of respect and connection should be striven for with private providers and those training and education providers within industry through the innovative use of blockchain credentialing. Whilst this might seem technical, this move alone would liberate students to pick up, continue and finish their study across a mix of providers facilitating significant opportunities for retraining and lifelong learning.

Covid-19 and the rapid fallout from it, exemplifies how complex, intertwined and fast-changing our world has become, and why effective lifelong learning & retraining is essential. Our approach to education delivery, and therefore how we structure the university sector, needs to take this into account. Rather than eight entirely independent universities, our institutions need to act as a coherent whole albeit through semi-autonomous units.

Innovation in structure also needs to focus on funding. The adoption of innovative fee structures, such as ‘gym-membership’ or subscription style relationships between student and provider, might act to better reflect a focus on lifelong learning and a partnership approach with industry.

But it’s not just the structure of our universities that is brought into the light of change by Covid-19. What we teach, how we teach and how we research should also be under the spotlight. The development of degree apprenticeships, boot camps, micro-credentials, distance-block-blended-compressed modes, all through the development of a genuine digitally-enabled, online learning environment are opportunities largely left hanging by New Zealand universities.
But the reform of our teaching does not stop there.  We also need to discuss our academic disciplines.   Currently we have a one-size-fits-all format that typifies universities the world over – and has done for approximately 170 years. What we need in the future may not be best served by such a structure.

We believe there is great utility in the development of a complementary system of thematic groupings such as: sustainability, systems thinking, productivity, prosperity, justice, and health and wellbeing.

In this respect, our strong bicultural foundation is likely New Zealand’s most significant asset. Māori frameworks of thought, far from an irrelevancy in the modern world, offer our education system a unique opportunity to model an alternative paradigm to the prevailing Western notion of individualism and consumerism. In short, we (and the world) have likely more to learn from Māori than they do of us.

Practical knowledge is as important as our understanding of the way we think, interact, and structure our lives and communities. Universities are in the unique position of melding these together for the problem-solving benefit of society.

Mixed with the development of the core skills of communication, critical analysis, team work, the ability to act with agility, build resilience, understand ethical frameworks for living, and to work and live productively within a community, a post-Covid-19 New Zealand ought to show the world what it truly means to be ‘successful’ as a community.

Our universities should use Covid-19 to reimagine what a collaborative form of knowledge generation, dissemination and application might look like.

A change in mindset is therefore needed, away from, ‘my institution’, to ‘my community’ where universities, industry, political structures and civil society work together as partners in our advancement.


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