The key lesson of the Covid-19 crisis is that effective leadership must be informed by science and the realities of complex cross-border interdependence. Robert Patman argues this will make it increasingly difficult for leaders to deny the climate change crisis. 

The art of sound policy-making is not simply reacting to events but anticipating them.

The Covid-19 global pandemic is only the latest in a long line of preventable catastrophes and disasters.

Clearly, it is not possible to reverse the mistakes made since Covid-19 was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in November 2019, but, at least, lessons may be drawn from that experience.

Amongst other things, the crisis has highlighted the absence of a functioning global public health infrastructure, the lack of an effective international crisis-management system with the UN Security Council failing to offer leadership, and showed that some nation-states like the UK, US and Brazil are ruled by leaders who apparently put their national pride and political interests above the safety and lives of their citizens.

But will sovereign states recognise the need to extend international cooperation to more effectively combat Covid-19 and future global challenges?

Most observers agree that a post-pandemic world will be different, but beyond that, opinion is sharply divided.

On the one hand, there are scholars and diplomats who believe the impact of the lockdown response in many nations, including New Zealand, will reinvigorate nationalism at the expense of globalisation, and nation states will strengthen their status as the world’s important and legitimate players. 

According to this perspective, the emerging global order will be characterised by intensified geopolitical competition among the great powers, particularly between the United States and China.

On the other hand, other observers see globalisation as a structural change powered by technological change, which has made the world more interconnected and that states will not able to reverse this trend. 

According to this view, there will be no return to the pre-globalisation era and states confronted by transboundary challenges that they cannot control will be obliged, sooner or later, to seek greater international coordination and support in what is a period of international transition.

On balance, the latter perspective looks more likely to eventuate than the former one. 

Disruptive events in the past such as industrialisation, the Russian revolution of 1917, the end of World War II, and the end of the Cold War led to the emergence of new perspectives, daily routines, power relations and resource distribution.

Covid-19 is also a disruptive event with the potential to significantly redefine the new ‘normal’. 

The current global pandemic has starkly exposed the vulnerability of all nation-states to the virus, but the risk has not been spread evenly in social terms. It is those on the front line – bus drivers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff, and shop workers – who are disproportionately more likely to catch the disease.

At the same time, the responses of states has highlighted a clear fault line in global politics.

The nation states that have performed well in keeping deaths to relatively low levels include South Korea, Taiwan, Germany and New Zealand. 

What these states have in common is they acted early on the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), consulted with a wide range of scientific and healthcare expertise, and were prepared to learn from each other. 

In contrast, some of the highest death rates are found in states with populist governments such as the US, UK and Brazil. 

These states seemed initially indifferent to the WHO warning on January 30 that Covid-19 was a “public health emergency of international concern”, appeared impervious to the public concerns of many healthcare experts, continued to emphasise a sense of national exceptionalism, and were painfully slow to react as the threat of the virus grew.

The public frustration and anger with such poor government handling of the crisis in these three states is not likely to be quickly forgotten or forgiven.

In this context, the experience of Covid-19 could serve as a catalyst for widening and deepening public awareness of another looming global challenge. 

Climate change is another crisis that knows no borders. It is unfolding more slowly than Covid-19 but will have even greater consequences.

The world had a chance to tackle it in the early 1990s, but blew that opportunity through decades of denial over the mounting scientific evidence underpinning it.

Much future damage caused by climate change cannot now be avoided. But wise policy-making can still limit the impact of this impending disaster – if all nation states take the challenge seriously. As Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has remarked: “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

That prospect is now emerging. For policy-makers, the key lesson of the Covid-19 crisis is that effective leadership must be informed above all by science and the realities of complex interdependence within and across the borders of states.

If this is true, it will become increasingly difficult for political leadership, based on nationalist posturing and slogans, to continue to deny the crisis of climate change, which constitutes the biggest threat to human life on earth. And such crisis recognition is likely to have radical geopolitical consequences as well.

Two former US Secretaries of State, George Shultz and James Baker, recently observed that the winners “of the emerging clean energy race” will decisively shape world politics in the decades to come.

Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago.

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