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A new ‘Bretton Woods’ moment is key to building back better after COVID-19

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Photo: Neville Elder / The Elders

Warning that COVID-19 has taken advantage of a world in disorder, Gro Harlem Brundtland calls for revival of multilateral cooperation to effectively tackle the key global challenges we face.

This speech was delivered on 7 October 2020, as part of Perry World House's 2020 Global Order Colloquium, entitled "The UN at 75: Coronavirus and Competition."


Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

I am very pleased to be speaking at this year’s Global Order Colloquium, and am grateful to Perry World House and the University of Pennsylvania for inviting me to deliver this address.

We are meeting in troubled and turbulent times. COVID-19 has killed a million people worldwide, including over 210,000 victims in the United States alone.

The fact that the President of the United States himself has succumbed to the virus is a stark reminder of the risk the pandemic poses to all of us, regardless of power or privilege.

But we should not forget that even though high-profile cases like President Trump, President Bolsonaro in Brazil and Prime Minister Johnson in the United Kingdom command understandably large amounts of media attention, both the death toll and economic impact of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on poor, vulnerable and marginalised communities within societies, deepening the chasms of inequality and social injustice.

COVID-19 has revealed a collective failure by leaders and policymakers to take pandemic prevention, preparedness and response seriously and prioritize it accordingly. It has demonstrated the fragility of highly interconnected economies and social systems, and the fragility of trust.

It has exploited and exacerbated the fissures within societies and among nations. It has exploited inequalities, reminding us in no uncertain terms that there is no health security without social security.

COVID-19 has taken advantage of a world in disorder. There are political leaders who have scorned notions of international cooperation and solidarity, and even sought to undermine universal values such as justice, the rule of law and basic truth.

In preparing for this address, I was reminded of the words of the founder of the state of Pennsylvania, William Penn, which were written over three centuries ago but still resonate today:

“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory or an unjust interest.”

Today, it is abundantly clear that the only way to rebuild from COVID-19 and prevent future crises is through solidarity, honesty, transparency and good faith.

In 1945, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, leaders vowed that never again would such a human-made catastrophe be allowed to befall the world.

They founded the United Nations and endorsed its Charter, which proclaims faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

The post-war multilateral system underpinned by the United Nations has – for all its imperfections – decisively promoted health, security and prosperity over the past 75 years.

It is therefore imperative that we do everything in our power to defend and uphold the importance of global multilateral cooperation for the sake of our common future and our security.

It is particularly disturbing that we have been confronted with this global pandemic at a time when the multilateral system was already under an unprecedented state of attack, unfortunately led in particular by the United States.

The barrage of assaults orchestrated by the Trump Administration since 2017 against a wide range of multilateral institutions and agreements – withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, the JCPOA deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, to name some of the most prominent examples - has done serious damage to the international system. The most paradoxical example remains, of course, the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization itself, the main institution to uphold global coordination and cooperation in health.

All these actions have made it even more difficult to achieve the global consensus we need to tackle COVID-19 and other global threats to humanity.

Unquestionably, the United States has not been the only bad actor in undermining multilateralism.

China also bears responsibility for the unhelpful public infighting over the origins of the virus in recent months, which has contributed to paralysing the UN Security Council and undermining the work of the WHO.

The broader geopolitical divisions and strategic rivalries between the United States, Russia, China and other powers are likely to persist in the years ahead, and multilateralism will continue to be undermined so long as key global leaders treat international relations primarily as a zero sum game of “winners” and “losers”.

Global leaders, who have now seen the devastation caused by a global plague, must instead use the UN’s 75th anniversary as a crucial opportunity to revive multilateral cooperation. This is the only way to effectively tackle the key global challenges we face, particularly the serious existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear weapons.

Global economic coordination will also be critical for ensuring a rapid and sustainable recovery from the pandemic. Again, our global institutions such as the World Bank and IMF have illustrated their present limitations with regard to quick and effective countermeasures in such a dramatic crisis across the world.

What is needed now is a new “Bretton Woods moment” of innovation and creativity in the service of strengthening global governance.

If we do not take the steps that are urgently needed in the years ahead, our planet is likely to become a significantly more dangerous and unstable place, and there is ultimately no automatic guarantee of long-term sustainable development and global security.

But if global leaders do commit to sustained multilateral cooperation, there is no question that we have the capabilities to solve the collective challenges we face and ensure a safer and more prosperous future for humanity.

Thank you. 

This speech was followed by a Q&A with NPR's Deborah Amos. Watch the full event:

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