Covid 19 Edition

Wanted: A Revived International System

Andrew Mitchell MP

O Tempora, O Mores” as our classical scholar, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson, might well intone as he recovers from a serious attack of coronavirus.

Each country faces the challenge of how to contain the virus while preserving the lives of their citizens and the future of their economies. Policy makers can be forgiven for not seeing far beyond their own borders or asking what they might expect from the international system — an architecture which largely stems from the post-Second World War settlement, put in place by the victors in search of better world. The League of Nations, swept away in the 1930’s was replaced by the United Nations in the 40’s and 50’s and eventually more than 40 multilateral organisations which make up the international rules-based system today.

Alas, even before the current pandemic this international system was looking sickly. Narrow nationalism has been on the march from Moscow to Cairo at a time when all the key challenges facing our and future generations cry out for more international cooperation not less. Here are five of them:

Climate change:

With its dire effects felt first and hardest by those living lives which subsist on the edge of direst poverty. As the richer nations feel their way towards a collective approach-the terms of which are not so damaging for their voters that they make re-election impossible. The focus on the conference of parties (COP) in Glasgow now in abeyance must surely be resuscitated with vigour.

Migration and the treatment of refugees:

Conventions now lost in the midst of time before mass air travel and globalisation made them wholly out of date. Historians will look back at the catastrophe that is Syria today with astonishment. 50% of the entire population of 22 million have been forced to leave their homes. While 5 million internally misplaced with 5 million more in neighbouring states, over one million (including more than half Syria’s graduate population) have placed themselves in the hands of the modern day equivalent of the slave trader, in the hope of landing from a leaky boat on a safer and more prosperous European shore. Those same historians will marvel at the failure of the international community to respond in any effective way at all.


All authoritative World Bank studies show that in the end protectionism makes beggars of us all, while freeing up the international trading system offers the hope of economic advancement to rich and poor alike.


The recruiters for which thrive in areas of deep poverty and economic injustice. Ungoverned spaces — the belt of misery across Saharan Africa which has incubated local and international affiliated terrorism organisations gives eloquent testimony. But for French intervention, Mali would now be a terrorist State.


In a TED talk five years ago Bill Gates foretold with all the authority and accuracy of an old testament prophet, the future dangers from pandemics which are our collective challenges across the world today.

In the face of all five challenges we are governed by strong men and nationalist oligarchy. From Presidents Putin, Trump, Xi Jinping and El-Sisi to Prime Minister Modi. However they are judged, they are strong nationalist leaders who do not naturally incline to an international rules based system, with the inevitable compromises that entails for the greater good.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is a classic case in point, now under attack for being too close to China and too ineffective in this crisis.

When Ebola struck West Africa it was Britain (with respect to Sierra Leone), the USA (Liberia), and France (Guinea) which came to their aid, though we were all late in the day. Quite naturally people asked why international structures could not have done more both to prevent and confront that terrible disease. At the time the British Prime Minister David Cameron worried that the WHO was not fit for purpose and should be the subject of either massive reform or abolition. But above all, we understood it was about leadership and the right leader, and the former Ethiopian Health and Foreign Minister Tedros was subsequently elected — securing even the vote of the Ethiopia’s sworn enemy at that time, Eritrea.

WHO is caught in an impossible position regarding its handling of China in the opening months of this virus: it was inevitable that Tedros and his team would give priority to diplomacy in seeking to extract from the Chinese authorities as much information as possible about the virus rather than criticising their performance. WHO has done its best, greatly boosted by the reforms identified by the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In reality, however, it remains massively under-resourced for the role it could have played today. I fear we will see this most acutely as African leaders confront a crisis which may sweep through the shanty towns and informal economies with unprecedented ferocity.

Once we reach the far side of this coronavirus crisis — whatever and whenever that is — it will be for our leaders to decide how far they are prepared to go to rebuild the architecture of international cooperation. Will they decide to emulate our forefathers who built the United Nations and Bretton Woods and who believed in an international charter of human rights and civilisation? Or will national priorities make it simply impossible for thinking beyond their own frontiers?

In Britain, we will undertake our security and defence review, as we try to work out what we mean by Global Britain’ now we are no longer part of the European Union. As one of the permanent five members of the Security Council at the UN, the second largest contributor to NATO, a leading member of the Commonwealth with its north south composition, a major European power and one of the world’s oldest democracies, Britain has been a bright light in the past for many suffering in bleak circumstances around the world. In the words of Montrose’s President and Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd Britain has tended to punch above its weight” with its global diplomatic service, superb armed forces and proud leadership in international development.

The challenge is not for Britain alone but for all major economies and countries which have it within their power to make a difference. Is now the time to focus only on ourselves — or can we lift our eyes to a different horizon recognising that we are all waves on the same ocean, and that globalisation and a yet more interconnected world cry out for an effective international rules-based system as never before?

The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell is the member of Parliament for Royal Sutton Coldfield and a former British International Development Secretary of State. He is a visiting fellow at Harvard, a fellow at the RSDP at Cambridge University and an Honorary Professor at Birmingham University.