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What COVID-19 Means for International Cooperation

Summary:
A clear parallel between the growing COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is emerging. In particular, both phenomena highlight the need for much closer forward-looking international cooperation to reduce and manage global threats. WASHINGTON, DC – Throughout history, crisis and human progress have often gone hand in hand. While the growing COVID-19 pandemic could strengthen nationalism and isolationism and accelerate the retreat from globalization, the outbreak also could spur a new wave of international cooperation of the sort that emerged after World War II. Plagued by Trumpism Sean Gallup/Getty Images COVID-19 Trumps

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A clear parallel between the growing COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is emerging. In particular, both phenomena highlight the need for much closer forward-looking international cooperation to reduce and manage global threats.

WASHINGTON, DC – Throughout history, crisis and human progress have often gone hand in hand. While the growing COVID-19 pandemic could strengthen nationalism and isolationism and accelerate the retreat from globalization, the outbreak also could spur a new wave of international cooperation of the sort that emerged after World War II.

COVID-19 may become not only a huge health crisis, but also a crisis of globalization and global governance. Most obviously, it raises the question of how the world should organize itself against the threat of pandemics. But it also has implications for how globalization is perceived and what that perception means for the future of international cooperation.

Five decades of increasing interconnectedness have opened up the world to massive cross-border flows of goods, services, money, ideas, data, and people. While globalization itself is not new, the sheer scale and scope of the current version has made the world unprecedentedly interdependent – and thus fragile.

Today’s global socioeconomic infrastructure looks and works like a hub-and-spoke network in which all nodes are separated by very short distances and essential functions are centralized in large hubs. Financial activity is concentrated in the United States, for example, while China is the world’s manufacturing center. This structure is geared toward maximizing efficiency by capturing the benefits of economies of scale and specialization. Indeed, it has helped to lift millions of people out of poverty (although it also has led to greater income inequality and related social malaise in many countries).

However, connectivity also creates an enormous – but often hidden – risk of catastrophe. This is because connectivity increases what statisticians call “fat-tailedness,” or the likelihood of inherently unquantifiable extreme events such as financial crises, a nuclear holocaust, hostile artificial intelligence, global warming, destructive biotechnology, and pandemics.

Because critical functional roles are hyper-concentrated and the entire network is so tightly linked, shocks to a central hub such as the US or China can very quickly become systemic and paralyzing. The very reliance on central hubs generates systemic risk,...

Kemal Derviş
Kemal Derviş, former Minister of Economic Affairs of Turkey and former Administrator for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is a vice president of the Brookings Institution.

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