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How the Davos Agenda 2021 outlined a path for global cooperation

Steven Pressman of the U.S. (C) slaps hands as he passes another runner near the half way point at the "Energy Lab" on the marathon section of the Ford Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii October 9, 2010. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry(UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TRIATHLON) - GM1E6AA18HB01


Cody Feldman
Programme Lead, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Leaders emphasized the importance of placing humans at the heart of global cooperation efforts.
  • Democracies should reach out, understand, and collaborate with nations that do not share their values.
  • There were strong calls to build a multilateral framework that works for all.

This past January, business, government, and civil society leaders came together to address the most pressing issues for 2021 and beyond. While debates centred around these groups’ response to the COVID-19 crisis, key themes emerged on how to implement real international cooperation.

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It would be naïve indeed to think that these ideas alone can bring about global peace. However, listening to the overlap between speeches of perceived rivals, there are opportunities to achieve equal vaccine distribution, sustainable economic growth, and achievable climate action.

As with any negotiation or debate, leaders must find a common ground to develop a long-term agreement and strategy. Vaccine deployment has not yet stopped the global pandemic and climate change projections could make COVID-19 seem like a minor incident. Leaders can begin to find the common ground needed to build meaningful global cooperation by taking the following steps.

1. Embrace humility, inclusivity and transparency

Finding common ground between Xi Jinping, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin may seem impossible, however, each of them emphasized the importance of placing humans at the heart of global cooperation efforts.

President Xi advocated for mutual respect and finding common ground to allow civilization to thrive. President Macron highlighted the critical steps that nations took in putting human lives above the global economy when tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. And President Putin stressed that the economy must no longer view people as a means to an end but place them at the centre of our responses.

To enact this response, inclusivity arose as a crucial element to ensure every citizen feels like a part of the solution. In the United States, this requires the new administration to come back to negotiating tables “with humility” as John Kerry underlined in his new role as Presidential Envoy for Climate. For King Abdullah II of Jordan and Korean President Moon Jae-in, only an inclusive approach, leaving no-one behind can strengthen the multilateral system enough to lift the billions of people who have been economically hit by COVID-19.

Without openness, misinformation and distrust continue to rise, threatening to keep us in today’s “post-truth climate”, according to Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kang Kyung-wha. Transparency was crucial in her government’s response to COVID-19 through information-sharing by scientists, who ensured an adequate response. For Lysa John Berna, Secretary-General of Civicus, we are entering a decade of impatience. Twenty-five per cent of people are unable to exercise their freedoms, creating mobs that could be addressed by transparent governments willing to engage in real dialogue. Despite very different domestic discourses, openness and humility resonated as the pivotal principles to achieve global cooperation.

Why equitable vaccine distribution matters.
Why equitable vaccine distribution matters. Image: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

2. Balancing collaboration and competition

From mounting trade wars to continued techno-nationalism, healthy competition seems impossible in today’s political climate. And yet, President Xi stated that “difference in itself is no cause for alarm” but “what does ring alarm is arrogance, prejudice and hatred”. This was echoed by Minister Kang, who said that being a liberal democracy doesn’t mean that you should not work with countries that do not share the same values. This does not mean that democracies should ignore principles like human rights and freedom of expression for any action, but to cooperate, reach out, understand, and collaborate.

Private-public cooperation will play a major role in ensuring collaboration. Minister François-Phillippe Champagne stated that governments can do big things but with the private sector, they can do big things quickly. President Moon also pointed out that, through this kind of collaboration, Korea was able to produce diagnostic kits and vaccines rapidly and avoided discrimination based on age, health, or nationality. Through mindful collaboration and embracing competition, partners can willingly join together and ensure a cooperative response.

Tied to this collaboration is the healthy competition needed to incentivize cooperation. Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, pointed out that competition is healthy within a corporate environment but not while conducting strategic policies. This was enforced by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s address noting that issues like international taxation and competition are necessary because acting alone will not be sufficient for innovation.

However, global competition must be properly balanced by all governments with leaders from Argentina, South Africa and Singapore raising fears of vaccine nationalism. A fear of abandonment is already creating significant risk of losing the trust and energy needed for collaboration.

3. Re-invigorate, reform, and empower existing institutions

To ensure balanced competition and collaboration, there were strong calls to reflect on existing frameworks and institutions and build back a multilateral framework that works for all.

Chancellor Merkel noted that institutions like the World Trade Organization are critical to the world and that to thrive there need to be revisions with common standards that reflect current work conditions, the environment, and answers regarding the digitalization of the economy.

President Macron and the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres emphasized the importance of ensuring an equitable framework. President Macron stated the need of a capitalist system that lifts everyone out of poverty and prevents an increase in inequalities. Secretary General Guterres suggested a new social contract between governments, peoples, civil society, and businesses enabling all members of society to live in dignity.

King Abdullah II and Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, underscored the importance of “re-globalizing” and instituting a system that allows for a sustainable and equitable recovery. Prime Minister Lee did not hide the fact that recalibration will be needed on the part of China and the United States, with China needing to take “greater responsibility for providing global public goods” and the United States avoiding seeing China only as a threat.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

In recalibrating existing institutions to reflect the political realities that are impacting people’s lives, leaders can build a sustainable system of global governance. While the degree of change may differ, the world is at a critical junction where humility, collaboration and institutional reform can ensure true, sustainable global cooperation.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalGeo-Economics and PoliticsHealth and Healthcare SystemsGlobal Cooperation
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