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2 June 2021

Gordon Brown: How to mend a failing world

The former Labour prime minister on vaccinations, poverty and the climate crisis.   

By Gordon Brown

On 4 October 2008, at the end of the most tumultuous week in world financial markets since the Great Depression, and just at the moment the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke assessed 18 of America’s 20 largest financial institutions to be in danger of collapse, I travelled to the Élysée Palace in Paris. I was there to discuss with the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the European Union what to do about a broken global financial system. After an hour and a half of difficult talks about likely bank bankruptcies, company liquidations and an oncoming economic recession, we took a break, and as we had coffee in one of the Élysée’s sumptuously decorated rooms, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had yet to express a view on what ought to be done, was overheard saying: “Amateurs! Amateurs!”

Might the only professional businessman in the room have a solution to the crisis that none of the rest of us had considered? “Amateurs!” He gesticulated emphatic ­disbelief. “Amateurs! Ils sont amateurs. Don’t they realise? We have a photo call in an hour! And none of them has brought a make-up artist!”

Politicians are not intrinsically well suited to dealing with the intricacies of crises, economic or otherwise. And, if that meeting was anything to go by, businessmen-turned-politicians might be even less so. This remains the case today. It is doubtful that a group photograph of cosmetically improved politicians would have done much more to reassure the markets or the public, then or now. While a lack of early political grip – and seriousness – was obvious that Saturday afternoon in Paris, the inability of leaders to grasp the risks to our global economy, environment and public health has cost us dearly over the last decade. Leaders have to be not one, but at least two steps ahead in a crisis. In 2008 they were behind the curve – and in 2020 this happened again.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

The year will be remembered for our collective failure as an international community to come together and manage the most severe global health and economic emergencies we have faced in peacetime. The very openness of the world – our interdependence and connectivity – should have been an asset, the building block of extensive cooperation. Instead it became a liability, the channel through which coronavirus spread fast and caused more than three million deaths to date.

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It was brilliant medical and scientific cooperation across borders that led to the rapid invention of multiple vaccines. Contrast that with the abysmal failure of political cooperation to halt the disease: no early warning systems worth their name; no adequate exchange of information between countries; no proper monitoring; no obligations for states to take remedial action; no sufficiently large reserves of drugs or even protective equipment; and no agreement on how we share the burden of paying for what we desperately need, from face masks to ventilators. And just at the moment when vaccines with the potential to immunise the whole world became available, and the world had it in our power to prevent the disease spreading, mutating and threatening us again, vaccine nationalism and medical protectionism came to the fore. We know that no one is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere. Yet only $14bn of the $33bn required this year has been raised for the diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines needed by the poorest countries.


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How we responded to this pandemic raises serious questions about how we manage our planet. We have to ask why, in the year 2021, our leaders seem unable to do what it takes to forestall economic crises, halt climate change, stop the new nuclear arms race and deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals – promises made in 2015 to end extreme poverty, illiteracy and avoidable infant and maternal deaths – and why they seem unable to stop tax avoiders funnelling billions into tax havens?

All these questions are, of course, complex and demand detailed enquiry, but they have one characteristic in common: they are global problems that need global solutions. None can be solved by a single country, group or individual – however rich or powerful – acting on their own. Yet there is a fundamental mismatch between the global nature of our shared challenges and the primarily national approach within which we have organised ourselves to confront them.

We talk of “ungoverned spaces” to describe the unsafe, lawless zones in failing and fragile states where warlords, bandits, pirates, terrorist insurgents, arms traders, illicit drug dealers and black marketers hold sway. However, the ungoverned spaces I have in mind are, alarmingly, much vaster. They encompass the entire global environment – polluted oceans, desiccated forests and fast-expanding deserts. They span the global financial system: offshore financial centres and illicit flows of money, as well as tax havens that facilitate the looting of public coffers by the world’s least needy. And they include the world’s thermonuclear safety regime, ever more technologically sophisticated but also, like cyberspace, ever more vulnerable to accidents and manipulation.

[See also: When red walls come tumbling down]

It is not difficult to pinpoint why international cooperation has been so difficult to achieve in recent years: the return of political nationalism, a phenomenon that we thought was confined, at least in the West, to the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. First, from 2010, we witnessed the rise of a defensive nationalism – tariff barriers, trade protectionism, closed borders and the building of walls, now 66 in number, that deliberately cut countries off from neighbours. This morphed into the aggressive nationalism of America First, China First, Russia First, India First: movements that degenerated in the era of President Trump into “America first and only” and elsewhere “my tribe first and only”. Even today, under a multilateralist President Biden, there is still a fear that much of the US, which usually acted multilaterally in a unipolar age, would rather act unilaterally in this multipolar one.

But four major international summits this year give us an unprecedented opportunity to begin to unwind the protectionism of the last decade and reactivate international collaboration: the G7 meeting, which begins in Cornwall on 11 June, and the Cop26 climate change conference scheduled for November, both under British presidencies; the G20 chaired by Italy in October; and August’s non-proliferation treaty talks under the United Nations.

Nationalist passions run so deep that we are a long distance from achieving the plan the G20 envisaged in 2009 for the reconstruction of the architecture of global decision-making. But we can make progress by focusing, issue by issue, on shared solutions to shared problems, and in doing so, we can feel our way to a new and workable balance between the national autonomy countries want and the international cooperation we need.


The G7 in Cornwall – the summit of the world’s most powerful democracies that usually makes headlines only for its photo opportunities – could be the starting point. A breakthrough in tackling global inequality can come by setting, for the first time, a minimum global tax rate that all multinational companies must pay. This would bring a long overdue message that there will be no hiding place for tax avoiders – and that the billions of dollars currently siphoned off by tax dodging will now be used to fund health, education and public services.

The G7 summit is the one venue where, with the world’s richest countries sitting around the same table, we can make a decision that could eventually halt Covid in its tracks: an offer to vaccinate the whole world, agreeing a burden-sharing plan proposed by the leaders of Norway and South Africa under which the G7 attendees pay two-thirds of the costs of immunising the poorest citizens in the poorest countries. If they were to make such an offer, and agree a temporary vaccine patent waiver, the United Nations General Assembly in September could be the occasion when we renew our commitment to meeting the Covid-disrupted timetable for delivering the world’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

In August the long-postponed review of progress towards the goals of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty will be convened. Our aim must be to halt what is becoming a new nuclear arms race and address the risk that up to half a dozen powers seek to become nuclear weapon states.

When running for office, President Biden offered his support for a ban on nuclear testing and an end to the enrichment of uranium and plutonium. By promising to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the US national security strategy”, he has set the scene for what could be a historic offer to other nations: that all declare never to use nuclear weapons first and never use them at all unless in retaliation to a nuclear attack. Such a step would discourage proliferation, halt the nuclear arms race and go a long way to honouring the statement agreed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan 35 years ago that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.


Although central banks and fiscal authorities worldwide mounted similar rescue operations as their economies shuddered to a halt in 2020, there was little cooperation between the major powers of China, Europe and the US. Planning a sustained recovery – and avoiding a two-speed global economy in which rich and poor countries diverge – requires the kind of collaboration we saw during the global financial crisis. The world needs fiscal and monetary co-ordination to ensure balanced growth; debt restructuring to enable low-income countries to recover; and concerted investment in infrastructure that, if synchronised, would, as the International Monetary Fund has shown, add $2trn to the global economic output.

At least half of that new investment should be directed towards job creation in the green economy of renewables, energy efficiency, sustainable transport and regenerative agriculture – if the G20 can reach such an agreement in Italy in October, it could be the launchpad for a successful Cop26 in Glasgow at the start of November.

The UK’s own carbon emissions reduction target – 78 per cent by 2035 – is world-leading, and around 60 per cent of countries now claim some sort of net zero carbon goal. They should be joined by companies, some of the largest of whom have volunteered to be net zero by 2050, but which should now be obliged by law to declare their carbon footprints. But the commitments – particularly those for the 2020s – that the largest countries have made are not nearly sufficient to limit warming to the 1.5°C promised in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016.

So the UK will have to raise the G7 ­summit’s level of ambition, first by calling for tougher near-term carbon reduction targets and second by making good the promises to low-income countries and the coastal states that we would assist their adaptation to the effects of climate change. In 2009 a $100bn target was set, reiterated in the Paris Agreement, as the minimum spending on future support. But it has yet to be met, and this year’s savage £4bn cut in UK overseas aid makes it more difficult to achieve than ever. Cop26 risks failing before it has even started.

We cannot afford another setback in global cooperation. Sixty years ago President Kennedy called on the United States to transcend its Declaration of Independence with a global Declaration of Interdependence. Today’s leaders need to show a similar boldness if we are to build a healthier, safer greener, and fairer post-Covid world. 

“Seven Ways to Change the World: How To Fix The Most Pressing Problems We Face” by Gordon Brown is published by Simon & Schuster on 10 June

[See also: In defence of meritocracy]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West