Another world waiting for us
As we start to look beyond the pandemic, a return to normality will not be enough
Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this edition we’re reflecting on some of the big shifts leaders will have to reckon with as they start to think about the world after the pandemic.
We’re just a week away from this year’s G7 Summit – the first to be held in person since President Macron hosted leaders in Biarritz in August 2019. By the time that year was out Covid-19 had claimed its first victims; the following year the summit itself was cancelled due to the pandemic.
The strapline for the leaders’ meeting in Cornwall this summer is “Build back better”. One stated aim is uniting the world’s leading democracies, and so the UK has invited Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa to attend as guests alongside the seven standing members of the group (the UK, US, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, plus the EU).
There’s no doubt that the world’s richest democracies still wield extraordinary power, and that the decisions they make together can be of great consequence both for themselves and for the wider world.
But the pandemic has taught us some important lessons about the extent and limits of state capacity in a modern, globalised operating environment. The full implications for nation states in the 21st century remain to be seen. For now, here are three interesting challenges that leaders will have to reckon with in the months and years to come.
1. The prerogative to set policy
In its purest form policy is about making trade-offs, and in democracies the larger the entries on either side of the ledger the greater the expectation that decisions will be wrapped in legitimacy and accountability.
When policy is a matter of life and death, the power to set it has almost always been the preserve of sovereign states. A government’s first duty is to protect its people, and governments around the world set policy to reflect this.
We’ve all experienced this first-hand with the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed on societies to limit the spread of Covid-19.
One fascinating subplot in the story of the pandemic relates to contact tracing apps. Once it became clear that they might have an important role to play, policy decisions made by Google and Apple to implement special “exposure notification” APIs for Android and iOS helped ensure such apps would be straightforward to deploy and easy for people to use.
Policy decisions by these companies also put limits around how contact tracing apps can be architected. In particular, a strict set of privacy rules stops them being used to collect location data or to build up centralised logs of people’s interactions.
Many governments protested that obtaining this data was necessary for protecting public health. Some even went as far as testing apps that operated without relying on the exposure notification APIs – but faced with limited success, most such attempts were abandoned.
There was a time when most rich countries would have expected corporations to give ground when subjected to sufficiently intense political pressure, particularly in relation to something like a public health emergency.
It’s clear now that those days are over. This isn’t the first time that tech companies have resisted pressure from governments, of course – and many people may feel that the companies did the right thing on this occasion. Nevertheless, it may yet mark a more generalised escalation that will shape the debate for many years to come.
2. State resources vs state capacity
Governments that need to get stuff done are used to being able fall back on the considerable resources of the state – reallocating staff, spending money, and in extremis deploying military assets to protect trade routes or keep the peace.
This is also the story of the world in lockdown: imposed on countries to prevent health services from being overwhelmed, and made possible by surging resources into things like test and trace programmes, intensive care and local policing.
With vaccinations in countries like the UK and US now well underway, the final stretch is not just finishing the job at home but rather vaccinating the world.
However, existing mechanisms to deliver vaccines to poorer countries are falling a long way short of what was promised, and in many parts of the world things may get a lot worse before they get better.
If the binding constraints are our ability to spot new variants and to manufacture and distribute vaccines in sufficient quantities, then the solutions will lie in significantly better genomic surveillance and a global ramp up in manufacturing and logistics.
But emergency measures invoked to accelerate production for domestic use may be of limited help in the international arena, and seemingly well-intentioned moves like patent waivers will deliver no immediate increase in manufacturing capacity.
Many of the innovations that have proved vital to the pandemic response – things like mRNA vaccines and whole genome sequencing, for example – would not exist without state support for science. But getting quickly from the blueprint for a novel vaccine to billions of doses in arms is a complex political, economic and engineering problem without a simple brute-force solution.
More broadly, as the level of technological sophistication and interdependency in the world increases, the ability of traditional institutions to plan and direct the course of global events will only diminish.
This is a profound challenge for institutions that are used to controlling the narratives we use to make sense of the world around us. If the action that follows a big summit fails to match up to the rhetoric of its participants, this may go some of the way to helping understand why.
3. Unplanned obsolescence
If the big tech companies are a new force for setting policy, and if future challenges will require sophisticated capabilities and not just deep pockets, then it’s understandable to find some old institutions seeking to reimpose control.
The big unknown is whether this will be a sustainable strategy for them in the world we inhabit after the pandemic.
Recent events in the UK provide us with an instructive vignette: a former adviser to the Prime Minister took to Twitter to savage the government’s lockdown strategy, publishing photos taken inside Downing Street to back up his case.
Such an act of defiance would have been unimaginable in years gone by. Policy advice can be exempted from Freedom of Information requests; there was a time when mobile phones were confiscated from people entering Number 10, media coverage of leaks was suppressed, and perpetrators were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.
Looking ahead, new technologies seem likely not just to make it easier for individuals to confront authority, but to erode the very concept of centralised authority itself.
Signs of this shift are starting to emerge all around us:
Cryptocurrencies governed by consensus, not central banks
End-to-end encryption that makes messages impossible to eavesdrop on
Space infrastructure operated by private companies, not governments
Self-sovereign identity architectures without centralised databases
Edge computing that puts AI on devices rather than in the cloud
The potential implications of these sorts of developments are profound, but there is a huge gulf between the possibilities being talked about among frontier technologists and the attention being paid by mainstream policymakers.
Imaginative uses for smart contracts are a case in point. How much of our industrial-era bureaucracy would we really need if policy was implemented programmatically? Or thinking bigger still: we usually assume governments cannot bind themselves or their successors, but what new equilibria might be accessible if states had access to alternative and credible commitment mechanisms?
And once we open our minds to these sorts of possibilities, what qualities and capabilities will governments need to make the leap from the world we find ourselves in today to the one waiting for us tomorrow?
After everything that’s happened over the last 18 months, the leaders and delegates meeting in Cornwall next week are right to be thinking not just about how to end the pandemic but also about what the world ought to be like after it.
There are some big things on their agenda, from trade and tech policy to climate and sustainable development, and the declarations emerging from the Ministerial groups convened over recent weeks give a sense of where the focus will lie.
In amongst this, there is also an opportunity to open up a much more radical conversation about the challenges and opportunities arising from the global revolution in science, technology and connectivity.
This will be uncomfortable territory for leaders yearning for a return to normality – but the ability to navigate it is what will set the great ones apart.