Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
A person uses an extinguisher toward a burning paper-made globe during a demonstration against the fossil fuel industry in Frankfurt, Germany on October 21, 2020.
REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

In 2020, the world was confronted by a litany of challenges compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. The Council of Councils asked six experts to recommend the most important actions global actors should take next year to strengthen global health, democracy, trade, human rights, and arms control, as well as mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Embattled Leaders Can Become Universal Health Heroes


If there is one cultural event that can be said to unite the world, it is the annual celebration of the start of the new year, when millions come together to celebrate and enjoy uplifting fireworks displays. But as the seconds tick down to 2021, whole populations will be confined to their homes, unable to meet with family members and friends.

Many will look back on 2020 as a terrible year, when they lost loved ones or their jobs. Around the world, people are becoming increasingly frustrated with their governments’ efforts to end the COVID-19 nightmare. They want swift action.

So how should leaders respond? The top priority is to end the pandemic, which can be achieved by ensuring universal coverage of effective vaccines, treatments, and test and trace systems. As World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said, “nobody is safe until everyone is safe.” Achieving global coverage will require solidarity in financing the response both within and between countries. The WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator has been established to facilitate this solidarity, but wealthier nations should step up to finance it properly.

The world can do better than this. If heads of government want to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as great leaders, now is the time to launch more ambitious universal health coverage (UHC) reforms—ensuring that everyone receives all the health services they need without suffering financial hardship. Some may think this unrealistic in the current economic climate, but it is important to recognize that many of the world’s great universal health systems emerged from crises, including those in France, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Some leaders, such as those in Cyprus, Ireland, and South Africa, have already signaled that they intend to fast-track bold UHC reforms in response to this crisis. They have recognized that UHC reforms can bring rapid health, economic, and societal benefits, as well as bring huge political benefits to the leaders who implement them.

Seize Momentum on International Climate Policy


The year 2020 was challenging for international climate cooperation. Will it get better in 2021? On the bright side, the U.S. reentry into the Paris Agreement is practically a done deal, new U.S. commitments in international climate negotiations and various other forums are in sight. The incoming Biden administration above all appears eager to get back in the driver’s seat.

The United Kingdom and Italy are already preparing to cohost the postponed twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow in November 2021. Both also hold the presidencies to the Group of Seven (G7) and Group of Twenty (G20), respectively, and will be able to synchronize their agendas with preparations for Glasgow. The G20 stands a good chance to overcome the 19+1 divide on the Paris Agreement that dominated the last four years. There is also hope that the COP26 will finalize the Paris Agreement rulebook. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged new climate targets in September 2020. Taken together with the European Union’s Green Deal, these policies from major emitters could add up and compel laggard countries who are overdue to submit new ambitions to the UNFCCC.

On the not-so-bright side is the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Developing, emerging, and advanced economies will all continue to struggle, in particular with generating resources for vaccination and other health services. For a successful revival of international climate action, funding is vital. Climate action in many poorer countries indirectly hinges on health support. Donor countries will have to reevaluate how to credibly scale up international aid. The United States, having withdrawn from financial commitments under the Paris Agreement in 2017, has to find ways to deliver and increase its share of the financial burden. While increased funding will signal that America is back, the Biden administration will face domestic resistance to devoting more resources to global climate financing and the United Nations, with Congress likely to get in the way. On a parallel track, the world will expect new U.S. climate targets, which will be held up for comparison against the high bar set by the EU.

International climate diplomacy will succeed in 2021 if the world’s leading industrial-nation emitters—China, the United States, and the members of the European Union—coordinate as quickly as possible on global challenges with the UK-Italy team, emerging powers such as India and Brazil, and vulnerable nations that closely watch the climate power play.

Revitalize the Global Trading System


International trade looks better placed to aid the economic recovery from the pandemic than earlier forecasts suggested. For merchandise trade, at least, forecasts of a 30 percent global decline have been revised to around 9 percent, less than the decline from the 2008 financial crisis. Services trade remains depressed, largely because of the drop in international travel, but promising vaccine candidates offer hope of a resurgence next year.

Trade policies for a lasting recovery should be built upon the factors that have helped prevent the worst so far. First, globalization is not dead. Global supply chains have generally held up under the twin threats of the virus and protectionism, not least through companies diversifying their supply and distribution networks to be less China-centered and more resilient. Policymakers should work with and encourage these trends, rather than pursue the fantasy of reshoring.

Second, the trading system has not collapsed into chaos, despite the weaknesses of institutions such as the G20 and World Trade Organization and the damage done by the outgoing Trump administration’s unilateralism. This owes much to the commitment of those twenty or so governments that halted pandemic-linked trade restrictions and set up an interim dispute settlement arrangement. These efforts have kept the lights on dimly, but they will not shine brightly again until the United States returns to a global leadership role.

A priority for the incoming Biden administration should be to rebuild coalitions, and particularly to work with groupings such as the Ottawa Group, made up of mid-sized traders, to renew the capacity of the multilateral trading system to negotiate and resolve disputes. The major challenges of today are global and it will take a viable global framework to deal with them. The interface between climate change and trade will be crucial, as the pressure for border carbon taxes becomes stronger. Digital taxation is another area where global action is essential.

Trade problems with China are likely to remain difficult, but the multilateral system offers a wider range of possibilities for managing them as opposed to the blunt instrument of unilateral sanctions. Still, it is important not to overload the trading system with expectations that it cannot fulfill, such as resolving the stark ideological differences between the United States and China.

The political support for bold new trade liberalization may not be here yet, but there is much that can be done to update existing rules and consolidate advances made at the regional level at the multilateral level. A pragmatic, issue-oriented approach is critical to restoring a more stable trade policy environment.

Nuclear Arms Control: Let the Experts Take Charge


Nuclear weapons have played an ambivalent role since the mid-twentieth century, when nuclear parity was achieved. While they are the worst means of destruction ever invented, they do offer an effective means of deterrence based on the fear of mutual annihilation. The Cold War, especially after the Cuban missile crisis, was marked by unprecedented structural stability precisely because the opposing parties recognized the fatality of a head-on conflict. And so they set about developing rules for safe coexistence. From those rules came a fundamental theoretical model—developed with the help of American and Soviet scientists—as well as mutual trust, albeit amid confrontation.

The year 2021 could draw an end to that era, and leave the world not only without mutual trust between nuclear superpowers (though it has long been undermined) but also without the last remaining rules that regulate their behavior. Or it could see the development a new model in place of the old one that worked well but no longer does. Moscow and Washington remain the primary stakeholders in the enterprise of international strategic stability, and how this relationship develops further depends entirely on them, not on the increasing number of minority stakeholders.

The minimum necessary condition is the extension of the New START treaty, which is set to expire on February 5, 2021. This is easy to do, just by confirming mutual commitments. (In Russia, the procedure is more complicated, but should not be an obstacle.) Extending the treaty would be largely symbolic, but would set the groundwork for future progress.

As in the 1960s, intensive efforts will be needed from scientists, theorists, and intellectuals. They will have to work out a new model of strategic stability for an entirely different international environment, which includes new weapons, cyberspace, and a growing number of nuclear powers (contrary to the principles of nonproliferation). The task is so complex that it can only be tackled by those that have extensive experience in handling such matters—Russia and the United States. China, though advancing in its nuclear capabilities, still lags the other two.  

There is much less trust between the two countries than even during the early 1960s. The reasons for this lie in the post–Cold War period, when the previous military and political balance disappeared and the two sides held rapidly diverging views on how the new world order should look. Those grievances cannot be ignored or withdrawn. But restoring at least basic trust will require professionals to put aside current political circumstances and focus on future security guarantees. There are arms control experts and strategists both in the United States and Russia, but lately they have been overshadowed by political agendas and mutual paranoia. It is time to bring them back to the fore.

Renew Global Democracy With Innovative Ideas


This year will be remembered as a tragic one, as COVID-19 killed more than 1.5 million people around the world. It would be a further tragedy if this new coronavirus inflicted lasting damage on the world’s democracies.

The pandemic is threatening democracy as much as it does people’s lives. Global democracy has already been declining since the mid-2000s. With the pandemic, the state of democracy is expected to further deteriorate. Authoritarian states have weaponized the pandemic to oppress minority groups and regime critics. Even in many democracies, infringements of freedom of movement and assembly became the new normal as governments mandated lockdowns, social distancing, and quarantines. Economically vulnerable people in democracies such as the United States became the first to lose their jobs; those who were still employed were more exposed to COVID-19.

To revive global democracy amid this unprecedented health crisis, governments should pursue three broad priorities. First, they should prioritize environmental and health safety when developing human rights policies and reforming democratic governance. Scientists believe that ecological disruptions create ideal conditions for the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. At the same time, an increasing number of disasters are being generated by climate change.

Second, the global economy should be more resilient and inclusive. Essential workers should be compensated better and forgotten laborers in the informal economy need protection. Achieving health equity amid wide socioeconomic gaps should be part of the agenda.

Third, international cooperation should be a priority. The spread of the coronavirus is one of the harmful consequences of globalization, and the pandemic cannot be managed without international cooperation on information sharing and vaccine distribution. Specialized agencies in international institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), World Food Program, and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights should work together.

U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged to convene a global summit for democracy and to return to the Paris Agreement, reengage with the UN Human Rights Council, and rejoin the WHO. He also vowed to respect U.S. allies and partners. However, reversing the U.S. withdrawal from global institutions and multilateral diplomacy is not enough to undo democratic setbacks. Democratic renewal requires bold ideas, a workable agenda, and innovative policies. Rather than lofty ideals, embedding democracy in individuals’ daily life by securing safety, peace, sustenance, education, freedoms, equity, and social justice will make democratic societies more durable. With this year’s reckoning, like-minded states and private actors should put forward a democracy agenda that will make progress.

After Disastrous 2020, Prioritize Human Rights


If 2020 has taught the world anything, it is that everything is interconnected, bringing into stark focus existing socioeconomic and political tensions. If not properly addressed, they could worsen. Human rights has emerged as a critical global issue. One thing is clear from global social unrest and protests: at the heart of people’s struggles is the desire for better, for freedom. As the world has fought against an unrelenting virus, millions were confronted with the gross injustices of inequality, poverty, inadequate access to food and water, unemployment, and restrictions on movement, among others. In 2021, governments and multilateral institutions should draw critical lessons from 2020 and focus on advancing human rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted economic activity, and the resultant job insecurity and job losses have been incredibly damaging. Workers’ rights, which are fundamental and enshrined in international, regional, and national legal instruments, have in some cases been undermined. Discrimination, physical endangerment, and wage theft remain a reality. One of the implications of the pandemic is the possible shift toward underemployment, by which people desperate for work are paid far less than what they are entitled to.

The spread of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda is another major issue that should be tackled head-on in 2021. This causes divisions within society and undermines the free press. And linked to this is the rise of nativism and nationalism, which threatens human rights and disproportionately affects vulnerable groups such as refugees, economic migrants, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and religious and other minorities. While there are some signs that the tide is turning, effective and decisive multilateral action is still needed to reduce nativism and nationalism globally.

Gender inequality remains a critical human rights issue. Despite significant progress in recent years, gender equality is still a long way away; the World Economic Forum estimates that it could take another century to achieve. Efforts to improve access to education, political representation, sexual and reproductive rights, and economic opportunities could go a long way in contributing to gender equality. Effective monitoring mechanisms will be crucial.

Finally, the climate crisis is a human rights issue. Pushing for greener transitions that do not destabilize existing industries will be important. Just as important will be developing climate risk and foresight assessments that include better ways to respond to climate changelinked humanitarian crises.