What we learned, and didn’t, from (virtual) Munich

What we learned, and didn’t, from (virtual) Munich

A year ago, the annual Munich Security Conference was the last major international event to take place before the world locked down following the appearance of a mysterious new virus in Wuhan, China. Close to 2.5 million COVID deaths later, world leaders again gathered on Friday, this time virtually, to discuss the future of global cooperation, particularly between the US and Europe, in the post-Trump era. Here are a few takeaways.


America is back. Conference participants celebrated America's return to the global cooperation arena with Joe Biden now in the White House. Top European partners expressed delight at the US' fresh willingness to be a part of – and in some cases lead — various joint commercial and security projects and multinational organizations.

In short order, the US has rejoined the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accord, and has pledged $4 billion to the COVAX global scheme to ensure equitable distribution of COVID vaccines. There will be fewer threats from Washington, and more cross-border collaboration. These developments are not quite as well received in China or Russia, whose leaders weren't invited to this particular Zoom call.

Make multilateralism great again. After four years of transatlantic tension under Donald Trump, and with the pandemic still raging, the 2021 Munich consensus is that multilateral institutions are indispensable for dealing with the world's problems. The top priority now is rolling out jabs for everyone, for reasons epidemiological, economic and political, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said America must also do more to help Europe counter Islamic terrorism in Africa, for instance.

Global cooperation was dismal in many respects in dealing with the pandemic last year, and multilateral institutions became an afterthought. But the nationalist and populist policies that UN Secretary-General António Guterres argues failed to contain COVID have added to the urgency for greater cooperation and policy coordination. Guterres has a global plan to give jabs to everyone, everywhere — a dramatic U-turn from the "country first" responses that were so prominent last year.

Change is gonna come. While a shared vision rooted in liberal democratic values is important, events of the past few years indicate that it's simply not enough to tackle 21st century challenges. There are areas where the interests of like-minded nations will diverge.

In Munich on Friday, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron noted that while the US and Europe will remain close allies with a common worldview, their respective priorities do not always align. The US, for instance, is increasingly turning its attention to the Pacific, while Europe has a bigger footprint and more at stake in Africa. Acknowledging this reality and accounting for it in policy-making will strengthen the transatlantic relationship, Macron suggested, not weaken it. The same is true for NATO, which the French leader says needs to change its "strategic concept" in order to better respond to evolving global challenges like cyber weapons, China's more assertive foreign policy, Russian aggression, and climate change.

In 2019, the French leader caused a stir when he said the NATO alliance was suffering from "brain drain," which many saw as a diss to the workable status quo. But a global economic recession and pandemic later, will world leaders be more susceptible to the belief that Europe needs to reimagine its institutions and regain its "military sovereignty."

Platitudes. These sort of global forums are ripe ground for trite remarks, but whether world leaders will keep promises made from podiums always remains to be seen. President Biden's new climate czar, John Kerry, pledged an inclusive approach to climate action that helps low-income countries like Bangladesh and island nations that are most vulnerable to climate displacement. But the US has flip-flopped on climate commitments in the past. Can it be trusted this time? Lurking behind the satisfaction that Biden has replaced Trump is understandable concern that America might abruptly shift course again after the next election.

European and American leaders alike reiterated their commitment to a global vaccine distribution effort. Their words were heart-warming, sure, but vaccine hoarding by rich countries remains a big problem (130 low and middle-income countries haven't even started rolling out vaccines). Reversing this trend will take time, money, and an even scarcer and more precious resource — political will.

Bottom line: (Most of) Europe is relieved that the era of standoffish America is over — at least for now. But a shift of political gears and a surge of hopeful rhetoric alone won't change the game. Enormous global challenges remain, and Brussels and Washington won't always see eye-to-eye on how to address them going forward.

Emily Ademola lives in an area of Nigeria that has been attacked by Boko Haram militants in the past. Looking for water was very risky, and without access to water, the community – especially children – were at risk of waterborne diseases. Eni, in partnership with FAO, built a water well in Emily's community in 2019.

Watch Emily's first-hand account about how access to water "close to our doorsteps" has improved the quality of life for her community and her family.

There's never a great time to impose higher taxes on funeral services — but doing it in the middle of a raging pandemic is an especially bad move. Yet that was one of a number of measures that the Colombian government proposed last week in a controversial new tax bill that has provoked the country's largest and most violent protests in decades.

In the days since, the finance minister has resigned, the tax reform has been pulled, and President Iván Duque has called for fresh dialogue with activists, union leaders, and opposition politicians.

But demonstrations, vandalism, and deadly clashes with police have only intensified. Two dozen people are dead, 40 are missing, and the UN has criticized Colombian police for their heavy-handed response.

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Listen: India's latest COVID explosion hits home as one Delhi-based journalist speaks with Ian Bremmer about her own father's death from the virus. Barkha Dutt has been reporting on the pandemic in India since it began, but nothing could prepare her for the catastrophic second wave that has hit her country in the last few weeks—and that has now shattered her own family. Would her father have survived if the oxygen tank in his ambulance had been working, or if the ambulance hadn't gotten stuck in Delhi traffic?She asks similar questions of her national government. Why was it caught so unprepared by this second wave, well over a year into the pandemic? Why has India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, been so slow to vaccinate its own citizens? And how much of the blame falls at the feet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What's going on between the United Kingdom and France over fishing rights?

Yes, good question. Why on earth are they sending the Royal Navy to chase away some French fishermen from the island of Jersey? Fishing rights is very controversial. It was one of the key issues in the Brexit negotiations. Extremely divisive. Fishermen are fairly determined people but sending the Royal Navy to handle the French fishermen was somewhat excessive. I guess it played rather well with the English nationalists for Boris Johnson in the local elections, though.

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COVID has officially killed almost 3.5 million people around the world since the beginning of the pandemic. But some public health experts believe that the real number could be more than twice as high, because of challenges to accurately reporting the death toll in many countries around the world. A new study from the University of Washington contends, for example, that actual deaths are nearly 60 percent higher than reported in the US, twice as high in India, more than four times as high in Russia... and a staggering ten times higher than the official tally in Japan. Here's a look at how official figures compare to actual estimated deaths in the 20 countries where COVID has claimed the most lives.

While residents of wealthy countries are getting ready for hot vaxxed summer — COVID is still ravaging many low- and middle-income countries. The horrifying scenes coming out of India in recent weeks have gripped the world, causing governments and civil society to quickly mobilize and pledge support.

But on the other side of the globe, Brazil is also being pummeled by the pandemic — and has been for a year now. Yet thus far, the outpouring of aid and (solidarity) hasn't been as large.

What explains the global alarm at India's situation, and seeming passivity towards Brazil's plight? What are the politics of compassion?

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Paris-London face-off at sea: France and the UK are at loggerheads in the high seas this week over post-Brexit fishing access in Jersey, an island off the English Channel. Furious at regulations that they say makes it harder to fish in these lucrative waters, dozens of French fishing boats amassed near the Channel Island, threatening to block access to the port. In response, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson deployed two naval vessels — a move critics say was an unnecessary escalation, and an attempt by the PM to flex his muscles and bolster the Tory vote ahead of Thursday's regional election. France, for its part, sent its own naval ship and threatened to cut off Jersey's electricity supply, 90 percent of which comes from French underwater cables. Fishing rights was one of the final sticking points of Brexit trade negotiations, an emotive political issue for many Britons who say that they got a subpar deal when the UK joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Though an UK-EU Brexit agreement was finally reached in December 2020, it's clear that there are still thorny issues that need to be resolved.

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