Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

by , | May 21, 2020

Earlier this week, we published Shooting the Rapids – COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation. In the final section, we present a plan for collective action at the global level with four elements: 

  • Firefight better – getting the emergency response right to overcome the most serious problems. 
  • Make people feel secure – not only to defuse risks of violence and conflict, but to create the psychological conditions needed to support collective action.  
  • Protect the critical global infrastructure that we absolutely cannot afford to lose.  
  • And a New Deal for a New Generation – education, jobs, and climate protection. 

In this post, we wanted to say a little more about what we mean by critical global infrastructure and why we need to identify and focus on it. 

Shooting the Rapids is a sequel to Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization – a Brookings report from 2010 (written with Bruce Jones). And the Long Crisis was in turn developed from a paper that Gordon Brown asked us to present at the Progressive Governance Summit in April 2008.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown with other World Leaders during a press conference at the end of the Progressive Governance Summit, 5 April 2008; Crown copyright.

Brown hosted the summit to try and build a like-minded coalition to manage risks in an increasingly tempestuous international environment. But the initiative was dismissed as a “frothy indulgence” by critics in his own party. They advised him to forget the global and get in touch with “Labour values” by offering “common sense” answers to the everyday problems of British voters. 

But 2008 was not a good year for progressives to try to retreat into their shells. As Robert Cooper once said, “we may not be interested in chaos, but chaos is interested in us.” Northern Rock, an upstart British bank with a “reckless business model,” had collapsed in February. The “run on the Rock” was the first in the UK in 130 years. By the time the Progressive Governance Summit was held, signals of broader systemic trouble were blinking red, as chatter grew about an impending “credit crunch.”

As we would soon discover, the global financial system was rotten to the core and Brown’s time as leader would be defined by his attempts to prevent it from collapsing (much lauded) and the subsequent revenge taken by British voters for the pain the crisis caused them, driving him out of office and his party far away from power. 

The summit was a tense, and often strange, affair. Our job was to kick off a summit on global governance (see our paper), but it was long delayed as the discussion on the economy ran on and on.  

My strongest memory is of Dominque Strauss Kahn’s intervention. Yet to be unmasked as a sex pest or worse, the head of the IMF told leaders that he’d been shaken by a financial crisis unlike any he’d expected to encounter in his career. Now it’s over, he said, we must learn lessons and make sure it never happens again.  

But it wasn’t over. It had hardly begun. Lehman Brothers collapsed 163 days later, with the global economy came frighteningly close to total breakdown. So:

  • The world was unprepared for a crisis – financial and economic systems were not resilient. 
  • Leaders called the peak of the crisis far too early – and were tempted to declare victory and move on. 
  • In September, with floodwaters up to their necks, they rallied – revelling in the “drama, media attention, and sense of purpose” that an acute emergency brings.  
  • But – again – they moved on, leaving the Eurozone to fester, trust in institutions to collapse, and societies to polarise in a way that left societies less prepared for future crises. 

In this new crisis, we can already detect the same patterns of denial, panic, emergency response, and a failure to sustain action.  

The danger of a premature declaration of victory is especially acute at the moment, as governments convince themselves that infections have peaked and they are past the worst, that economies can be restarted and will recover, and the bounce in popularity that many have enjoyed will be sustained. 

Maybe this rosy scenario will come to pass. But – as we demonstrate in the first section of Shooting the Rapids – levels of uncertainty are frighteningly high, the route out of lockdown is perilous, many countries are only just starting their journey with the virus, and it is hard to see economies going back to normal anytime soon.  

Moreover, the ‘consequences of the consequences’ are only just starting to unfold. We could soon see a secondary wave of impacts on food systems, energy and trade, sovereign and corporate debt, and banking systems, be hit by an unrelated shock such as a major earthquake, or experience fallout from political instability and insecurity. 

“The ‘consequences of the consequences’ are only just starting to unfold.”

The future could look very ugly, in other words, if we again discover that this is the Northern Rock phase of the emergency and Lehman Brothers lies ahead. 

This matters for the international system and what it should be focused on. The run up to this week’s World Health Assembly was dominated by calls for an independent enquiry into what went wrong. Many countries are also switching into ‘lessons learned’ mode. 

But we should be more focused on the mistakes of the future than the mistakes of the past. On understanding which of our global systems could fail in the next phase of the crisis and acting now to shore them up. 

In Shooting the Rapids, we identify some priorities:

  • Keeping global food supply chains open, using models that emerged from the 2008 food crisis.  
  • Stabilising global energy markets and helping major exporters cope with the pain that collapsing prices is causing their citizens. 
  • Maintaining trade routes at a time when protectionist forces are stronger than at any time since the 1930 Depression and there are rational reasons for onshoring.    
  • Tackling systemic financial risks and making sure the global communications infrastructure can withstand attack.  

In each of these areas, we need strong international leadership, the strategic discipline to focus on what is most important and jettison what is not, and minimum viable alliances that “can begin to manage a risk or solve a problem – and then expand participation as momentum builds.” 

This work is not glamorous. If it’s effective, it will go mostly unnoticed (the unfortunate “paradox of prevention”).  

But it is essential that we act now to protect the “institutions and systems that we cannot afford to lose as we navigate the long crisis of COVID-19.” 


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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