Exploring identity global cooperation and the role of the UK in the post-pandemic world
Following a BBC survey, Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Affairs Editor, concludes that national identity “is more than a factual statement about place of birth or citizenship. It is an attitude and a state of mind”. In so doing, he provides a fascinating springboard for a discussion on nationhood and identity, which has taken on added dimensions during this global pandemic. What has become clear is that the ‘state of mind’ making up our national sense of ourselves must also encompass an expanding consciousness of our roles and relationships in a global society, which is increasingly integrated and complex.
Our national identity and values are interconnected. There is a reciprocal relationship between our sovereign aims and aspirations, which define our interactions with the world, and our contributions to shaping the policies that govern these global connections.
International diplomats, due to the nature of their work, are well placed to consider the reality of the evolving discussion around identity. Michael Aron, the current British Ambassador to Yemen, for example, introduces the idea that: “many successful countries benefit from a national identity based on ethnic and cultural diversity”. He goes on to suggest “that national identity should ideally be used to bring the people of a country together, not to develop a sense of superiority towards neighbouring countries.” In this light, the notion of identity now needs to expand to include the rising influence of global concerns as national identities evolve, ebb and flow, and are influenced by both internal and external links to other countries.
Many aspects of national identity – grounded on a common landscape, shared experience, history and relationships in society, among others – offer parallels at the global level. It is hard to deny that, despite fitful progress and setbacks and current anti-globalisation sentiments, the overall direction over the past 150 years is towards some form of global integration. Within an evolving global system, nation states and national identities will continue to play a vital, though adjusted, role as they mature.
We have reached an important milestone in that journey towards maturity. The coronavirus crisis has presented us with a paradox: it has simultaneously merged the world closer together while also propelling it apart. On the one hand, it has reinforced the sovereignty of the nation-state, emphasising its primary duty of care. It has deepened competition among states for precious medical resources, fostered isolationism, fuelling the backlash against the negative aspects of globalisation. On the other hand, it has highlighted that reducing the global threat of the disease will only be as effective as the weakest link, emphasising our interdependence. We have come to realise that effective international cooperation could speed up the process of discovering a vaccine and accelerate relief from the quagmire of interrelated health, economic, environmental and social inequalities affecting large segments of the world’s population.
Hence, we may have reached an inflexion point. Arundhati Roy suggests ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew…the pandemic is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’.
What abiding lesson do we draw from the Covid 19 episode? Is this a truly an irreconcilable paradox, or do we need to examine our socially constructed view of the world when it comes to identity, interconnectedness and our national role on the international stage?
The rapid dissolution of barriers to human interaction across the globe due to advancement in technology and communication appears to be the greatest factor in propelling the world towards greater interconnectedness at the level of collective culture. Covid-19 has not halted that process, if anything it has demonstrated that we can transcend space if necessary. It has also accelerated the deployment of tools and platforms to maintain connectivity inside and outside of national boundaries. And although the impact of the virus reached different countries at different speed, it created a common shared experience felt by all countries and peoples.
When viewed this way, a false dichotomy such as ‘nations versus the world’ should be critically assessed. The Bahá'í writings provide the following metaphor for relationships between nations: the world can be likened to the human body and “within this organism, billions of cells, diverse in form and function, play their part in maintaining a healthy system. The principle that governs the functioning of the body is cooperation. Its various parts do not compete for resources; rather, each cell, from its inception, is linked to a continuous process of reciprocity.”
Each organ of the body is distinct in appearance, character and function but plays its unique part. An equilibrium is achieved between individual needs and the functioning of the whole, which is essential for the purpose of sustaining life. When the balance is upset, we fall sick.
In the same manner, the current global system, of which sovereign nations form part, is structurally defective when nations act only in their own narrow interests.
Presently, fundamental relationships between both the cells (individual citizens) and organs (nation states) of the world are dysfunctional. The entire system operates under the rubric of competition, not cooperation, which inevitably results in the pursuit of unbridled national interests and the exploitation of both human and environmental capital. Unscrupulous global practices generate the accumulation of vast fortunes into the hands of a relative few. This causes widespread social and economic inequalities, instability, resentment and rupture, which stifles cooperation to humanity’s wider peril.
These features are conspicuous in the turbulent present as the evolution of our collective consciousness takes place, to borrow Mark Easton’s expression, humanity’s common ‘state of mind’. Nations tussle with their independence and interdependence, striving to strike the right balance between local, national and international jurisdiction and responsibilities – the principle of subsidiarity needs to be urgently and sincerely addressed within the framework of body as a whole. It may now be timely for these hitherto competing organs to become mindful of both their unique characteristics and identity, as well as their responsibilities towards a consciously crafted ‘whole of the global system’.
The timing is poignant. The opportunity to reassert both our national and global identity is being presented through the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, whose charters begin with the words “we the peoples”, a statement, which, like the coronavirus, fails to discriminate..
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK Government is uniquely positioned to exercise its privileged position to reshape and restructure the United Nations system in the post-Covid world. That system needs to be better able to anticipate, cooperate and function in light of a succession of global challenges that threaten to ambush humanity over the course of the 21st Century. It requires a break from the past and a vision of the future that embraces the health and prosperity, the peace and security, of the whole body of humanity.