Beyond Nation First? COVID-19, Climate Change and Global Solutions Required for Global Problems

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The problem is that our governance structures are based on the protection of a defined territory and a people rather than humanity.”


We are all in this together. The future of humanity is no longer based on the unassailable sovereign rights of nation-states making decisions to protect the interests of a single nation. Climate change and pandemics are global problems that require global solutions rather than national solutions.

The problem is that our governance structures are based on the protection of a defined territory and a people rather than humanity. At another scale, the argument needs to shift from humanity to include all lifeforms on this planet. There is no question that we are all in this together.

China’s strategy is based on China first combined with the preservation of a particular approach to governance. The U.S. places the interests of Americans first. This is the case for all nations. The European Union is about protecting the interests of Europeans and not other people. Any other national agenda regarding global coordination or cooperation is a comparatively marginal activity.

The Brexit discussions over the EU/UK trade deal highlighted that the European approach is about protecting and creating jobs in Europe. Michel Barnier has put on record that “When you speak about the rules of origin, you are speaking about preserving and defending the jobs in the EU, nothing else”. For the EU, this approach strips jobs from emerging economies transferring wealth from the most vulnerable to support the most advantaged.

The political row regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine and the shortfall is another example of a group of nations working to support their own interests. For the European Union, procurement of COVID-19 vaccines was centralized in the European Commission (EC). This was perhaps a mistake. The EC must demonstrate that they provide additionality through this process of procurement centralisation. The outcome has highlighted that the EC is careful, cautious, and slow.

The EC appears to consider that any contract signed by the EC should have priority over other contracts. Thus, the EU Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, proclaimed "We reject the logic of first come, first served...that may work at the neighbourhood butcher’s but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements". The implication is that an EC advanced purchase agreement takes precedent over agreements that were signed much earlier by other countries.

It is perhaps surprising that it has taken the European Medicines Agency (EMA) so long to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine. This was a case of Europe last rather than first! The political row preceded approval. The AstraZeneca vaccine is a game-changer as it is inexpensive compared to other vaccines and does not require special storage facilities. This vaccine is perhaps ideal for emerging economy environments including people living in refugee camps and informal settlements. And yet, the Commission’s approach seems to suggest that Europeans are more important than other people and queue jumping is part of this entitlement.

The President of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, has developed Donald Trump tendencies. On 3 April 2020, the Defence Protection Act (DPA) was invoked by Trump to prevent the export of respirators, surgical masks and other PPE from the U.S..1 This was a classic America First initiative.

The challenge is that a national solution to COVID-19 is only a solution if that nation can isolate itself from the rest of the world. This would be difficult, but not impossible. Nevertheless, for climate change this would be impossible.

The future of humanity requires the development of a new form of effective global governance that will develop and implement effective solutions to global problems. The challenge is that global processes are global and require global solutions. Unfortunately, the unassailable rights of sovereign states will continue to prevail. Thus, Europe First, America First, China First and Russia First. There are perhaps two possible outcomes. The best possible outcome will result in high death rates across the planet and wars over access to resources including food and water. The political ‘war’ over COVID-19 vaccines is only the start of what will be a much more deadly game involving positioning the rights of one people over another. The worst possible outcome could be a new beginning for this planet without humanity.

My own view of this is that no significant action to develop global solutions to global challenges will be taken by governments until there is a major crisis. By then it will be too late to avoid some of the consequences of trying to apply local solutions to global problems and in adopting a nation first agenda.


1 Bryson, J.R. and Vanchan, V. (2020), ‘COVID‐19 and Alternative Conceptualisations of Value and Risk in GPN Research’, Tijds. voor econ. en Soc. Geog., 111: 530-542