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The return of every man for himself The coronavirus pandemic shows how multilateralism has weakened national resilience

Credit: CARLO HERMANN/AFP via Getty Images

Credit: CARLO HERMANN/AFP via Getty Images

April 20, 2020   4 mins

Whatever happened to self-reliance? At school in the Eighties I don’t remember teamwork ever being greatly valued. Even on the sports field it was the individual who mattered.

One enduring memory that reinforces this notion is of an away cricket match against a school that boasted the Test Match Special commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins’s son Robin on its side. In fact it would have been nothing without RMJ — as he became known when he later played for Sussex. Having walloped most of the runs in the first half of the match he spent the second taking the lion’s share of our wickets.

We had collectively scored perhaps 25 runs, when he took wicket number nine, which meant that I was in. I was the make-weight on our side: last man to bat, a permanent fielder at fine leg. I still remember the school’s clock tolling six as I walked out to the crease in the late afternoon sun. I knew that bell meant this was the final over. For my team to scrape a draw I just had to survive it.

Martin-Jenkins began his run-in somewhere near the boundary. He started slowly enough, before gathering runaway train-like momentum at which point he unleashed a ball that swung and dipped and sizzled through the air towards me. Somehow this fireball found its way between my bat and pad and I was out. There was an audible groan from the boundary and I returned to the pavilion to meet looks of disdain from nine other defeated batsmen, who were no doubt relieved that I could now be blamed.

It was an early lesson that in a crisis, you are on your own: something that collectively, we seem in danger of forgetting. Self-reliance was probably already a rather old-fashioned virtue (I unearthed my parents’ copy of my school’s prospectus the other day – it had been printed in the fifties). But since 1989, a year or so after that cricket match, teamwork has become the defining belief, not just in schools but on the international stage as well.

Multilateralism (working with other nations through international organisations, in other words) has gone hand in hand with globalisation. Just as businesses now rely on complex supply chains that cross continents (but seem invariably to involve China), the wisdom among international policy makers is that we can’t achieve anything on our own.

What if this faith in multilateralism has weakened our resilience? The UK National Security Reviews of 2010 and 2015 both identified a pandemic as a high impact, and highly probable event. By definition a pandemic would not simply affect this country. And yet there seems to have been little imaginative thinking about how, with our reliance on protective and other medical equipment manufactured abroad, we might fare in a situation where every country’s instinct would be to look after itself.

Imagination is no longer needed. Some of the behaviour of the last few weeks is shocking, but it should not really surprise. While on the one hand calling for the creation of coronabonds which would mutualise eurozone member states’ debt (and which a cynic might say he knew would be rejected by the northern European states), French president Emmanuel Macron requisitioned both the stocks and production of protective masks in the country.

Macron’s decree led to the seizure,  from a warehouse in Lyon, of six million facemasks that had been imported from Asia and already sold to a range of European countries by the Swedish firm Mölnlycke. The French later relented and released two million masks: offering half of those as a gift to the Italians (who had already paid for some of them).

The Americans have been equally busy, using a 1950 law passed during the Korean War to pressurise another mask supplier, 3M, to sell its stock to them. The Germans have complained about American behaviour while the French say that mysterious American buyers outbid them for supplies in China.

The Financial Times has been producing a pretty chart which unwisely attempts to compare the death toll by country — a mug’s game when there are so many variables. But the one thing this approach inadvertently reveals is that the journalists of this most international of newspapers know, as we all do, that this is at heart a macabre game of nations. No one (at least outside the European Commission) is comparing amalgamated data for the USA and the EU-27. Everyone, from COBRA downwards, wants to know whether we are doing better than the French or Germans.

To the average person this won’t be shocking. They will be more bothered by the sense that our masters did not anticipate the instincts that a crisis of this sort unleashes. But others clearly are unnerved. The former French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, said last week that it was alarming to see “the return of every man for himself”.

For a man who enjoys tweeting bad economic news about the UK, this seemed slightly pious. But I respect M. Araud and suspect that his discomfort arises from the realisation that, for the multilateral institutions that have dominated diplomatic activity during his career, it looks increasingly like the end of an era. For the French that is a particular challenge. As Bismarck reputedly once said (though I have never managed to find a convincing reference), “I have always found the word ‘Europe’ on the lips of those who wanted something from other powers which they dared not demand in their own name.”

Araud’s reference to “every man for himself” was disparaging, but we need to question whether it is always a bad thing. Clearly we need international cooperation, but it is notable that Hong Kong and Taiwan — neither of which enjoys access to the WHO — were quick to appreciate the threat presented by the virus. It was precisely because they could not participate in this particular part of the multilateral system that they have proved so resilient.

The UK’s foreign policy, defence and security review is now on hold. But when it is restarted, its architects might consider a new scientific study, reported the other day, which provides a rather thought-provoking metaphor. Scientists in France — where else? — have found that ash trees that grow in isolation or in less dense woods are more likely to survive ash dieback. It is, I learnt, a disease that originated in Asia. If we emerge from this crisis recognising the advantages of greater self-reliance, that would be no bad thing.

James Barr is a historian specialising in the Middle East and author of Lords of the Desert and A Line In The Sand.


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Orson Carte
Orson Carte
4 years ago

But our countries are no longer populated by ‘our’ people. Let’s take it back to say 1939, when at least in England, we knew who we were, and who was the enemy. We are now all far more multi-cultural than in (say) 1939. There are torn (or not so torn) loyalties. Do we still pull together within our geographical boundaries? I would suggest not. When you talk of self-reliance, exactly which ‘self’ are you hoping to rely on?

Douglas Torok
Douglas Torok
4 years ago

Self-preservation mode in the world of ‘have & have not’s will prove to be a deadly combination!

4 years ago

A nation of individuals, isolated, identifying as and alienated from ‘other’, is what the NWO wanted.