The eyeglasses of world leaders need a new prescription: time for political foresight over short-sightedness

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

Our current brand of leadership cannot break free from the cycle of crisis after crisis. Why? Our political system is marked by the cult of personal gain. Such a model means citizens lose out because their leaders lack the necessary political foresight. Examples of this can be found everywhere.

The current crisis in Ukraine, like recent health and economic emergencies, once again reveals our inability to approach problems with a preventative mindset. Leaders appear to be wired into the ‘here and now’, the electoral cycle or the next talking point, instead of tackling what’s on the horizon, addressing risks and making decisions based on science, evidence and data. It’s ‘mañana politics’: burying one’s head in the sand because the only thing that matters is the immediate timeframe, the next four years and then getting back into power. It’s not about doing the right thing for the future; anything outside the narrow delimitation of a leader’s political cycle can be excluded from consideration.

The reign of neoliberalism must take a step back. Free marketeers surely have had their time! Recent events, with more arduous hills still to climb, clearly show that unfettered globalisation based on a free market runs amok in times of crises. Yet again, with the Russia-Ukraine war, we are witnessing the culmination of short-sighted decisions made over the past decade, despite the many calls to diversify energy sources, accelerate renewables and take account of the geopolitical implications of overdependence on Russian energy. Germany has now suspended Nord Stream 2 after the Ukraine invasion, but why not sooner? Why didn’t leaders think about the impact of wheat supplies into Europe? And what could have been done to diversify and establish alternative routes and forms of supply?

Our current understanding of GDP as a basis for borrowing more…is a flawed concept

What we need is a whole-of-society reckoning, underpinned by a set of liberal values, to guide us towards a future of comparable order and cooperation. Having a Europe-wide dashboard to guide policymaking must also incorporate foresight and strategic planning to understand the future risks and potential courses of action, rather than stare blankly at the oncoming train without taking swift and consequential action to leap out of its way. Learning from this crisis should also reinforce the engagement of non-state actors, ranging from tech gurus and entrepreneurs to civil society actors. They are making a difference now and can do much more if included earlier in the game.

Another key takeaway from the most recent crises is to act fast and close the gap between research and development (R&D) and production, but also, exercise the muscle that we saw working so well during the pandemic to build and execute projects at scale. Vaccines were developed at breakneck speed, and governments coordinated with already overworked hospital staff to provide jabs and dedicate care to flatten the curve. This helped give hope to our coordination capacity at the local, national, European and even global level. We must harness this coordination capacity again and invest at speed to establish renewable energy capabilities across Europe and break free from our current energy dependency with Russia. Doing so on an industrial scale will not only divest from the Russian coffers and seriously impede Russia’s advancement into Ukraine, but also create incentives for change among energy providers and generate new European jobs that will bolster our economy – ultimately acting as a buffer to strategically contain future crises.

It is essential to keep an eye on the speed and scale of poverty, joblessness and access to housing. Part of this means not abiding by the so-called norms of economic theory. Our current understanding of GDP as a basis for borrowing more, and the only measure of risk to our economic wellbeing, is a flawed concept. Caps on personal or commercial borrowing only hurt our economy as a whole. Governments can and should increase the percentage of what is acceptable in terms of borrowing against GDP. Failing to keep communities and businesses afloat now will incur a much higher price on the public expenditure in terms of social security costs, public sector costs and private sector defaults, especially amongst SMEs, deemed as the bulwark of any economy.

We must raise the bar for a new political foresight

We must not lose sight of digitisation’s critical importance. It is key to so much of our lives and will only grow more so. The Russia-Ukraine war presents a key opportunity to learn and set about devising a grand digitalisation plan for Europe that is end-to-end in terms of security. Digitisation will impact everything else, from ensuring supply chains stem from liberal democracies, providing education and other public services, to incorporating the climate-health nexus on a scale hitherto unknown.

Finally, we must look to Africa as an equal partner that has the potential to provide a range of resources in commodity markets such as energy and sustainable raw materials. If we provide progressive R&D investment, infrastructure support and financial capabilities, which are mutually reinforcing, rather than repeat the horrifying mistakes of colonial land grabs to divvy up resources, then we may yet provide the platform for Africa and Europe to become the strongest ally and partner. At times of crises, whilst generating economic stability, sustainable growth and reciprocity, we can reinforce this allyship, so long as we change the tone, language and bargaining chips. Rather than a north-down ‘saviour politics’, it should be south-up and encourage a progressive partnership of equals.

Woefully and pitifully, it appears that a truism has forcefully emerged over the past three years. Adversity is the driver of political action to do the right thing. In reality, we must raise the bar for a new political foresight anchored in doing the right thing for the good and betterment of society, regardless of political tenure.

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