New pandemic treaty prompts WW2 comparisons

From the ashes: As in 1945, superpowers will have to make a new order after Covid-19.

Like World War Two, could Covid-19 create a new world order? Yesterday, 24 world leaders signed an open letter calling upon all countries to work together to fight future pandemics.

In July 1944, as World War Two came to a close, delegates from all over the world gathered in Bretton Woods, in the US state of New Hampshire. Their purpose: to build a new world order out of the ruins of the old.

It was to be based not on empires, but on co-operation between nations. The delegates created the International Monetary Fund to rescue countries from financial crises. At the same time, the United Nations was set up to promote peace and human rights, and six nations in Europe created the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner to the European Union.

Now, as the world takes its first steps out of the Covid-19 pandemic, some leaders think it is once again time to build a new world order. Yesterday, a group of 24 world leaders, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, signed an open letter calling for a new treaty to bring countries together in the fight against future pandemics.

The letter, which appeared in multiple languages in newspapers around the world, warns that there will be more pandemics: “The question is not if, but when.” The aim of the new treaty would be to help countries share data about diseases, transfer PPE to where it is most needed, and ensure that everyone on the planet is vaccinated quickly when the next pandemic strikes.

Most experts agree that international cooperation is vital in managing a pandemic. When a virus is allowed to spread uncontrolled, it quickly mutates and develops new variants which can be resistant to vaccines.

Those new variants can rapidly spread around the world – even in vaccinated populations. So, vaccinating one single country does little to halt a pandemic: the whole world has to be inoculated to ensure the virus cannot spread. As the letter notes: “nobody is safe until everyone is safe”.

Some think this letter is a sign that the world is changing for the better. They argue that the major threats now facing humanity, like climate breakdown, can only be defeated through international cooperation.

All countries must agree to reduce their carbon emissions to stop global heating. And as heating makes some of the world uninhabitable, millions of people will have to relocate, creating new refugee crises. These problems will need to be solved co-operatively, and this treaty is an early step in that direction.

But others are sceptical that this really is the beginning of a new world order. They point out that the leaders of the USA and China, the world’s two superpowers, have not signed the letter.

At the Bretton Woods Conference, British economist John Maynard Keynes proposed an institution, the International Clearing Union, which would redistribute wealth from the richest countries back to the poorest. But the idea was vetoed by the USA, which did not want to share its huge wealth. Some warn that this new treaty will also fail if today’s superpowers are not willing to back it.

Like World War Two, could Covid-19 create a new world order?


Yes, say some. They argue that the pandemic has proved that countries can no longer solve their problems alone. We will only be able to deal with future viruses, as well as existential threats like climate breakdown and war, through international cooperation. The letter signed by world leaders yesterday is just the first small step towards a better, more harmonious future.

Not at all, say others. They think it is wrong to imagine that the end of World War Two ushered in a new era of global cooperation: in reality, the USA and western powers just set up a global order that would ensure their domination. In the same way, if the USA and China, the world’s two great superpowers, do not think a pandemic treaty is in their interests, it will never get off the ground.

You Decide

  1. Think of three ways different countries could be encouraged to work together.
  2. What are the barriers to global cooperation, and how could they be overcome?


  1. Design a logo for a new international organisation devoted to promoting co-operation during pandemics.
  2. Write a letter to Joe Biden or Xi Jinping encouraging them to sign up to a new pandemics treaty.

Some People Say...

“The glory of the nation you love is a desirable end, — but generally to be obtained at your neighbour’s expense.”

John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946), British economist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the world is more mobile than it has been at any other point in human history. Three hundred years ago, most people never left their hometown. Travelling was an arduous process: even with a horse, the average person could not travel more than 30 miles a day. Today, people can get around the world in a matter of hours. But this creates new challenges: during a pandemic, it becomes very difficult to prevent a virus from moving from place to place.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not the end of World War Two really ushered in an age of global cooperation. Some point to the UN, the EU and other multinational organisations as proof that nations really were willing to work together as never before. But others think these organisations were actually set up for the benefit of powerful nations. The UN Security Council, for example, has just five permanent seats, occupied by the USA, Russia, China, the UK and France.

Word Watch

New Hampshire
A state in the Northeast of the USA. It was the first state to set up a government independent of Britain in 1776.
Before World War Two, most of the world was under the control of one or another imperial power, largely European. The war, which saw France defeated by Germany and Britain’s economy crushed, largely destroyed this global order.
International Monetary Fund
The IMF is an organisation that gives bailouts, big injections of funds, to countries experiencing financial crisis. However, it is often criticised for using these bailouts to force poor countries to privatise industries and cut spending, often to the benefit of US companies.
United Nations
An organisation representing all of the world’s states. It is intended to be a forum where diplomatic tensions can be resolved peacefully.
European Coal and Steel Community
An organisation set up by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany to remove tariffs on coal and steel. Over the following decades it grew into the modern European Union, with 27 members.
Personal Protective Equipment is medical equipment that doctors and nurses use to avoid being infected by a disease.
John Maynard Keynes
A British economist who gave rise to an economic theory, Keynesianism, that promotes government intervention in the economy to prevent recessions.
International Clearing Union
An organisation that would have prevented one country from building up too large a trade surplus over another.
Exercising a veto means refusing to allow something to happen. It comes from the Latin veto, meaning “I forbid”.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.