by Purujith Gautam
Trust has defined our collective humanity since its inception. Through trust, we built identities, relationships, communities, and through that, a complex global system of labour, commerce, policy and accountability. If our interconnected ambition is the vehicle towards progress, then trust is the critical engine that keeps the vehicle running. However, trust is as ancient as the act that erodes it: betrayal. Contemporary and literary history is replete with examples of betrayal leading to catastrophic outcomes. Indian epics, like the Mahabharata show how betrayal led to an annihilation of an entire race, whereas contemporary events like the 2008 Financial Crisis show how, in collusion, banks, credit rating agencies and governments could betray an entire population in greed-driven pursuit. Ultimately, when trust is betrayed, there are resounding repercussions on individuals, institutions and the larger global order that they form.
In the case of COVID-19, China, through its reckless negligence, has betrayed the trust we place in the global interdependent system. Millions of livelihoods have been destroyed and trillions in economic value wiped out. The demise of this global system seems inevitable and apocalyptic. However, I believe we can still salvage and rebuild it, and to do so, will require fixing a problem that underpins the current global interconnected system as we know it.
A core feature of the current interconnected system is a reckless and unbridled capitalism. We practiced it thoroughly over the last few decades, often so intoxicated by its monetary gains, that we failed to see its corrosiveness. We sedated our primordial instinct of determining trustworthiness through the highly potent drug known as profits. I say this, because when relying on trust, subtle red flags will often instinctually interfere in our decision-making rubric. Everything could line up about a deal, but if we don’t trust someone because of something we know or feel about them, we might not work with them. Contemporary warning signs, however, have been far from subtle. Take Saudi Arabia for example. If I know they have murdered a journalist within an embassy, cut up the body with a bone saw and then potentially tossed it into a vat of acid, all with impunity, I would be remiss to trust them as a partner. But then again, the bells of profit are often so loud, that they render the warning sounds in our instinct-based system as faint. The prospect of a win overpowers our basic instinct, as well as any logical inference we usually rely on to avoid subsequent catastrophe.
Similarly, with China, we failed to internalize the obvious red flags of its notoriously closed political system, and general disregard for its people’s freedom, property rights and rule of law. We had all the information to question our partnerships with them but the heady prospect of cheap labour numbed our instinct. It should have come as no surprise then, that the country suppressed critical virus-related information while simultaneously detaining and suppressing whistleblowers. Our ability to assess trustworthiness based on certain morals and virtues is an internal checks-and-balances system and over the last few decades we have willfully sedated it in pursuit of profit. Large business deals with known human rights abusing nations? Check. Exploitation of natural resources with full knowledge of the environmental damage? Check. Outsourcing of jobs with a clear knowledge of unfair labor practices? Check. Trade relationships with countries that don’t believe in democracy or freedom of opinion? Check. Even sadder, is that government and business decision-making processes often never consider the opinions of those that will face the brunt of the risk and, perhaps more critically, never intend for any profit to be shared with them in the first place.
To heal the existential wounds of this crisis, we have to fundamentally redesign our global international order. I believe, perhaps controversially so, that a market-based system is still the best model for worldwide growth and poverty alleviation, but for it to be sustainable, there must be a new rubric that countries and businesses use for assessing trustworthiness of partnerships. Institutions have created useful indexes to assess qualities ranging from Transparency, Human Rights, Environmental Sustainability, Ease of Doing Business and Political Freedom. However, when deciding to place trust going forth, our assessment should be more holistic.
As a thought experiment, say an authoritarian country is somehow transparent and easy to do business with, and the profit upside of working with them is immense. Should we still consider a partnership? It’s a weightage issue, and thus far we continue to assign profit the highest weight.
We have to radically change the weightage assigned to profit in our trust and risk models. Logical and instinctive reprioritization can help governments and businesses see past the irresistible allure of profits. Countries, businesses and international organizations that avoid partnerships where information is controlled, freedom is limited, and power is authoritarian, can protect themselves from the destruction of black swan events. Businesses wishing to reconsider their presence in untrustworthy nations, must be supported by their home countries. Parallelly, countries must not default to post-crisis immigration and labour policies rooted in racism and fear. Truth is, we are addicted to profits, and blaming immigrants for a global crisis is nothing but a toxic diversionary tactic of denying that truth.
Redefining an established system is a herculean and seemingly utopian task, but I believe it’s something we can strive towards with patience and steady conviction… trust me.
Purujith is a Master’s in International Affairs student at The Graduate Institute in Geneva. He focuses on foreign policy, security, and warfare. Outside of the degree, he is passionate about squash (the sport), spirituality, philosophy and coffee!