Why a ‘new global-local’ is an important dimension of post-pandemic local government

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This article is part of our Post-Covid councils work on Place and Community.

This longread by David Marlow sets out an explicitly provocative narrative to stimulate the thinking of local authorities and partners about whether there is and should be a ‘think global – act local’ dimension to their place-based recovery strategies and priorities. It makes the case that some national governments – and possibly the UK in particular – have been so severely exposed by the pandemic that relying on them to secure future resilience and prosperity for all our cities, towns and communities is recklessly optimistic.

The views are those of the author.

It is easy to treat the Covid-19 pandemic as an unexpected, exogenous crisis, that has stimulated and required strong national government leadership response, with local government playing instrumental supportive roles. However, wide diversity of national strategies, and huge variation in outcomes – even in this intermediate stage of pandemic – can also exemplify fundamental questions about the character of nation states and national-local relations with their cities, towns and communities.

This is probably as true in the UK as anywhere. The UK is highly centralised, its crisis management performance and outcomes has been, at best, patchy, and the pandemic runs concurrently with UK repositioning itself in the world, post-brexit.

This long-read presents an explicitly personal perspective from the author of some key global issues that may influence local authorities and partners as they undertake post-pandemic recovery planning. Our places will be shaped by these global tensions, but how do places set about managing them?

Although focused on England, this paper will be of some interest across all LGIU geographies. Centralisation-decentralisation-devolution pressures are an important consideration for achieving future central-local equilibriums that can manage crisis turnaround effectively for the benefit of all communities of interest and place.

In the midst of a global pandemic, crisis management strategy and policy has been largely determined by government, with local authorities discharging assigned roles as one of several tiers of sub-national field administration. However, as we move from crisis to turnaround, recovery and some sort of ‘new normal’, we can anticipate local differentiation re-emerging as an increasing determinant of outcomes against top-down, ‘one size fits all’, national propensities.

This paper explores two primary questions from a global trends and relevance perspective. ‘What can places do in the medium-term to deliver success?’ and ‘How can place-based leadership teams set about determining what success should look like in the shadow and aftermath of Covid-19?’

It does this by explicitly attempting to redefine and reposition ‘think global, act local’ for this new, and what is shaping up to be an extraordinary, decade. Towards the end of the read is also sets out what this new ‘think global, act local’ agenda might look like – especially in terms of community and local economic leadership.

In particular it suggests the new agendas should be values and partnership led, evidence informed, and based on a specific post-Devolution White Paper local devolution strategy. It should explicitly build transnational relations and dialogue whilst supporting and enabling local community activism and democratic renewal. In economic terms, particular attention might be paid to broad public health economies, clean and green industries and technologies, repurposing labour markets particularly at risk of automation and/or lower demand post-social-distancing, and rebooting public places to work in this new post-Covid-19 context.

It presumes a shared author-reader world view that the nation state does NOT have, nor can national government delivery-manage, definitive answers to these questions.

Places will turnaround and recover in disparate and sometimes diverging ways, with highly differentiated results. This paper suggests that the more local leadership teams ‘think global’ the better those results are likely to be.

Thinking global, and making this relevant locally, is demanding at the best of times. In the midst of public health, economic and social existential crises, with so many urgent important, national directives to deliver, is it asking too much?

Self-evidently, this thought piece makes the case that, far from being an indulgent luxury, understanding global dimensions and implications of the pandemic, and the limitations of national responses to this, is central to local authorities’ local leadership roles and ambitions for their place. It seeks to help local authorities and partners in this crucial endeavour.

The global-local worldview and rise of populist identity politics

Prior to the pandemic and consequential social and economic crises, a strong case could be made that the future was increasingly being shaped by a ‘think global, act local’ ethos. This totemic principle seemed to have considerable universal relevance.

Politically, the nation state seemed too small to effectively address global challenges and mediate international business, but too large to manage how these challenges played out differentially in highly distinctive regions, cities, towns and communities.

Trade and global supply chains were clearly key to economic and business competitiveness but needed to adapt to and, indeed, shape, local labour markets, infrastructure and connectivity as much as, for instance, national tax regimes.

From migration to tourism, seemingly ever-looser border controls meant the social costs and benefits of globalisation were increasingly felt and managed locally.

Nowhere was ‘think global, act local’ more of a call to action than in climate crisis and environmental activism where connecting individual behaviour to global impact was fundamental to achieving a healthy planet and resilient communities.

Britain seemed to exemplify this – highly open to and embracing globalisation, devolved nations, London as a world city mega-region, but increasingly decoupled from the rest of the country, with the widest variation in socio-economic outcomes of most advanced nations at regional, sub-regional and local levels.

In some senses, the Brexit referendum represented the tensions inherent in this world view, and the victory of a constituency that preferred a more bounded nation state to this shared global-local connectedness.

It was a key milestone in a number of political victories at nation state level that have been characterised as populist. From Brexit and Trump to Bolsonaro and nationalist leaders like Putin, Orban and Duterte, national identity, and a divisive belonging and not-belonging narrative, has been of increasing prominence in what has been termed identity politics.

By the time of the Covid-19 crisis it was clear that national responses to the global crisis were likely to be highly diverse. In a context of populist identity politics in large nation states, both global and local leadership will struggle to bring their own internal coherence and consistency to the priority agendas of these nations.

Covid-19 and national crisis management

The identification of Covid-19, its spread, the declaration of a global pandemic, the subsequent economic and social lock downs, and tentative relaxation of restrictions have been, far and away, the defining feature of 2020 to date.

Leadership and governance of the crisis has largely been determined by national leadership teams – each of whom has declared its own crisis management regime.

Whilst there is no single typology of national responses, in broad terms many Asian and Australasian countries appeared to pursue elimination strategies with highly restrictive lock downs, and thorough test, track and trace systems. At the other extreme, countries like US and Brazil exemplify a sometimes-sceptical approach, seeking early return to ‘normal’ economic and social life over public health priorities.

In the EU, the Council did enable both early relaxation of EU rules, including totems like open borders, and latterly agreement of a very large fiscal package of support. However, it mainly deferred to member state national competences in public health. This has enabled highly differentiated approaches to lockdown and reopening – from, for instance, punitive periods in Spain and Italy, to much more reliance on social responsibility in Sweden, to a strong digital strategy in Estonia, to much more politically driven authoritarian strategies in Hungary and Poland.

In the UK, the Johnson government’s approach has been highly contested. A public inquiry is expected (and has been promised) at some stage. Critics accused the UK government of at first intending to pursue a ‘herd immunity’ strategy (which they dispute) but then they introduced increasing guidance during March, culminating in Stay at Home restrictions on 23 March, effectively closing down all but key economic and social functions.

This managed the most acute NHS capacity fears. Testing was ramped up, and some sort of track and trace system has been introduced. Cases and deaths have fallen from the April surge. The government published a largely public health-oriented recovery strategy in May and ‘The next chapter in our plan to rebuild’ in July.

Government’s economic and fiscal strategies have been unprecedented and highly interventionist. Funding has been made available for labour market (eg furlough schemes), sector support (eg tax holidays) and for increased spending (eg NHS).

How much this will cost is uncertain and depends both on the future trajectory of the pandemic, the government’s policy responses, and broader economic impact. However, estimates and forecasts tend to be in the £150bn-£200bn range for direct fiscal stimulus – increasing public sector net debt to around 100 per cent of GDP and the in-year budget deficit to around 20 per cent (from a forecast of 2.4 per cent in the March budget).

UK Government – a case study in the relative failure of national approaches

Just as crisis management has been highly differentiated between countries, so have outcomes – albeit we are still at an intermediate stage in the pandemic.

The highly regarded Worldometer gives detailed breakdown of testing, cases and deaths by country. As of 14 August, of total global deaths of 757,000, the largest reported number, about 22.5 per cent, were US and the second largest, 14 per cent, were Brazil. Deaths per million population in the larger countries ranged from over 600:1m in Spain and UK to under 10:1m in Asian giants like China, Japan and Vietnam. The UK has the highest declared number of deaths in Europe and the third highest number of cases – after Russia and Spain.

There are a lot of questions about the reliability of both public health reporting and economic and social impact. One of the most useful sources is probably the ONS. This suggests strongly at least a relative failure of UK national government at this stage of the crisis.

Probably a more robust measure of mortality outcomes at this moment is not deaths attributed explicitly to Covid-19 (which is a measure of what is on death certificates), but rather the measure of excess deaths over the norm for the pandemic period.

The most recent analysis by the ONS of excess deaths during the first half of 2020 (so through the rise and partial fall of Covid-19) focuses on standardised mortality rates per 100,000 population across 25 European countries (most of the EU plus UK, Switzerland and a couple of others), selected cities and regions, for all persons, by gender, over and under 65s, on a weekly basis since 2015. Various formulae adjust figures to give a standardised measure that is comparable across countries.

As of June 12th (week 24 of 2020), from 2015-2019 the average UK mortality rate per week was 18.8 persons per 100,000. For the last quarter (so mid-March to mid-June) this rose by over a third to 25.2. Males over 65 in England fared much, much worse. The 2015-19 weekly mortality rate was 93 per week. Over the last quarter, this shot up by over 41 per cent to 132.

England manages to have delivered the greatest rise in deaths for all cohorts of people, over and under-65s, males and females – with the UK as a whole not far behind. Over the calendar year so far, our cumulative excess deaths of 6.94 per 100,000 is the highest of any of the countries. Every excess death per 100,000 population means 667 mortalities – or around 55,000 from mid-March to mid-June.

Nine countries (from large states like France, Scandinavian Denmark Finland and Norway, to at least two of the EU Baltic states) actually had lower cumulative death rates this year as opposed to their five-year averages – despite the pandemic.

The picture painted for cities is more mixed. Madrid (15.1/100k/per week) has the most cumulative deaths for the latest quarter, followed by Birmingham (13.2), Manchester (12.7), Barcelona (11.9), London (11.3), and Glasgow (10.1). However, Zurich, Copenhagen, Sofia, Oslo, Lisbon, Helsinki, and Reykjavic all had absolute decreases in mortality against 2015-19. Similarly, at the regional level, there are huge excess death metrics for some Northern Italian and Greater Madrid sub-regions, but five London boroughs appear in the top 25 for the last quarter. Perhaps more strikingly, over 200 NUTS3 regions had mortality rates in the last quarter lower than the five-year average. But there was not a single English region in that cohort (and only one each from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Yet 19 Spanish and over 30 Italian sub-regions made it into this more positive cohort.

It may be too early for an inquiry, but it is already far too late for the UK government to ever assert ‘world-leading’ successes in outcomes related to public health management of the pandemic!

The ONS report on GDP also places UK near the top of its international comparative table of economic contraction in Q2, 2020 (April – June). The UKs -22.1 per cent is the worst of all G7 countries and over double that of Germany, US and Japan.

The UK is now in by far its deepest recession since records began with the 22.1 per cent fall almost four times larger than the 6 per cent GDP fall over the five quarters of the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis and six times the 4.1 per cent fall during the 1973 Oil crisis.

Moving forward, forecasts are heavily caveated by uncertainties, but with many more downside than upside risks. The OBR’s July 2020 analysis suggests real GDP falls in 2020 in the range -10.6 per cent to -14.3 per cnet and unemployment rising to 9.7 – 13.2 per cent with long term (i.e. to mid-2020s) ‘scarring’ of 3-6 per cent in reduced GDP and 2.4 – 4.7 per cent in structural fiscal damage.

Again to put this in a global context, the latest OECD global outlook has the UK in the top tier of negative impacts (alongside Spain, France and Italy) with 2020 GDP declines of 11 per cnt under a single hit scenario and 14 per cent under a multiple waves scenario. This compares to 9 per cent and 12 per cent for the Euro area, 8 per cent and 9 per cent for OECD members, and 6 per cent and 8 per cent for the world.

Alongside aggregate expert statistics, the UK government has also faced multiple criticisms of key aspects of its management of the crisis domestically – many of them with a strong local dimension.

Seeming unsureness on public health issues like PPE, care home policies, track and trace systems, to PR setbacks like the Cummings fiasco may be directly crisis related, and might to some extent be mitigated if outcomes and recovery improve.

But there have also been fundamental issues of competence, judgement, lawfulness and arguably even probity. For instance, the five months to prepare for A-level results seems not as considered as it might have been. Judgements on the pace and direction of easing lockdown, together with belated international quarantine arrangements and inconsistent local second lockdowns are certainly debatable. The use of emergency procurement rules for pandemic-related supplies and data management have been challenged in the courts with some success and limited defence or mitigation offered by government.

There are devolved nations, regional and local dimensions to all these experiences and to the outcomes of what has often seemed to be an attempted but sub-optimal command and control approach from the UK Government. As one might anticipate, place-based variation is as acute for the pandemic as it has been historically for all other major aspects of UK economic, environmental and social performance.

Key global issues for local authorities post-pandemic

If one accepts the premises that acute place-based variation remains an enduring, defining feature of the UK, and limitations of top-down national government have been further exposed rather than reduced by the leadership and management of the pandemic, then the need for local leadership teams to determine some sort of global world view of their own becomes ever more important.

There are numerous big picture reflections on the lessons of the pandemic, and it is impossible to synthesise or even fully summarise them. However, one can identify common strands in many more thoughtful, progressive analyses that this long-read considers relevant for cities, towns and communities in global-local reflections. Some surface, amplify and/or accelerate trends and tensions that were prevalent pre-crisis. Others are more derived directly from Covid-19 experience.

Firstly, if the pandemic and resultant public health and economic crises prove anything, there needs to be more, better global governance to plan and manage increasing existential global challenges.

Yet, global leadership of the public health pandemic has been significantly undermined. The US Trump administration announced its severing of relationships with WHO in May 2020 and formally notified WHO of its withdrawal in July (to be completed by July 2021). That this is beyond presidential powers and therefore probably unlawful is a wider element of the global crisis explored further below.

The fundamental requirement for good, effective global governance, and therefore shared sovereignty, includes future health crises, but also other agendas such as climate change, migration, even big-tech digitalisation. Yet, in essence, some of the most powerful national leaders – Trump, Putin, Modi, and Bolsonaro, share chronically poor pandemic public health management with strong convictions that it is in their interests to underplay global governance in favour of nationalist identity politics or their domestic agenda priorities of the moment.

Second, in terms of long-run global cycles, we often seem to be on the cusp of a profound shift from a neoliberal economic model underpinned by globalisation and mediated politically by representative democracy to a highly volatile new world order.

Worryingly, populists like Trump and Modi seem to have firmed up their offer well in advance of the progressives. Their critics stress that they seem comfortable promoting divisive, nationalist narratives which embed highly unequal economic power in those that deploy dark money, fake news to gerrymander corrupt elections. Internationally, the increasing US-China struggle for supremacy will have major impact in every country’s domestic political economy, as well as reducing the previous norms towards ever-deepening globalisation of trade and exchange.

How this plays out in the UK is uncertain – but there isn’t much evidence so far of the UK government embracing more inclusive, participatory models.

There is little humility from any of the major political parties of their reduced legitimacy from chronically poor voter turnout. Concurrently, pressures for new constitutional settlements, at the least for Scotland and Northern Ireland, are credible threats to the Union with highly uncertain consequences for England and Wales.

Third, two key existential issues the pandemic has definitely surfaced which need to be confronted more aggressively in the recovery period are inequality and trust.

It has been argued that one of the most serious inadequacies of globalisation and liberal democracy have been the systems’ inabilities to address increasing global and national inequalities whilst delivering growth in general and unimaginable levels of wealth in a small number of individuals and their companies in particular.

This mistrust of the distribution of benefits of the existing system has incubated populist identity politics. Paradoxically this has succeeded in addressing divisive ‘hate’ at other victims of the system (e.g. fleeing migrants) or at ‘experts’ more than at the populist leaders who are beneficiaries of the system they claim to attack.

Under this tension, far from becoming a great leveller, the pandemic and its social impact will, without mitigation, exacerbate inequality and mistrust even more. Health impacts are strongly related to existing health inequalities. Employment impacts tend to disproportionately fall on the working class in lower paid occupations and sectors (e.g. retail, leisure). For instance, early evidence suggested greater incidence in furlough for lower paid workers and fewer opportunities for them to work from home. In the medium term, analyses suggest the threats from automation are expected to be accelerated by the pandemic and to hit this same cohort of workers more severely than professional and managerial occupations in more technology rich sectors. Rightly or wrongly, debates on issues like A-level grades also feed this narrative.

Fourth, the crisis itself requires determination of strategic choices for recovery planning and consideration of game-changing shifts in previous orthodoxies. These were rehearsed in this April policy briefing (by the author of this long-read). For instance, the Johnson government has been explicit in saying the crisis response should be informed by his government’s radical transformation agendas (eg of the civil service and other organs of state). Local leadership teams have choices over ‘build back better’ or more incremental ‘rebuild’ strategies.

In terms of the economy, it seems sensible to assume that digitalisation and automation will increase, possibly with enduring higher levels of home working. Demand may be depressed medium term both by loss of income and uncertainty, and particularly for some activities like travel or collective leisure. The weaknesses of global supply chains may drive opportunities for re-shoring or near-shoring – but this may be a two-edged sword for export sectors. Whilst there may be rebalancing in terms of our appreciation of key workers, how can this be translated into good jobs and address the problems with the gig economy? The appreciation of environmental improvements during the pandemic may well endure and bring new opportunities for clean growth and green jobs. Each government will have to determine its monetary and fiscal policies for addressing the rising deficits from the crisis. And it seems likely that future global crises, whether health, climate or social, will mean resilience will sit much more strongly alongside growth priorities.

Whichever mixes of these types of trend come to pass globally and nationally will undoubtedly have differential impacts regionally and locally.

Fifth, much more tentatively, there is emergent evidence of possible new empowering, sustainable, globally responsible and responsive futures. One can see that in, for instance, the community activism and mutual help that lockdown generated; in pre Covid-19 green and climate change movements; and in the Black Lives Matter resistance during the crisis. Even at the level of the nation state, the way countries like Taiwan and Estonia have used technology as ‘fast, fair and fun’ to manage the pandemic effectively, and to enrich their civil societies more generally, suggests that, shorn of global pretensions, even nation states can be purposeful, productive enablers of economic and social change.

  • In the UK, examples of local leadership, community activism and dynamism do exist – from some of the elected-mayors, to local mutual self-help schemes, to initiatives like the circular economy and some of the more dynamic social enterprises. Whether this can be empowered, enabled and sustained in the absence of genuine national advocacy, though, remains an open question.

The point about the global mega-issues outlined above – globalisation, democracy, inequality, trust, strategic recovery planning futures, and community activism – is not whether the long-read’s analysis is correct; it is certainly not comprehensive. Rather, it suggests that local authorities and partners in place-based leadership teams need their own understanding of global context to achieve what is best for their cities, towns and communities. They should not default to an assumption that national government has all the answers and knows best. Therein lies the root of and route to field administration! The remainder of the paper discusses what these trends might mean locally and how local authorities might set about addressing them.

Towards a new ‘think global - act local’

This article set out an explicitly provocative thesis about the limitations and sometimes failings of national governments stimulating local authorities and partners to define and agree a new ‘think global – act local’ dimension to their place-based recovery strategies and priorities.

If there is merit in this argument, place-based strategic recovery planning needs at least some consideration of and response to global context.

Strategically, local leadership teams should, of course, recognise that any ‘build back better’ approach requires national government support, and ideally, enthusiasm. But the definition of ‘better’ should be a local choice rather than a lazy cloning of national plans and priorities.

A place’s strategic medium and long-term local choices and plan should be informed as much by global challenges (demographic, environmental, technological) and goals (e.g. the UN Sustainable Development Goals) as by UK government short term priorities and requirements. For instance, if the UK climate change commitment is net zero by 2050, is the local target broader and more ambitious – eg carbon positive at an earlier date and with wider ecological footprint dimensions?

Respecting national priorities whilst differentiating from them locally requires at least three strategic endeavours each of which is time consuming and resource intensive.

First, there is the effort of agreeing values local authorities and partners in local leadership teams share, to which they are prepared to commit in their visioning and planning.

Second, there is the need for bespoke evidence and analysis to embed those values in the plan. It is no good, for instance, prioritising inclusive growth and social mobility without a deep understanding of the existing local character of inequality and the models and differential impact of strategies to address it. Similarly, targets for carbon positive and eco-system vitality may require a natural capital accounting system alongside more orthodox economic and fiscal appraisal and monitoring.

Third, there is the issue of devolution, decentralisation and multi-tier governance collaboration. With a Devolution White Paper imminent, the government will probably express their top-down view. What this means for local authorities and how the White Paper is actually implemented will inevitably be highly contested and variable. Place-based teams need to resolve these tensions in ways that drive place-based vision and values.

At a more practical level, place-based strategy needs to give practical meaning to the issues described earlier.

If places recognise that stronger, wiser global governance is needed for existential challenges like public health, climate change, maybe even trade and migration, then some investment in global relations is merited. This might range from UK’s devolved nations and England’s regions nurturing closer collaboration with small nations and regions; to major cities and their city regions playing high profile roles in increasingly influential cities networks (e.g. C40, GRCN); to more bespoke relations for towns and districts founded on the multilateral character of places’ local anchor institutions – universities, multinational corporates and even expatriate/immigrant communities.

If one acknowledges there is a global struggle between divisive populist dystopias and an emergent new enlightenment, one can try to support and mainstream community involvement, democratic renewal, and ‘fast, fair and fun’ deployment of new technologies in the way we do business locally, especially in reaching some level of agreement on strategic recovery and build back better priorities.

Finally, considerable further work needs to be done on new models of development and change at a local level.

  • Healthy living – Places need to determine direction of travel for health and social care, public health and lifestyle choices. These sectors and areas of activity post-pandemic are likely to be even more important than in the 2010s – whether in economic strategies, STEM/STEAM education or in key NHS/local authority/ community relationships. The announcement of new national arrangements for Public Health England and SERCO’s track and trace system will reinforce top-down dysfunction and inequality without new, empowered and tailored ways of delivering public health locally.
  • Clean and green growth – The lock down seems to have strengthened business and citizen attitudes towards sustainability and the environment. Green industries and the greening of other sectors will be a major driver of business and jobs growth, requires enhanced digital and technology skills, and new ways of citizens and communities understanding and valuing their own environmental stewardship responsibilities.
  • Lifelong learning and retraining – the sectors most hit by lockdown and social distancing (e.g. retail, leisure) will probably never return in their pre-Covid-19 forms and functions. Together with those most subject to future automation (e.g. construction, agri-food, clerical), a very large body of workers and businesses will need help to retrain and refocus to remain relevant and solvent in the post-pandemic economy and labour markets
  • Physical repurposing and redesign – all these strengthened emphases of development and change have place-based physical implications – from new roles and functions for town centres, to new types of homes and retrofitting the existing stock, to new ways to travel and enjoy leisure.

Local authorities and their local leadership partners are crucial in translating these global themes into local solutions and strategies. They are also vital in joining up economic strategy with essential changes in citizen and community values to deliver the healthy, green, jobs and physical outcomes of resilient, prosperous places in the 2020s and beyond.

Concluding remarks

This longread started by asking how places can set about delivering success in the post-pandemic landscape, whether a new ‘think global: act local’ perspective was a useful part of the answer, and, if so, what might that mean in practice.

This explicitly personal perspective positions post-pandemic recovery as a moment of existential strategic choice in the long cycles of global change.

In this construct, the post-WW1 settlement and pandemic sowed the seeds for the depression, the rise of fascism and WW2. The post-WW2 settlement launched a baby-booming period characterised by a breadth of increasing prosperity and an uneasy balance between competing national alliances in a bipolar world. The 1970s oil crisis and collapse of the Bretton Woods system ushered in a more aggressive neoliberal primacy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalist globalisation, but also deeply ingrained inequalities. The 2007-10 Global Financial Crisis surfaced these inequalities leading to a populist backlash through the 2010s. The 2020 pandemic exposed the contradictions of at least some major nation states in managing global challenges effectively and consensually.

These contradictions might reinforce national identity politics and populist divisions locally and globally. In extremis, trade wars might presage much wider social unrest and international conflict.

An alternative scenario is of more humble, thoughtful, evidence-informed, tolerant, consensus-building national states, embracing bottom-up, differentiated approaches in their countries, and sharing sovereignty to meet global challenges internationally.

This article’s provocation is to the local authorities and partners of place-based leadership teams to provide the bottom-up dynamism to enable this alternative vision to flourish.

Ultimately, long-term place-based visions and plans are about the type of world in which we want our cities, towns and communities to succeed. This is the enduring meaning of ‘think global: act local’ for place-based leadership teams.

By all means disagree with the overall thrust of the details of this longread if it does not resonate with your place’s vision and values. But, if it has at least reminded you to question and then resolve the importance and relevance of the biggest global trends and tensions, then it will have served its purpose.

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