Solidarity and its limits: The Irish Times view on the world in 2021

There are yawning gaps between the rate of Covid-19 vaccinations in high- and low-income nations

In the broad sweep of 2021's global politics, Ireland's preoccupation with defending the Northern Ireland protocol may seem like a sideshow. Not least in the context of the pandemic's remorseless march; its toll rose from two million dead by January to near five and a half million by year-end. And yet the unresolved tensions between this island and Ireland's neighbour, the worst in years, between the latter and EU member states, whom British prime minister Boris Johnson still refers to as "partners", even between it and the US, have run as a thread through the history of the year, a microcosm and reflection of 2021's bigger trends.

'Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war'

Through the protocol dispute rumble the big themes about respect for the rule of law and treaties, the rekindling of multilateralism in politics and trade, of the solidity and unity of old alliances like the EU, of the futility of “go-it-alone” politics and the shifting sands of public popularity.

European solidarity

New US president Joe Biden's insistence that the UK honour its treaty obligations to the Belfast Agreement or face costly consequences, is at one with his recommitment of the US to a rules-based international order. And the remarkable European solidarity that was a hallmark of the Brexit negotiations held firm after the treaty on future relations with the UK was agreed in April despite lingering hopes in London that it could still divide members. It was notable that as that pillar of European unity, Angela Merkel, left the stage, her successors pledged continuity in EU policy and specifically full implementation of the protocol.

That determination to see the rule of law respected was also reflected in the intensification of attempts to bring the Polish and Hungarian governments back into line with EU standards. EU unity was also manifest in common management of the pandemic, although somewhat frayed in its response to renewed migration challenges on the Belarus border and on the Channel.

When Biden was inaugurated in January he spoke of turning a new page in the country and the world's history. Days after a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to challenge the count that elected him, he insisted that "Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured". The legacy of Trump began to be undone domestically and internationally, most importantly in the repairing of alliances. The man himself remains a force to be reckoned with, however, dominating the Republican Party and apparently preparing his return.

Vaccine inequity

But, within days, the tone and substance of world politics was shifting. By mid-February the US formally rejoined the Paris climate agreement, 107 days after opting out, opening the way to making November’s Cop26

summit a real game changer – it was not quite that, but a deal agreed by world leaders includes a “phasedown” of coal power, a 30 per cent cut in methane emissions and a halt to deforestation both by 2030, and increased financial support for developing countries.

Many high-income countries have ignored WHO pleas to hold off on booster vaccinations until the rest of the world catches up

Biden recommitted to the Iran nuclear deal, he rejoined the World Health Organisation, and launched what he called a "wartime undertaking" to combat the pandemic that began successfully to turn the tide in the US. Yet domestic success was not reflected in the developing world where yawning gaps remain between vaccinations in high- and low-income nations. By the end of November, around 54.2 per cent of the global population had received at least one vaccine dose, but for poor countries barely 5.8 per cent.

The failure of Covax, the global programme for purchasing and distributing vaccines, has been largely due to wealthy countries buying up more than half of the first 7.5 billion vaccine doses through pre-purchase agreements, leaving only crumbs for Covax. And many high-income countries have ignored WHO pleas to hold off on booster vaccinations until the rest of the world catches up. Even after boosters have been administered, Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that 10 rich countries will be sitting on more than 870 million excess doses by the end of the year. Proposals temporarily to suspend WTO trade rules protecting the monopolies of pharma companies on Covid health products and technologies remain blocked by rich countries, not least the EU.

Among the key economic developments of the year was a landmark agreement at the G7 on the setting of minimum corporate tax rates of 15 per cent intended to prevent tax avoidance by some of the world's biggest multinationals. Ireland was among the last to embrace the project.

The tide of political reform ebbed and flowed with major democratic setbacks: coups in Myanmar, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan, while Tunisia's president dissolved parliament. Haiti's president was assassinated. War raged in Ethiopia and Yemen, while in Afghanistan the victorious Taliban preside over a country ravaged by famine and economic collapse.