Paula Arrus is a second year International Relations student at King’s College London and a Staff Writer for International Relations Today.
The Coronavirus pandemic has taken over every aspect of human life. As most news outlets around the world report bleak information daily, we have seemed to forget that every crisis shapes history and with it come great opportunities for people to innovate and prevent the occurrence of crises like this in the future. This pandemic will allow us to reflect and organise humankind’s priorities, acknowledge our vulnerabilities and hopefully reform our global order in the best possible way.
At a time when our world has never been more interconnected, a virus has attached itself and contaminated everything that is good about globalization. Migration, travel, and global sport competitions have all been suspended until further notice. Financial markets around the world have not experienced such massive losses since the Great Depression in 1929. National economies have halted around the world and over half of the world’s population has been ordered to stay at home. While I doubt that this pandemic will reverse globalization in its entirety, we should expect massive reforms on how global value chains, transnational corporations, global markets and migration function. All of this change and reform will most likely have to be spearheaded by someone, a country or international institution, and could change the established liberal world order as we know it.
Therefore, crises like this bring to light power vacuums in global politics and unmask the weaknesses of national governments and international institutions. The global economy, societies and the world order as we know it are going to change significantly in the coming years. Yet, I do not think that this time we will be able to identify the clear winners and losers or the hegemons and regional powers like we could in the past after World Wars.
This time it will be different.
An Institutional Crisis:
The virus has exposed the weaknesses of international institutions and national governments that we knew existed but never acted to correct them. Many people’s hopes that a world-wide pandemic would bring a global plan of action have unfortunately not materialized. The G7 video-conference meeting at the beginning of March was fruitless. The EU has faced even more disunity after Brexit as the pandemic has unravelled the continent’s dependence on foreign production and overreliance on the good-will of private companies to help national governments fight the disease. Spain has also been leading the charge and claiming that the EU should “respect the autonomy of member states to operate their health systems”. At present, countries are either acting out of self-interest to protect their own or simply undercutting others’ actions. The scramble for medical supplies, ventilators and molecular tests for COVID-19 is already noticeable as countries are lining up one by one to collect their limited purchases. France, Germany and Czech Republic have already introduced export limits on protective medical gear, limiting the amount sent to hard-hit countries like Spain.
Looking to the future, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) should take a more active and efficient role to manage future crises. While this institution has a system capable of preventing these crises, which it has failed to do in this case, it also has the ability to share information with European member states’ Health Ministries. Problem is, the ECDPC has limited capabilities and funding. Solidifying a continent-wide database which is easy to access for European governments and a warning system to prevent epidemics from intensifying is necessary to safeguard the wellbeing of citizens in the future. If international institutions’ effectiveness can increase then there would be little need for countries to act unilaterally and sometimes against each other in the midst of a political vacuum. However, institutional reform will be long-term, and in the meantime established and aspiring hegemons are expected to rise to the challenge.
Confrontation or cooperation?
If Trump did not make himself clear enough before with his ‘America First’ message, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly confirmed it. The US still has aspirations of consolidating its global leadership role, yet it has not acted like a true leader during this crisis. We are currently facing a clear path to disunity and it does not look well for the liberal international order. Even though we will find a vaccine for this virus to protect humankind, international relations seem to be at greater risk to be contaminated.
As the pandemic has been unleashed unto the world, countries have looked inwards and prioritised taking care of their own before managing a collective response. A devastating example are the hundreds of poor Venezuelans who are returning home from Colombia as the quarantine has shut down the economy and not allowed them to earn a living. The Colombian government and many nations around the world have failed to take care of immigrant residents, mainly because there is not enough money to protect them all. In these dire consequences, a global response to help those in greater need and greater risk of contracting the virus would be ideal, yet no such thing is close to being materialized. The global North is taking care of their own, also struggling in the process, yet the global south faces an even more dire future facing the pandemic and the economic crisis that will come with it.
All of this despair and the clear lack of a global leader has created a political vacuum not only at the national level, where populist leaders are ceasing opportunities to take control, but also at the international level, where failed institutions and unilateral actions have shaken the political order. In the past, the US has been regarded as the default leader to manage a crisis. In the 2008 financial crisis the US lead many countries to work together to synchronize stimulus packages. In the 2014 Ebola epidemic we also witnessed coordinated action from the Global North to help African countries manage the outbreak. However, even though these are unprecedented circumstances, the US has stumbled in managing this crisis. The CDC has been at times undermining the authority of the White House and, although President Trump has improved his approach to managing the outbreak, he failed to acknowledge the severity of the issue from the beginning.
This crisis is demonstrating that maybe autocratic governments are best-suited to manage crises. If forceful lockdowns are successful around the world to contain the spread of the virus then it will become strong ammunition for the proponents of authoritarian governments to use. Yet, we are not always facing crises. Accepting authoritarian governments as the new normal would be violating people’s freedoms and rights to self-govern…principles that we value in the liberal international order. Giving up our privacy and allowing the government to determine every aspect of our lives is not the long-term solution to survive. It may work in the short-term to slow down and mitigate the impact of crises but it will become dangerous if it legitimizes authoritarian government control and extreme protectionism globally.
Nevertheless, we will likely face an opportunistic China filling the political and leadership vacuum. The Chinese government and firms have taken responsibility for providing medical supplies to Italy and basically the rest of the world, including the US, as well as increasing funds to the World Health Organization to help combat the outbreak in poor countries. Even though these humanitarian actions are appreciated world-wide and will help thousands, this is what we expected China to do. Despite clearly not being a Chinese virus per se, given that the outbreak could have occurred in any wet animal market in the world, China is still responsible for not containing the virus sooner and warning other countries about it. In mid-January the WHO spread reports coming from Chinese officials that the virus was non-transmissiblehuman to human. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party hid significant information that demonstrated this had the potential to be a pandemic. Recent US intelligence reports suggest they silenced doctors who were trying to warn others about the virus and indicated that China also lied about the number of infections and deaths in the province of Wuhan. Chinese propaganda was also enough to convince most mainland China that their country bears no fault in the pandemic, a statement we now know is false. China’s dishonesty is undeserving of the role as new global leader. In fact, anyone who lies to the international community and does not follow international law, including the US at times, is clearly not the leader we need. However, these two may be the only leaders we have.
Looking into the future, this crisis will motivate China to further discredit the US’ position in global politics. The Chinese government’s bid to global leadership will depend equally on how they act and how Washington can respond to the crisis. The US can maintain its status by acting multilaterally with the G7 and creating a coordinated plan of action to stimulate the global economy. The US must control the virus domestically, keep supplying global goods and consolidate their diplomatic ties with their allies around the world to maintain their image and cultural influence. Becoming a trustworthy source of information will also be crucial for the US to regain authority and respect around the globe. Further, while the US has been viciously fighting a trade war with China, they will need to cooperate in producing the vaccine and synchronising their stimulus packages to revive the global economy. As globalization will be reformed, this cooperation will have to extend beyond the crisis to tackle other global challenges, such as inequality and climate change. Rather than allowing the Chinese government to establish a new global order, the US must work together with them to restore the leadership role they have been holding tight since the end of the Cold War. While this crisis will change the way we live significantly, it will also provide many opportunities for innovation and reform of our global liberal order. The time has come for the two great powers in the world to put their differences aside and focus on doing good.