Covid-19 pandemic prompts a changed world order
The world was in flux before the coronavirus pandemic. Central tenets of the international order that were institutionalised after the Second World War in 1945 and reinforced — with greater gusto — after the end of the Cold War in 1991, were up for question.
And, each nation was revising its own political and philosophical approach to the world, and its own place in it.
The United States (US) took an unprecedented inward turn with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, retreating from the very institutions, economic principles and military outreach that helped it become a superpower and sustain its power.
China, under President Xi Jinping, had shown signs of giving up on the principle laid out by Deng Xiaoping to build its internal strength and bide its time on the international stage, by launching the most aggressive global initiative in modern times — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expanding its definition of “core interests”, and projecting power both in its vicinity and beyond.
Russia, dismissed after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “has been” power re-emerged as a key player, expanding its influence, expanding its territorial reach, playing a more active role in West Asia, and deepening its partnerships with new actors such as China.
The United Kingdom went through Brexit and formalised its exit from the European Union, posing an existential question to the most audacious transnational political-economic-security arrangement ever conceived in the continent that had seen nationalism lead to devastating wars.
It was not just actions of particular states, but the fundamentals of international cooperation that were up in the air. The relatively liberal economic regime — premised on the free flow of goods and services, regional and bilateral trading arrangements, and greater openness to movement of people reflected in immigration — was cracking.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the attack on it came from the same western powers that conceptualised it in the first place, but were now unwilling to bear the costs as economic activity shifted elsewhere. Technology became the new frontier of cooperation and competition. It had connected the world as never before, and changed the way individuals led their lives, companies conducted their businesses, and states interacted. But it also became an additional tool in the diplomatic and military arsenal of the big powers, and control over key technological infrastructure — from the cyber commons to 5G — became a site of global contestation.
The pandemic has not changed the world and ushered in a new era. What it has done is intensify and expedite underlying trends which were visible in international politics, and made the world confront a new reality in a period of a few months what would have taken several years.
What, then, are these trends?
First, the return of nationalism. At a time when Covid-19 is ravaging the world and reflecting the cross-cutting, cross-border, transnational nature of threats to humanity — one case in a city in China has now led to over nine million people getting infected, and close to half-million deaths, worldwide — nationalism has returned with a vengeance. Instead of the pandemic bringing home the message of inter-connectedness and that all countries need to swim together, or they will all sink, the pandemic has brought home another message: you are on your own.
The national lockdowns; the prolonged interruptions to international travel; the search — desperate search — in each country for testing kits, hospital beds, personal protective equipment and related health infrastructure tools; the reliance on the local or national, over the international, to sustain supply chains have all made borders the most salient feature of international politics again.
Borders never went away; they are in fact the very foundation of the sovereign international state system. But those who thought that borders would become irrelevant can bid adieu to their dreams. From Trump’s decision to tighten immigration rules to India’s decision to launch an economic campaign for self-reliance, nation-states have returned as the most powerful unit in the world order.
Second, the death-blow to multilateralism. International cooperation rests on states ceding a degree of their sovereign rights of decision making to conform to an internationally agreed upon set of norms. With the return of nationalism, and intensified conflicts, states are unwilling to cede any authority to a supra-national body. Before the pandemic, this was reflected in Trump’s disdain for the United Nations or the collapse of the dispute settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization. But it has become far more acute in the wake of the pandemic, reflected most starkly in the politics around the World Health Organization (WHO).
By any yardstick, WHO should be the most important organisation at a time when the world is facing its most severe health emergency in a century. But, and here is the paradox, rarely has the WHO been as mired in controversy. Seen as partisan to China, WHO lost its credibility as an impartial stakeholder. Trump’s decision to first cut the funding, and then an announcement that US would walk away from WHO, only eroded its capital further.
The world, therefore, lacks an effective body that has the respect of all sides and authority and power to ensure peace and security (the UN Security Council is weak); it lacks an effective body to govern international economic arrangements (WTO’s power is deeply curtailed); and it lacks an effective transnational health organisation. The pandemic’s second message, therefore, is don’t look to the world for support.
Third, the retreat of globalisation. This again is a paradox for global economic integration is possibly the best way to recover from the global recession. But the fact that there has been brewing resentment in the West — particularly among the working class — about the perceived loss of opportunities due to these interlinkages had already led to the rise of economic nationalists.
Trade wars had broken out before the pandemic itself but the pandemic brought home both the importance of securing one’s own supply chains, generating employment through manufacturing at home, and reducing dependence on China. States are now developing a new attitude. Foreign investment is okay — as long as it is coming to me. Trade is okay — as long as it is skewed in my favour. Technological cooperation is fine — but I will not cede control of my critical infrastructure. Migration is fine — but only within bounds, in a very restrictive manner, and only if those who come are sorely needed. The third message from the pandemic is, therefore, build your economy yourself.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has led to China signalling that it would no longer be constrained by international norms, past agreements and the idea of its “peaceful rise”, and assert its power. The paradox here is that it was in China that the coronavirus disease originated but China may end up emerging as the most powerful entity after the pandemic.
It has eroded Hong King’s autonomous status through a repressive national security legislation; it has launched cyber offensives against Australia; it has yet again asserted its claims in the South China Sea, attacking Vietnamese and Malaysian vessels; it has stepped up its offensive against Japan; and, of course, it has attempted to change the facts on the ground on the border with India, violated past agreements, and killed, brutally, 20 personnel of the Indian army.
The world increasingly faces a choice. Will countries give into these Chinese attempts to overturn the international order, accept Beijing’s actions, and subscribe to all that comes with it — its authoritarian structure, its disdain for individual freedom, its sense of exceptionalism where all others are lower down the hierarchy and the Middle Kingdom is at the top, its attempts to dominate on land and sea the rest of Asia, and its semi-imperial enterprise of the BRI? Or will they come together to contain China’s untrammelled use of power — even while engaging with it — and force it to continue subscribing to the basic precepts of the liberal international order? The fourth, and the most significant, message of the pandemic is, therefore, simple — accept China’s hegemony or get ready for a long battle ahead.