Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, March 15, 2020

COVID-19 and International Politics

Image result for pictures of people with covid 19 masks
Photo: Kim Kyung-hoon/Reuters 

It’s now been a few months since COVID-19 first appeared and began to spread around the world. The health fallout continues to mount. As of this writing, per the WHO, there are over 150,000 confirmed cases, some 5,700 deaths, and 146 countries/territories have been hit by the virus. Health care facilities and systems worldwide are being stretched to their limits, people are stressed and panicked, and everyday life has been massively disrupted. And making matters worse, the virus doesn’t show any signs of abating anytime soon.

While I am not a medical doctor or professional, which means I can’t credibly address the health and medical side of COVID-19, I am an expert in international politics, and I can reasonably sort through some of the global political implications of the coronavirus. What I’ll do here is focus on one main international political implication: the weakness and failure of international institutions and the liberal order more generally.  

Sounding the alarm about the sorry state of the liberal order has been en vogue for several years now, and these concerns have been voiced and articulated even more loudly and frequently during the Trump era. Unfortunately, COVID-19 just might be the death knell of the existing liberal international order as we know it. Oh, the order might limp on, but any belief that it’s a functioning, effective order is for the deluded and hopelessly Pollyanna.

The liberal order consists primarily of the rules and structures that undergird international relations. These rules and structures often take the form of international institutions, laws, norms, and they are supposed to provide order, stability, and enhanced cooperation in the world, even and at times especially during tumultuous periods. They are designed to fill in the gaps in global problem solving left in the wake of narrow and often selfish behavior and relationships exhibited by states historically. 

Well, right now certainly qualifies as a tumultuous moment, one that’s desperately crying out for global collective action and problem solving. After all, the coronavirus is spreading, people are sick and dying, markets are tanking, and countries are isolating, locking down, and quarantining themselves. According to liberal (international relations) logic, these institutions should be actively responding to the current crisis, addressing the real world health pandemic. They should be greasing the wheels of inter-state crisis coordination, dampening hysteria, and helping distressed people get the care and resources they need.

So is this the case? Is someone/thing leading the effort to coordinate a collective response from the international community? Are international public goods being provided? Regrettably, theory doesn’t always match reality, and this happens to be one of those cases. Indeed, COVID-19 is a glaring example of the failure of current institutions to meet the challenges of today.

Since the end of WWII, the US has acted as a global first responder and public goods provider—in part to expand its influence, and in part because institutions like the UN have shown to be troublingly ineffectual. Arguably, America’s self-appointed role as a first responder and public goods provider has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it led to meddling in the politics of foreign nations and protracted inter-state wars. On the other hand, US efforts have done some good. During the cold war, the US worked to prop up the nascent world order and stabilize and strengthen the economies, defenses, politics, and overall quality of life of states around the globe, particularly those within its sphere of influence; and as that happened, the US also secured tangible gains as well—a big boost in trade, allies, influence, respect and prestige.

Even so, these globally beneficial actions by the US papered over the weakness and fecklessness of international institutions and allowed them to fly under the radar. Liberal scholars and policymakers deceived themselves into thinking that the global order was strong, popular, effective, and durable. But this order was always overrated. From 1945 until the early days of the post-cold war era, it was a mostly regional democratic order, with democracies in the Americas and Europe as the foundation of it. And when the US attempted to expand this order in the mid-1990s, thereby consolidating its spoils from winning the cold war, it did so through a mixture of diplomatic and coercive tools and policies, which in the end proved to be costly, violent, and deeply counterproductive. 

Donald Trump came into office in January 2017 on a mission to correct these foreign policy excesses. And true to this word, Trump decided to reorient US foreign policy, scrapping old strategic doctrines like liberal hegemony and primacy in favor of a transactional, nationalist approach to the world. A consequence of this new foreign policy has been America’s new tendency to eschew leadership globally—on issues, in institutions, in other multilateral forums, etc. Demonstrating leadership globally, especially on non-security issues, runs counter to Trump's instincts and worldview as well as Trump's nationalist America First strategic doctrine.

While there has been some inconsistency in the application of Trump’s America First, there is clear evidence of it impacting America’s relations with Iran, Europe, Canada, and Mexico, its position on issues like climate change, and its commitment to institutions like NATO, the WTO, the EU, among others. And on COVID-19, we’re seeing more of the same.

Trump’s approach to COVID-19 has been slow, slapdash, and more concerned about scoring domestic political points. Most disturbingly, Trump and his spokespersons spent weeks questioning whether the coronavirus was a hoax, rather than implementing protective health measures, which has played a role in helping the virus to spread in the US. The Trump administration also spent an inordinate amount of time and effort scapegoating China (the “Wuhan virus”) and the Democrats so as to deflect any political blame for the burgeoning health crisis inside the US. And on policies designed to alleviate the burdens of the virus, Trump has relied on nationalist tools, like stopping travel from certain nations. Neither Trump nor his staff has made any effort to spearhead a wider, collective international response to COVID-19. And I am highly skeptical the Trump administration will do so anytime soon, not only for the reasons I discussed above, but also because the domestic political heat is getting hotter for Trump. Americans are now acutely feeling the implications of the virus; there is a health crisis and corresponding health scare, of course, but also deep simultaneous deep economic, cultural, and social disruptions. They want authorities, particularly Trump, to address these problems now. As a result, Trump, an unpopular president in an election year, is further disincentivized to seek collaborative rather than national responses and solutions to the pandemic.

What about China, the world’s number two great power? China is not ready to act as a de facto world government on COVID-19. Much like the US. It began slowly and secretively, drawing widespread criticism domestically and globally, but China eventually got its act together. It has implemented lockdowns, quarantines, and a major economic stimulus. Yes, China’s response has been harsh, rigorously controlling the movement of local goods and millions of people, but the country is now finally healing as new patients are slowing to almost zero daily.

But now that China seems to have the virus under control, it is now seeking to opportunistically take advantage of America's dithering. It’s dabbled in the authoritarian playbook of blame-shifting by claiming the virus was the product and thereby the fault of America’s military. China is also playing up its global efforts, which include aiding Iran, Italy, and Serbia, so as to enhance its soft power and global standing. Of course, these moves display quite a bit of chutzpah, right? The virus originated in China, and Beiing did little in the beginning stages of the outbreak there, which allowed COVID-19 to become a massively huge global problem that everyone now has to deal with. 

Well, what about the world’s relevant international institutions, like United Nations or the World Health Organization or any of the various global economic institutions? Surely they are stepping up to the table to fill in the lack of attention and coordinated action by the international community, right? The UN did recently set up a rapid reaction fund for COVID-19, and Secretary-General Guterres has been an effective communicator. And “the IMF announced last week it would make $50 billion in financing available to bolster health care systems and emergency responses in low-income and emerging countries suffering from the virus.” Similarly, the World Bank "approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19." These are helpful overtures, to be sure. And these institutions are very good at disseminating information, stimulating public awareness, and generating debate and discussion. But they are hardly panaceas for this global health pandemic. 

In terms of organizing and galvanizing widespread international action, the international system’s institutions are woefully inadequate to deal with challenges of COVID-19. The strength and power of international institutions comes from the extent to which states, especially the great powers, agree to equip, fund, and work through them; they don’t have magical, autonomous abilities to transform international relations. And because the world’s powers have preferred unilateral rather than multilateral and collective responses to COVID-19, these institutions have been mostly relegated to the sidelines, bit players in a massively traumatic global event.

The IMF and World Bank funds are not nearly enough to help burdened economies. The UN and affiliated bodies aren’t acting as a rallying point around which states and non-state actors can link up to work together. Frankly, it is precisely because of this that states are tackling the coronavirus individually, on their own. And that has led to a patchwork of state health policies and initiatives across the world, making the virus even harder to contain than it already is. Ultimately, the problem is that the coronavirus is a transnational disease that cannot be contained or stopped by the actions of states working alone. Nevertheless, the best way to deal with COVID-19 hasn’t been through multilateral or international action but via lessons learned from discrete cases worldwide.

South Korea has been one much-lauded example. Consider this:

Korean officials enacted a key reform, allowing the government to give near-instantaneous approval to testing systems in an emergency. Within weeks of the current outbreak in Wuhan, China, four Korean companies had manufactured tests from a World Health Organization recipe and, as a result, the country quickly had a system that could assess 10,000 people a day.

Korea set up drive-through test stations, an approach only now being launched in the United States. Health officials initially focused their efforts on members of a secretive megachurch in Daegu with a branch in Wuhan, but they then broadened their reach to Seoul and other major cities. As of Saturday, South Korea had tested more than 248,000 people and identified 8,086 cases.

Countries are now trying to mimic all or parts of the Korean example. And in hard-hit states where the Korean case isn’t being copied adequately, like the US, there has been a big push from the media, journalists, scholars, and analysts to get authorities to follow Korea’s lead.

All of this points to what the risk analyst Ian Bremmer has called a "geopolitical recession," which is a product of a leaderless or G-Zero world. He writes, "The challenge we face today is the unwinding of the American-led world order, and the absence of global leadership to step in and take its place. We live in a G-Zero world… and the geopolitical recession is its effect. In a geopolitical recession, fracturing global politics fuels global risks instead of helping solve them." The failure of the world to form a working coalition to tackle the coronavirus is the latest in a string of examples of significant global issues going unaddressed, or addressed in a half-hearted manner: Climate change, North Korea, Russian aggression, cybersecurity, big data/privacy issues, disinformation campaigns—the list goes on. While COVID-19 is a health issue, addressing this problem, at least in a macro sense, is a matter of politics at the local, state, and international levels. The lack of cooperation, the bottlenecks, the refusal to share information, resource shortages, and so on are a function of underperforming political systems across the world.

For now, let’s hope that political authorities worldwide, working in tandem with health professionals, do enough, act quickly enough, to care for those afflicted with the virus and to slow and reduce the transmission of it. But once we get through this, there needs to be a fresh, renewed debate on many parts of the international system, including the role and purpose of international institutions, how the international community can better respond collectively to global crises, and who/what will act as a global public goods provider to states/groups/people in need. It’s time.