THE future holds much uncertainty with an unfolding health crisis convulsing the world. But the reality that will continue to shape the post-pandemic world is this. While unprecedented global cooperation and a collective response will be needed to negotiate multiple challenges — threats to public health, economic recovery, food security, looming recession and unemployment — many countries will tend to turn inwards and act on their own. This paradox did not emerge during the pandemic. It has been evident in recent years but thrown into sharper relief by the Covid-19 crisis.
The world is in fact passing through one of history’s most unsettled periods with a number of trends reconfiguring the international landscape: retreat from multilateralism at a time of multipolarity, anti-globalisation sentiment, erosion of a rules-based international order, trade and technology wars between big powers and the rise of populist leaders who reject internationalism, pursue ultra-nationalist policies and act unilaterally.
This backdrop hardly prepared the world for what was to come when the deadly virus defied national boundaries and crossed continents in its remorseless spread. The ongoing crisis showed how interconnected and interdependent the world is and that no country can deal with the challenge on its own. But it also exposed the deep divisions between and within countries as they struggled to confront the havoc wrought by an unforgiving enemy.
Logic and pragmatism dictated international cooperation. As UN Secretary General António Guterres put it: “To prevail against the pandemic today, we will need heightened solidarity.” But is this what we are witnessing? The short answer is, not really, because more disharmony than ‘solidarity’ has been on display.
Obviously, countries had, first and foremost, to focus on their own health emergency. But their efforts to contain Covid-19 would have benefited from collaboration on travel and trade restrictions, border closures and sharing of virus data and information.
Geopolitics, not solidarity, holds sway.
It was the unseemly row that broke out during the pandemic between the two global powers, the US and China — who have the world’s most consequential relationship — that served to underline how geopolitics, not solidarity, remained the overarching reality.
The latest tussle came against the backdrop of intense trade and political tensions between the two countries. The trigger was President Donald Trump’s persistent description of the coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus’, alluding to where the outbreak started, and criticism of China’s management of the outbreak. China’s retort was to cast such comments as racist and issue stern warnings while ‘unofficial’ Chinese sources purveyed conspiracy theories about who planted the virus. It took a phone call from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Trump, calling for cooperation, to calm down the situation.
Despite China’s call for unity, this episode underlined the volatile relationship between the two economically interdependent but strategic competitors, who will nonetheless need each other’s cooperation to restart their economies and steer global recovery in the post-pandemic world. Unfortunately, though, China-bashing by American leaders has continued.
This, of course, isn’t the only development during the pandemic to illustrate the limits to ‘solidarity’ and how the world presents a spectacle where it is mostly every country for itself.
Expectations that the G20 video summit in late March would produce a meaningful global response did not materialise. As several commentators have pointed out, this was very different from the decisive G20 action taken in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.
Europe too hardly exhibited unity. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, acknowledged: “When Europe really needed an all-for-one spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response.” A former Danish prime minister put it starkly: The EU has “not passed the test of solidarity”. French President Emmanuel Macron warned of the EU’s collapse if it didn’t evolve a common response to stricken European economies.
By far, the most extraordinary development at the height of the pandemic was President Trump’s stinging attack on the World Health Organisation, the multilateral agency dealing with the coronavirus crisis, and his decision to suspend funding for it. He accused the agency of mismanaging the outbreak and being “China-centric”. Trump’s earlier criticism prompted the head of the global health body, Tedros Adhanom, to warn against politicising the virus to score political points.
The UN agency was arguably slow in declaring the Covid-19 outbreak a global health emergency and may not have moved as swiftly as the escalating crisis warranted. But such gratuitous action by Trump at a critical moment was only the latest example of his contempt for multinational organisations, which have constantly been assailed by him.
The challenge to multilateralism and its institutions in recent years has not just come from Trump’s America but other nations and regional powers too, who have acted unilaterally in defiance of established international norms. Therefore, the wrangle between Trump and the WHO only shone another light on how multilateral institutions are under profound stress in the contemporary international milieu.
A frustrated UN secretary general has had to frequently remind a fractured international community about the value of multilateral cooperation for the common good. In response to President Trump’s move against the WHO he again called for unity, describing Covid-19 as “one of the most dangerous challenges the world has faced in our lifetime”.
Despite these entreaties before and during the pandemic, international cooperation has remained in short supply. Indeed, weakened commitment to multilateralism continues to be an unedifying feature of the global environment today. From the resurgence of geopolitical competition between the big powers, declining respect for global rules and go-it-alone strategies of populist leaders, who fan xenophobia for political gain, the picture that emerges is of an increasingly atomised international system.
This is not likely to change in the post-pandemic world. It is far from certain what kind of international order will evolve from the present Hobbesian-like melee. The US presidential election later this year will be critical for its global impact. Its outcome may not overturn the trends already in play but it could have a major influence on the future of a fraying multilateralism system. For now, the outlook is not promising even at a watershed moment when global cooperation is most needed for the imposing challenges that lie ahead.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2020