The world’s extended battle with Covid-19 will not only affect the lifestyles of individuals and business supply chains, but also impact national governments and the international order in various ways.
The fear that more of such pandemics may occur will have various repercussions such as deepening geopolitical conflict and amplifying the distrust of already sluggish international coordination. Globalisation has accelerated the trend toward open borders, while the international order relies on cooperation between developed nations. Both are at a crossroads.
Until now, the leadership of the US and cooperation between developed nations (such as through the G7) have been crucial driving forces for maintaining the international order. But now, the US is failing to demonstrate effective leadership, while the EU and other developed nations are not showing cooperation. In this situation, a power vacuum is clearly forming.
China, meanwhile, successfully suppressed its own Covid-19 crisis at an early stage and is providing aid to other countries. Because of this, more and more people argue that the international order will be driven by authoritarian regimes, and that this threatens a post-war international order based on freedom and democracy. But this is a careless analysis.
China has refused support from the US or other nations, preferring instead to handle the crisis internally to save face. It is only providing aid to other countries to conceal its own failings. Some regions have praised China for the speed and scale of its aid, but these are due to its hard power, based on its own sheer size of economy. Of course, this will not lead to countries totally rethinking their political systems or belief in universal values. And there is no suggestion that China’s soft power has increased either. If China undertook large-scale cancellation of debt, matters would be different — but that doesn’t seem likely.
... neither the US nor China is very interested in international coordination, despite being eager to vindicate themselves.
In the first place, the claim that China seeks to remake the international order comes from both left-leaning domestic critics of the Trump administration and American conservatives who want to frame China as a threat. Republican politicians are taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to strengthen their hardline approach to China. Some American media reports on the origins of Covid-19 (largely penned by columnists), as well as discourse that stresses a battle between political models as authoritarianism spreads across a pandemic-stricken globe, should be read in this context.
Unfortunately, political forces that seek Trump’s re-election find value in bashing China. The Chinese government meanwhile, is hastily defending itself with a publicity campaign that shifts responsibility for the virus on to the West. This war of words primarily being pushed by the US, China, and Russia, is spreading by the hands of state-run news organisations, officials and pundits, and non-governmental actors.
The problem is that neither the US nor China is very interested in international coordination, despite being eager to vindicate themselves. Whether we are thinking about the US as the generally acknowledged leader of liberal democratic governments, or the authoritarian regime of China, it is the international order not being driven by one of these powers that threatens the post-Cold War international order.
Cooperation among middle and small powers and unity across civil society will be needed to ensure that a new doctrine of international cooperation grounded in liberalism takes root.
The World Health Organisation is a prominent example of how international organisations and other infrastructure of global governance are embroiled in power politics. The US may see a change of government, but polarisation in domestic politics and fiscal constraints means international coordination is unlikely to fully recover. Therefore, when we look to the international order’s future, the reality of a leaderless age is fast approaching.
In this scenario, no nation leads the world and decisions on effective measures are no longer made through cooperation by a strong leadership. A rearrangement of the international order may occur that has an impact comparable to the past two world wars. Cooperation among middle and small powers and unity across civil society will be needed to ensure that a new doctrine of international cooperation grounded in liberalism takes root.