The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the chasms of the world, but can humanity reflect and make progress?

Chinese academic Deng Xize is mostly pessimistic as he traces lessons from history to conclude that international cooperation is only tenable with the combination of well-functioning international institutions and concert among the major powers. In light of further tensions between China and the US arising from the pandemic, he sees little room for cooperation on a global scale, and instead, only greater signs of animosity of the sort seen during the Cold War.
Will the global pandemic push humanity to reflect, make progress, and arrive at better global governance? In this photo taken on 27 April 2020 (rotated 180 degrees), a man is reflected on a puddle of water in a public square during the coronavirus outbreak in Valparaiso, Chile. (Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters)
Will the global pandemic push humanity to reflect, make progress, and arrive at better global governance? In this photo taken on 27 April 2020 (rotated 180 degrees), a man is reflected on a puddle of water in a public square during the coronavirus outbreak in Valparaiso, Chile. (Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters)

The 2019 coronavirus epidemic has grown into a pandemic the size of a historic, global catastrophe. The disaster is far from over, and we must seize the day to ask a big question about the future: “Will the global pandemic push humanity to reflect, make progress, and arrive at better global governance?”

My judgement on this matter is explicitly in the negative. 

As the pandemic brings to light major issues that plague global governance, there are people who hope and believe that humanity will be motivated to reflect and make progress. Unfortunately, wishes are not always met with favourable conditions for them to be fulfilled. Throughout human history, tragedies of repeating the same old mistakes far outnumber stories with a happy ending.   

Protective goggles are inspected after arriving at Bari airport on a plane that has travelled from Guangzhou, China, with boxes of personal protective equipment to help the southern Italian region of Puglia combat the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, on 7 April 2020. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)
Protective goggles are inspected after arriving at Bari airport on a plane that has travelled from Guangzhou, China, with boxes of personal protective equipment to help the southern Italian region of Puglia combat the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, on 7 April 2020. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

Conditions for collective action

At least two conditions need to be met for the world to reflect and make progress: one, the driving force of thought; and the other, executive power. Strong executive power is necessary for progress to take place in society, and usually, this has to be organised.  

Of the above two conditions, there is no lack of intellectual resources about this pandemic, hence the driving force of thought is available. Global governance is about the joint management of risks and threats, as well as the sharing of resources and welfare. There are ample stories illustrating these aspects within and outside of Chinese history.

For example, the ancient Chinese notion of “all under Heaven” being “a single family” (天下一家) or mutually connected in “grand unity” (天下大同). When, in 562 BC, the Covenant of Bo required China’s feudal states to “not … protect traitors, not … shelter criminals, [but to] aid one another in disasters and calamities, to have compassion for one another in times of misfortune and disorder”, that was a clear example of joint risk management.

The same covenant also required the participating states to “not … hoard up the produce of good years, not … shut one another out from advantages [possessed by each party]”, and that showed the sharing of welfare. Indeed, recorded in the ancient chronicles of Zuo’s Commentary are numerous instances of interstate aid provided between the feudal states.

In Christianity, the Bible says that the people of God should all help one another. This duty transcends national boundaries. Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch advocated the establishment of a federation of states to settle disputes. When we turn to modern thought on international mutual aid, an even greater wealth of ideas can be found. So, there is really no lack of theoretical bases for international mutual aid in both China and the West. 

Hard to turn thought to action

However, because of certain circumstances, these ideas may not be feasible. There would always be lines of thought embracing international mutual aid, and others that feel that the state must only act as profit dictates. Sometimes, in reality, there is only one possible choice. This choice is determined by national will, which encompasses the whole gamut of national objectives, means and so on. This is in fact, the executive power we referred to earlier.

When well wishes go unfulfilled, what is lacking is usually not thought but executive power. When there is a lack of such power, thought cannot be translated into widespread and powerful public opinion. The thought in question will remain powerless when there are only a small minority of proponents.

Executive power is not only a catalyst for converting thought into public opinion which demands action, but also a driving force behind progress. So, if we ask why the coronavirus pandemic is not going to push humanity into reflecting on itself and making progress, the key reason is simply due to the lack of the second condition, which is executive power.  

Lessons from history show that cooperation between the world’s number one country and the number two country is a necessary condition for international progress.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Colorado State Capitol building to protest coronavirus stay-at-home orders during a "ReOpen Colorado" rally in Denver, Colorado, on 19 April 2020. (Jason Connolly/AFP)
Demonstrators gather in front of the Colorado State Capitol building to protest coronavirus stay-at-home orders during a "Reopen Colorado" rally in Denver, Colorado, on 19 April 2020. (Jason Connolly/AFP)

What history teaches us

For actual progress to be made on important international issues, executive power is needed. But where exactly does this power lie? The answer is cooperation between major countries.

Lessons from history show that cooperation between the world’s number one country and the number two country is a necessary condition for international progress.

Let’s imagine the scenario where number one and number two are seriously at odds with each other. In this scenario, the smaller the strength difference is between the two countries, the lower likelihood there is of the number one using strong-arm tactics against number two to get the latter to obey — hence, it is also less likely for the top two powers to work together.

While war can be initiated unilaterally, it takes all warring sides to foster peace.

It is enlightening for us to look at the origins of the League of Nations (LN) and the United Nations (UN).

After the end of the First World War, both the losers and winners had suffered horrendous losses. The executive power behind the proposed establishment of the LN came from the victorious nations Britain and America. They were the number one and number two power of the world (the US had already surpassed the UK in strength at that time, but it would be a while before the former took the latter’s place completely as the global hegemon). Ultimately, because of domestic opposition from the isolationists, the US Congress denied the motion to join the LN. The fact that America and the Soviet Union did not join made the LN very weak in terms of executive effectiveness. 

During the latter part of the Second World War, the idea of establishing the UN was proposed by none other than the leader of the number one power — US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the formation stage, countries like the US and UK put forth the majority rule as a decision-making principle, but Stalin wanted the permanent members of the Security Council to have the power of the veto, or it would not join. If the juggernaut that was the USSR was not in the picture, the nations that were to form the Warsaw Pact years later would generally stay out of the UN too. That would mean a very significant reduction in the coverage and executive effectiveness of the UN. And so, in the end, America and the others gave in. 

While war can be initiated unilaterally, it takes all warring sides to foster peace. International cooperation will not be possible in an unruly international community, or if any of the top two powers veto against such joint efforts. 

...the coronavirus pandemic will never push humanity into reflecting and making progress.

People take part in a demonstration against Washington state's stay-home order at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington, on 19 April 2020. (Jason Redmond/AFP)
People take part in a demonstration against Washington state's stay-home order at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington, on 19 April 2020. (Jason Redmond/AFP)

Let us look further back in time. During China’s Spring and Autumn Period, military conflicts were very frequent. Recorded in Zuo’s Commentary are a total of 745 wars, or an average of 2.9 wars per year. Although the great officer Zhong Zhong of Lu (鲁) had pointed out in 719 BC, “Military weapons are like fire: if you don't lay the fire aside, you will burn yourself with it”, there was no end to the wars due to the lack of supportive, peace-fostering efforts from the major states.

It was only after Qi (齐) and Chu (楚), the two strongest states, made a covenant at Shaoling in 656 BC did peace reign for some time. Eventually, after the death of Duke Huan of Qi, Chu was left with no worthy opponent, and so it began to make incursions into the feudal states of the Central Plains again. This marked the beginning of Chu and Jin's rivalry for supremacy.  

Jin’s position as hegemon was later secured with the Battle of Chengpu, but after the death of its Duke Wen, this powerful state was embroiled in 80 years of protracted tug of war with Chu. During this period, states became mindful about the ills of war and interstate covenant meetings were held. However, the first such meeting turned out to be a failure because the top two powers did not keep to earlier agreements made.

In the run-up to the second covenant meeting, both Jin and Chu finally agreed to cease fighting even though the process was far from smooth. In the decades that followed, as both number one and number two stayed more or less faithful to their agreement, the second peacemaking meeting turned out to be highly effective in resolving conflicts.

From then to the end of the Spring and Autumn Period, there was hardly any military clash between the blocs centred around Jin and Chu. These examples go on to show that significant international cooperation can come about only with cooperation between major powers.  

Humanity will not learn its lesson from the pandemic

From the above, we can infer that the coronavirus pandemic will never push humanity into reflecting and making progress. This is because of the serious divergence between the US and China, the countries often considered the number one and two powers of today. Not only that, the chasm is set to widen.  

This aerial photo taken on 14 April 2020 shows containers stacked at a port in Lianyungang, Jiangsu, China amid a decline in foreign trade due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (STR/AFP)
This aerial photo taken on 14 April 2020 shows containers stacked at a port in Lianyungang, Jiangsu, China amid a decline in foreign trade due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (STR/AFP)

There are a few noteworthy points.

First of all, America has decided that China is a challenger to its hegemony, and China is indeed seeking ascendancy for itself. While China has always claimed a “peaceful rise”, the US is not convinced. That is why the Western superpower’s policy of containment is tightening like a vice around the Asian giant and creating conflicts in matters such as the trade war and the Taiwan issue.

...both sides are leveraging on the pandemic as a tool for stoking the flames of nationalism within their own borders and fanning hostility towards each other.

When it comes to driving international cooperation, the number one power plays the most important role. No agreement can be reached if the number two power opposes it but it gets worse when number one disagrees. Based on the momentum of America’s containment efforts towards China in recent years, China-US conflicts will only get worse in the foreseeable future. This state of relations between the two powers will be highly detrimental to international cooperation. 

Secondly, the two countries are pointing fingers at each other for causing the spread of the coronavirus. Refusing to take responsibility, both sides are highlighting their own strengths and downplaying their own deficiencies. Donald Trump openly dubbed the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”. Meanwhile, China said that America had been promptly informed, and the US outbreak is a result of the Americans' failure to make the best out of time bought for them by China's lockdown.

Thirdly, both sides are leveraging on the pandemic as a tool for stoking the flames of nationalism within their own borders and fanning hostility towards each other. Trump’s attacks on China, for example, are certainly harmful to the development of bilateral relations and cooperation. They will also aggravate the American people’s perception of China. 

This photo taken on 14 April 2020 shows a staff member walking past graffiti encouraging people to defeat the Covid-19 coronavirus after all patients left Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan, Hubei, China. (STR/AFP)
This photo taken on 14 April 2020 shows a staff member walking past graffiti encouraging people to defeat the Covid-19 coronavirus after all patients left Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan, Hubei, China. (STR/AFP)

In any given situation, state actors will generally make full use of all possibilities to serve its own objectives. When a chasm or conflict has set the tone for international relations, incidental negative events will only serve as more ammunition for exacerbating the rift. Having begun to see China as a challenger, the US is bound to make use of all possible factors to contain its rival. 

There is no denying that the Covid-19 outbreak has caused much trouble to America and its people. Tremendous losses have been incurred, but who indeed should take the blame? There is a lack of soul-searching on America’s part. Trump had repeatedly asserted that his country was safe and doing fine, and failed to take the necessary measures actively.

Even after the outbreak became severe in the US, Trump did not reflect on his own errors. Instead, he kept laying the blame on China and indulged in self-praise. These actions do nothing to help China-US cooperation. They will only deepen the estrangement between both countries. 

The pandemic will only exacerbate global chasms

Although we are currently still in the midst of the pandemic, we can foresee that Covid-19 will not only fail to spur humanity on to reflection and progress, it will actually worsen the chasms of the world, especially those between the major powers. Indeed, the more severe the pandemic becomes, the more serious these will be. 

...there have to be superb leaders at the helms of the major powers, the right kind of elite in each of them, as well as rational populations.

Humanity is not incapable of reflection and progress. It is just that it usually has to learn its lessons the hard way. Even the LN, which was created after a devastating world War I, failed to prevent the even more painful World War II. The world has generally been enjoying peace since the end of that second War. As we have not experienced a mega-disaster (especially a great war) for three generations, many have forgotten how terrible a divided world and warfare can be. From the grassroots to the upper echelons of officialdom, warlike thinking is on the rise.

In view of all this, if we want humanity to engage in reflection and make progress once again, there have to be superb leaders at the helms of the major powers, the right kind of elite in each of them, as well as rational populations. If we don’t have these, we are bound to pay a hefty price.

Related: Can a messed up world fight the pandemic together? | Taiwan author Chiang Hsun: One humanity, one world | Did China win the fight against the virus but lose the world? | Humanity is facing a crisis of global governance, not globalisation