The Architecture of International Relations After COVID-19: A Return to the ‘New Normal’

After the pandemic is over, we should expect a return to normal, albeit in the context of the economic crisis. The international community can mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 only through cooperation and by strengthening the institutions of multilateralism. There are many examples of how, under quarantine, ordinary people have tried to help each other. Now it’s up to the leaders of the states, writes Farid Shafiev, Chairman of the Board of the Centre for International Relations Analysis (Azerbaijan). The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project.

The international crisis triggered by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has sparked a wave of predictions about a new world order. Many prominent politicians and scholars, including Henry Kissinger, believe that the pandemic will result in a global economic downturn, the worst since the Great Depression, which in turn will affect the system of international relations that developed after the end of the Cold War. Characteristic features of this system were liberalism in the political field and globalisation in the economic field, but now many predict that they will die.

I have already spoken out partly about this and I believe that systemic changes in the current global world order should not be expected. And here is why.

To begin with, one can analyze the reasons that led to this “liberal world order”. After the Second World War, two camps were formed in the world – a capitalist one and a socialist one. The latter was based on a strictly centralised non-alternative power, a command economy and closed borders. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the reforms in China that symbolised the end of the Cold War – events that the American scientist Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history,” demonstrated the bankruptcy of the command economy and closed borders. The capitalist world did not develop according to a single model. Conventionally, it represented two models – a classical liberal or “neo-liberal” one (laissez-faire, such as in the USA) and another based on the ideas of social democracy, which prevailed in most European countries (a welfare state).

In the thirty years that have passed since the end of the Cold War, the world has faced two serious economic crises – in 1997–1998 and in 2008–2009. Most experts previously expressed the view that extreme liberalism negatively affects the economic well-being of citizens, the power of large industrial and financial corporations must be limited, and the market should be periodically regulated by the state.

There is no more rear area

Against the background of a demographic transition, environmental degradation and the rise of the middle class, calls were made for a revision of the open trade system, in which more and more production capacities left the developed countries for the developing ones.

In the international arena, the situation has deteriorated over the past thirty years due to the intensification of manifestations of nationalism and ethnic and territorial conflicts caused by this phenomenon. The threat to the values ​​of liberalism and globalisation also came from the search for identity, including religion, which was reflected (in its extreme form) in the activation of ISIS in the Middle East.

Thus, problems with the value system of liberalism and globalisation appeared before the COVID-19 pandemic. The so-called “coronavirus crisis” only exacerbated the political and economic situation, which was already under stress due to conflicts, defaults, trade wars, and so on.

Undoubtedly, the world expects an economic crisis, and depending on how deep it is, it will influence the “behaviour” of the masses, governments and states.

In addition to exacerbating existing problems, the pandemic also exposed the weaknesses of nation-states, for example, in the field of healthcare. Opinions are expressed that centralised authorities were able to more effectively respond to a large-scale challenge. In this regard, the reaction of China and Singapore can be compared, on the one hand, to that of the United States and Italy, on the other. However, as the successful experience of Germany has underscored, the point is rather in the quality of the healthcare system and in the discipline of the bureaucratic apparatus.

Pandemics have occurred before (such as the “Spanish flu” in 1918-1919), they have spread all over the world without anything remotely resembling the current degree of globalisation. Therefore, it is wrong to blame the spread of the virus on open borders. The speed of distribution is undoubtedly the result of modern technology, but they also allow you to quickly close borders and societies.

It is believed that the outbreak of COVID-19 may lead to the introduction of a system where citizens may be totally monitored by the state, thereby creating a threat to human rights. The famous Israeli historian Yuval Harari writes about this in apocalyptic tones. However, the problem of a “superstate spy” has existed and exists regardless of outbreaks of coronovirus or other infection. The well-known French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the threat of general surveillance back in the middle of the last century, using the concept of “panoptism”, the roots of which go even deeper into history (recall the famous project of an ideal prison – the panopticon of Jeremiah Bentham, a 18th-19th century English lawyer). Supervision is a characteristic feature of every modern state, including both democratic and authoritarian ones, which make use of constantly-evolving technologies. The market economy, with its credit cards, mobile phones, applications and social networks, which hundreds of millions and more use completely voluntarily, is pushing for this.

The question is: how do we ensure that legal systems ensure the protection of property and the right to privacy? Moreover, this problem is not the result of the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

In increasingly complex societies, the role of the state inevitably intensifies. Whether we like it or not, in the near future and in connection with the impending economic crisis, it is precisely the bureaucratically and administratively effective state that will be able to provide a minimum standard of welfare for its citizens. The idea of ​​a universal minimum wage also arose not only in connection with crises, but due to the automation of production and resulting job cuts.

Most of the systemic changes in the world have arisen due to the transformation of economic relations and related political values. Wars were often the result of a systemic crisis. In the 20th century, after two world wars, mankind came to the realisation that it was existentially necessary to regulate international relations. This is how the modern “international community” with the UN and international structures appeared. In this sense, the First World War had a deeper impact on international relations than the “Spanish flu” pandemic, which nevertheless claimed far more lives than the war of 1914-1918.

Globalisation, the world order and technophobia: what changes are we to expect?

Thus, in my opinion, one should not exaggerate the influence of COVID-19 on the architecture of the prevailing world order. For the latter, the challenges are demographic problems, a worsening ecology, and regional conflicts.

Today, disputes about how best to respond to these and other global challenges are being fought between adherents of the liberal order and supporters of centralised power. Most countries of the world which enjoy a high standard of living have adopted the liberal model. However, it is obvious that attempts to replicate it, especially in regions such as the Middle East, can lead to devastating consequences, as has already happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. The migration flows caused by these conflicts and the intensification of radical movements ultimately threaten the same liberal countries which promote theses values.

In the near future, none of the above parties is unlikely to be expected to win. During the Cold War, the word “coexistence” was in common use among politicians. Obviously, it is time to introduce this concept back into modern international relations.

I believe that after the current pandemic, we should expect a return to normal, albeit in the context of the economic crisis. The international community can mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 only through cooperation and a strengthening of the institutions of multilateralism. There are many examples of how, under quarantine, ordinary people have tried to help each other. Now it’s up to the leaders of the states. Nevertheless, they should remember that we live in a completely different world, different from the times of the First World War, the “Spanish flu” pandemic, the Great Depression, or after our victory in the Second World War, the 75th anniversary of which we celebrate this year.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.