The lack of a genuine international community and true global leaders underscores the absence of a universal world order, writes Valdai Club expert Thomas Graham. The American effort to expand the liberal international order, which structured post-World War II relations in the West, to the entire world after the end of the Cold War has ended in failure.
Global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic are rare in history. Their occurrence inevitably leads to reflection about the implications for global affairs. Some see such events as historic turning points: The world post-crisis looks radically different from its pre-crisis state. The arc of history takes a sharp turn to move in a new direction. Others see greater continuity across these crises as the general rule. They are interruptions, not revolutions. If radical change does occur afterwards, the crises are assessed to be more catalysts, accelerating the pace of already existing trends, than direct causes.
It is far too early to know whether the current pandemic will be a world changer, an accelerator, or simply an unpleasant episode before the world returns to business as usual. No matter what, the COVID-19 pandemic today is already performing an important function: It is acting as an X-ray, exposing the deeper structure of world affairs, which is often unrecognized, ignored, or denied in current political discourse. Four realities have come into sharper view.
First, and most important, for all the talk of globalization and the emergence of potent supra-national, transnational, and sub-national actors, the nation-state remains the primary actor on the global stage. It is the key point of reference and the prime object of allegiance for people across the globe. As the virus spreads, people have looked first to their national governments to provide information on the threat and to organize the response. They have expected their governments to mobilize the resources to fight the virus and ease the accompanying economic distress. Only governments, be they democratic, authoritarian, or some hybrid, have had sufficient legitimacy to do that. Citizens have also been prepared to surrender more of their own liberties to their national governments so that they can effectively fight the virus. In particular, governments have gained greater powers of surveillance. The private sphere has thus narrowed, with the consent of frightened communities.
National governments will not likely abandon these new authorities once the pandemic has subsided, as history demonstrates: the US government has retained much of the expanded powers it received to counter the terrorist threat after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. As a result of the pandemic, states are thus likely to gain greater control over their populations and play a larger role in socio-economic matters for years into the future. And that control will reinforce their primacy on the world stage over other global actors.
National governments, not surprisingly, see the welfare and security of their own populations as their primary responsibility. Their self-centered actions have demonstrated once again that the international community is a myth. That is second reality revealed by the COVID X-ray. The pandemic is one of those transnational challenges, along with international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and climate change, which globalists have long instructed us demand international cooperation. No one country, no matter how powerful and rich, can cope with such challenges on its own.
That may be true. But so far at least – and there is little evidence that the situation will change soon – international cooperation has been minimal in dealing with the pandemic. It has been a matter of sauve qui peut. States abruptly closed their borders without warning or consultation with neighbors. They hesitated to assist other countries with medical supplies and equipment to ensure that they could meet the needs of their own populations. That was the situation even in the European Union, which prides itself on shared responsibility and cooperation. Germany famously refused to offer medical help and supplies to Italy in the early days of the pandemic in March. The search for antivirals to treat the disease and a vaccine against it is largely a national – or private-sector – effort. A recent belated effort by the EU to raise a fund for that purpose failed to attract American, Chinese, or Russian participation.
Similarly, international organizations have been largely invisible or ignored. The United Nations’ call for a universal ceasefire during the pandemic fell on deaf ears. China refused a request by the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan in the early stages of the crisis. The United States has subsequently cut off funding to the WHO, accusing it of caving to Chinese pressure.
The pandemic, thus, does not augur well for international cooperation on other transnational challenges. This should not be surprising. The pandemic might pose a threat to all countries, but the level of threat varies widely from country to country. Some states are better prepared, for reasons of policy, available resources, and social cohesion, to cope with the virus than others are. In a world of growing competition, especially among great powers, the temptation is to seek benefit out of what might be called one’s competitive advantage in combating the pandemic. Some countries are actively spreading disinformation to disorient the public and stoke dissent and disorder in rival states. What is true of COVID-19 is true for all other transnational challenges, including the focus of so much angst in the West today, climate change.
That leads to the third reality exposed by the pandemic: the absence of true global leaders. No one or group of leaders has emerged to galvanize a powerful coalition against the global scourge, as, for example, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin did during the Second World War against Nazi Germany. Indeed, so far at least, leaders of the major world powers – America’s Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – have focused almost exclusively on their own countries, and not without serious missteps in the beginning. Xi concealed the gravity of the crisis, depriving other countries of critical time to prepare for the onslaught. Putin and Trump both assured their countries that they had the situation under control, until it became obvious that they didn’t. Offers of assistance are welcome, of course, but they mainly advance national agendas; they are not designed to rally support for a global response. Rather than fostering cooperation, the United States and China have sharpened their rivalry, while US-Russian relations remain confrontational.
The lack of a genuine international community and true global leaders underscores the absence of a universal world order, the fourth revelation of the COVID X-ray. The American effort to expand the liberal international order, which structured post-World War II relations in the West, to the entire world after the end of the Cold War has ended in failure. That order, based on liberal principles and ostensibly on the rule of law, was ultimately dependent on American power, that is, America’s willingness to use force, and ability to use it effectively, to enforce the rules anywhere on the planet. There may have been a brief period, the so-called unipolar moment in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the United States came close to making that order truly universal, but that moment faded away as China rose and Russia reasserted itself on the global stage. The pandemic has only underscored America’s retreat from global leadership and lack of sufficient power to enforce the liberal rule of law. That order might continue to operate regionally, within the Transatlantic community, for example, although Trump’s disdain for America’s European allies has eroded even that. Worldwide, however, there is no one dominant, universal world order. American, Chinese, and Russian concepts compete for adherents. In many places, there is only growing disorder.
In short, COVID-19 has revealed most vividly that we live in a world of great-power competition. Globalization, to be sure, is a reality. The world has grown increasingly interconnected in recent decades; transnational challenges have intensified. They might call for international cooperation, but for the great powers at least, national gain takes priority. The pandemic has done nothing to change that equation; it has only made it more vivid.