The changing world order amidst COVID-19 outbreak
By Gazi Hassan
The Cornonavirus is on a rampage, relentlessly spreading beyond China—where it was initially detected—and engulfing most parts of the globe including Japan and South Korea in Far East, countries in Southeast Asia, Europe, West Asia, and North, Central and South America. The latest figures, at the time of writing this article, have already reached more than 337,000 confirmed cases and more than 15,000 deaths. Italy has surpassed China with the highest number of fatalities, with more than 5,400 deaths, and the number of fatalities in countries like Iran and others are also rising rapidly. The world has shifted its gear to a crisis mode, after WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declaring the COVID-19 epidemic as a ‘pandemic’.
In the wake of this outbreak, significant changes are happening in the international political system. Oil prices are falling, stock markets are down, trade has taken a hit and the tourism industry across the globe has suffered the most, and many other things are taking a toll on global politics and economy. Many argue that it is a threat to the liberal international world order driven by globalisation and interdependence. This is changing the landscape of international politics which in recent times has seen the rise of populism, unilateralism, isolationism and protectionism. In a dire situation like this, it is imperative to contain the outbreak and mitigate the crisis by pooling the resources and sharing scientific knowledge. This unprecedented crisis has the potential to change the global order once for all.
The rise of the liberal international world order since the late 20th Century has been a major factor in the free movement of people across the borders for the purpose of global supply chains, international finance and the flow of money, employment, and most importantly tourism. This was made possible by the forces of globalisation working both at national as well as international level. There is no doubt that globalisation has its pros and cons. On the positive front, we can see free cross-border movement of people, goods, money and information creating wealth and opportunity; whereas on the negative side, it has exacerbated global disparities, enabling international terrorism and cross-border crime, and in today’s context the rapid spread of deadly diseases.
It is important to evaluate the fact that the year 2020, from the beginning, has been the most turbulent period for world politics and global economy since the global financial crisis in 2008. The outbreak has caused not only public health concerns but also brought daily life and movement of people to a standstill triggering serious concerns. The pressure of the US-China trade war was reduced by mutual negotiations with an attempt to reach a possible solution. However, the outbreak of the virus—which was initially thought to be limited to China and East Asia—has now become a global health concern, causing significant reduction in both the production and demand side of the world economy.
Considering the present situation, the pandemic will have devastating implications on corporations and businesses that hitherto had benefited from economic interdependence supported by cross-border global supply chains. China, the world’s largest production base, lies at the heart of many global supply chains. Since the outbreak, the hardest hit were companies that were dependent on China. The tourism sector of Japan, Singapore and of many other countries that had profited quite immensely from the large influx of Chinese tourists has been severely impacted by plunging numbers.
In short, the national borders are becoming less porous in terms of business and trade transactions and the movement of people when compared to 30 years of globalisation since the end of the Cold War. However, the trend towards strengthening and shutting the national borders was already manifested in a number of countries. The rise of populism and nationalism, accompanied by the anti-refugee sentiments in many European countries, coupled with the America First policy of the Trump Administration and the UK’s Brexit, have encouraged growing disparity. Thus, less porous borders, rising nationalism and now the closure of borders outright due to the fear of the spread of the deadly disease have resulted in changing the liberal international world order. In future, it may be noted that the coronavirus delivered the deathblow to the liberal international world order, globalisation and an era of interdependence.
The challenge at hand is to take the liberal international world order in a direction where it weakens the burdens on globalisation. This will require stronger international cooperation driven by shared common interests. The explosion of this deadly virus has created an extraordinary situation where it is crucial that we create mechanisms to respond to such events through effective international cooperation. This can be done without falling victim to one’s ethnocentrism. International cooperation is needed to make sure that the urgency of a public health emergency is given priority over any other. The long-term effects of this outbreak are not yet been clear with no assessment of a common response, and various developments are happening in the international oil markets with a possible flare-up of energy war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, giving yet another blow to the world order in this testing times.
In addition to that, the strategy employed by the United States of abdicating from the role of a “sole guarantor of global peace and stability”, which had begun during the Obama administration and continued by his successor Donald Trump, has severely weakened the global governance architecture and has eroded America’s capacity to manage any international crises. Apart from the trade war with China, the decision of withdrawing from various multilateral groupings, and most importantly from the Iran deal (JCPOA), has eroded the foundations of the liberal international system which was thought to be based on the principles of free trade, peace and stability, and fair competition.
Finally, as the number of COVID-19 cases were increasingly being reported across South Asia, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter for proposing a video conference among the region’s leaders to discuss the health emergency. The leaders of SAARC nations came together on March 15 for a virtual meeting to discuss a regional response to this deadly outbreak. The meeting was attended by seven out of eight heads of the states of SAARC grouping, with only Pakistan being represented by its health minister. The latest engagement was not only a timely intervention at the regional level towards combating the viral outbreak, but also has given an opportunity for all other regional organisations to try out such meetings to respond effectively. This can be done by pooling their resources and sharing information. The collective action of all the countries, not the competition or trade war, is the need of the hour to clear the barriers to the development, manufacture and equitable distribution of a vaccine that can counter this deadly pandemic.
Mr Gazi Hassan is a Senior Research Associate working with CPPR- Centre for Strategic Studies. Mr Hassan’s research focuses on Asia-Pacific, particularly exploring geopolitical dynamics, developments related to trade, terrorism, the role of various actors and including the security dynamics of the region. He has previously worked as a researcher at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and has been contributing articles to SADF, various online platforms like Foreign Policy News, International Policy Digest, The Quint, The Median and Newspaper dailies in Jammu and Kashmir.