Post-COVID International Order

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
March 28, 2020


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It is a well-known fact that international orders take decades to form and yet remain fragile due to diverse and intermittent challenges. The communist international order has been dead for quite some time. The liberal international order is visibly crumbling. The US domination in international affairs is fading, and China’s bourgeoning international influence has hit the wall since the outbreak of the COVID-19.
The weakness and difficulty of the United States in realizing President Donald Trump’s dream of making America great again have been exposed by the way the White House has handled the COVID-19 outbreak. The alleged Chinese role in the spread of the Corona Virus around the globe has begun to puncture holes into the Belt and Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping. While the American public seems quite displeased with the way their President has presented his views on the Corona virus pandemic from time to time, international opinion on China, related to the pandemic, displays a variety of emotions ranging from outright fury to call for vengeance. When I expressed my view on twitter that the “COVID-19 pandemic has sparked off a serious blame game between the USA and China” and that “it is unwelcome and dangerous,” reactions that came are worth noting. One view was: “Indeed, no time for squabble. But eventually, the world should come together for some accountability on early suppression of truth on COVID-19.” Another view was: “… all countries should speak openly against China. China should be isolated/quarantined from the rest of the world. Nobody should go to China, and nobody shall come from China”.

American failures and limitations in handling the pandemic cases within their country and the general feeling of anger and popular rage in many countries against China are indications that the world will be unwilling to accept the leadership of either the United States or China in the post-COVID international order. Another tweet of mine making an idealistic recommendation had few takers. I wrote: “Healthy competition in trade & investment and cooperation to maintain global security are desirable in US-China Relations. Not Cold War type rivalry!”

Not many would believe that the Americans and the Chinese would indulge in “healthy competition” or combine their strength to tackle COVID-19 globally. The exchange of harsh words by the American and Chinese leadership against each other, each blaming the other for the outbreak of the pandemic, said it all. To many people, the pandemic appeared to be an instance of biological warfare between the two most leading countries in the world. Such a state of affairs followed the intense trade war between them that threatened to cripple the global economy.

Thus, it is becoming apparent that the dreaded US-China Cold War will be the main hallmark of post-COVID international order. The trans-Atlantic ties will be disrupted further, and the trust level will severely deteriorate, even as the United States and the EU are fighting their own battles against the novel Corona pandemic now. China is offering assistance to Europe, and the US is getting sucked into its war against COVID-19 at home. While China is trying to cement its bond with BRI partner countries by offering them medical assistance, its impact is going to be marginal in furthering China’s goal to carve out a Sino-centric international order. COVID-19 has severely damaged the economy of China, and it will take time to restore China’s economy to the level of the pre-COVID era so that it can fund and complete the BRI projects.

That simply means the Cold Warriors in post-COVID international order will have to scramble for enrolling reliable allies and may not find them in adequate numbers. In any case, several countries around the world have already been finding it difficult to take sides in the current cold confrontation between the United States and China. When the current cold confrontation makes way to the cold war between Washington and Beijing, the complexity will redouble for third countries to take sides.

Countries, particularly great powers, have always flouted norms in international relations during the Cold War. National interests triumphed over norms at all critical times. However, in the post-Cold War era, global threats, such as transnational terrorism, drug trade, human trafficking, global warming, etc. compelled nations to go beyond their narrow national interests and develop international consensus. Even then, international cooperation was very hard to achieve, and it was still harder to implement the agreements reached, be it climate change or combating terrorism.

Terms, such as “alliance” and “friendship”, have faded into memory; and have been replaced by terms like “win-win”, “co-production”, “co-development” in the era of rapid globalization. As globalization raised the cost for developed countries and made several developing countries victims of it, international relations became highly “transactional”. Now globalization itself will change its form due to hard lessons learned from the Corona pandemic. The quality of goods from other countries will be suspect, and trade relations may take a back seat in certain sectors. Movement of people and companies across borders may become more restricted.

The Lockean view of human nature gave rise to liberalism and shaped liberal internationalism. COVID-19 pandemic is most likely to revive the Hobbesian view of human nature and shape international relations. Close to 200 countries are fighting a war against the Corona virus, and by and large, they all are going solo. No one is talking of collective security, humanitarian intervention, foreign assistance, disaster management in a tone and tenor that should remind us that it is a war between human and non-humans and that humans should at least temporarily bury their hatchets and confront the enemy, but it is just not happening. President Donald Trump offered a billion US dollar to a German Company to develop an anti-Corona virus vaccine. The deal was it would be only for the United States. The same company had already been given incentives by the German Government to develop a vaccine only for Germany. Trump called it a “Chinese virus” and angered the Chinese. Beijing now feels that it cannot assist the US if it antagonizes China.

A nation gets united when it is at war. Now the entire humanity is at war with a new virus. This virus has taken a heavy toll in terms of human lives lost across myriad countries and threatens every nation on the planet. A sort of global paralysis seems to be in place, and the situation is getting worse with a velocity unimaginable until recently. Social relations, economic activities, politics, and international relations have been affected to the extent that not even a fiction writer could have ever imagined possible. However, nations have not woken up. Self-interest is the primary driving force, and this would continue to shape the Post-COVID international order. Negative aspects of human instincts may drive international relations. Worse days seem to be on the wait for the survivors of the current pandemic! The real challenge for leaders around the world would be to restore humanness for the survival of human civilization. Science has to be more ethical and less lethal in its approach. What will be needed the most is a marriage between science and spirituality if civilization has to move ahead.