When armed gunmen storm the Michigan state legislature, you know many things are very wrong in the US politically, and above all ideologically. With respect to the world at large, it is a sign of a state of confusion of a magnitude unseen in any contemporary crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic. An unprecedented degree of alarm and uncertainty over the future runs through all views on the post-coronavirus world, regardless of how these views may vary over what the world will look like once the dust settles and after the living bury the dead. The Foreign Affairs periodical solicited the views of 12 leading analysts and intellectuals to identify the contours of the world to come. The result reflected not just sharp disagreement between them, which is natural, but also the methodological and analytical difficulties they faced in contending with this problem. This applies as much to those who approach it from a bird’s eye view over the large global jungle as it does to those who look at it from the perspective of this or that tree behind which people or their societies are cowering.
Some foreign affairs and international relations experts spoke of the “end of higher strategies”. The US has to think small, they argued. Others countered that the US should do the opposite. So, when one writer held that the US should divvy up spheres of influence with its global rivals, especially Russia and China, another challenged this. The US should not shrink from the international role it was meant to play. The US refused to allow the British Empire to survive after World War II, it fought Soviet domination over Eastern Europe and it did all it could to remain at the helm of the world order because this has been its historical “destiny” since the Monroe Doctrine that kept other world powers out of the Americas from which hemisphere the US positioned itself to assume the mantle of world leader in the framework of globalisation.
There are countless other examples of intellectual confusion not just over the nature of the post-corona world, but its arrival date. There is considerable uncertainty over when this crisis will pass. Even if we presume the discovery of the antidote that will herald its end, this does not preclude a renewed assault or obviate the fact that there is much scientists still do not know about this novel virus.
Of course, we can grant that the world was already in a mess before COVID-19 reared its head. Angry tides of opinion had already turned against globalisation and the workings of identity politics had long since pushed peoples inward into the confines of national, ethnic and other such affiliations due to the workings of identity politics. This contraction in horizons comes at a time when the fourth technological revolution and its applications are still progressing, which must cause considerable confusion and anxiety, especially given how world government, international organisations and multiparty regional organisations have weakened and lost their stature and, also, how various multiparty and international treaties are being eyed askance and have begun to unravel.
But what does all this mean for us in the Arab world? How are we to handle all the confusion and disruption that are the chief properties of the world today and will remain so in the post-coronavirus world?
On 27 April in The Washington Post, King Abdullah II Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan urged, “it’s time to return to globalisation. But this time let’s do it right.” By “right” he means rebuilding a globalisation that “strengthens and builds capacities within our countries and ushers in true cooperation rather than competition” and that “recognises that a single country, acting alone, cannot succeed… We need to reconfigure international institutions and build new ones where needed. We need to create and sustain new organisations that draw on the skills and resources of different sectors, across national boundaries.”
The new globalisation that the Jordanian monarch advocates should be founded on a “true cooperation” that was lacking in the old version because in that version cooperation was tainted by factors related to international power balances and disparities between the haves and have-nots of the main military, economic, technological and soft sources of power. Historically, there have been three responses to this imbalance: to strive to complete or nearly complete self-sufficiency, to side with a superpower or superpower alliance, or to build a regional consortium that strengthens the power and negotiating position of its members.
I have often spoken here about the “new pan-Arabism” that brings together geographically close and ideologically compatible Arab countries that share, among other things, a desire to retain their independence vis-à-vis the great powers, a determination to pursue sweeping economic and social reforms, and the pursuit of moderation and just peace in their regional relations. These countries are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf countries and Jordan. They have just endured a successful trial against the coronavirus pandemic in which their health, scientific and governmental sectors have demonstrated undeniable valour despite strenuous international circumstances and harsh economic pressures aggravated by plummeting oil prices. These countries have understood that there is no alternative but to reform, diversify sources of wealth and consolidate the foundations of the state in the face of certain transnational ideologies, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist offshoots, as well as in the face of a mode of globalisation that is controlled by parties that do not play by the rules of fairness. They also know that they cannot deal with the post-corona world on their own, whether that world will bring a better mode of international cooperation, a better equilibrium between China and the US or, as one writer put it, a world that looks at neither Washington or Beijing but rather at Berlin, which managed to cement Europe back together through this crisis, almost making it seem as though Germany had not been defeated in World War II.
Naturally, there remain questions the Arabs need to ask themselves at this juncture. To answer them, the Arabs may have to re-examine previous experiments that did not turn out so well. Perhaps at times there will not be enough time for questions, let alone answers, because we are too preoccupied with dealing with the problems of the present and the current obstacles to development, which make it pointless to speculate about other matters. The strategic and economic dangers we face are many. Some are manageable and part of managing them will require a nearly 200 million strong market, a large and robust middle class, an academic and research and development base, significant influxes of tourism and a burgeoning natural gas and oil sector to help fuel things once things settle down again. Although, if things do not settle down, then the Arab consortium centred on the Red Sea and the Gulf has enough to draw on, at least for the coming phase.
A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly