There is a new trend in theorising about the impact of Covid-19 on the contemporary world. It addresses the question as to whether the pandemic will turn the world upside down and usher in a “new world” or whether, like other major violent shocks and crises, it will merely hasten already existing trends. In last week’s Foreign Affairs, the eminent international relations expert and President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, weighed in on the matter beneath the headline: “The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It: Not Every Crisis Is a Turning Point.”
“The world following the pandemic is unlikely to be radically different from the one that preceded it,” he writes. “Covid-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it. The pandemic and the response to it have revealed and reinforced the fundamental characteristics of geopolitics today. As a result, this crisis promises to be less of a turning point than a way station along the road that the world has been travelling for the past few decades.”
This leaves us with the question as to the real variables at work now, and how the crisis will impact the world’s performance, determination, focus and pace in dealing with them.
Clearly, the virus has created a health crisis that threatens not only a state or a region, but the entire world. One cause of the crisis, and perhaps one of its aggravating factors, is that rapidly transmissible diseases had not been factored into “globalisation”. Globalisation was about trade, the movement of money and the economy in general. It might have also been about values. It was certainly about social communications. Little thought was given to attacks on the part of other realms of the biosphere on human beings. The virus struck at a time when “globalisation” itself was coming under attack as a result of the global shift to the political right during the past decade. This may be why the world has not been able to come to grips with the virus and mobilise an effective degree of international cooperation to combat it even as we endure the fourth month of this crisis.
The problem is more complicated than it appears. Globalisation’s answer to the problems of world trade was to create the World Trade Organisation. Its purpose was to establish and oversee a global system for the movement of goods and products and associated financial and hygienic matters. Despite their initial suspicions, because the advocates of the WTO were the US and its Western allies, Russia and China joined the organisation. It gave Beijing the opportunity to flex its economic muscles and move to the forefront of world trade. Moscow’s entry into the WTO made little difference because Russia hasn’t changed much in the way it handles international affairs since the days of the Soviet Union. The blow to the system would come from the West, specifically the Western political right, especially after Donald Trump came to power and lashed out at the WTO and every trade agreement the US had struck with friend and foe alike.
Reactions against such a high degree of globalisation have also afflicted the World Health Organisation which, in the absence of global leadership, thanks to the US’s withdrawal and China’s reluctance to bear the costs of taking its place, finds itself forced to shoulder the burden of managing global health crises on its own. From everything that we have learned so far about the way the virus spread from one country to the next, the desperate and uncoordinated scramble to search for a cure, the different models for fostering social distancing or for continuing as normal in some countries, it is obvious that every country needs some global mechanism.
The problem extends beyond world health to all other existential issues. The planet is not in the best of shape. Global warming has precipitated severe climate changes the disturbing effects of which are already visible. These cannot be addressed outside a framework for international cooperation and collective decision-making that seeks to achieve transnational and trans-regional goals. But such a framework is out of reach when a country such as the US, with the second largest amount of carbon dioxide emissions after China, withdraws from the Paris Agreement. Hopefully, Covid-19 will not only stimulate international cooperation in health and encourage support for the WHO, but also promote better international cooperation on global warming, the prevention of the dissemination of nuclear weapons and other such vital issues that are crucial to the very survival of the planet and its inhabitants. In short, we are looking at geopolitics of a different order, an order defined not by states but by planets and their geographies.
The pandemic and its disastrous consequences across the globe have not only sharpened the focus on major global issues. They have also thrown into relief the fact that territorial sovereignty means precious little if a state — superpower or not — is unable, on its own, to defend its people. Sovereignty, today, is not as threatened by colonialism, belligerent neighbours or powers thirsting for regional or global hegemony as it is by new technologies that have proven very useful during the crisis but that could prove extremely dangerous when manipulated by international terrorist organisations or irresponsible transnational companies.
There was a marked increase in the uses of the products of the “fourth technological revolution” during the crisis. Numerous applications put new inroads into artificial intelligence and biotechnology to detect and monitor infected persons, trace contact patterns, test and take temperatures, quarantine people, etc. Unfortunately, such technology not only supports the state, whether liberal or authoritarian, in its fight against the deadly virus.
It also can be bent to the service of the terrorist “virus”, in the form of non-state entities that are very aggressive and violent and that, like Covid-19, make no distinction between countries on the basis of system of government, predominant religion, rich and poor, predominantly urban or rural, North or South, white or non-white. Terrorism is definitely a phenomenon that existed before the Covid-19 crisis and that will exist afterwards. The question is whether the developments that made this virus so much more transmissible and powerful will interact with the extremist and give terrorism a boost that the so-called caliphate couldn’t even conceive of.
This is where politics in its conventional sense comes in. Politics, at heart, is about people. It is where leaders and people come together, work out what needs to be done, make decisions about how to get it done, and then get to work. Ultimately, it’s not a virus but people who determine what the world order will be.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly