Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19 has been declared a pandemic, a cottage industry has grown up amongst the observers of foreign policy over the implications that the pandemic would have on the global order. Usually, such discussions end up being an exploration into the future prospects of the US as world’s superpower and the likelihood of China replacing it.Arguments have been raised both affirming that the Chinese influence might grow on the one hand, and, on the other hand, that its influence is on its way down.
Global order and the possible changes to it notwithstanding, the bigger question that concerns us is the climate of fear that the pandemic has cultivated in the minds of observers of global politics.Needless to say, that the pandemic will have far reaching repercussions and global politics would not be unaffected by it. Critically speaking, however, I am ill at ease with this narrative of change. Instead, one question that is worth exploring today is whether the outbreak is itself a symptom of a larger change in the world order that has already happened?
The Global Order
Global order refers to the constellations of the power hierarchy amongst various nation-states at a marked point in time and space.That is to say, that global order is contextual and it is filtered by where one stands.It is however an oxymoron, since the international political scene is often characterised as disorderly and anarchic due to the lack of a world government. However, it would be inappropriate to say that there is no pattern to politics. Global order, then becomes that pattern that punctuates the messy terrain of international politics. Ever since the fall of Soviet-Union, the conventional wisdom proclaims that the global order has been unipolar – with the US as the world’s only superpower. For the past 30 years, the world has been living under the US hegemony.
In many ways, it could be argued that the American hegemony is complete and that it eclipses every aspect of our live. The US has full control over the main institutions that run the global economy, it has immense influence over the United Nations and specialised agencies, it also influences consumer choices of the peoples who live far, far away from North America. Yet, the US President Donald Trump has blamed the WHO for “covering up” the crisis and halted its funding. This is, in my view, a major admission of the fact that despite its political and economic clout, flows of globalisation have outpaced the United States. The world’s sole superpower has ended up being the worst affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Therein lies the answer to the question that we are probing, is the pandemic a sign that the global order has changed fundamentally?
A 9/11 Moment?
In the narratives of foreign policy and global order, 9/11 is usually seen as a moment of great change. “The World changed forever” on that fateful day, we were taught. But what this narrative made us not as was whether it had changed before that and we just found out on that fateful day? Until then the mainstream theories of international politics had an exclusive focus on nation-states as main actors. Over the years, many events had shown that that was a miscalculation. The Munich Olympics episode, the Iran Hostage Crisis, all were signs that non-state actors could, if they wanted to, wield considerable power and hamper security of nations and its citizens.Even on that fateful day of September 2001, America was prepared for all kinds high-technology attacks. It was prepared for a missile, it was prepared for an invasion. It had the technical and physical wherewithal to protect its soil from all major attacks. What it was not prepared for that day was a simple case of breach of airport security. It was the breach of airport security that put terrorism into national security debates globally. This was was a tipping point, not the point of beginning. Terrorism had been a grave concern facing many nations, including the US. But it took a 9/11 for the US to recognise that.
Likewise, the Covid-19 outbreak is a tipping point.It has come at a point when all analysts of foreign policy were confident of the American power to secure its citizens. The global war on terror showed us what globalisation and liberal democracy can do when it is armed up to teeth. The technological developments on the 21st century inter alia achieved a dramatic shrinking of the world – a process that is called globalisation. The two institutions that spearheaded this – the World Bank and the IMF are in more than one way, US led. These institutions have also influenced the global economic development since the cold war. While the US has considerably benefitted out of this, what has often been overlooked is how many other countries have benefitted. China, is unmistakeably one.
While over the years, China has been consistently portrayed as an alternative centre of power, the US hegemony, evaluated through the prisms of hard military power has been resilient. In his last State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama triumphantly declared that as he inched closer to the end of his presidency, “the Unites States of America is the most powerful nation on earth”. His successor, according to the SIPRI report, oversaw and increase in its military expenditure for the first time in seven years in 2018. This was over three-times more than its nearest rival – China. If this were to be the understanding of power, then the US is still unquestioned and the world order is still stable and unchanged.
Enter the Novel Corona Virus
In the age of globalisation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, points out that power is diffused in networks and connections. The most powerful today is the most well connected. She likens this to the symphony that an orchestra produces – disparate harmonies from diverse instruments amalgamating in a rhapsody as a consequence of effective coordination. What does this tell about Covid-19?
The new virus emerged in China in December 2019 in a city that is not amongst the five largest of China. As late as January, the BBC quoted a professor who believed that there was no need to panic. Yet, merely three months later, the US has emerged as the worst affected with more than a quarter of the total cases.In 2020 again, the US was ready to take on China on trade, on foreign policy, on military might, but failed to secure its citizens from a simple pandemic. Internal political squabbles, delays in aggressive testing, shortage of medical supplies, failures in imposing social isolation has been argued as key failures on the part of the US that has led to disastrous results.
The story of the pandemic is that of the nature of the global world. A seemingly local problem in origins, has wrecked global havoc. Simultaneously, it stands as a testament to the reaches of Chinese power. It is a clear indication of the extent of Chinese influence and a changed world order. The SARS outbreak over a decade ago affected as few as 8000 plus people from about 30 nations. The current scale is radically different. 2 million and counting in more than a hundred and fifty countries and counting. No continent barring Antarctica has been left untouched.
What is it a sign of?
Yes, the global order will not change after Covid-19 outbreak, but the outbreak itself is a symptom of the changed order. What are the changes that have happened in the last decade or so? Firstly, it is timely reminder that while borders and fences are carefully created and patrolled zones, these are liable to infiltrations. Despite best of the designs, borders in today’s world have proven to be a failure to contain the virus. It reveals issues concerning the efficacy of borders in a globalised world. Is any nation fully in control of its borders? Is that even achievable?
The pandemic has also highlighted what for long has been the argument of the non-western scholars of foreign policy. The world cannot be mapped into neat categories of developed, developing and underdeveloped. There are pockets of the developed world in the developing and the underdeveloped and vice-versa. The sheer (mis)management of the pandemic in the United States is a glaring example of this entanglement of the developed and the developing/underdeveloped. The world’s richest and the most powerful country has failed in providing security to its citizens. It has recorded the most number of cases and deaths up till now.
This leads to the final aspect of this new world order that the pandemic has revealed. The sources and agents of insecurities are not located in missiles and defence capabilities of rival states but in issues of health and livelihood or lack thereof.