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Global Victory Over COVID-19: What Price Are We Willing to Pay?

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All epidemics end sooner or later. Today’s coronavirus pestilence will also end, leaving behind many human tragedies, huge economic losses, forced changes in our customary way of life, shifts in geopolitics and worldviews that will in some manner affect each and every one of us. Although we still have a long way to go before the pandemic even peaks, it is never too early to ponder the outcomes we are ready to accept as relatively “benign” and those we would unequivocally deem “malignant.” What costs will be seen as inevitable losses and which will be viewed as the result of subjective mistakes and managerial miscalculations in combating the pandemic?

In other words, it would be useful to determine humanity’s provisional KPIs in combating the pandemic. Naturally, the concept of “acceptable losses” changes as the virus spreads and the pandemic grows in scale, and what seemed entirely unacceptable a month ago today appears to be a sad reality.

It is also obvious that these provisional KPIs will be different for different countries and regions, at least for the simple reason that the value of human life is not the same in all civilizations, societies, and political systems. Nevertheless, let us try to calculate the total cost of vanquishing the pandemic and of those practical lessons that global society must learn while combating COVID-19. What outcomes do we need to see in order for future historians to be able to conclude in all honesty that in 2020, humanity passed the coronavirus test with flying colours?

Duration

Duration certainly is one of the criteria of humanity’s success in combating the pandemic. The sooner we cope with COVID-19, the better. How far are we from turning the corner? Expert assessments vary wildly. Optimists believe that the global morbidity will peak in early summer or even in May, and subsequently, the number of new cases will gradually decline. Pessimists believe that the pandemic will last for two years at best, or will never end at worst, turning into a constant factor in our life, similar to the seasonal flu.

Just how long the active phase of the pandemic lasts largely depends on three factors: (1) the time it takes to develop, run clinical trials and mass-produce an effective vaccine; (2) how successful we are at preventing the mass spread of the disease in those regions that have thus far barely been affected by the pandemic (Africa, South Asia, Middle East, Latin America); and (3) the effectiveness of the lockdown and self-isolation measures in those countries where the pandemic appears to be approaching the turning point. And, naturally, it depends on our success in preventing repeat outbreaks in countries where the number of people infected with the virus is declining (East Asia, Iran).

We should not count on a miracle vaccine being developed in the next few months. Consequently, success on a global scale entails the following dynamics of the war on COVID-19: (1) approaching the global morbidity peak by mid-summer; (2) suppressing the main hot spots of the pandemic in the winter-spring of 2021 (after a vaccine has been developed); and (3) concluding the war on individual hot spots during 2021. Therefore, the war on the pandemic will end within the next 12–18 months, although some isolated action taken to suppress probable relapses will continue later as well.

This schedule of attacking the coronavirus proceeds from the premise that the pandemic will peak in Europe and the United States no later than early to mid-May, with morbidity levelling off in areas that are “catching up” (Turkey, Brazil, Russia, etc.) a month later on average, and that such densely populated countries as India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt will not demonstrate the exponential growth we have seen in Europe and North America. The ability of the countries in the global South to safeguard themselves against the explosive spread of the virus is an arbitrary assumption, but thus far, this assumption has been borne out by the weak dynamics of coronavirus cases in the South.

Deaths

There is no consensus on this issue even in the expert community, and the estimates vary wildly again. Some cite the experience of China and other East Asian states, suggesting that the spread of the virus can be successfully contained through a strict lockdown in other regions, too, and the mortality rate can be kept at the level of China (5 per cent) or even of South Korea and Japan (approximately 2 per cent). Others doubt the possibility of transplanting “the East Asian model” into other regions or mistrust official Chinese statistics. Instead, their forecasts follow the figures of such countries as Spain (10 per cent), France (11 per cent), Italy and the United Kingdom (13 per cent).

Neither of these predictions has been definitively proved or disproved by the observed dynamics of the disease. Still, the current dynamics give more ground for alarm than for hope. What is alarming is not so much the number of people infected (over 2.35 million as of April 19), as the growing mortality rates (162,000.). The average global mortality rate (7 per cent) is significantly higher than the mortality rate in China, not to speak of the mortality rates in Japan and South Korea. If the pandemic spreads to the global South, with its undeveloped public healthcare systems and multiple armed conflicts, these rates are likely to increase as the number of infected grows, and so too is the burden on the medical infrastructure. For example, the mortality rate in Algeria is already over 15 per cent, although there is nothing to suggest that Algeria is or will be typical for the rest of Africa.

Given the “global average” indicators that are already emerging and basing our predictions on the geographical spread dynamic outlined above, we could call it a relative success if we manage to keep the total number of infected to below 10 million people with 5 per cent mortality rate (which is 2 per cent below the global average), that is, 500,000 deaths globally. In other words, humanity would do well on the whole if the total increase in the number of infected and dead only quadruples compared to the mid-April figures.

The expected dynamics appear horrifying, but we should remember that in late March, the number of infected in the United States quadrupled every ten days; in France, the number was quadrupling even faster in mid-March—every six days. So the predicted dynamics are, in fact, extremely optimistic. In absolute figures (10 million cases and up to 500,000 deaths), compared to the infamous “Spanish flu” of a hundred years ago (500 million infected and between 17 million and 100 million deaths), the predicted outcome for COVID-19 would be an undisputed achievement for humanity. And this certainly does not diminish the value of every life lost in Europe, America, Asia or Africa.

Economy

Naturally, the pandemic is not the only cause of the global recession. The current economic trouble stems from many factors, ranging from the natural conclusion of the extended growth cycle to the harsh oil price war unexpectedly breaking out between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the pandemic played an important part in exacerbating the dynamics of the emerging crisis. Apparently, the timeframe for vanquishing the coronavirus will also influence timeframe of the world hitting “rock bottom” of the current economic downturn and rebounding.

There are no major arguments concerning the price that humanity will have to pay this year in its war on coronavirus. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that global GDP will shrink by approximately 3 per cent in 2020. The pandemic will also clearly have different economic costs for different countries and regions: the decline is predicted at 7–9 per cent of GDP for the Eurozone states, about 6 per cent for the United States, and 5.5–6.6 per cent of GDP for Russia, Brazil and Mexico. At year-end, India and China may demonstrate growth (1.9 per cent and 1.2 per cent, respectively), unless coronavirus has some unpleasant surprises in stock for these countries. Naturally, the current predictions reflect the immediate situation and generally correlate with the duration of the individual stages of the pandemic as outlined above.

The discussion principally focuses on how long it will take the global economy to rebound. Some economists believe that global economic growth may resume as early as late 2020 (the IMF optimistically predicts a growth of 5.8 per cent in 2021), while others predict a lengthy recession similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, others believe that we should not be talking about a “rebound” at all since what we will witness in the coming years is not going to be an economic recovery (i.e. a return to the starting point), but a profound transformation of the global economy towards a new technological paradigm. Obviously, countries that export raw materials and energy sources (including Russia) will encounter greater difficulties in such a scenario than the rest of the world, since they failed to make the best use of the “fat years” and will have to diversify their economies in highly unfavourable external circumstances.

In any case, the pandemic will prove especially destructive for individual economic sectors, particularly air travel, the hospitality industry, office real estate and shopping centres. A wave of bankruptcies will sweep the world, accompanied by a spike in unemployment and an exacerbated debt crisis. On the whole, we may conclude that humanity can count itself extremely lucky if by late 2021 global economic losses have totalled less than USD 5 trillion (approximately 8 per cent of today’s global GDP), the number of unemployed has topped out at 500–600 million people, and the global economy has managed to return to the pre-crisis level by 2022.

Of course, it would be a major economic victory for humankind if we were able to create the necessary international mechanisms, regimes and procedures to significantly reduce the volatility of world finances and global raw material, food and energy prices, deal with the debt problem, increase the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reform it, and abandon trade wars and unilateral economic sanctions—that is, if humanity agrees on new rules of collective economic management for at least the next 20–30 years. However, not only are these tasks simply too big, but they do not match today’s dominant political trends. And this is a crucial problem.

Politics

The pandemic inevitably changes the balance of power in any country that has been seriously affected by the coronavirus. Where ruling centrist coalitions cannot control the situation, populists in the opposition win. Yet for populists already in power (the United States, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, etc.), the pandemic has become a major trial. It is easy to predict that in the next 12–18 months, we will witness various surprises in national elections throughout the world; we will see many features that are typical of life-changing eras, including traditional party coalitions being reformatted, new charismatic leaders emerging, etc.

As humanity emerges from the epidemiological crisis, it would probably be incorrect to view the global balance of power between liberal democracy and political authoritarianism as the principal criterion of its success or failure. A far more important indicator is the ability (or inability) of individual countries to demonstrate the safety margins of the political systems that they had in place when the crisis began. This does not in any way mean freezing the current political status quo, but merely implies preventing a collapse of governance, increased instability and slipping into political chaos.

For instance, right- or left-wing politicians coming to power in two or three states can be seen as an acceptable political cost of the pandemic in Europe, provided that Germany and France keep their centrist governments in place, since without the “Franco-German axis” the future of the European Union will be in jeopardy. Regardless of who wins the November elections, the key thing in the United States is to prevent the current socio-political polarization from exacerbating, since a split America is incapable not only of global leadership, but even of steering a responsible and consistent foreign political course.

If non-liberal political regimes, from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Venezuela and North Korea, avoid mass repressions while at the same time preventing their relevant political institutions from falling like dominoes, it will be an achievement in itself. Staunch opponents of authoritarianism may say that the coronavirus pandemic is an excellent time to change archaic political regimes and promote democratic values. However, changing political regimes during a pandemic is an enterprise that is entirely too risky and potentially too costly from the point of view of the collateral loss of life. Chaos during a pandemic can hardly be seen as a political victory. Additionally, secular political authoritarianism may be replaced with religious extremism that expounds eschatological interpretations of the advent of the coronavirus.

Way of Life

There is no shortage of grim predictions that the pandemic will irreversibly change the way of life we have grown used to. Much is said about the inevitable and irreversible decline of geographical mobility, about professional and social activities rapidly migrating online, about the growing societal “atomization,” about customary hierarchies eroding, and about fundamental shifts in value systems. Concerns are being voiced that the coronavirus will promote “technological totalitarianism” throughout the world by giving governments advanced and highly sophisticated tools to control the population.

The possible costs of the pandemic for our customary way of life are hard to estimate for the simple reason that many of the fundamental changes are related not so much to the pandemic itself as they are to long-term fundamental processes that are taking place in the development of information and communication technologies and in the economy as a whole. The coronavirus did not produce the Big Data concept, nor is it responsible for the unprecedented transparency of our social and private lives. It did not privilege multiple weak social connections (“friends” on social networks) over a few stable offline ties (real-life friends). The pandemic simply accelerated many of those shifts in our way of life that had been happening under our mind’s radar.

So, a victory over the coronavirus would not mean returning to the Ancien Régime of the late 20th century. Rather, it would mean establishing an acceptable balance between new information and communication realities and the eternal human desire to have individual freedom and protect one’s privacy. Apparently, this balance must be specific to every individual society and culture while also including certain universal norms that are acceptable for all of humanity. The pandemic has shed a harsh light on a problem that could have otherwise remained overshadowed by other, more obvious civilizational problems. If this problem recedes to the periphery of the public mind again once the war on COVID-19 is over, the victory over the virus will be incomplete. And we will have failed completely if, once the pandemic is over, the emergency control measures implemented by states remain for an indefinite period under a dubious pretext (that the epidemiological has not subsided, for example).

Preventing a new European or even global migration crisis would signify a major success in preserving our customary way of life. The pandemic and the economic recession make a repeat of the events of 2015–2016 quite probable. Apparently, the oil monarchies of the Gulf and the West will reduce their financial support for such states like Egypt and Sudan; regional conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa will continue and spur new waves of migration flows towards Europe. On the other hand, growing unemployment in Europe, coupled with the accelerated development of manufacturing automation, will increasingly reduce demand for a new workforce, with the exception of a few in-demand jobs. Therefore, a second migration crisis following hard on the heels of the epidemiological crisis would be even more destructive for the European way of life than the first migration crisis.

Globalization

Alarmists keep saying that the pandemic is a death sentence for globalization as we understand it today. Empty airports and hotels, cancelled exhibitions and forums, deserted city streets, no sporting events (including the Olympics)—all the erstwhile symbols of the unity of humankind are now in a critical condition after being hit by the coronavirus, fading and shrinking before our very eyes. Even more serious symptoms are the rise of protectionism and nationalism, the paralysis of the UN Security Council and its failure to take action against the pandemic, the United States cutting funding for the World Health Organization, the G7 and G20 summits issuing vague and helpless statements, the WTO being in a state of permanent crisis, and the World Bank and other global institutions being slow to act. Doomsayers predict the collapse of global technological chains, the reduction of world trade, the tightening of border controls and other signs of the crumbling (or, to borrow a word from the Valdai Club’s vocabulary, “shattering”) world.

A few qualifications are in order here. First, many of the alarm bells above started sounding long before COVID-19. Talk about the crisis of globalization has been around for at least ten years, if not longer. Second, the very fact of the virus spreading around the world like wildfire clearly confirms that, despite anti-globalist prophecies, globalization continued at a brisk pace in the 2010s. Third, the ties that have been temporarily cut due to the virus can be restored fast if the economic prerequisites are in place. For instance, after 9/11, air travel in the United States fell by 20 per cent, but recovered just a year later.

This is not the key thing, however; the key point is that globalization can develop in various forms and even in different dimensions. Symbols of the unity of humankind can change. For instance, the rapid expansion of the number of people being able to work from home, internet commerce, and online communications creates radically new opportunities for developing cross-border and global technological chains. For the first time ever, truly global markets are emerging, including the labour market. A small village in the middle of nowhere can, under certain circumstances, prove to be just as efficient at driving globalization as a huge megalopolis. As for our way of life-changing, COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for those inevitable shifts in globalization mechanisms that had long been brewing but had remained overshadowed by other trends and phenomena.

As for institutionalizing globalization processes, a transition to a new level of manageability of the international system would constitute a true triumph for humanity in its war on coronavirus. But we can hardly count on this happening. Therefore, it would be a success of sorts to prevent the further escalation of trade wars after the pandemic, as ending them completely is an unrealistic prospect. In the same vein, preventing the further deterioration of international organizations, rather than elevating their status, would also be a success. It would seem that humanity’s triumph over the virus would also manifest in bolstering regional organizations such as the European Union, ASEAN and its natural extension, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States, and Canada (USMCA) and the EAEU.

Risks of a Relapse

We still know little about the nature of COVID-19 and how it spreads. Therefore, we do not understand the degree to which such pandemics will accompany humanity from now on. As in other matters, there are optimists who believe that such large-scale pandemics happen once in a hundred years, and pessimists who insist that such pandemics will become seasonal, like the flu. However, despite all the uncertainty, one obvious conclusion that we can make from the current situation is that the healthcare systems in most countries are inadequate to the challenge. It is important that we are talking systemic problems here, not merely insufficient funding: the United States spends over USD 3 trillion a year on healthcare, yet currently leads in the number of COVID-19 cases (over 700,000 as of April 19) and the number of deaths (40,000).

Going back to “business as usual” after the pandemic would be a clear failure. Improving the efficiency of national healthcare systems is technically complicated, politically sensitive, and generally extremely costly. It is no accident that former President of the United States Barack Obama considered his healthcare system reform (“Obamacare”) the main achievement of his eight years in office, while his successor Donald Trump vowed to fight this reform. However, regardless of the differences in national healthcare systems, COVID-19 leads us to two obvious general conclusions. First, a healthcare system must be excessive; that is, its capacities should significantly exceed the population’s current needs. It makes the system more expensive, but the coronavirus has shown that when serious problems arise, cost-cutting ends up being far more expensive.

Second, the system cannot be mostly based on market principles. The market is not always interested in making medical services more accessible or in new medications being developed faster and sold cheaper. Since the early 1990s, the cost of medications in the West has virtually doubled every decade!

Given all the uncertainty, as humanity emerges from the pandemic, a significant increase in the WHO’s potential and powers could be viewed as a success. Let us remember that even though the WHO played an important role in eradicating smallpox and combating polio and malaria, it was not initially established as an instrument for fighting global pandemics. A careful analysis of the COVID-19 experience is in order to subsequently fine-tune the mechanisms of immediate global monitoring for and responding to new infectious diseases. We also need to create an effective system of cross-border cooperation to develop, testing and manufacture vaccines for viruses. We would very much like to hope that creating a COVID-19 vaccine will be an example of a true multilateral project similar to building the international space station instead of transforming into a global “pharmaceutical” race like the “space race” contested by the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.

Winner Takes All

Many people are likely to see our criteria for success in combating the coronavirus as not ambitious enough. Yet the main thing today is to give a realistic assessment of the scale of the challenge we face and not entertain any dangerous illusions concerning humanity’s ability to cope with COVID-19 in quick fashion and with minimal losses. It would be a mistake to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is “solely” an epidemiological, economic, or managerial challenge. It is also the first truly civilizational challenge of the 21st century, and the response can be neither easy nor quick, because when we face a civilizational challenge, the response must come from society as a whole, and not only from international organizations, great national powers, research labs and the headquarters of transnational corporations.

Let us recall the infamous plague epidemic (the “Black Death”) that devastated Europe in 1346–1353, claiming, as people regularly point out, the lives of an estimated 30–60 per cent of the population. The Black Death, however, also served as a powerful catalyst for social, economic, technological, cultural and spiritual shifts that had been brewing in Europe. The plague influenced all aspects of life, from gender roles to religious practices, from agricultural technologies to the social structure of medieval societies. Causal links can be established between the pandemic and the European Reformation and the Age of Discovery. In the east of Europe, the Black Death, among other things, dealt a crushing blow to the Golden Horde, thereby opening a window of opportunity for the rising Principality of Moscow.

Naturally, COVID-19 cannot be compared to the Black Death. However, the potential long-term consequences of what we are experiencing today may prove to be no less significant. Although the civilizational challenge posed by coronavirus affects the whole of humankind, it also affects each individual country. After the pandemic, multiple shifts in global and regional balances will transpire at a much quicker pace than before. It will also be clearer far sooner who the winners and losers are. Their victories and defeats will be more apparent, and their hopes for a “rematch” will be largely unfounded. The crisis will quickly put everything in its place in the world that is now emerging. To quote perhaps the most outstanding financial mind of our time, Warren Buffet, “Only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

From our partner RIAC

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Diplomacy

The Dilemma of Science Diplomacy: Between Advancement of Humanity and The Source of Rivalry

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In the past decades, science and technology have gained more ground in foreign affairs decision making processes. The emergence of more complex global problems has raised awareness that policymakers need to collaborate with researchers and scientists to create effective solutions. This is where the term science diplomacy has become increasingly noticeable over the years. The complicated challenges are faced by numerous countries simultaneously; therefore, both inter-state collaboration and scientific evidence are considered indispensable to overcome those challenges, thus, bringing science to the foreground of policy-making. Science diplomacy is then expected to close the gap by presenting a contemporary approach to global challenges. The existence of science in diplomacy conveys two important promises: scientific advice and networks that could help build the world better amid the complexity of transnational issues and leverage that international actors can use to strengthen their foreign policy.

However, these two promises contradict each other as bestowing political power in science makes it laden with interests. By using science diplomacy, states will be confronted with the dilemma of either using science to improve the life of people or using science to pursue their national interests. This article will further analyze this dilemma on how science and technology are imperatively needed to resolve global challenges. Yet, at the same time, its existence becomes one of the sources of power that create a rivalry between states.

The Extent of Science Diplomacy in International Affairs

The development of science and technology is pivotal in solving complex human issues at both national and international levels. However, innovative inventions resulting from scientific evolution need to be acknowledged by policymakers and put into policy implementation first before they can be advantageous for overcoming global challenges. In this case, diplomacy could be one field of policy and decision-making where science can appear both as transformative solutions for international issues or as leverage tools for states to achieve domestic gains, which then refers to as science diplomacy. Simply put, science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems facing 21st-century humanity and to build constructive international partnerships. According to Legrand and Stone, science diplomacy is not limited to exchanges only between states, but the practice has been unfolded to have wider global policy ramifications.

Over the last 15 years, the involvement of researchers as transnational actors in public policy and global governance are increasingly visible and making a distinguishable impact in various dimensions, including social, political, and economical. The increasing entanglement of science in diplomacy is caused by three main factors as follows:

  1. The growth of transnational challenges. Recent international issues tend to spread and transgress national borders. For instance, concerns about cyber security, the transmission of disease, labor migrations and digital communities indicated how states had developed higher levels of interdependency towards each other. These are all matters that demand the implementation of sophisticated scientific knowledge.
  2. The disaggregation of transnational policy-making. Although powerful sovereign actors are still considered the most important actors in the international arena, non-state actors’ emersion started gaining influence as significant players in managing policy challenges. This creates an opening where new subjects can be integrated into transnational relations, necessarily science and technology.
  3. The turn to science diplomacy. The science paradigm is rarely contested when disputes over transnational issues occur. This circumstance started shifting when the rationalist traditions within public policy were ascending. As a result, scientific advice in understanding government challenges becomes matters to create policy responses related to economic inequality, social unrest, or depletion of natural resources.

The extent of science diplomacy’s contribution to international affairs ranges in countless essential issues. Cross-border partnerships and multinational research networks have accomplished consequential scientific discovery: from gene-edited plants that could endure climate change to the identification of SARS Coronavirus and the formulation of its vaccines in less than two years. Recently, the involvement of science in diplomacy has made a significant impact in improving global health. Cooperation between governmental and non-governmental public health experts with diplomats and political leaders successfully assisted the dealing with some health challenges such as HIV/AIDS, the spread of the infectious Ebola Virus and MERS, as well as managing swine flu through coordinated global response.

Further, science diplomacy has also been impacting economic dimensions. Initiatives conducted by governments and foundations along with United Nations have successfully employed technology to reduce extreme poverty. The rapid growth of digital technology also fortuitously generates new opportunities for people in the least developed countries. In environmental dimensions, The Paris Agreement was another accomplishment facilitated by science diplomacy and considered a game changer in dealing with climate change. The successful narratives above show how scientific research could eliminate major global challenges and save human lives. Undeniably, the integration of science in diplomacy become imperatives approach currently in improving humanity.

Science in Diplomacy: Creating Rivalry

Away from its contribution to solving major global challenges, the existence of science could also be the source of power which function to leverage states in international relations. According to Royal Society, science for diplomacy enables actors to conceive science as a means to cultivate or even improve international relations between states. However, the usage of science in diplomacy could not be separated from political objectives. This is in line with Nye’s argumentation which stated that the strategy of using science is pursued with genuine scientific interest, yet strategic political goals clearly champion the approach. Consequently, science in and for diplomacy drew a paradox, for it can be seen only as a way to exploit science in international political affairs to achieve national interests.

Science is inherently neutral and perceived as a force for good. Royal Society also claimed that science offers a non-ideological setting for interaction and free idea exchange, regardless of ethnic, national, or religious roots. The integration of science in policymaking has inflicted a political dimension into it; hence their neutrality is questionable. Nevertheless, by bestowing political objectives upon science, it can become a powerful tool to leverage states’ bargaining power. In this case, science becomes a source of contested power that creates rivalry. This was clearly seen during the Cold War Period when the United States and Uni Soviets attempted to attain nuclear and space capacities to maintain their hegemony.

The current trajectory of science in international relations is internalized much the same way, particularly when science and technology are growing at a breakneck speed. Looks at the Technology War between the United States and China, where both countries compete to increase their science capacity. As China gains more ground in technological developments, Xi Jinping Government is increasingly being reckoned in global political affairs. Its presence is welcomed progressively in Global South as a key player in building a digital backbone. China is even considered a systemic threat by the US following its increasing domination over science and technology. This narrative showed how science became a contested power which could leverage states’ position in the international arena. Thus, science diplomacy should be understood as something other than a contemporary approach to resolving the complex global issue. It also needs to be addressed as the source of rivalry among states.

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Feminist Foreign Policy: A moment of introspection

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Those who are aware of Feminism would understand that it is not just a cozy club of women, where only conversation related to women’s issues talks place. Some would even contest that it is a club, feminism is like a school with a different department, focusing on a different area of research. Liberal, Radical, Ecofeminism, Standpoint, Structural, and Black feminism are a just few schools within feminism that approach issues from different perspectives. On the one hand, the diversity within Feminism is its strength. But this can also become a challenge if not handled properly. However, in today’s geopolitical climate where we see rising insecurities due to global challenges like migration, climate change, populism, inflation, and threat to women’s autonomy, we need an approach that addresses these complex challenges through a contextual, incremental, and culturally based perspective. We need a global approach with local solutions that deal with both domestic and international simultaneously. Hence, Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) is likely to play an important role in the contemporary uncertain political atmosphere, by creating a sense of solidarity, sisterhood, and inclusiveness among global citizens.

Feminist Foreign Policy

FFP is not just a foreign policy that aligns itself with selective feminist values, but a way of conducting foreign policy via diplomatic relations that respects feminist principles such as human rights, diversity, inclusive governance, non-discrimination, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, indigenous rights, climate justice, and anti-militarization. It is not just about representation, but equally about principles of equity and agency, which unfortunately is neglected in the practice of contemporary foreign policy.

But before addressing the dilemma associated with the questions, it’s vital to explain one major issue that will essentially come when we talk about Foreign Policy, that is ‘National Interest’. Many conversations become redundant about foreign policy when National interest comes into the picture, it is the bottom line or the only religion that states are allowed to follow. Heresy is not an option that states are privileged enough to practice in what they see as an anarchic international system. Many scholars have debunked the masculine perspective of international politics. Feminist scholar like J. Ann Tickner have argued in favor of the feminist narrative in International Relations for ‘constructing an ungendered or human science of international politics which is sensitive to but goes beyond both masculine and feminine perspectives.’ FFP shifts the idea of national interests by emphasizing what feminist scholar like Soumita basu states ‘gender as a national interest’. This essentially brings forth the inequalities that different gender experience during conflict and war. FFP had redefined how peace, security, and power are perceived by challenging existing perspectives in foreign policy and diplomacy, such as the domination of patriarchy via skewed gender representation, and values that privileges masculinity over feminine characteristics. Focusing on positive peace, human security, and power as a social good is how feminists have challenged the status quo, at all levels; society, national, and international. This becomes possible by working closely with activists, academia, and INGO networks.

FFP in practice: Focusing on representation, resources and rights

We have seen FFP making some progress in the field of Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferations which are heavily dominated by men propagating statist-discourse of Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). Scholars like Conway and Minami have argued for adopting FFP because it deconstructs the notion of masculinity like strength, violence, and aggression from the field of Nuclear security. Due to this, the process of nuclear disarmament has been seen as feminine, weak, and emasculated for the norms and ideals it upholds. FFP here helps to promote gender perspective in multilateral forums, where negotiations and discussions takes place. It focuses on the issue of nuclear disarmament by emphasizing increasing women’s representation, and norms mainstreaming. Women diplomats try to influence the process, be it in the form of better negotiations, essential deals, more checks, or even creating an environment of trust. This was seen during the JCPOA deal with Iran, where women representatives were involved. One prominent example was the role of women diplomats like Wendy Sherman for the U.S., Helga Schmid, and Federica Mogherini from Europe in finalizing the JCPOA deal with Iran, adding to the work of their successor Catherine Ashton from the EU. This was a case of women trying to get the best deal to ensure sustainable peace. Furthermore, FFP also emphasizes on ‘inclusion’ of small states, particularly Non-Nuclear Weapons states(NNWS) and Civil society organizations(CSO) which stresses on the gendered impact of nuclear weapons, and the humanitarian perspective, influenced by feminist characteristics. A treaty like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been used by NNWS to maximize their interests at forums, for them, these forums act as a resource. Butale emphasizes that treaties such as TPNW is more gender-sensitive as compared to Nuclear Ban Treaty, NPT, and other nuclear policies. Since the TPNW entered into force on 22 January 2022, it has been ratified by 91 states, and 68 state parties. It adds to the existential nuclear disarmament regime but without the existing P5 states, and helps to delegitimize nuclear weapons through moral and political means. This is a long struggle of activists and NGOs where feminists worked together, and now through FFP, we have a renewed focus on women’s representation not only in diplomatic negotiations, but even in INGOs and civil society to ensure gender equality, equity, and diversity in social and political movements. Representations among CSO has seen progress, where out of 143 CSOs, we see equal representation in 17 CSO, more female than men in 42 CSOs, and 29 CSOs with all female.   

On the one hand, we have seen encouraging signs with increasing countries following FFP or adopting feminist perspectives, mainly countries from the global north, and some in the global south such as Mexico adopting FFP. However, we have also seen the pioneer of the FFP, Sweden under its right-wing government scraping FFP. There still remains many contradictions while pursuing FFP, the recent abstention of Mexico from the vote on the expulsion of Iran from Commission on the Status of Women points towards a dissonance when it comes to following the policy to the words. Challenges will rise with the current global scenario becoming more polarised, where we would see culture, and politics intermingling together both at the domestic and international level. This trend has already manifested itself on social media leading to exaggerated and accelerated clash between conservatives and feminist values, between political parties and interests groups domestically, and liberal-democratic and conservatives government across the world. Any movement across the globe now is seen threatening the stability of a regime. The revolution led by the brave women of Iran against the Hijab and supported by governments of democratic states is now seen as a symbol of destabilising countries, rather than solidarity.

The way forward

There exist some negatives within FFP that needs to be addressed to make it more acceptable without compromising its basic principles. Taking a skewed approach, essentializing gender as the category of prominence and institutionalizing this category at the center of policy and decision-making has not been marketed well. The current approach projects a reality of binaries between men and women, which essentially creates a backlash. FFP must move beyond this binary, towards greater inclusion.  Unfortunately, it brings the existing problems that feminists have faced in ‘Peacebuilding’ with the domination of western narratives, funding, and implementation of liberal values bereft of indigenous connection. To address this FFP need to engage with local and indigenous culture’s knowledge systems that give agency to local actors and stakeholders, and avoid imposing ‘North’s’ FFP framework as a template for the Global south. FFP can work on sharing best practices, funding, and giving a platform to marginal voices at International Institutions. Mainstreaming voices in diplomacy and foreign policy that are traditionally neglected, focusing on two E’s and one ‘D’ and ‘I’ should be the focus going forward; Equity, Equality, Diversity, and Intersectionality. This will help bridge the existing conversation and create a foreign policy-making process holistic and fair.

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Diplomacy

Commercial Brands as a Soft Power Tool

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A state’s international image is its main “soft power” attribute. By developing this well-known concept, countries can create prospects for national investment, and therefore wealth for their country. Nowadays, commercial brands may constitute a powerful tool in the hands of diplomats, who bet on using soft power as a means to exert their nation’s ideological influence onto other states and their people.

The concept of soft power is often used today in the sphere of international relations as a public policy tool. The term was coined by American researcher Joseph Nye in 1990 in his book, “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power”. Nye claims that culture plays an important role in foreign policy, which is not surprising because while it is possible to change the economy and political course of a country, it is quite difficult to change its culture. The cultural nature of conflict is a source of global contradictions. In “The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order”, renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington concludes that the clash of civilizations will be the main cause of international confrontations based on differences in culture, religion and traditional values.

Through the concept of soft power, an “attractive” image of a secular and prosperous state is promoted in order to “tactically” influence other countries and their people. As Joseph Nye simply explained, soft power is the ability “to make others want what you want.”

An engaged and educated society, advanced technology, developed infrastructure, protected cultural heritage, high level of social support for the state, and active country involvement in tackling global issues on the sustainable development agenda are the strongest elements of a country’s soft power.

The commercial sector is heavily influenced by this concept, and corporations and states have the potential to control the masses through major brands as leverage.

Not Everyone Benefits from Globalization

The phenomenon that is “globalization” can also be used by some governments as an excuse to violate the sovereignty of other states. They play the “globalization” card and use it as an argument against any country that is not prepared to cooperate on an issue in their unipolar sphere of interest.

Countries interested in spreading their production without considering the national needs and values of other cultures and perceive the world as a “one featureless market”, are the first to benefit from globalization and the blurring of cultural boundaries. Many countries therefore limit the impact this has on their citizens, trying to protect them from an imposed value system that wipes out historical memory and cultural identity, that is so emphatically defended by UNESCO as “living heritage”. China’s internet policy, “The Great Firewall of China”, is a clear example of such protection measures in practice. Considering the uncomfortable technological sophistication that China has achieved for several countries, internet policy has become primarily a matter of security.

Additionally, Chinese national television focuses on broadcasting picturesque landscapes and the beauty of its great culture, encouraging the Chinese population to value nature, as well as domestic tourism, rather than simply showing endless commercials for industrial products. China is the only civilization in the world that has not interrupted its development by succumbing to other, notably Western, soft power influences. Today, China strives to carefully pass down its world-view ideas across generations, one of which being “āntǔ-zhòngqiān (or love of homeland and unwillingness to leave it).

Almost Everyone Today is a customer

Today, the big commercial brands are geared towards a global community in which almost everyone has purchasing power. Year after year, despite a myriad of global challenges, the world population is making tremendous progress in terms of living standards.

In April 2022, the World Bank updated its global poverty estimates for 2018 (prior to the Covid-19 pandemic) on the new Poverty and Inequality Platform (PIP), showing that global poverty rates (those living below a daily income of $1.90) was 8.6%, down from 2017’s 9.1%. In other words, this is equivalent to 28 million people pulled out of poverty in over two years. Comparing earlier periods, the global poverty rate fell by 4.3% between 2012 and 2018.

People today live better than have before, which means they buy more. However, the impact commercial brands play in shopper purchases goes far beyond the numbers.

Brand with a Human Face

Today we are witnessing brand humanization with 24/7 customer feedback. No longer is the aim of big trading companies to enter into a money-for-good relationship with its customers, but rather it is to gain customer loyalty and, if necessary, change political and social attitudes.

According to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs, people need to belong to a social group through which they can feel valued. Commercial brands don’t miss a chance to take advantage of that.

Major sportswear companies are offering free membership to a community of brand enthusiasts, encouraging them to become a part of a global community that is recreating the future of sport. But beyond this noble goal, there is a purely commercial one: successful sales are the foundation of any company’s development.

What’s more important is that every major brand has digital platforms. Brand social media pages are turning into full-fledged media outlets, engaging major magazines that produce news and set the agenda for the brand. Commercial brands are trying to focus on sensitive global issues in a bid to appeal to different social groups, from exclusively female audiences to devout environmentalists.

For example, the American brand “Dove” is developing a “Self-Esteem Project” with the slogan “Stop the Beauty Test”, which works with issues of self-perception and anxiety reduction that cannot but find support among today’s women.

Major retail chains are creating clothing lines out of recycled plastic. Certainly, some companies are keen to contribute to the environment, but commercial brands exist on sales and by creating a line based on recycled plastic, brands mentally reinforce customers the belief that they are not just consuming a good, but saving the planet, even if the recycled plastic makes up 5% of the item; that matter takes a back seat.

Commercial Brands Polish the Soft Power of States

It is not so much the products that the big commercial brands are capturing audiences with, but rather the lifestyle; they offer comfortable terms of purchase, instant delivery and generous discounts, which is difficult for local businesses and local manufacturers to compete with, affecting the country’s economy. The authentic “made in” products of a strong brand produce positive perceptions of the country and vice versa. When we buy water, food, a car, or clothes from a country, we create an association with the country where they are produced.

In this way, big brands turn the country itself into a brand, attracting investors, businessmen, and immigrants, among them promising scientists and young minds, whose work shapes the country’s economy and its status as a world active leader, desirable partner, and ally.

Additionally, company websites collect user data in thematic surveys that are used to analyze the lifestyles and purchasing power levels of people in other countries in order to subsequently adapt products. Public demand influences import and export policies of states, and commercial brands play into that.

The international image of any state is the main attribute of its “soft power”. The market research company “FutureBrand”, a brand-transforming business, developed the “FutureBrand Country Index”, which measures the “attractiveness” quotient of a country in terms of public perception, examining consumer or corporate brands through surveys and scientific data analysis techniques. The top three in 2020 are Japan, Switzerland and Norway. According to respondent country brand associations, the top performers in Japan were “Toyota” and “Uniqlo”; “Tissot”, “Rolex”, and “Swatch” in Switzerland; and “Neutrogena” and “Statoil” in Norway.

Country as a Brand

The UN’s 2022 annual World Happiness Report, Denmark earned second place for home to the world’s happiest people, with Finland taking first. Human happiness cannot be measured by quantitative methods, but Mike Wiking from Denmark founded the Happiness Research Institute, which studies people’s quality of life and satisfaction with their daily lives using scientific methods. According to the Institute, governments and civil society organizations are eager to collaborate in order to apply collected data to public policy, and make the lives of their citizens better.

A few years ago, the world seemed obsessed with the Danish concept of “Hygge” (happiness in Danish), which became the basis for many business ideas for Danish decor, furniture, and clothing brands. The country even became an attractive destination for potential immigration. This is just one example of how people do not buy a product, but a lifestyle.

National Branding Can Help Developing Economies

The pandemic has particularly weakened the economies of countries with tourism as their main source of income. Turning a country into a brand can help countries with dwindling economic potential and save jobs at a time of crisis, as digital technology allows countries to create successful PR campaigns.

At the “World Conference on Tourism Cooperation and Development”, organized by the World Tourism Cities Federation as part of the “China International Fair for Trade in Services” forums in September 2022, representatives from Africa and the Caribbean outlined strategies for recovering tourism after the pandemic. One successful example of country branding were the Seychelles Islands, which during lockdown created a platform with the slogan “Dream Now and Experience Later.” The resource contained high-quality photos and videos introducing the country online and, once the lockdown was over, the creators invited people to visit the islands to experience the real thing.

Power Is Also Like Love

As Joseph Nye puts it, “Power is also like love, easier to experience than to define or measure, but no less real for that.” Nowadays, corporations and brands boost economies and attract investment, cultivating the potential for that very soft power that countries will continue to work hard for, to attract financial flows and initiate various forms of intercultural cooperation.

When you hear about Switzerland, even if you have never been there, you get an image of a safe country with amazing natural beauty and a strong economy; a place where you can confidently keep your savings, which is why it attracted the world’s wealthy elite.

However, in today’s world, sanctions show quite well how fragile and politicized the commercial sector is, and the notion of a “free market” is a highly idealized concept.

From our partner RIAC

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