The Last Hours Before Dawn

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into all kinds of discouraging thoughts. Most analytical articles talk scathingly about the international system and offer bleak forecasts for the remainder of the 2020s.

Analysts have set their sights firmly on the issue of globalization. Some say the globalization processes we have seen have not gone far enough, while others say that globalization has spread way too far. The paralysis of international institutions, particularly the United Nations, has outraged international affairs experts and ordinary people alike. The blame for the global failure in the fight against the virus has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the World Health Organization, although aspersions have also been cast at the UN Security Council, which, as an international instrument, has wilted in the face of this global threat to humanity.

At the same time, pessimists see the ineptitude of international institutions not as the root of all problems, but rather as a consequence of globalization. In the blink of an eye, the successes of the globalization project — open borders, mass tourism and transnational cooperation (which were used shamelessly by both sides, liberals and conservatives) — had become a common evil. The wave of xenophobia that swept through several (mostly former Communist) countries, which was also directed at fellow countrymen who happened to be abroad when the pandemic hit, was welcomed by a number of experts, even though history has taught us that the fallout in cases like these is rarely positive.

In an article for Foreign Affairs, the most prominent representative of the American school of realist thought today, Stephen Walt, concluded that we will soon see a retreat from hyper-globalization and a return to the concept of a strong nation-state that is capable of protecting its citizens.

On the one hand, it is quite natural and logical that critical assessments and negative scenarios will prevail, but they also seem to have hypertrophied. Natural because it looks like a defensive reaction to a new, incomprehensible and unpredictable phenomenon. Logical because, unlike the modernist period, which was marked by a certain optimism that progress would continue unabated forever, society today is a product of postmodernism, for which the author, freedom and God are all dead. At the same time, even in these darkest of hours, we still know that a new dawn will come. It may be different from all the dawns we have known before, but it will bring light, warmth and sunshine, nonetheless.

If we look at the coronavirus crisis from a different angle, then we may come to new and perhaps completely unexpected conclusions. The way I see it, the coronavirus has brought forth two extremely important characteristics of modern society: 1) that we value human life over any economic goal (be it economic growth or profit) and basic freedoms (for example, the freedom of movement); and 2) that modern society and political systems have not gone far enough in terms of globalization.

The first characteristic is not obvious to many, but this fact itself confirms that human worth has become an integral part of the cultural code of all modern countries, regardless of their political structure or economic system. A few centuries ago, this kind of viral pneumonia (like COVID-19) would have gone completely unnoticed: yes, large numbers of the elderly and infirm would have died, but life would have gone on as usual. Experts are already saying that the COVID-19 death rate is nowhere near that of the pandemics that ravaged the planet in the past.

The second characteristic clearly runs counter to the general consensus among analysts who blame the crisis on globalization and prophesy the emergence of a post-global world. Upon closer inspection, however, it would seem that their criticisms have little to do with the objective side of globalization (the development of technology, transport and financial instruments) and rather refer to what Ulrich Beck called the ideology of globalism, the goal of which is to promote and impose the economic model and financial interests of a narrow group of interested parties.

If we accept that “globalization is a reality, not a choice” (as Richard Haass wrote recently in Russia in Global Affairs), then we can come up with quite constructive proposals for “restarting” globalization, rather than getting rid of it altogether. As Fareed Zakaria correctly points out, “Globalization since 1990 could be described as having moved three steps forward and only one step back.” Therefore, the “gap year” that is 2020 may be a useful place to stop and take stock of the successes and failures of the international community.

It is clear even today that the myth of “blissful globalization” that French politicians and experts often talk about (Hubert Védrine in Le Figaro, Alain de Benoist in Russia in Global Affairs) needs to be put to rest. In its place, we need to see a project that aims to reset the entire process, and where we learn from our past mistakes. What needs re-examining? Naturally, the balance between the national and the international, transnational and global. As the Russian philosopher Artemy Magun quite rightly puts it, “it turned out that we were entirely unprepared to manage the very thing we had created — a globalized world.” Globalization post-coronavirus will have to take place on four levels at once, and appropriate competencies and powers that are best suited for dealing with the challenges of the 21st century will need to be selected for each level. It is just as wrong to castrate certain states and declare globalization a panacea as it is to build outposts on borders and down all international air traffic.

The first attempt to combine globalization with the international system of political and economic governance, Globalization 1.0, was, to some extent, a Potemkin village: the piles had been beaten into the ground and the outer walls built, but the building itself was unliveable and waiting out the storm in it was simply impossible. In addition to a meaningful reform of international institutions, the new version of globalization should build a sturdy framework for relations between states and foster a new type of international solidarity that will unite societies and citizens not by removing their national identity but by complementing it.

In fact, despite the usual forms of global interaction (in terms of business, tourism and migration) falling somewhat by the wayside, global network integration has actually increased “rather intensively in the somewhat low-key sector of science and research: journals are opening up their databases, the largest research centres in the world are granting use of their supercomputers, etc.”

We can thus conclude that not all changes that will come about as a result of the coronavirus will necessarily have a negative effect on globalization. As Alexander Auzan notes, “changes in the world order caused by large-scale upheavals are not always a bad thing” given our past experience: “One of the consequences of the Black Death in Europe was the start of the Renaissance, the subsequent cooling of the 16th–18th centuries and, it is believed, the Industrial Revolution.”

Coronavirus has given us the opportunity to rethink not only global processes, but also processes of a more localized nature. It has also given us cause to ponder the question of what the substance of the relationship between the state and the individual will be after the global health crisis subsides.

Meanwhile, the expert community is embroiled in a heated debate: Which political system has dealt with the trials of the coronavirus best and can thus lay claim to being the new model for the rest of the world? Has democracy managed to cope with its unswerving insistence on the primacy of human life and the complex system of checks and balances it has built? Or has the moment arrived where the undeniable effectiveness of authoritarian or hybrid regimes has to be acknowledged?

This dilemma was particularly evident when the epidemic was coming to an end in China (thus proving the “effectiveness” of the authoritarian approach) but had only just started to take hold in Europe and the United States. Tensions surrounding this issue soon subsided, however, as the reality of the situation demonstrated that the appearance of coronavirus had not set a gradual global shift towards authoritarianism in motion. The pandemic also showed that those countries where authoritarian practices had already been introduced and were generally accepted by society, as well as those countries where there was a certain inclination towards such practices, continued to use such strategies throughout the crisis. Similarly, those countries that place humanitarian and democratic principles above all else stayed true to their ideals during the pandemic. For example, as late as mid-April, Sweden had still not introduced any restrictive measures. And the measures taken in Western Europe are nothing compared to those taken in China. To begin with, the majority of the restrictions that were put in place were not particularly rigid and, secondly, they relied on citizens to behave in a responsible manner and observe the lockdown regimes, because, after all, people are not simply “objects” of the state machine and are rather “brothers- and sisters-in-arms” in the common fight against the virus. The worst-case scenario in terms of people ignoring the quarantine in France, for example, never materialized. As of April 2020, when most European countries were either approaching or had already passed peak incidence, we can state that no democratic or even hybrid regime had fully adopted the Chinese model of combatting the coronavirus.

Interestingly, populism has also demonstrated its worth as a (relative) political model during the crisis. Most of the leaders who had come to power on the waves of populist sentiments quickly abandoned their populist tenets and soundbites as soon as the pandemic started getting out of hand. They were forced to discard their usual bravado in the face of the virus and adopt measures that they had seemingly not been willing to adopt beforehand (Donald Trump took the decidedly “socialist” step of offering benefits for those in need; Boris Johnson grudgingly introduced strict lockdown measures after long refusing to do so, thus earning his country a position near the top of the table of coronavirus victims). The pandemic has shown that populism is most likely a reaction to a crisis of the political establishment and is all but useless when it comes to dealing with the challenges facing modern societies in a globalized world.

Experts are now generally in agreement that national governments and states as a whole will step up their role in world politics. And it is quite natural for societies that have lived according to the laws of the Westphalian system for over three centuries to “turn back” to the government. However, it is not entirely clear how exactly globalization has prevented states from having a developed and competent medical infrastructure (hospital beds, ventilators, etc.). For many countries, the defeat in the fight against coronavirus was a result of their own failures in healthcare management.

The fight against the novel coronavirus has done little to boost the standing of the state; instead, it has shone a light on the role of society in overcoming the crisis. The unprecedented quarantine measures in European countries would not have been possible without consent and willingness of the people, who saw the restrictions that had been placed on their basic rights as both necessary and vital for society. This complicity was manifested not only in passively following government instructions, but also in everyday life: careful attention to personal hygiene; almost completely cutting off social contacts; giving up certain personal comforts, etc. The French establishment quickly made a point of presenting an alternative to the Chinese model in the form of civic consciousness, which it could then display to the rest of the world.

This experience may come in handy as a method of overcoming the crisis of direct democracy that has been unfolding across the world over the past 20 years: sitting at home in self-isolation may have convinced people to take a more responsible attitude towards political processes, on which both our future economic wellbeing and, as the spring of 2020 has shown, our security and, ultimately, our lives depend.

Whatever the case may be, people across the world were given the unique opportunity in early 2020 to live a completely digital life, with virtual and actual reality swapping places for a short time. It was a kind of test drive, or perhaps even a crash course, in how to live a completely digital life for the global community. Discussions about this experience have also proved divisive. Digital optimists argue that the world will never be the same again — people will study, work, buy their groceries and even “go to the cinema” online. Digital pessimists (or, more precisely, digital rejectivists) tend to completely demonize the experience of the Eurasian continent being plunged, against its will, into the digital world. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

The coronavirus crisis demonstrated that this temporary transition to online life helps us to better understand: what needed to be digitalized (and the costs of rectifying this situation for all stakeholders, including hired workers); what, on the contrary, would be rendered obsolete by the transition to online; and what could exist in a double or mixed format that would bring greater comfort and benefit to everyone.

The first group may include grocery delivery, which could change how supermarkets and the retail food industry as a whole operate. The second group could include entertainment — the inherent value in dining at a restaurant, watching a film at the cinema or going to the theatre to watch a play. And the third group could include higher education, where the topic of reform is ever-present yet wholly unwelcome among teaching staff: distance learning courses have already shown that a part of the educational process can be shifted to online or video conferencing modes (with lectures streamed online), although in many cases a live dialogue in a classroom is also needed and cannot be replaced by Zoom chat.

One thing is for certain, however, and that is that the massive experience of digitalization will lead to greater flexibility in almost all industries. The public sector (not including strategically closed industries), business (including SMEs and major corporations), education and a host of other spheres will all demonstrate flexibility with respect to working hours, work mode (online, offline, mixed) and corporate hierarchy (the effectiveness of horizontal communications when all members of a team work remotely).

Coronavirus came as a shock to the system at every conceivable level of public life — global, national and individual. When it is over, the world will be a completely different place. And this is something that both realists and liberal researchers can agree on. Having come through the first true shock of the 21st century, the global system that has been kept on its toes by the dialectical interaction of global, transnational and local processes will regroup and continue to function.

As Mikhail Epstein says, “from the point of view of large civilizational processes, the pandemic itself can be considered a kind of vaccine against a large-scale war.” It thus follows that the new world system that emerges after the crisis will be more resistant and secure.

From our partner RIAC

Vera Ageeva
Vera Ageeva
Ph.D., Associate Professor, Deputy Head of the Department of Political Science at the Higher School of Economics National Research University Campus in St. Petersburg, Assistant at the Graduate School of Management, St. Petersburg State University, RIAC Expert