COVID-19 has sparked global shifts in alliances and in foreign and domestic policy. What will the diplomatic stage look like when the pandemic ends?
Rabat – COVID-19, an invisible enemy that has shut down the world, has already impacted, and will continue to impact, the lives of millions of people around the world. Much of the global population is currently concerned about their health, physical security, and survival after governments on every continent implemented states of emergency, seriously damaging socio-economic conditions.
The novel coronavirus is a once in a generation game-changer of international relations and cooperation. Many political and foreign policy analysts are questioning what the post-COVID-19 world will look like.
The most important question, however, is: What lessons can be learned from the crisis as the new world remains under construction?
Realism & Westphalia made a comeback
No one could have predicted the international response to a crisis of this scale or how governments would react to the global public phobia and the massive threat to the lives of over 7 billion people that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.
Realism, a school of thought in International Relations considering states as primary actors driven by interests seeking to maximize security in an uncertain world, has made a comeback, leaving little room for the school of liberalism to prevail. The shift towards realism means that effective international cooperation for a global response on coronavirus is a complex but necessary step.
When COVID-19 emerged, each country acted independently. International cooperation, solidarity, and consensus on a common response was not a top priority. Countries across the globe relied on their own resources. Self-help, protection, and prevention became the guiding principles of the international response.
Realism assumes that international cooperation is fragile, as many states are too cautious to adhere to agreed upon commitments. Governments fear that cooperation will benefit allies more than it benefits them, or want to avoid bearing a disproportionate share of the costs.
Analysts also predict that the weakened Westphalian model of national sovereignty will be strengthened at a time when supranational structures face an existential crisis. During the coronavirus crisis, states have independently declared a state of emergency on their own territories, closed borders, and enforced self-isolation on their populations.
Winners and Losers?
Analyzing the European response to COVID-19, the principle of integration mechanisms is no longer valid. The recent Brexit had already thrown the EU slogan of ever deeper union into doubt and the coronavirus pandemic has paved the way for further fragmentation.
The EU failed to develop or action a rapid solution to Italy’s critical situation when the spread of the pandemic reached more than 135,586 confirmed positive cases and 17,127 deaths. The EU also failed to support Spain and France where the death toll from the pandemic continues to grow.
Meanwhile, in the post-Brexit Britain, the healthcare system came close to collapse after Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed a “herd immunity model.”
The lack of unity has left Europeans fearful and distrustful of their own governments and the EU. The anti-EU fury has been demonstrated in shocking footage showing top Italian politicians ripping down or tying up the European Union flag, following the EU’s neglect of its own member states, according to Italian leaders’ statements.
Italy’s former prime minister and current main opposition leader Matteo Salvini said: “I hate and am disgusted by the EU. We will beat the virus first, then we will go back and reconsider the EU. If necessary, we will leave without gratitude.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stole international headlines by calling the EU’s union and solidarity a fairy tale. He accused the bloc of hypocrisy, while praising China for its medical assistance, calling the Chinese President Xi Jinping a true friend and a brother of the Serbian people.
The EU faces large scale issues in its trans-Atlantic relations after the United States threatened to withdraw from NATO. The union’s recent handling of the Libya ceasefire summit showed that it did not have the capacity to enforce any agreement, leaving room for powers like Turkey and Russia to take on leadership positions.
US-China war of words
A number of US politicians have suggested the spread of the novel coronavirus may have been the unintended consequence of an alleged Chinese biological warfare program. The accusations prompted China’s foreign ministry to return fire with rumors that the US military had brought the virus to Wuhan, marking the start of the “forbidden love story” between the two superpowers.
With no evidence for either claim, the volley of accusations sparked a flurry of conspiracy theorist articles alleging a possible biological war and the rise of a bipolar VS multipolar world. Yet, from January to March, when the US took over as the most impacted country in the pandemic, the Twitter diplomacy between the two superpowers has veered between praise and wild accusations.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly used the term the “Chinese virus” instead of “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” on his Twitter account. On March 18, Trump defended his use of language reporters, saying: “It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”
Starting March 23, Trump’s attitude towards China took a 180 degree turn when the leader began to emphasize the importance of protecting the Asian-American community. “The spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form,” he tweeted on March 24.
Trump also made a u-turn regarding his previous accusations of a lack of transparency from China. Today he stated that US-China relations are healthy after a call with Chinese president Xi. “We are working closely with China to help!” the president said
UN & WHO lose gravitas
The UN as a global structure is losing relevance. The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to issue recommendations, but it is far from coordinating the fight against coronavirus on a global scale.
After difficult negotiations, on April 2 the UN General Assembly approved the first resolution since the start of outbreak, calling for “international cooperation” and “multilateralism” in the fight against COVID-19. The resolution, which was approved by consensus, also stressed the need to fully respect human rights in the response to the pandemic.
The general assembly assessed two draft proposals before a special vote on the resolution. The Russian-Draft resolution ignored the Chinese origins of the pandemic, despite US urgings, and called for a “science-based approach,” giving its backing to the WHO. The proposal also included an implicit call for the general lifting of international sanctions, which are seen as a brake on efforts to fight the virus.
The second draft resolution received wider approval and was sponsored by six countries including Ghana and Singapore, under the title “Global Solidarity to Fight COVID-19.” The proposal called on “the UN system to work with all relevant actors in order to mobilize a coordinated global response to the pandemic and its adverse social, economic, and financial impact on all societies.”
The UN Security Council has been conspicuously silent since the start of the pandemic. Its five permanent members are divided, unable to reach a resolution to support a UN secretary general Antonio Guterres appeal for an “immediate global ceasefire” to protect vulnerable civilians in conflict zones from the ravages of the pandemic.
Beijing and Moscow both have veto power on the council and have been reluctant to allow the UNSC to intervene in what they see as a health and economic issue. Unlike the UN Security Council, General Assembly resolutions are not binding but have a strong political value depending on their support.
Modern piracy for medical supplies
As countries struggle to curb the novel coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented global fight has emerged in the market for medical supplies and personal protective equipment. French media called it “the mask wars,” while others called it the “treasure hunt” as countries around the world face a serious shortage of medical supplies.
Tensions have increased between the United States and its European allies after a series of allegations accused the US of confiscating exports traveling from China to European countries. Medical masks have become a hot commodity, and the US outbid Germany by three times the contract price for a shipment intended for the German police.
After previous allegations of foul play on the American continent, a senior White House official denied the US administration was blocking 3M respirator shipments to Latin America and Canada.
At the European Union, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said a prepaid order for ventilators for Spain had been impounded in Turkey. The latter agreed to send the ventilators to Spain after a series of negotiations.
The Czech Republic is also due to send 110,000 masks to Italy after a Chinese shipment of medical equipment heading to the hard-hit European country was confiscated by Czech authorities. In turn, Tunisia’s Trade Minister accused Italy of seizing a shipment of medical alcohol en route to Tunisia from China.
The dog-eat-dog tactics beg the question: Once the pandemic is over, will these tensions lead to the dissolution of alliances and blocs in the post-COVID-19 world order?
A change in diplomatic practices
Today more than ever, the importance of “soft power” in diplomacy is increasing, as is the importance of scientific and technological potential. Diplomats will need to learn how to use their countries’ technological advantages to achieve political and economic goals.
China illustrates the perfect example. Having defeated the pandemic, China has become an exporter of social technologies and medicines and has sent doctors to more recently affected countries.
With the world on lockdown, governments and businesses in every corner of the globe are turning to new technologies, artificial intelligence, and remote working. Could this be the future of diplomacy?
Post-pandemic, health and humanitarian diplomacy and crisis management communications are set to become new disciplines in the practice of modern diplomacy. As diplomats are now busy managing information related to travelers stranded around the world due to mass border closures, big data and GIS mappings, mobile applications, and QR codes will likely become trends in consular affairs.
Diplomatic protocols may become more flexible with the increased use of digital meetings such as video conferences. With the spread of fake news, many diplomatic missions have already increased communications on social media platforms to ensure the public receives necessary information from a primary source.
While China used its “soft power” to boost its relations with Europe and other countries, the United States has followed an isolationist policy and has been unable or unwilling to play a global role in managing the pandemic.
Speculation is rife that, post-pandemic, there will be a more bipolar than multipolar world and new blocs such as the possible trio (China–Russia–Japan) vs the United States will emerge. Analysts have also suggested that even if the US remains a world superpower, it can no longer act alone and needs to cooperate with China and other states to survive.
There will likely be Brexit repeats as EU values and solidarity are put to the test and several member states begin to consider a shift away from the European bloc towards China.
Sentiments towards nationalism and socialism vs capitalism and globalization would increase,likely impacting countries’ social structures and eventually determining new schools of thought in international relations and cooperation.
The role of the nation state will be omnipresent, and was foreshadowed by the global move towards independent crisis management during the COVID-19 pandemic. This shift has led to a global feeling of increased trust in government and will likely lead to a further shift towards localized policies and away from global aid.
Global post-pandemic policies may also prompt a renewed interest in the climate change debate. Outdated rhetoric could potentially die out with COVID-19.
There will also be an increase in the use of big data, as citizens are resorting to comparison mapping and meter platforms to compare statistics on the novel coronavirus. Big data, along with artificial intelligence, will very likely impact the future jobs and sector-related responses and policies.
As states are strengthened during emergency situations, fears of the emergence of neo-big brother societies might emerge, especially after the widespread use of artificial intelligence in geolocating people and monitoring their communication and movement.
Crisis communication has become more important than ever as countries handle their national communication in different ways, operating on a spectrum between total transparency and withholding key information. Both strategies have met criticism for either spreading fear or risk among populations.
The pandemic has also led to a shift away from populist rhetoric and a renewed trust in science and expertise. That might indicate a future investment in scientific research, education, and health systems.
The serious implications of the global shutdown on the economy and the financial system will continue to have a serious impact in the coming months. Governments must continue to research and develop new models of economic growth to alleviate the burden on economies, help those badly affected, and maintain jobs.
The world will face a long transition post quarantine. States should adopt new policies and strategies to communicate with citizens, to prepare them for new challenges after the global state emergency is over.
Edited by Madeleine Handaji
Karima Rhanem is a Moroccan multi-award winner with more than 18 years’ experience in Public Policy, strategic and digital communication, and diplomacy