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Foreign Policy

A Viral Impact on International Politics

Apr 21, 2020

The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has delivered a massive shock to human society. As things stand now, it will take a long time to overcome it completely, and there is still great uncertainty about its impact on the global economy and social life.

With the pandemic, there is now a growing number of experts and scholars making predictions about the development of the world economy and a number of experts and scholars making predictions about the development of international politics.

Recently, the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy interviewed 12 of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of political science, asking them to opine on the direction of the world order. In addition to these experts, a number of experts in international political science, comparative political science and political philosophy in China and elsewhere have expressed their own views, some of which have staggering implications.

From the materials I have seen, the current discussion about how international politics and the world order will evolve after the epidemic is mainly concerned with issues — relations between great powers, the future of globalization and global governance and a comparison of the relative advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to combating the epidemic in various countries. 

1. The impact of the epidemic on globalization

In light of the pandemic, globalization is not only an economic issue but also an important international political issue.

The current economic logic behind what we call globalization — which is largely driven by multinational corporations optimizing the allocation of resources globally — is cost comparative advantages. As long as this logic exists, capital’s drive for profit will not stop. Globalization will not be reversed.

However, in a globalized marketplace there are state actors in addition to corporate enterprises, and if a state’s leadership believes that globalization is detrimental to the national interest, he or she may operate politically against it, as the Trump administration in the United States has done.

In addition, it is evident that during an epidemic some companies pay more attention to the protection of their own industrial and supply chains, and they seek a balance between security and economic benefits.

In the global fight against the coronavirus, we can see a surge in ideas about deglobalization. For example, the United States currently lacks medical equipment and pharmaceutical raw materials to fight the epidemic and needs to import large amounts from abroad, which some American politicians consider a national security issue. Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, under which the government directly intervenes in the conversion of some large companies to the production of epidemic prevention and medical supplies, and he is considering retaining that production capacity within the United States in the future — that is, the country will no longer rely on foreign supply chains.

Putting security considerations ahead of economic benefits is actually the logic of deglobalization. Of course, there is more to it that that, but on the whole, if we look at globalization from the perspective of international politics, there are two crucial points. First, the trend toward economic globalization is difficult to reverse and, second, we may not be able to return to the kind of globalization that we have experienced before. 

2. The impact of the global pandemic on the evolution of the international order.

The global international order today has two important features, one underpinned by a multilateral system and the other based on international rules. This can be said to be a great improvement in human society over pre-World War II, and a bitter lesson that human society has learned from that war.

Of course, today’s international order is not perfect and even has some serious flaws. In the political and economic spheres, there is the question of how to improve the system of global governance and enhance governance capacity. Through this epidemic, we can see the importance of international multilateral organizations. But the role of the World Health Organization is limited, and it needs the support and empowerment of countries, especially the governments of great powers, as well as adequate financial guarantees.

The WHO is said to have become more dependent on donations from charitable organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and individual voluntary donations due to its limited funding. In the U.S. federal budget for the next fiscal year, the Trump administration has proposed a significant cut in U.S. government’s commitment to fund the WHO from the current $123 million to $58 million.

Throughout recent history, major international crises either promoted international cooperation or led to more intense competition. However, with the spread and deepening of globalization, the trend toward crisis-enhanced cooperation is more pronounced.

In the last 20 years, for example, the 9/11 attacks and the financial crisis of 2008 have fostered international cooperation, as exemplified by the establishment of the G20 Summit in 2008. This time, however, we are not seeing a strong momentum for increased intergovernmental cooperation. The Trump administration’s approach to international multilateral institutions is quite different from the Obama administration’s response to crises, such as the Ebola outbreak.

The G20 has just held a special summit, demonstrating the strong desire of countries to strengthen international cooperation to combat both the pandemic and the global economic downturn. In addition to the WHO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have been active, and the United Nations has made a strong appeal for greater international cooperation and assistance to the poorest and least-developed countries. After all, in addition to the epidemic, the economic recession has become another serious challenge.

It is to be hoped that the crisis will reinvigorate the international multilateral system, which has a bearing on the development prospects of the global order. 

3. The impact of the epidemic on relations between major powers.

It is safe to say that international cooperation requires, first and foremost, a willingness of the major countries of the world to get along. The current international landscape suggests that it is critical that the United States desire international cooperation in the face of a worldwide disaster. The current administration has adopted an “America first” policy and is skeptical or even negative about the multilateral system. I am afraid that if the U.S. does not have a pressing need, or if anything does not provide an immediate benefit, the country will not be motivated to promote international cooperation to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Still, after the G20 special summit, the U.S. seems a little more motivated to deal with the global economic recession through international cooperation.

Relations between major powers have had a significant impact on the evolution of the international order. If relations between these are not good, it will be difficult to organize effective international cooperation, and the functioning of the international multilateral system will be even more difficult. We can see from this epidemic that instead of stopping the fight against China, some U.S. politicians have intensified their rhetoric and stirred up antagonistic feelings, which will have unpredictable consequences.

Neither the current nor post-epidemic state of Sino-U.S. relations seem to be overflowing with optimism, even though the future of Sino-U.S. relations will have a significant impact on the post-epidemic global scenario.

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