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Foreign Policy

COVID-19 Hits International System

Apr 27, 2020
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

The novel coronavirus has spread globally, and its spillover effects have been emerging. These effects will greatly increase the level of uncertainty in the post-pandemic world. The impact of the pandemic on the international system is mainly reflected in the following four aspects:

First is a rethinking of the existing pattern of globalization. The impact of the COVID-19 epidemic in this area is direct and far-reaching. Some people in the U.S. are even taking the opportunity to seek a deep degree of decoupling, particularly of the U.S. from China.

But this is only one aspect of the problem. The other is that COVID-19 and its prevention and control have proved once again that globalization is a fact, not an option. Any words or actions that undercut globalization are tantamount to self-deception. History has demonstrated that there is only one direction once globalization began — that is, to advance, because the force that promotes globalization fundamentally lies in the international division of labor, capital and the calculations and desires of humans as economic beings.

The trajectory of globalization may change. The existing model, which is dominated by a few developed Western countries, guided by neoliberal ideas and characterized by core-periphery structures, may be transformed into a new kind of globalization that is more representative, balanced and sustainable.

Second is the rise of nationalism. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, nationalism had become a trend of rejuvenation. The Trump administration and Brexit delivered star performances. The COVID-19 epidemic will further strengthen the parallel development of globalism and nationalism. Globalism rises and develops along with globalization. Since the trend of globalization will continue, globalism will also have its place.

However, the importance of nation-states in the entire international system will be further highlighted and strengthened. In fact, since mankind started the process of globalization, the interplay between the two trends of globalism and nationalism has not stopped. Thus, the rise of nationalism cannot be regarded as concurrent with the ebbing of globalism or vice versa.

Third is the increasingly complex relationship between major powers. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there had been many problems in relations between major powers, such as U.S.-Russia relations, Sino-U.S. relations, and U.S.-Europe relations. Obviously, the American factor is the first and foremost one shaping the relationships and their problems.

Like it or not, the U.S. factor is a key variable in the changes in the international political and economic landscape. The COVID-19 epidemic has brought challenges to human society, and simultaneously calls for international cooperation, which is the key for coping with shared challenges. However, it would be too optimistic, even naive to take international cooperation for granted. In fact, to date, international cooperation for sustained and effective response to the epidemic has yet to be manifested.

Take Sino-U.S. relations as an example. The accusations lobbed between China and U.S., in particular the U.S. stigmatization of China on the issue, have reduced trust to a new low level. According to a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in March, nearly two-thirds of Americans now hold negative views of China. The COVID-19 epidemic highlights the world's leadership crisis. The U.S. has shown a lack of interest and capacity to be a world leader.

Finally, international mechanisms have been weakened. The ability of international mechanisms to play a role depends on the self-restraint of sovereign states and the strategic consensus and close cooperation of major powers. However, the rise of nationalism and the intensification of the game between big powers have undermined international mechanisms. They’re in trouble.

For instance, the global trade appeals system has stalled. The WTO is in crisis. The recent U.S. suspension of funds for the World Health Organization is a typical case. As a result, addressing common global challenges may be more difficult as the relationship of major powers become more complicated.

In short, the post-coronavirus world may see more risks and less safety and security. To avoid destructive scenarios, the international community, especially the major powers, should step up to their responsibilities, abandon ideological prejudices and narrow their political differences. The need to take action to promote unity and cooperation.

Faced with unpredictable risks and challenges, it comes down to a simple truth: United we stand, divided we fall.

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