The main narrative lines about trends in international politics in the past 40 years, and especially since the end of the Cold War, have converged around the proposition that the scope of independent state action has been diminishing. “Interdependence” is the word used to describe the condition of international politics, and improvement in “global governance” is considered the normative objective. Now, however, as COVID-19 has become top priority for political leaders worldwide, it has become apparent that action by national governments and their local jurisdictions is very nearly the sole vector of meaningful response to the pandemic. The state is front and center once again.
Let’s undertake a brief survey of ideas about international politics in which the scope of state action was seen to be in decline and see how well they are faring in this, our plague year.
Globalization is real, and the theorizing about “complex interdependence” that has accompanied it has substantial validity. Globalization has mostly been supported by states in the interest of economic growth—which in turn increased the global middle class from 1.8 billion people in 2009 to 3.8 billion, half the world’s population, before the arrival of COVID-19.
Yet the interdependence of states in a globalized world offers little going forward in response to the pandemic. While globalization offers efficiencies in the satisfaction of aggregate demand in good times, in a bad time such as this come the revelations that supply chains are long and fragile, and that the pursuit of comparative advantage comes at the expense of self-sufficiency in critical materials such as protective masks and medications. States now compete with each other to acquire such goods and look to national means to boost production within their borders.
The liberal internationalism of the post-World War II era produced such institutions as the United Nations system (including the World Health Organization) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, the precursor to the World Trade Organization—some of the earliest entities of what would come to be called global governance. But who now travels in pursuit of effective action against the pandemic to United Nations headquarters in New York City? That’s not just because COVID-19 is raging in New York; it’s because whatever the strengths of the United Nations may be, they are irrelevant here. Instead, in March, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement calling on the Group of Twenty (G-20) governments of leading global economies to develop a coordinated strategy, what he called “a ‘war-time’ plan.” To call on others to develop a war-time plan is to acknowledge that one is not oneself a war-time planner.
Many have shared Guterres’s aspiration for effective leadership from the G-20 and the Group of Seven (G-7), the world’s largest advanced economies. The two organizations did meet virtually to address the crisis. While the Trump administration blew up a joint communique of the G-7 by insisting that it refer to the “Wuhan virus,” which offended the other members, even more noteworthy was how little a joint communique would actually have done to spur action, let alone coordinated action. As noted by Barbara Martin, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a strong proponent of an increased role for the G-7 and G-20 in global governance, the March G-7 meeting “clearly focused on itself”—not the needs of others, especially the developing world, which at that point had mostly yet to feel the fury of COVID-19.
As for the World Health Organization, it is a repository of data and is supposed to be the global whistleblower when a threat to international public health arises. And so it has been, for example in the 2009 case of the H1N1 outbreak. On April 15 that year, a California patient took ill with a new influenza virus. On April 17 came a second case. The day after, April 18, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the outbreak. On April 25, a mere 10 days after the first case emerged, the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern.
Not this time. The first Chinese victims of 2019’s novel coronavirus began showing symptoms in the Wuhan region as early as November. It was already December 30 by the time a doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital blew the whistle in a chat-room on a new coronavirus. Only the day after word leaked out in this way did the Chinese government inform the local WHO office. Through much of January, the WHO accepted and repeated the false Chinese claim that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Not until January 31, when human-to-human transmission was obvious and undeniable, did the WHO declare an emergency—more than six weeks, rather than 10 days, after the outbreak.
Whether or not the WHO acted corruptly under China’s undue influence, as some charge, it was certainly useless in raising a timely warning as some 7 million people left Wuhan in January, the month of Chinese new year celebrations. And at present, who now looks to the WHO for guidance on what to do? The conduct of the WHO here is an example of failure of global governance, but even more serves to illustrate its limits. It’s not that there is no such thing as global governance, nor that global governance is doomed to be ineffective. But health organizations inside individual nation-states, not the world’s, are now driving the response.
For many Europeans, as shocking as the COVID-19 itself has been the absence of value-added from the European Union to European countries fighting it. The EU has faced significant challenges before, from the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis in 2009 to Brexit. It has weathered them, and has continued to deliver an extraordinary set of benefits to members: a common market with common regulations; free movement of goods and people, including the right to live and work in a country not one’s own; opportunity to join a currency union; and for the less prosperous of the EU’s members, typically in Central and Eastern Europe, transfer payments from Brussels (meaning from wealthier EU countries).
The new coronavirus is so vastly greater a challenge that it has obliterated many of these supranational advantages. With commerce largely shut down, a common market means little. With “stay at home” orders, freedom of movement has been curtailed within countries, and national borders to contain the spread of the virus are up again throughout Europe. Whatever transfer payments some countries are receiving (which run no higher than 3 percent of GDP anywhere in the EU; that’s for Lithuania, about $500 per person per year) are now being overwhelmed by national economic shutdowns and national fiscal responses, such as Germany’s trillion-euro stimulus. A common currency is most useful when there is travel and commerce among the states that are members, and these have shut down as the European Central Bank is busy pumping liquidity into the system. A bidding war broke out among EU member-states seeking medical supplies as the European Commission, the EU’s executive authority, watched from the sidelines. In all, Brussels seems largely irrelevant to what is most on the minds of presidents and prime ministers in Europe these days.
The same is true of the Atlantic alliance. Although some have proposed to enlarge NATO’s writ to encompass pandemic response, this seems a fanciful project for what is, at its core, a military alliance grounded in American power. Among NATO allies, the ones who were meeting (or on the way to meeting) the common commitment to devote at least 2 percent of GDP to defense are the ones who place high value on the American security commitment. Likely, they still do. And while post-Cold War NATO has often characterized itself as an alliance of “shared values,” some of its newer members, especially, have always seen their membership primarily in terms of security of their own countries against the potential threat from another state, namely, Russia.
But notwithstanding the UN Secretary-General’s talk of “war-time” planning, the virus is not an armed attack triggering treaty obligations. The United States is going to take care of (sorry) America first, Germans Germany, Lithuanians Lithuania. U.S. allies are a great asset in general, but with regard to COVID-19, they matter little. The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body, will have nothing to contribute on the pandemic ravaging NATO’s territory, and were Barack Obama or George W. Bush president now, it’s hard to imagine either seeing NATO as a useful vehicle for dealing with it.
Indeed, around the world, the biggest topic of conversation besides what is happening locally is exactly about the role of one particular state: China. Whether it centers on recriminations for China’s early handling of the new coronavirus, or on how China got COVID-19 effectively under control (or whether it really did), or on the assistance China is providing to other countries, it’s a conversation that befits a rising power in a system of states.
Rather than looking upward from the national perspective to international institutions, the attention of most Americans seems to be focusing downward—to state and local governments and how they are responding. What’s true in Louisiana is true in Lombardy. One lives one’s lockdown locally.
The most noteworthy area of effective international cooperation has been among central bankers trying to ensure that the pandemic does not produce a global financial crisis as well. The World Bank and IMF will also be relevant in delivering aid and financial facilities as the pandemic spreads in the global South. Modern central banks, from the U.S. Federal Reserve to the European Central Bank to the Bank of England, have authority to operate largely independently of the political leadership of their states (or of eurozone governments). Finance is government at its most technocratic, and this is certainly to the good of national economies and the global economy.
But globalization as trade in goods and services, “complex interdependence,” most international institutions, supranational and global governance structures, alliances—all of these are receding in salience as national governments scramble to muster their own resources to fight COVID-19 within their borders. The rise of populist and nationalist sentiment around the world has usually been associated, correctly, with right-wing politics. The COVID-19 “re-nationalization” of international politics is anything but. It enjoys full backing from mainstream politicians and technocrats alike. The administrative capacity to tend to the needs of populations residing in the developed world exists at the state level and no other.
Indeed, one way of looking at the competition among states since the Russian Revolution in 1917 has been as a contest between the administrative state associated with market-based democracies and the one-party state of authoritarian or totalitarian governments. It’s bureaucracy versus party. This competition persists, and while many analysts have lately been giving the edge to China’s one-party state governance in efficiency in delivering public goods and services, such as responding to a pandemic, it’s far too easy to dismiss the advantages that arise from the relative openness of administrative-state governance in market-based democratic countries.
States with weaker national governance are likely to suffer greatly in this pandemic—though perhaps their generally younger demographic profiles will provide them some relief from a disease that has been more lethal to older people. The median age of the EU population is just under 43; in Africa, 18. But it’s certain that weak health care systems will be overwhelmed. And it’s an open question whether the traditional donor conferences among wealthy states will be convening given the demands on the home front.
This dramatic return of the salience of the state does not imply that there is no place for international institutions and internationalist ideas and normative aspirations in a world of sovereign states. There certainly is. The central bankers prove as much right now. And once the crisis passes, patterns of cooperation will re-emerge. This international cooperation has helped and will again help keep the peace and increase global prosperity. But international organizations and ideals are not, in fact, supplanting the state as the preeminent form of political organization, and it would be wise to tailor our expectations accordingly.
Some things only states can do. Mustering a response to a global pandemic is one of them. Whether the response goes well or badly is a separate question.
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