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Has Covid-19 reinforced nationalism at the expense of international cooperation, or enhanced global cooperation? asks Robert Patman

Opinion: The Covid-19 global pandemic is a disruptive event that is accelerating the transition to a new global order.

Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, deepening globalisation has helped shape a world torn between the opposing forces of nationalist fragmentation and international integration.

Globalisation can be understood as the intensification of technologically driven links between societies, institutions, cultures, and individuals on a worldwide basis.

Since late December 2019, Covid-19 has spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan to more than 180 countries and territories.

To date, there have been over 5.1 million deaths worldwide from Covid-19 and 250 million confirmed cases globally.

It is widely agreed that Covid-19 is changing the geopolitical context, but beyond that, opinion has been divided.

On the one hand, there are scholars and diplomats who believe the impact of Covid-19 reinforced nationalism, particularly vaccine nationalism, at the expense of international cooperation.

According to this perspective, de-globalisation, protectionism, and intensified great power rivalry between the likes of the US and China will usher in a world where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

On the other hand, there are observers who believe the Covid-19 crisis, and the lockdowns it occasioned, has turbocharged the development of digital networks in everything from healthcare to business.

According to this view, globalisation will not be a casualty of Covid-19. Rather, the pandemic has made the world even more interdependent and highlighted the self-interested logic of enhanced global cooperation to deal with a deadly virus that does not respect borders.

On balance, the second scenario appears to be more convincing.

First, it is difficult to see how Covid-19 has boosted the role of great powers in global politics. Instead of rallying the world against the virus, the US and China used the crisis to blame each other for a problem that neither could control or resolve.

Today’s great powers have less autonomy and are more vulnerable than their counterparts of the past.

To be sure, great powers can act unilaterally. But the results of such actions in the post-Cold War era have been largely unsuccessful.

The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was a strategic and economic disaster for Washington; Putin’s annexation of the Ukraine left Russia diplomatically isolated and cost Moscow more than $150 billion in capital flight; and China’s construction of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea region, amongst other things, prompted South Korea and Japan to bolster security ties with the US.

Second, some of the highest death rates from Covid-19 have been found in states with populist leaderships such as the Trump administration in the US, the Johnson government in the UK and the Bolsonaro leadership in Brazil.

In the early stages of the pandemic, these populist leaders tended to downplay the threat of Covid-19, distrusted institutions like the World Health Organisation (WHO), emphasised their national exceptionalism, and openly questioned advice from healthcare experts.

In contrast, the nation states that have performed well in keeping Covid-19-related deaths to relatively low levels – Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand – acted early on the advice of the WHO, consulted with a wide range of scientific and healthcare specialists, and were prepared to learn from the experience of other states.

Third, the Covid-19 pandemic is only the latest in a long line of problems confronting states in the 21st Century that require concerted international action to be resolved.

The 9/11 terror attacks, the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, and the looming challenge of climate change all point to the fact that we no longer live in a compartmentalised world where the most powerful sovereign states hold exclusive sway.

The trajectory of change is towards a post-hegemonic era where the opportunities for great power diktat will continue to diminish.

But there is a complication. The most powerful states like the US and China largely remain in denial about their declining leverage in the world and they use their veto powers at the UNSC to ensure that international institutions do not encroach on their sovereign interests.

That meant, for example, when the Covid-19 crisis developed there was no functioning global public health infrastructure to deal with it.

To counter this leadership vacuum, small states like New Zealand and middle powers like Germany should be prepared to help launch bottom-up multilateral initiatives to facilitate more inclusive, international responses to problems like a global pandemic.

This is beginning to happen. In July 2021, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern chaired an extraordinary meeting of APEC leaders to focus exclusively on Covid-19 and to secure recognition in Ardern’s words that “nobody is safe from this virus until everyone is safe”.

Then last week at the 2021 APEC Economic Leaders’ meeting, she underscored the persistent challenges brought by the pandemic and reaffirmed the benefits of multilateral cooperation in addressing them.

Thus, Covid-19 is an important landmark in the transition to a more cooperative global order. But progress in this direction will ultimately depend on the willingness of the superpowers to acknowledge their own limitations in dealing with problems without borders, and also whether small and middle powers are prepared to actively contribute to making international solutions to such problems a reality.

Professor Robert Patman declares he has no conflict of interest.

Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago.

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