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Global Responses to the Pandemic, Pt II

Assessing the international and national actors

Tapio Kanninen & Georgios Kostakos

Dr Tapio Kanninen

In Part I, we focused primarily on the effort of the UN and WHO, and its relationship with some of the major member states.  In this part, we explore in more depth the internal dynamics of those powerful countries.

National responses – ideological and political
In terms of national responses to the pandemic, beyond the purely health-related part, which is broadly aligned to WHO guidance, we have so far noticed a rather complex political and ideological landscape:

  • Some authoritarian-leaning leaders – Orban of Hungary, for example – have used the opportunity to strengthen their grip on power and rule by decree.
  • The US President has used the crisis to issue an executive order to ban migration to the United States, a political platform thought to be a key to his re-election in November.
  • A lack of transparency or credibility regarding the infection rates in China, Russia (and more so North Korea) is complicating a systematic worldwide response.

Conspiracy theories have once again become more common among a besieged and insecure citizenry mostly on the right wing of the political spectrum.

  • The left is blamed at congressional and state levels for the handling of the pandemic in the US, with some Trump supporters taking to the streets to demand the immediate lifting of “shelter-in-place” orders. Civil liberties are in danger with an extended government power grab through shutdowns, they claim. The President tweeted that some states should be ‘liberated’ – a thought that was echoed by Elon Musk, reacting to the closure of Tesla’s primary factory.
  • Fox News prime-time anchor Laura Ingraham, a confidant of the President, also thinks that the democrats are initiating a “viral path to socialism”, possible a theme in the coming presidential debate.

Some conspiracy theory professionals, whether on the right or left, have become hyperactive:

  • First, there is a claim that coronavirus statistics and projections are manipulated to sow panic among the public, giving a free pass to those internationalists and liberals who want to institute a monstrous police state.
  • There are also claims that the virus might have started in a Wuhan laboratory rather than through jumping from animals to humans, as is the current scientific consensus. In this line of thinking the Australian Prime Minister has asked for an international investigation into the origins of the virus, and has got the backing of the US Secretary of State.
  • Bill Gates, along with his foundation, has become a target of many fierce conspiracy theorists, partly because he was able to predict the onset of a similar pandemic already (2015) and did co-organize a coronavirus exercise in October ’19, just a few months before the crisis started.

Some, mostly on the political right, argue that the socio-economic costs of the lockdown and social distancing are worse than the spread of the virus itself.  On the other hand, one liberal welfare state has not instituted as strict a lockdown as its neighbours – the final results of this ‘experiment’ will be of interest beyond Sweden.

The US President continues to give mixed messages on these issues, complicating a systematic response from the federal government. State governors are partly left to fend for themselves and they respond by creating their own coalitions or even smaller federations within the US.

Some observers see in all this the end of ‘American exceptionalism’, since the country has managed the pandemic so badly compared to others, with high cases and fatalities, and huge unemployment.

What of the political ‘left’?

In the US, the putative Democratic presidential candidate has said that the crisis provided “an opportunity now to significantly change the mindset of the American people, things they weren’t ready to do, you know, even two, three years ago”.  He mentioned universal healthcare,  plus the need to emulate the New Deal of the 1930s, obviously taking on board many elements of the Green New Deal supported by the US ‘democratic socialists’.

In the EU, an informal European Alliance for a Green Recovery has been launched with the participation of members of the European Parliament from across the political spectrum, business leaders, trade unions, think-tanks and NGOs. The initiative aims to build a post-virus economy based on green recovery, climate neutrality and the protection of biodiversity. The initiative is led by the chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.

The geopolitics of COVID-19: a ‘new world order’?

Henry Kissinger recently suggested that ’The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order’. This is likely to be true, and he is not alone.  But where do the biggest stakes lie, in determining which way the ‘New World Order’ develops?

First benchmark will be the US election (November ‘20).  If the Democrats win the presidency plus a congressional majority, the US may well return to its traditional leadership role in shaping, and contributing to the international system, along with planning more effectively for future crises.

A second critical variable is China’s future.  Facing a sober economic outlook, albeit with air pollution temporarily diminished, will that enormous country begin to experience turbulence such as that occurring in Hong Kong?  Or, with the US in decline, will China’s authoritarian system prove to be effective in filling the global leadership vacuum that currently exists, and also in controlling its own precarious social situation, at least in the short-term?

And thirdly, what of the European Union? Will it manage to unite in solidarity around its most virus-affected regions and will it use its Green Deal to exit from the crisis, or will it simply fade to insignificance? If the former, it may prove to be the third pole that balances the US and China, and provides a more benign “third way” to global leadership by its internal example and by supporting international institutions. If it proves incurably weak, it may well become a battleground in the rivalry of the two superpowers.

One thing is clear: in light of all this, the world, its geopolitics and global governance after COVID-19, will not be the same as before.

The extent to which change to the contemporary international system will be influenced by constructive or destructive forces remains something that only the future will tell.

Dr Tapio Kanninen, former chief of policy planning at the UN in New York, is a member of the Centre’s Advisory Panel.  He is currently President of the Global Crisis Information Network Inc., senior fellow at Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies (CUNY), and founding member of Climate Leadership Coalition Inc. His latest book is ‘Crisis of Global Sustainability’ (2013).
Dr Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability – FOGGS (Brussels) with previous service with the UN Secretariat, think tanks, academic institutions and private consultancies dealing with issues of global governance, sustainability and climate change.

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