Contemplating the future of the post-COVID-19 world
The world has witnessed many defining moments since the end of the Second World War. Each of those moments constituted a complete break from the past and was indicative of the dawning of a new era. Today, we are living through yet another pivotal moment in the world.
The COVID-19 outbreak has given rise to speculations about the state of world politics once we come to terms with the existence of the novel coronavirus, at least, until a vaccine is in place. The world has witnessed many defining moments since the end of the Second World War. Each of those moments constituted a complete break from the past and was indicative of the dawning of a new era. In hindsight, everything has been in concurrence with the order that came into existence with the end of the Second World War. Even the most unexpected and iconic change, i.e. the end of the cold war with the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a perpetuation of the liberal institutional order which was partially established with the end of the Second World War. Today, we are living through yet another pivotal moment in the world.
To clarify, we were living in the Westphalian order before the onset of COVID-19. The Westphalian order came into existence in Europe in the mid-17th century. Even though the Westphalian order consolidated itself in Europe under the phenomenon of capitalism-induced nationalism, most of the world was not a part of it until 1945. The two world wars and subsequent decolonization resulted in the universal spread and acceptance of the Westphalian principles. The attempts to break through this order have, time and again, proved to be too fragile. Neither the socialist internationalism nor the neoliberal globalization has succeeded in breaking down the glass and concrete walls that were erected across the borders of nation-states. Neither the so-called civilizational face-offs nor the hardcore religious conflicts could melt the national boundaries. The spirit of nationalism has swallowed everything and reshaped itself in new forms without much of a change in substance. The COVID-19 phenomenon is also not going to change anything substantially. Rather, the threat from the coronavirus has forced everybody to redraw the lines and continue to accept the nation-state as their saviour and as the pathfinder through these depressing times. Thus, there is no chance of any change in the Westphalian order.
The question that remains is this: what type of a system or systems would be operational in the post-COVID 19 Westphalian order? In the past, we have experienced the bipolarity between the United States and the USSR. Will it be repeated with China replacing the former USSR as the other pole? We have also gone through the unipolarity in the post-cold war period. Will it be a further extension of the unipolarity with closer bonds between the United States, West Europe, and Japan? Before the dramatic entry of the coronavirus into our lives, we were expecting multi-layered multipolarity in the world. Will the progress towards a multi-polar world continue with India and China being independent and strong poles? The multi-polarity would still be a dynamic system with processes of dialogues and conflict resolutions built into it. The gravest of the prospects for the world is the emergence of powerful countries in different regions of the world that don’t have any bonding of polarity between them. This would be too similar to Europe before the Second World War, but with more complexities and anxieties due to the existence of actors from different continents without shared goals in world politics. This would be a nightmare. We are looking at this nightmare in the face as the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process of retreat from the path of common objectives.
The first and most major casualty of such a scenario would be global and regional organizations. The ineffectiveness of the United Nations, European Union, and ASEAN in coming to terms with the coronavirus speaks volumes about their future. The BRICS, G-20, SCO, and RCEP could become the pariah platforms, due to a strong Chinese presence in their origin and functioning. But we have to wait and see how G-7 and OECD respond to this current crisis. The second and highly consequential casualty would be the destruction of non-trade regimes in the world. Items on the endangered list could be the environmental or climate change prevention treaty of Paris, nuclear non-proliferation regime, international migrants, refugees and asylum regimes, global efforts to fight common but deadly diseases such as Malaria, AIDS etc, treaties on the use/non-use of outer space and bodies in outer space, regimes for the prevention of production and use of chemical and biological weapons, the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, and many more such frameworks such as the Human Rights Declaration and the UN Convention on Laws of the Seas etc.
The third and most immediate casualty of a throwback to the pre-1945 international system of anarchy would be the marginalization and suppression of dissent amongst citizens by most of the nation-states. The evaporation of minimal constraints of international public opinion and obligations would be celebrated by all the authoritarian leaders in the democratic and non-democratic set-ups alike. The fourth and long-term casualty would be the almost permanent intrusion of the state into the private lives of their citizens in the name of maintaining public health and safety. The coronavirus crisis is going to clear ways for the speedy advent of information technology and artificial intelligence in government machinery and public life. It would be a recipe for the complete surrender of personal liberty to the state. The fifth and lasting casualty would be an indifference towards poor people and poor countries. It has already been in play in the ongoing crisis across the world. The most affected categories of people due to the lockdown are daily wage earners and the self-employed. It has emerged as a global phenomenon, and cannot be merely seen as a problem for the respective governments of these affected people.
Therefore, a health crisis that accelerated a backlash against the rise of China as a major trade player in the global economy is going to have wider and deeper repercussions on the world. Any discussions on the emergence of a new world post-COVID-19 must take into account these casualties. Post COVID-19, the world may or may not negotiate trade terms. The leaders of all the wealthier countries must be clear about the non-trade issues and their future. The world does not comprise only of trade and business; there is a world filled with people and this goes beyond money and finances. The post-COVID world must take this fact into account.