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COVID-19 hits globalization, multilateralism hard, experts say

Vacuum in global leadership, absence of initiatives have put question mark on efficacies of world forums

Iftikhar Gilani  | 15.04.2020 - Update : 15.04.2020
COVID-19 hits globalization, multilateralism hard, experts say


A vacuum in the global leadership and the failure of multilateral organizations have compounded the strategic shock that the world is experiencing after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, according to top global experts.

Unlike the past crises and more so the recent Great Recession that hit the world from 2007-2009, when the U.S. led the G20 to find solutions, the countries have to deal with the current crisis themselves.

The experts said new political and social realities are awaiting the world, once it comes out of the lockdown. The realities will also test the resilience of global leaders, whether they would behave like politicians or statesmen.

India’s former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon believes that nations have been responding to the COVID-19 crisis in a deglobalized way and there is no institutional structure in sight, despite their being connected.

On the post-coronavirus world, Menon predicted a poorer, meaner and smaller world, where an inclusive global political and economic order will be thing of a past, at least for time being.

“For example, it will be difficult for European countries to return to the Schengen travel regime for a long time. Trade will be deeply affected. But longer the crisis, it will have geopolitical effects,” said Menon, also known as an expert on Chinese affairs. Even the most cohesive unit in the world, the EU has left its member states to turn inwards for solutions and self-help.

Menon said the main worry is that the crisis will impact on domestic politics of various countries. He said that the U.S. elections and its campaign could become its immediate casualty.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Luv Puri, a former UN official, said that such is the lack of institutional response to the current pandemic crisis, that the request for a COVID-19 meeting of the UN Security Council on April 5, came from the body’s non-permanent members because the five permanent members could not agree on how the council should proceed.

“The differences between the P-3 [the U.S, U.K. and France] and the P-2 [Russia and China] on various files have often created a logjam at the council,” said Puri, who till recently was working at the UN secretary-general’s office.

India’s opportunity to work with neighbors

While multilateral forums have not come to the rescue of people, the former national security advisor said that for India there was an opportunity to work with its neighbors.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a start by calling a meeting of the 8-member South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), but there is a need to work on the ground to provide human security in the region, where borders are largely porous.

Menon said he was looking at a world, which will be more fractured, will increase protectionism, thus a push back against globalization. He believed that most leaders in the world will be consumed to find ways to stay in power, saying while these trends were already there, the COVID-19 has only accentuated them.

He said while diplomacy is akin to bargaining and give and take, the current set of political leaders around the world, who base their legitimacy on ultra-nationalism, the compromise and adhering to the path of diplomacy will be difficult for them.

Referring to the 2009 G20 summit in London, where he was part of the Indian delegation, Menon said the summit succeeded to devise a global plan to combat the recession because everything there was left to economists.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama strongly backed and believed in the economic wisdom of then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to get the world out of economic recession and made economists to cooperate.

“Maybe slightly later, scientists and health professionals may sit together and start cooperating globally to prevent recurrence of diseases. But the moment, you bring politicians together, they have their own calculations,” he said.

Leadership lacking from US

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran also believes that an initiative from the U.S. was lacking.

“The kind of initiative the U.S. took during global recession time, which led other countries to respond, such initiative and response are missing at this point,” Saran said. He added that the crises need a global response, as one of its causes has been ecological that is being too closer to wild animals by destroying their habitats.

“Unless we have a worldwide response, for example, a complete ban on wildlife which cannot be done by a single country,” he said.

Furthermore, Saran said the pandemic was not a mere health crisis, but has economic, ecological and social dimensions as well. “We are going through a period of immense strain and it will be more from economic crises. We are essentially groping in dark and hoping for the best,” he said.

Both the experts, however, said the crises may encourage a social churning across the globe, where people will demand governance from governments, even though headed by authoritarian regimes.

Emergence of China

Happymon Jacob, who teaches national security at India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), also believes that the future of globalization was at stake. “The lethal combination of an interconnected world and a deadly virus without a cure is taking humanity into uncharted waters,” he said.

The current crisis has once again proved that the global institutional architecture of the 1940s cannot help humanity face the challenges of the 2020s.

In the wake of the failure of the U.S. as well as the EU to formulate cohesive responses, Jacob predicts that China will come out stronger in the post-COVID-19 world. Not only has it managed the outbreak, but it has also already started human testing of two vaccines.

“The more stringent imposition of phytosanitary measures by advanced states on products emanating from the less developed countries might become the new normal. Lockdowns and travel restrictions could potentially legitimize the rhetoric around border walls in more conservative countries. Tragically, therefore, while one answer to global pandemics is political globalization, COVID-19 might further limit it,” he said.

Former UN official Puri suggested that greater transparency and accountability of the multilateral entities with structural reforms can make them once again relevant to adequately respond to the crisis.

“For this purpose, greater inclusivity and representation at all levels, both in terms of legislative bodies such as the Security Council as well as the composition of the staff that makes up the various categories of multilateral entities, particularly the critical ones, will bring in the relevant domain expertise from all quarters of the international community,” he said.

Otherwise, the status quo would progressively corrode multilateralism in terms of policy and practice at a time of emerging global challenges and realities. The pandemic has only hastened that process, he concluded.

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