The pre-Covid-19 international politics was marred with rising nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and an escalating US-China Cold War. The post-Covid-19 world has changed in many ways but remains the same in others. The pandemic has, in fact, intensified the issues in global politics- hyper-nationalism has evolved into vaccine nationalism, US-China rivalry has spilled over into multilateral platforms like the WHO while the public continues to challenge the government’s restrictions on mobility in order to contain the spread of the virus.
This pandemic revealed structural flaws of the international system, particularly global crises management, the fragility of the healthcare infrastructure, global North-South inequality and susceptibility of international institutions to becoming hostages to superpower competition. Covid-19 undoubtedly is an unprecedented event in modern history, impacting all sections of daily life along with contemporary international relations. The current liberal international order is based on power politics, institutionalism, multilateralism and the rising multipolarity.
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Why pandemic was an eye-opening event in world history?
Though liberal international order advocates cooperation over competition, the pandemic and the states’ response show that relative gains, the balance of power and power maximization are at the heart of the prevailing international structure.Covid-19 originated from China and engulfed Europe, North America and Asia. The initial mismanagement of the virus itself implicates the entire global political orders Beijing attempted to safeguard its reputation from allies and adversaries at the cost of global public health.
The year 2019 was warming up to the strategic competition as the US-China trade war was raging, US Iran tensions were escalating, India-Pakistan relations became more strained, Afghanistan’send game was beginning, and the Middle East was engaged in its own regional cold war. If the Chinese government relayed concerns about the crises early on to the world powers as well as international institutions, a precedent for cooperation against the backdrop of intense strategic competitions would have been set. But unfortunately, the international system built around power politics and zero-sum games prevented the Chinese government from volunteering crucial information.
The end, nonetheless, was a pandemic that wreaked havoc on social life and the economy. The great powers predictably viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for power games and strategic competition. USA’s conduct during the initial year of the pandemic challenged the hegemonic stability theory as well as liberal internationalism. The White House initially debunked the severity of the global crises along with implicating Beijing for its alleged role in the spread of the disease. US President Trump even called the virus“Chinese virus”, all while accusing WHO of being complacent with Chinese authorities and even withdrawing from WHO membership and funding to the organization- hampering the global health governance efforts.
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USA’s conduct undermined multilateralism and the ideals of cooperation-bordering on irrationality
Being a hegemon, instead of bringing stability as the hegemonic stability theory states, the US, in reality, caused instability and in the same ways fueled confusion and chaos. Even during a global crisis, the two powers were trying to win one over the other. US government doubled down in its anti-Chinarhetoric during the pandemic contributing to the heightened Sino US tensions, which continued through the administration change in Washington. It should come out as no surprise that a system based on power maximization and competition turned to its foundational values during a crisis.
The global North-South divide was the most critical feature of the pandemic, particularly with regards to pandemic control, particularly vaccine availability, knowledge and production. Vaccine nationalism shattered the perceptions of global collaboration and cooperation. These crises transcended boundaries, and every single person, regardless of nationality, deserved access to the Covid-19 vaccine. The conduct of the wealthy global North against the Southexposed wealth inequality, lending support to the dependency theory. Vaccine nationalism began to take shape when the US pre-purchased the first batch of 100 million Covid vaccine jabs for its citizens.
UK, EU and Japan all followed suit and pre-ordered vaccines; by August 2020, all these states had access to 1billion Covid vaccines. According to a Doctors without Borders Report, the high-income countries have hoarded approximately 870 million in excess doses. The report states that “Despite its claim to be a global leader on COVID-19, the US is hoarding nearly 500 million excess COVID-19 vaccine doses—more than any other country”.The US has enough doses to vaccinate one person five times per over. It is further estimated that high-income countries could waste up to 241 million doses by the end of 2021.
Sixty percent of the population in developed countries have been vaccinated compared to only three percent in low-income countries. The redistribution of these excess doses to developing and underdeveloped countries could save one million lives by 2022. The COVAX program and various public health and regional organizations continue to struggle with accessing vaccination jabs because leading manufacturers such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZenecaprioritize orders from high-income countries. The COVAX program recently cut its supply estimate by twenty-five percent this year. The war for vaccine patents continues as pharmaceutical companies refuse to share patents with local manufacturers while billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates fully support the“intellectual property monopolies on all COVID-19 products”.
Furthermore, the US even invoked the Defence Production Act that limited the export of thirty-six critical items necessary for the production of the Covid vaccine along with protective medical gear. The implementation of this act greatly hampered India and the EU’svaccine production targets. Nonetheless the US, G-7 and Europe, after dealing with the worst waves of the pandemic and hoarding access vaccines, quickly followed into China’s footsteps and began vaccine diplomacy to the middle and low-income countries. China and US, in fact, made pandemic-related assistance a new battlefield in their strategic competition-with the ultimate objective of emerging as a benign hegemon.
Furthermore, most western powers even refused to accept Chinese Sinovac and RussianSputnik V vaccine certificates even though both vaccines are approved by WHO. This results in unnecessary travel restrictions and inconvenience for nationals of these countries as well as middle and low-income countries who received these vaccines shots under the COVAX. In conclusion, it can be said that collaboration carried out by leading global powers among themselves and with underdeveloped worlds during the pandemic, unfortunately, had been self-serving and entirely as tactics in the broader strategic competition.
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The onslaught of the pandemic shows that investment in human development is a vulnerable and often neglected area of national power. The focus is entirely on gaining economic, military and strategic advantages while leaving out healthcare. Major world powers seemed utterly helpless against the pandemic. The centrality of strategic advantage in the international system has been challenged by the spread of Covid-19. Though quite paradoxically, instead of cooperating and collaborating with each other, states have become even more distrustful, competitive and tolerant of nationalism.
Pandemic management, containment and treatment became a venue for power competition.
The Western countries refused to accept Sinvac, and Sputnik V vaccines are a demonstration of this competition. The pandemic not only revealed the shortcomings of the international system but also exacerbated existing issues. Major global powers have no concerns with wealth inequity or poverty; rather, power maximization and relative gains against their adversaries is the biggest concern.
Authoritarianism and nationalism continue to rise across Asia, North America and Europe, while China versus US strategic competition has even become institutionalized. In short, the pandemic has exposed the international system as primarily concerned with strategic competition even in times of a global crisis. States, particularly powerful ones, possess the ability to handicap international institutions along with being irrational actors at times. Power maximization and keeping up appearances triumph over a genuine desire for cooperation with the periphery and semi-periphery states.
The very foundation of international relations needs to be examined and must be free of the shackles posed by the current international structure. As Martin Wight of the English School of International Relations argues that IR needs to move past the “mean, narrow, provincial spirit”. The pandemic and its cost dictate that human development rather than state security must assume the primary position in this paradigm.
The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy