“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
: Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
As the leaders of the G20, a grouping comprising the largest economies of the world, came together on March 26, 2020, for a virtual conference to coordinate global responses against Covid-19, it is hard to make sense of the future we are entering into. Suddenly, the most powerful countries in the world have no answer to the greatest threat of our times that comes from a virus. It will be an understatement to say that Covid-19 will affect the interstate political and economic dynamics of the 21st century. The disruptions on the global supply chains, the travel, and transit will be felt long after countries would have dealt with the public health crisis at hand. This scene has played out a number of times, on the pages of science fiction stories and Hollywood’s apocalypse-themed zombie spectacles, movies showing natural calamities, pandemic themed movies and stories of human solidarity in times of extra-terrestrial invasions. Cinematic images often portray countries banding together to fight overarching threats to humankind, transcending boundaries of nationalities, race, and religion.
However, in the real world, as countries big and small, grapple with the unprecedented outbreak of Covid-19, the two most powerful countries, the U.S. and China have been engaged in a war of words, blaming each other on their respective culpability and responses to Covid-19. While the Chinese leadership has shown a highly questionable behavior in its response to the dangers of a virus outbreak, the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis has been unpopular, to say the least.
History has witnessed several conflicts among powerful countries that brought the world to rubbles and ashes and the brink of absolute disaster. Since the advent of nuclear weapons in the arsenal of great powers, notions of war and peace have been deeply influenced by the deterrent capability of these weapons to restrict the scale of full-blown conventional wars. The threat of the use of nuclear weapons has been perceived to be an effective deterrent holding a fragile peace together. This, many scholars of International Relations, arguably contended, led to relative peace and stability, allowing countries to develop interdependent economies and a globalized world, despite recurrent inter-state competition and confrontation.
The advent of global terrorism after the 9/11 attacks as a major threat to global peace and stability has affected national, regional, and global responses. Climate change and environmental security have, largely, woken up governmental and non-governmental agencies to coordinate mitigation strategies, influencing the discourse on global governance. Pandemics and epidemics have increasingly occupied its place as an important component of International Relations study and practice but never would have policymakers and scholars, alike, imagined a scenario like the one we are currently witnessing.
The rise of transportation technologies that brought countries and peoples together and global supply chains that defined our ways of lives have been literally halted, in a matter of days. Things that we took for granted have come crashing down, not metaphorically, but in reality. While we were discussing how the physical and virtual elements of interstate and people-to-people ties were intertwining and aligning, much of our lives have, in a matter of days, moved to the virtual realm. By the time countries successfully combat the present and clear danger of Covid-19, it would have significantly altered the role of information and communication technologies in how states interact and find solutions to national, regional, and global problems. As countries close borders and responses to Covid-19 develop racial undertones, it is important to ask as to how it will affect the forces of nationalism and globalization.
Like other transnational problems that exist along with traditional interstate problems of war and peace, Covid-19 and its aftermath will not have changed global order and the behavior of states in unrecognizable ways. Much would have changed, but at the same time, much would remain the same. Covid-19 is not going to wipe out traditional equations of amity and enmity among countries, nor is it going to make countries reduce their defense expenditure drastically and reorient its security apparatus to fight viruses. The sources of conflict and confrontation among countries will still be traditional and recognizable. Countries will still fight over borders and resources. Terrorism and violent extremism will still cost many innocent lives. Countries will still agree and disagree over how to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Despite the imminent danger, countries will still find it hard to agree over the ways and means to arrest the effects of climate change. Nevertheless, Covid-19, in the end, would have disrupted the way we think of and interrogate the meaning of how we succeed or fail to cooperate as a species to a common threat, coming from a virus, not from one of our own kind.
*** The author is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) ***