In making conjectures about global governance in the post-COVID-19 era, it is important to be both cautious and clear. Cautious because there are many uncertainties, including knowing when the Coronavirus Pandemic has subsided sufficiently to make special precautions no longer necessary. Is it at the time when the economy is fully reopened or when a successful vaccine is developed and available for widespread distribution at affordable prices or when it is declared over by national governments, the WHO, or the UN Secretary General? Are we all awaiting ‘a new normal’ or will we remain nervous unless the old normal is restored?
Clarity is equally important when projecting alternative futures for global governance, especially drawing clear lines between what is expected and feasible, what seems necessary, and what is desirable but not likely attainable given existing frameworks of policy framework. A second type of clarification relates to global governance, distinguishing between contingent and structural deficiencies of state-centric world order as it now functions. For instance, the quality of global leadership is clearly a significant dimension of world order, yet too often contingent on the behavior and governmental priorities of the United States and China, and secondarily, on the influence exerted by moral authority figures such as the UN Secretary General or by powerful private sector interests.
In contrast, the dysfunctional failures to achieve sufficient levels of global cooperation to solve common challenges extending beyond the COVID crisis that include climate change, global migration, prolonged civil strife reflect a combination of contingent and structural limitations on problem-solving. States, especially the larger and wealthier ones, seem still preoccupied with satisfying self-serving, short-term definitions of national interests without exhibiting a willingness to take account of global and human interests or the global common good, and so governance responses to planetary challenges continue to be disappointingly weak.
The mismatch between the non-territorial interconnectedness of digitalization and the territorial mentality of nationalism is another source of tension. And perhaps, the most serious tensions pertaining to global governance arise from the interplay between the geopolitical maneuvers of a few political actors (notably, by the largest of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council enjoying a right of veto) and normal states that are more sensitive to their dependence on responsible globalism, and display more readiness to respect international law and the UN. This structural reality was present long before the COVIS-19 suddenly emerged as the most impactful governance threat to human wellbeing in more than a century, especially if measured by its planetary scope and real time worldwide awareness.
Governance Lessons of COVIS-19
Against this background, it seems rather obvious that the most relevant governance lessons are the precariousness of world order at a time of radical uncertainty with respect to challenges of global scale and the unevenness of preparedness for and prudent responsiveness to threats whose reality was being experienced even as their timing was unknowable. There are two distinct lines of plausible response. The first is that there will be a widespread greater appreciation by governments and the public that more centralization of health policy and capabilities is needed to respond more effectively, given the prospect of future pandemics, while withdrawing attention from the governance implications of the pandemic for non-health issues on the global horizons of the future. Such a foreclosure of learning would be in line with the historical recognition that generals correct mistakes of the last war rather than making plans for quite different future wars. Further disorientation occurs because in the context of global governance political leaders of sovereign states are mainly judged by their short-term performance, and tend to assume that their tenure will have ended before future dangers materialize.
Positive adjustments with respect to global health would mean expanding greatly the budget, independence, and authority of the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide warnings, guidelines and training programs as to treatment, early warning alerts, trustworthy information as to disease outbreaks, and even emergency authority to set minimum safety standards. It would also mean taking parallel steps, especially among more economically challenged countries, to develop regional cooperative procedures and institutional arrangements, sharing knowledge, resources, and costs in ways that heed warnings in ways that minimize economic and social dislocation, and take account of the mental strain of prolonged lockdowns. In effect, the peoples of the world need to push hard for an adequately funded global capability to identify and implement good governance practices with respect to global health policy with a stress on crisis management and post-crisis recovery would seem beneficial for all states. Without the push from below such a global capability will not happen.
If such positive adjustments were forthcoming it would reveal an encouraging compatibility between strengthening international institutions, enhancing the capabilities of sovereign states, and recognizing the need for advance preparation, longer term policy horizons, and cooperative arrangements at all levels of social interaction. In this respect, the adaptive policy potential of state-centric world order would be mobilized without necessitating any basic changes in the structures of global governance. The success of this policy-oriented approach would also depend on the emergence of more enlightened global leadership by prominent government, especially the United States, and possibly by new political actors. A basic concern would be whether U.S. global influence would become more internationalist in spirit and substance as exemplified by the restorative commitments made after World War II or would remain inward-oriented, nationalistic, and conflictual as has been the unhappy global story during the Trump presidency.
In this respect, such contingent factors as whether Trump is reelected for another four years in 2020 could be decisive in determining the quality and potential of global leadership after the COVIS-19 crisis ends. There is also the possibility that if the nationalistic orientation persists or even intensifies as the pandemic subsides, it might stimulate other political forces to fill the leadership gap, including coalitions in Africa and Asia. The COVID experience of discouraging international travel could also produce powerful de-globalization trends in the world economy with many unpredictable consequences, including delinking measures that would lessen the risks associated with transnational supply chains, especially for food and security.
If Trump is defeated, the situation will remain cloudy, with possibly heightened prospects of a new cold war highlighting confrontations with Russia and China, accompanied by a renewal of security alignments involving West against East.
Beyond the Health Sector
The most haunting question is whether the COVID-19 widely shared sense that ‘we’re all in this together’ would facilitate more globally oriented responses with respect to climate change, nuclear weaponry, global migration, extreme poverty, and biodiversity loss. As with the pace and depth of changes in the health sector, the applications of lessons beyond health would depend, in the first instance, on whether more globally and future oriented leadership emerged in key national actors, but even this may not be sufficient to overcome the inertia and opposition of entrenched special economic interests pressing for a return to business as usual. Although resistance would be encountered with respect to reforming and internationalizing the health sector, opposition would likely be even stronger if serious attempts are made to regulate fossil fuels, arms sales, robotics, automation, migration/asylum on the basis of the global common good.
For this reason, it seems that heeding the COVID-19 experience with respect to policy formation in relation the non-health agenda will depend not only on enlightened leadership at the level of the state, but mounting social pressure from popular movements and municipal governance seeking longer term, human security, urban-oriented approaches to global threats. If effective, a new political atmosphere favoring internationalism, transnational urbanism, and multilateral agreements could emerge that would facilitate the restoration, enhancement, and reproduction for other world order challenges of such cooperative approaches as were heralded by the Paris Climate Change Treaty (2015) and the Iran Nuclear Program Agreement (JCPOA) (2015).
In essence, post-COVID-19 prospects hinge very much on whether the potential for policy adaptation can be increased sufficiently to mitigate the most threatening global challenges, and thereby restore confidence in state-centric global governance, as reinforced by transnational civic activism and urban networks of innovative policy initiatives. In other words, these developments do not presume to transform global governance by creating mandatory mechanisms for cooperation and control that are detached from geopolitical oversight. In this regard it would be mistaken to adopt a world order vocabulary such as ‘world government’ or ‘post-statist world order’ to describe a recommended emphasis on maximizing the cooperative potential of the present world order system.
It is possible, especially if other global threats encroach more directly on affluent societies, that a more geopolitically guided approach to global governance would emerge either under a revamped U.S. internationalism or by way of new coalitions that brought together China and the U.S. or China, Russia, and the U.S. to address less coercively what was widely experienced as ecological or economic emergencies. This, too, would not represent a structural modification of global governance as geopolitics—or the role of so-called Great Powers—which have throughout global history pursued their grand strategy outside the framework of inter-state diplomacy and the constraints of international law, and in way that violated moral constraints. The United States, and to a lesser extent China, are currently more accurately perceived as ‘global states’ with a presence and leverage that extends far beyond their borders, yet with a formal political framework remains predominantly ‘state-centric.’ It would be appropriate to reconceptualize the territoriality of state-centric or Westphalian world order to take account of this phenomenon of global states. At present, the influence and activities of global states is not acknowledged on world maps that continue to shape world order imaginaries.
In this central respect, plausible scenarios for the post-COVID-19 Era, have no grounds under existing conditions to anticipate any structural challenge to state-centric world (as including its geopolitical dimensions and urban outreach). The two most controversial structural features of global governance can be focused as follows: 1) the allegation that neoliberalism, the recent phase of capitalism, has dangerously accentuated inequality and global warming, and will become less and less sustainable unless more equitable results are forthcoming; 2) the claim that resurgent ultra-nationalism constitutes a regressive form of state behavior given the realities of the 21st century, although selective deglobalization may enhance human security, especially if emergent in tandem with more obligatory frameworks of state cooperation at regional and global levels. This presupposes increased respect for international law, a stronger UN, and regional actors with more governance authority. .
Just as the COVID pandemic came to the world as a shocking surprise, the post-COVID-19 era is likely to be an occasion for major surprises reminding us once again that the human condition is one of radical uncertainty. With this awareness, the most sensible approach to global governance is one that invokes a posture of prudence toward the future. The best guide to prudence is the Precautionary Principle that seeks to take account of future risks without first demanding certainty as to their degree of threat, heeding scientific knowledge and relevant experts. If our leaders learn to guide policy by applying the Precautionary Principle, we might someday conclude that this was the most beneficial lesson learned from the COVID-19 experience.