[Prefatory Note: The text below is a slightly edited interview on post-COVID prospects that was published in Mutekabiliyet, a Turkish student online journal, July 3, 2020]
Post-COVID Prospects Assessed
Question 1: In the past few decades, the world has been heading towards more globalisation, more openness, more interconnectedness and there were more bridges between the civilisations and countries. However, with the rise of US President Donald Trump to power, the far-right started to gain more momentum all over the world. For instance, in France, Marine Le Pen got around 33% which was unprecedented and never happened before. In Germany, Neo-Nazi AfD got around 25%. These are the powers of convergence. Powers that are closing up the countries and not building bridges with the countries. In light of this, what are we going to witness after COVID-19? Are we going for more convergence or divergence? More nationalism and divisiveness or more connectedness?
Response: As there are contradictory tendencies present, and their relative strength difficult to evaluate, speculation about post-COVID-19 realities remain highly conjectural. I can offer more or less informed opinions setting forth hopes, fears, and assessments of what we expect in light of what we should have learned from the planetary scope of such an exceptionally dislocating pandemic experience. Also, some alternative scenarios suggest that there are events that might bear heavily on what we expect will happen in the aftermath. Maybe reflecting my identity as an American, although presently residing in Turkey, I regard the American upcoming presidential elections six months away as highly significant, maybe the most significant of my lifetime. It is not only a question of a referendum on the national leadership provided by Donald Trump, but also whether the United States will continue to withdraw from its pre-Trump internationalist role of encouraging global cooperation to achieve shared results that are somewhat reflective of human interest at stake as well as of national and geopolitical interests.
The earlier Obama role in championing a UN approach to climate change that led to the Paris Agreement in 2015 and his promotion of a deescalating agreement on the nuclear program of Iran in 2015 are illustrative of pursuing national interests by way of global multilateral diplomacy. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. participation in relation to both of these agreements, previously internationally praised as benevolent breakthroughs for a more positive ecological approach in one instance and a laudable attempt to replace conflict with accommodation in the other, highlights the difference between these two statist and globalist approaches to global problem-solving. During the period of the current health crisis the absence of global leadership by the United States has been a pronounced negative element that has aggravated efforts to combat the disease, with leading countries engaging in blaming rivals rather than promoting cooperation, and some governments even seeking to gain national and commercial advantages by commodifying medical supplies and vaccine research and development.
I would venture the view, that the extension of Trump’s presidency to a second term will mean that nothing fundamental will change with respect to the absence of global leadership attuned to challenges facing humanity as a whole. If Trump is defeated in November 2020, then a vigorous resumption of American internationalist leadership is almost certain to occur, but containing some new and different dangers of geopolitical confrontation. As matters now stand, this dimension of steering the global ship of state remains overly dependent on the U.S. as no alternative leadership is now visible on the horizon, although this could change, yet not likely for some years. China or a conceivably resurgent European Union are the most likely political actors that might become politically assertive in global settings if unresolved issues reached crisis levels of perception. The UN is institutionally situated to play such a role, but so long as geopolitics retains primacy with respect to global policy formation, the UN will remain marginal when its leading members disagree and instrumental only when they agree.
Aside from leadership, another area where conjecture seems helpful, if read with caveats in mind, is with respect to preparedness for future health challenges of pandemic magnitude. It seems tragically evident that many countries, including some of the most affluent and technologically sophisticated were both grossly unprepared with respect to medical supplies (ventilators, ICU units, test kits, personal protective equipment), hospital facilities, and governmental knowhow (timing of lockdowns, social distancing). It would seem likely that the experience of the COVID-19 Pandemic would encourage two sets of adjustments: increased investment in national health systems and an expanded role for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations generally. The U.S. formal withdrawal from WHO in mid-2020 will create a funding crisis and a loss of universal support. It can be expected that pressure from the public to institute these health-oriented reforms will be considerable in the aftermath of the current crisis, but whether it will lead to major improvements in preparedness remains in doubt as some contrary elements are in play.
On the one side, national leadership, as with wars, learn from disasters to address past mistakes, often without an accompanying realization that future health challenges might not resemble COVID-19. As health crises have tended to be inter-generational, there is are strong temptations for politicians, once the crisis atmosphere passes, to concentrate resources on existing or very short-term public policy challenges. Their performance is not judged by their degree of preparation for longer-term threats but what they do in the span of their term in office, and if a crisis should materialize, then their handling of the situation, not their failure to prevent or prepare, will be the focus of evaluating their leadership. Beyond this, so many governments around the world are stretched thin to a point of being unable to devote resources and energies to the sort of health infrastructure that would put a society in a better position to minimize damage if faced with future viral epidemics.
Such considerations build a strong case for a global approach as it would seem much more economically efficient than expecting the almost 200 countries in the world to make prudent national adjustments, especially those that are poorest, densely populated. and most vulnerable. It would seem sensible to increase the budget of the WHO and assign it major responsibilities with respect to detection and early warning mechanisms, as well as to formulate guidelines as to prevention, treatment, and recovery, and possibly with regard to stockpiling of medical supplies and the subsidizing of regional hospital capabilities. Although this would seem a rather uncontroversial post-pandemic response, it is far from assured. Trump has been attacking the WHO for incompetence and complicity with the alleged early coverup by China, has defunded the agency in the midst of the crisis, and has alone blocked support for the UN call for a global ceasefire that had the support of the other 14 members of the UN Security Council. It seems true that the WHO has not enjoyed the sort of leadership that appears above politics, operates transparently, and commands a high level of professional respect. Additionally, the ultra-nationalist trend in so many countries, unless reversed, is hostile to globalizing solutions to policy challenges, and seems content to let severe problems simmer rather than empower international mechanisms beyond their national governance structures to seek and implement solutions.
In general, what should be the major learning experience from COVID-19 is the significance of what is called the Precautionary Principle (PP) in environmental policymaking. The PP privileges prevention over reaction, and encourages action to reduce risks of severe harm before the extent or timing of the risk can be conclusively established. Such an approach rests on heeding warnings from science and relevant experts. The failure to apply the PP has been frequently discussed in recent years with respect to regulating the dissemination of greenhouse gasses, especially CO2, so as to avoid global warming beyond a certain threshold. The reasoning that applies to climate change would also encourage preventive behavior in other areas of concern, such as risks of major wars fought with nuclear weapons or the further increase in transnational migratory flows. Each challenge has its distinctive features, but each would benefit from the application of the PP, but is blocked and resisted by short-termism and by leaders and segments of the public that prefer to leave the future in the hands of God, bestow confidence in the belief that technology will come up with solutions when the risks materialize, or indulge conspiracy theorists that reject all claims of governance structures to limit individual freedom, whether involving pollution or disobeying lockdown decrees.
And, of course, sometimes even well-evidenced risks do not materialize, and the prophets of doom are discredited as was the case of the warnings about Y2K destroying bank records and computer files at the turn of the century or the dire predictions of famine, over-population, and resource depletion by the Club of Rome fifty years ago. The COVID-19 experience underscored the precariousness, fragility, radical uncertainty, and deficiencies of governance at all levels of social action, but what to do poses daunting challenges to the moral and political imagination of all of us. The meme ‘we are all in this together’ has never rung truer, but so has the inverse, as the bodies of the poor and marginalized pile far higher than those of the rich and racially/religiously dominant who minimize the gravity of the crisis because for them it is not as serious as is the economic challenge.
Finally, is the perplexing challenge of interpreting the impacts of interconnectedness, and the contrary moves involving various retreats from globalization. Technological trends in relation to networking and digitalization are certainly heightening the sense of interconnectedness, and the varieties of vulnerability associated with the ease of transnational communication, commuter hacking, and cyber warfare. The degree of networked interaction is creating a new human imaginary. The post-9/11 combat zone pitting non-state extremists against the ‘global state’ of the United States encompasses the entire planet as a global battlefield. Both sides targeted their enemies, with low technology ‘terrorists’ relying on box cutters for weapons and high technology counter-terrorists relying on drone attacks from the air and infiltrated special forces units on the ground. Such interconnectedness erodes greatly international boundaries as markers for a disconnected world order, while the connectedness that arises is a kind of lawless anarchy with no acknowledgement of shared respect for international law, sovereign rights or the authority of the United Nations.
In addition, there is the kind of retreat from globalism that is expressed by the references in your question to a generation of autocratic leaders elected to preside over important states on the basis of an ultra-nationalist, nativist, and chauvinistic message. Such a Hobbesian contrast between order and community within the state and chaos without represents a reaction against the excesses of neoliberalism, especially gross inequality and severe social alienation subject to manipulation by aspiring demagogues. These developments bear witness to the dialectical relations between the pulls toward connectedness for the sake of market gains and global cooperation to meet systemic challenges such as climate change and migration and separation and self-reliance for the sake of identity, tradition, and community. We can wonder now whether the COVID-19 ordeal will revive the globalizing dynamic seemingly the wave of the future in the 1990s or will intensify the reactive reaffirmation of the statist benefits of disconnectedness that attained such prominence in the decade preceding the pandemic.
Question 2: The legitimacy of the international organizations is decreasing as they were not able to do much during pandemic. Some leaders like Trump are threatening international organizations to cut funds which would mean that these organizations would shut-down. What future would IOs have after COVID-19 is over? Is it something that would reinforce their legitimacy and their functioning or something that decreases the legitimacy?
Response: My response here again emphasizes the dialectical flow of history, but in a lesser key than with respect to the complex interactions between states and markets in the period following the end of the Cold War. I disagree somewhat with the premise set forth. I think that both the. WHO and the Secretary General demonstrated an importance that came as a surprise to many observers. It is well to remember that COVID-19 became ‘a pandemic’ only when WHO so declared on March 11th and this designation was accepted as authoritative by the entire world. Such deference is a sign of legitimacy and speaks to the need for having responses unified in relation to a shared assessment of the nature of the challenge. Similarly, taking advantage of the leadership vacuum mentioned above, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, filling the void, receiving attention and respect as the world’s leading moral authority figure when he spoke in favor of unity and a people-first perspective. More than any political voice, Guterres seized the historic moment to call in late March for a global ceasefire for the duration of the pandemic that gained at least rhetorical support from most of the world’s government and almost unanimous approval from world public opinion, although with somewhat mixed behavioral results.
At the same time, it is true that the most publicly visible elements of the UN, the Security Council and the General Assembly, have been up to this point largely missing in action during the pandemic. The silence of the Security Council during the health crisis has been deafening, confirming that if any action had been attempted it would have floundered due to U.S./China tensions. This silence is also a result of the stubborn refusal of the U.S. to allow a Security Council resolution to go forward because of an indirect positive reference to the WHO that would have been an important geopolitical endorsement of the Guterres call for a global ceasefire in a text that embodied six weeks of work to find political compromises that succeeded in satisfying all 15 members of the Security Council except for the U.S.. This unfortunate confirmation of the degree to which the U.S. is prepared to oppose even symbolic moves expressing global solidarity in responding to the pandemic curtails the relevance of the UN even as people are dying the world over from this lethal disease.
The less geopolitically accountable General Assembly did manage to pass two constructive resolutions calling for sharing of medical supplies and vaccines as well as emphasizing the globality of the crisis, accentuating the human solidarity rather than nationalist factionalism, but were largely ignored because without authoritative force and not embraced by major governments or the media. On reflection, it should be understandable that the political organs of the UN are by design of its founders, shaped mainly to be instruments of Member states and especially the uber-states that are given privileged P-5 status with an unrestricted option of obstructing UN responses by casting a veto whenever their leaders are better off with silence rather than action.
With respect to legitimacy considerations, any assessment must be alive to the contradictions present. Among the most salient of these are the tension between Trump’s hostile actions toward the WHO and the widespread public appreciation of its role and essential contributions for countries with less sophisticated health systems. So long as nationalist and geopolitical turns in world politics remains influential among leading states, the relevance of the UN and internationalism generally is likely to remain at the margins of world politics, not so much with regard to legitimacy, but more with regard to effectiveness as assessed by behavioral impacts. If as mentioned in my response to the first question, Trump is defeated in 2020, and a more internationalist leader takes over control of the U.S. Government, there will be a strong push toward the reaffirmation of globalism in many of its dimensions, including the institutional dimensions exemplified by the UN System. International institutionalism as part of global governance is far more extensive than the UN if regional, economic, civil society institutionalization is taken into account. As matters now seem, the short-term aftermath of COVID-19 is likely to disappoint globalists hoping for a major transformative impact that lessens the statist nature of world order, and legitimates the UN as confirming that the whole has at last become greater than its parts. This cautious view would seem to hold even if more globalist leadership from the United States is forthcoming as of 2021. This is because the public sentiments, as present in legislative and executive organs, tend toward affirming sovereign rights and dismissing externally imposed duties or accountability procedures.
If the dialectical interpretation of historical process is correct, then we can expect before too long a reaction against ultra-nationalism and chauvinistic styles of leadership of sovereign states, which will translate concretely into a new dawn for globalism, and especially for the UN. The material explanation for this anticipated sea change in political atmosphere is the near certainty that global scale challenges will grow more menacing in the course of the coming decade, and could induce a post-catastrophe mood that has been the only historical circumstance in which global reforms of any magnitude have any hope of gaining sufficient support from heads of the more influential states. Given the disparity of wealth and capabilities among states, such pressures could work in the opposite direction, intensifying inward and selfishly oriented national political postures, although a problem-solving approach would produce a growing recognition of the need for globally structured solutions, but quite possibly along hierarchical or even hegemonic lines.
Question 3: In case we are heading for more convergence, more right-wing and nationalism, are we going to have head towards more wars, more clashes, more proxy wars like in Syria or larger scale wars? What are we most likely heading to?
Response:This is a fundamental question, yet formulating a coherent response is not a simple matter given the radical uncertainty arising from the complexities and contradictions of the historical circumstances. A haunting unknown is whether the turmoil of the Middle East is a special case or a foretaste of what will happen in other parts of the world, and has already been causing prolonged havoc in several sub-Saharan African countries despite arousing far less concern in the West for a variety of reasons. The Middle East has several defining features that are not reproduced elsewhere to nearly the same degree: artificial states created on the basis of European colonial ambitions after the Ottoman collapse at the end of World War I; the primacy of oil as a the indispensable source of energy in the modernizing process of the industrial age and still crucial in the digital age; the inflammatory support given to the Zionist Movement by Europe in the early 20th century leading to the success of its settler colonialist project at the time when European colonialism was collapsing in the rest of the world; the fact that the region was perceived as the epicenter of both political Islam (after the Iranian Revolution of 1979) and Western grand strategy after the Cold War (replacing Europe), and then became the main crucible of transnational terrorism after 2001. Given the frustrations of prolonged acute strife in Syria, Yemen, as well as discrediting regime-changing interventions in Iraq and Libya, one wonders whether the geopolitical appetite for engagement in the region will persist. A further regional concern is whether the United States and Israel will press Iran to the point that provokes a major war that neither side wishes.
The other dangerous global hotspots in East Asia and South Asia seem to involve unresolved inter-governmental conflicts of a more traditional type familiar throughout world history. The question posed as to whether the U.S. and China can escape ‘the Thucydides trap’ by which ascendant hegemons have historically tended to go to war rather than risk being displaced by rising rivals seems like a central concern over the course of the next decade, and tensions between these two dominant world powers rose to a fever pitch of mutual recrimination during the pandemic. Much may depend whether the rivalry remains centered on economic competition or takes the form of military encounters. A second concern, also in East Asia, is whether the denuclearizing pressure on North Korea exerted by the United States so as to maintain its global security framework anchored in a regime of ‘nuclear apartheid’ will cross the military threshold, and bring about a possibly devastating war on the Korean Peninsula that engages China and Japan, and possibly Russia. A third concern is whether India and Pakistan will turn their conflict over Kashmir in a direction that erupts in a war fought between two states possessing nuclear weapons.