Contemporary geopolitical trends and COVID-19: The return of the political?

The threat posed by the novel Coronavirus has evidently led to a reassertion of political power over economic demands and global market forces.

The threat posed by the novel Coronavirus seems to have turned the global political and economic system – as well as our everyday lives – on its head. In response to the need to track and trace the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, governments around the world have imposed strict restrictions on the movement of their citizens and have increased surveillance over their contacts with each other. Turning their backs on international economic orthodoxy, they have also closed their borders and prohibited the export of facemasks, personal protective equipment (PPE), respirators and other essential equipment necessary to fight COVID-19. After decades of trade liberalisation, states have also increasingly sought to rebuild their domestic manufacturing capacity in order to reduce their reliance on increasingly unpredictable global supply chains.

At first glance, these measures testify to a fundamental reorganization of international relations. However, they actually represent an acceleration of pre-existing geopolitical trends. Although the “states of exception” created by the pandemic have increased concerns about domestic surveillance, the internal monitoring of citizens has been rising over the past two decades. This is the result of both the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and of the ever-greater technical capacity granted by the development of smartphone technology. While this approach may work in non-democratic societies like China, such surveillance threatens to undermine trust in democratic governments in the midst of a viral pandemic, i.e. precisely at the time when it is needed most.

In a similar fashion, increased monitoring and the outright closure of international borders – often brought about through the construction of walls, fences and other physical barriers – have been on the rise in Europe ever since the refugee crisis of 2015. The resulting upswing in support for far-right, nativist parties and movements has also led to economic protectionism backed by the use of tariffs, preferential procurement, and the undermining of international economic agreements and organisations designed to facilitate the movement of goods and services across borders.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump in the US, who has built a wall, implemented numerous “travel bans” and started a trade war with China, are two of the most prominent examples of how isolationist trends in the international system precede the onset of CoV-Sars-2. While they may be effective in the short term, however, such nationalistic approaches are self-defeating in the long run.

The push to find a vaccine for Covid-19 is more likely to succeed – and will certainly proceed more quickly – through international scientific cooperation and open-source research, rather than through secrecy and competition at the national level. Similarly, due to the existing specialisation within global manufacturing and the principle of comparative advantage, we are more likely to produce the PPE and other medical equipment we need through international trade and cooperation than via the “reshoring” of production and the creation of integrated supply chains to ensure self-sufficiency at the national level.

Global problems require global responses. While the pandemic has accelerated international divisions, it also has the potential to spur further cooperation. In Europe, for example, the recession brought about by the Great Lockdown has seemingly broken the long-standing deadlock within the European Union (EU) over the issuance of common debt. Although the recent Franco-German initiative to create a recovery fund financed through joint borrowing by the European Commission will likely prove to be too small to prevent a recession and has yet to gain the approval of the member-states, the mere fact that it is on the table represents a significant step forward that may help to bring the EU back from the brink. Additionally, the increased willingness of member-states to share medical goods and equipment, as well as the creation of the rescEU medical stockpile, are also signs that the pandemic may lead to greater European solidarity in the long term, post-pandemic future.

It is unclear if the EU will succeed in implementing these encouraging initiatives. It also remains to be seen whether these moves on the continent will be followed by steps towards greater cooperation at the global level. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a worrying sign on this front. However, at the very least developments in Europe offer some hope that the pandemic may also provide the opportunity to push back against worrying trends at the global level.

Despite the current uncertainty, one thing is clear: the threat posed by the novel Coronavirus has reasserted predominance of political power over economic demands and global market forces. Political leaders around the world have long claimed that they are powerless to act in the face of international market forces. However, the lockdowns instituted to flatten the curve and reduce the global spread of the Coronavirus demonstrate that when push comes to shove, politics still has the power to assert its will over economic interests.

Doing so is not easy, as business interests have fuelled the accelerated, headlong rush to reopen economies plunged into recession by the measures instituted to combat the virus. However, now that politicians have been reminded of their ability to stand up to market interests, there is hope that they may be more willing to make use of their newfound agency again in the future when they are faced with other issues that pit the desires of their citizens against the interests of international financialised capitalism.