The growing literature on the impact of the coronavirus on the international scene suggests that it will cause —if it has not caused it already— a change of course, slowing down the process of globalization and strengthening the nation-state, at the same time that it will feed the national-populist claims. However, this turning point generated by Covid-19 is actually a catalyst in history, acting as an accelerator of a process that was already taking place. In particular, the pandemic has accentuated the tension between the defenders of two antagonistic positions on the geopolitical sphere: globalism and statism. Moreover, there are numerous ramifications of this new scenario, the most important of which seems to materialize in the advance of the State —or public sector— to the detriment of the private sector, with the consequent negative repercussions on personal freedoms.
In recent months, a lot has been written about the coronavirus and the enormous impact it has had in politics, society, health, the economy… At the geopolitical level, it has been pointed out that Covid-19 has caused previous consensus at both the national and international levels back down and the status quo is being challenged, with notable implications for the architecture of the international liberal order and the liberal democracies that are its cornerstone.
The vast majority of the increasingly growing literature around this paradigm shift indicates that the pandemic has already provoked a change in the wheel; a shift that makes the world of tomorrow quickly move away from that of today. And there are two possible scenarios that are looming on the horizon. The first, that of an authentic redefinition of the world order, under the leadership of China, which would definitively replace the United States as hegemonic power. However, as Mira Milosevich points out, alluding to Henry Kissinger, the world order changes “when legitimacy is redefined or there is a significant change in the balance of power”, something that does not seem to happen now through the exercise of soft power by the Asian giant. However, there are other reasons, as we will see below, that lead us to not fall for this thesis.
At the same time, and without it being an alternative scenario to the previous one described, countless journalists and famous academics certify the demise of globalization as we conceived it. For these, the coronavirus has put an end to a trend that until now was believed unquestionable. It had its defenders and detractors, but it was a reality. The very fact that a virus originated in a single country has spread throughout the world in months becoming a pandemic makes it clear that globalization is a reality and not a choice. This reality of globalization brought about a consequent phenomenon of global convergence. However, both phenomena seem to have slowed down its previous blistering speed. In particular the latter; that of global political convergence.
Proponents of this perspective assert how the coronavirus pandemic is strengthening statism’s claims as opposed to those of globalism. At this point, it is necessary to differentiate between the concepts of globalization and globalism. As Joseph S. Nye pointed out almost two decades ago, globalism refers to a world characterized by intercontinental networks and connections, while globalization refers to the increase or decrease in the speed or intensity of globalism. Thus, globalism can be thin or thick, depending on the historical moment that we observe, but it is a reality. In this sense, those who point out that this pandemic has paralyzed the advance of globalization are stating that, in their opinion, we are entering an era of “thin” globalism, because this crisis has meant a withdrawal from internationalist aspirations and a strengthening of the nation-state as the only entity capable of guaranteeing an adequate response for security purposes.
My thesis, however, differs from this transformative conception of Covid-19 and instead presents a catalytic conception of the pandemic. I defend, like the previous perspective, that we are facing a true turning point, but instead of being a change of course, I believe we are merely looking at a change of slope; one that affects not the dynamic but its intensity. Thus, the coronavirus is acting as a catalyst of History; as an accelerator of processes that were already taking place.
Thus, with regard to the incidence of the coronavirus in the global convergence process, as I pointed out previously, this has resulted in the accentuation of the frictions existing between the defenders of two very marked positions on the geopolitical sphere for a few decades and, especially since the emergence of national populist movements (see Mudde, 2012 and 2019, or Eatwell and Goodwin, 2018). Namely, among those who advocate for the full relevance of the nation-state compared to those who confirm the obsolescence of the Westphalian system and aspire to overcome the landscape of international anarchy or of a multipolar world, in order to reach a state of cooperation and harmony structured around a global governance system that enables this.
As a result, I do not subscribe to the thesis that the coronavirus will necessarily reinforce statism or the return to the nation-state and the increase in protectionist and isolationist measures. Nor do I predict an immediate future characterized by the strengthening of the organizations that cement the so-called international liberal order. However, it is foreseeable that the greater tension between these two conceptions of the world, that of the State and that of global governance, will lead to an intensification of the national-populist discourse —and other less-extreme views that defend the nation-state as well—, on the one hand, and the globalist claims, on the other. And the reason is as evident in its diagnosis as it is complex in its solution, since the foundation of this intensified tension lies in the fact that both blocs see their arguments consolidate with the pandemic and, above all, with the positions that the States and supranational organizations have adopted in light of it.
Defenders of the nation-state postulate that the international liberal order has not been able to articulate a response, which again proves its ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Organizations such as the World Health Organization have been discredited for their communication management during this crisis, and the European Union has gone from an initial "every man for himself" slogan to a chaotic and disorganized action that only now seems to be showing some sign of coordination. The international (and European) architecture in which many had placed their hopes once again cracks in the face of an adverse situation, highlighting its fragility.
Under this perspective the coronavirus has propped up the nation-state, confirming that it constitutes the best tool we have for managing (and overcoming) crises. This is undoubtedly a strong argument. For some, it is a iuris tantum presumption, which puts forward the State for instrumental reasons, confirmed by the effectiveness of the response of many countries regarding the adoption of ad hoc measures against this virus. For others, on the contrary, this presumption is iuris et de iure, since they do not admit evidence to the contrary.
In any case, there are positions favorable to this argument, and it is also observed how this risorgimento of the nation-state has had a spectacular reception by a vast majority of the population, regardless of its political color or ideological bias. In general terms, the applause for border shut down measures by right-wing governments in established Western democracies has been seen with great normality, but also in the case left-leaning governments, despite their greater permissiveness in immigration and border affairs. It goes without saying how these and many other draconian measures have turned out to be almost unquestionable. Curfews and massive confinements of the population in many countries are but a few examples.
By contrast, those who advocate for an increase in global convergence and cooperation, particularly through the organizations that form the backbone of the liberal international order of the post-world wars, have also seen their position reinforced. If the pandemic has taught us anything, and in this many agree with those of the antagonist bloc, it is the weakness of supranational institutions to orchestrate a global response to global threats. However, instead of giving up on this project and its ambitious pretensions, this bloc calls for strengthening this governance structure, because it is only in this way that we will be able to overcome the challenges we already face (such as global warming), as well as those to come. In other words, given the insufficiency of the initial bet, we should double down on it.
The tension between these two worldviews was fueled a few years ago by the national-populist phenomenon, which firmly claimed the full relevance of the nation-state, and is now accentuated again by the pandemic. Again, it does not mean a change of course, but of speed, which foretells further fractures and disagreements throughout the world and, in particular, in the West, where this tension is most intense.
This diagnosis of the international scene reveals another phenomenon that, in my opinion, should be cause for concern. In the process of polarization of these two antagonistic positions, it can be seen that both the first (statism) and the second (“thicker” globalism) elevate the State (in the first case) or set of States (in the second) and demand a greater role for a public or State-led crisis management. Thus, the two blocks are nothing more than two races of the same species, either at the micro (nation-state) or macro (world governance) level. And this is problematic in many respects. Among other, three stand out. First, that the performance of many liberal democracies in the current fight against the pandemic calls into question their self-proclaimed moral superiority over other forms of government. Second, because the measures adopted by the international community in a coordinated manner do not go beyond a replica on a larger scale than those undertaken by the states that comprise it. In that sense, the failures or success at a national level would be reproduced in a greater magnitude. In light of this, homogeneous responses at the international level are to be taken cautiously, for it seems that there is much risk involved. It would seem, as evidence indicates, that international anarchy is a safer bet given the current state of this supranational structure. Third, because the overreach that the State has had in these exceptional times has not yet been withdrawn to a large extent, nor it seems that it will be the case in the near future. And the resulting increase in the size of the state and its shielding from any criticism, both nationally and internationally, warns us from a dark future for those who defend the personal freedom, the need for a strong private sector, the importance of community and the existence of a vibrant civil society as a necessary counterweight to political power. This is very much inadvisable regardless of economic postulates or visions of society, because the statement that the State is dangerous is not a question of ideology, but of history. While the first is capricious, the second is forceful in its verdicts and, throughout History, we can see how even if the State can reveal itself as an effective ally in crisis management and the protection of life, freedom and property, it is no truer that the State has also represented its greatest threat.
It is reasonable to think that much of this global disruption will be temporary. However, it would be naive to believe that this crisis will not leave any consequences. An aftermath to this pandemic that can, and should, make us rethink the global and national architecture and, in particular, everything that refers to the dimension of the State and its level of interference in our lives.
Campbell, K.M., & Doshi, R. (2020). ‘The coronavirus could reshape global order’, Foreign Affairs (18 of March). Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-03-18/coronavirus-could-reshape-global-order
Eatwell, R., & Goodwin, M. (2018). National populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Pelican)
Haass, R. (2020). ‘The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It’, Foreign Affairs (7 de abril). Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-07/pandemic-will-accelerate-history-rather-reshape-it
Mudde, C., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (Eds.) (2012). Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Mudde, C. (2019). The Far Right Today (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Milosevich, M. (2020). ‘¿Habrá un nuevo orden mundial tras la crisis del Covid-19?’, Fundación FAES (5 of May). Available at: https://fundacionfaes.org/es/prensa/47142/a-habra-un-nuevo-orden-mundial-tras-la-crisis-del-covid-19
Nye, J. (2002). ‘Globalism Versus Globalization’, The Globalist (15 of April). Available at: https://www.theglobalist.com/globalism-versus-globalization/