A friend who lives on Corona Street in Colorado found that the neighborhood has gotten unexpected attention due to the mere association with such an earth-shattering word as Corona. Most of us have found our lives to some extent turned upside down by the current crisis.
Yet, in the realm of international relations, the effects are still to be fully understood or even felt. The demise of neighborly relations, both between citizens and countries, is one straightforward effect. There has been intense competition between countries for scarce resources, namely, medical and safety gear, and this has been evident in cases of international tension as countries put holds on respirators, masks and other gear that have been legally contracted for purchase by one country but which another seeks to obtain.
The same can be said for relations between regions, or between the states within the US, where not all are bearing the same burden. Citizens now distrust those who come from other places and who might be carrying the deadly virus.
As tragic as this is at the time of the events, a longer-term effect may be just as devastating to relations between countries. Though at times throughout history one country or another has attempted to perform the function of international policeman, yet the international arena now appears chaotic. Neither the United Nations nor the World Health Organization currently command enough consensus to act globally and comprehensively in this crisis. If there has been little coordination throughout the crisis, one wonders what the scenario will be afterwards.
The European disunion
The European Union has not reacted in a way that would exhibit its best traits.
First, it has found its unity crumble as several northern countries opposed Eurobonds or ‘Coronabonds’ to fund rising national debts, arguing that the southern countries should have been preparing for this crisis somehow.
Secondly, borders between European countries no longer display the free movement that has so empowered commerce and travel in the Schengen zone. This was to be expected, given the complexity of keeping the virus out, but it has shown the inherent difficulties in maintaining the free movement of citizens, goods and services between countries when there is a crisis.
Third, though there have been a few stories of collaboration between countries, to a large extent each has suffered this crisis on its own, so far. In Europe, Italy was the first to bear the brunt of the healthcare crisis, followed by Spain, with little aid from other countries. As this spilled over into the economic realm, it is as if each country has been ‘licking its own wounds’, which added to Brexit, makes for full scale crises in most any European nation.
The confirmation of “Realpolitik”?
The heavy feeling that hung over US/EU relations entered a new level of dissonance as countries struggled to repatriate their citizens, close their borders, and issue healthcare measures that were often at odds with surrounding places. In turn, the complexity of relations with China adds uncertainty. The Chinese immigrant community has been maligned in some parts of the US for their mere presence, even when they are almost invariably victims in one way or another. Yet many countries of the global South may suffer the most from this tragic story, whether because of their population density or difficulties in providing adequate healthcare for their population.
All this will not easily be patched up afterwards. What does seem clear is that it will not be a simple reset or return to the status quo ante. Rather, international relations may see a fundamental change in power relations, in attitudes toward other countries and in trade and commerce. As certain industrial countries prohibit exports of key medical gear, one wonders what level of response there will be from the affected countries. They may likewise establish controls on exports to richer countries that have shown more muscle in this crisis than solidarity. In a world dominated by ‘my country first’, realpolitik evolves into its most Darwinian form.
One may also wonder how voters will respond to being subjected to confinement for weeks. Will they eventually show their support for the politicians that have led their countries through this crisis? Or will they exact a price for perceived miscalculations, mistakes or misfortunes suffered? This can affect both left and right-wing leaders alike. Even if certain governments only use apps to ascertain quarantined citizens’ movements during the crisis, yet the “Big Brother” feeling remains.
Crises are always times of opportunity
The weakening of democratic institutions seems evident, as parliaments everywhere find it difficult to respond speedily, while the executives scramble to appear competent in applying measures never experienced during our lifetimes. It seems this is not the time for accountability, at least while the crisis lasts, or that is what we are told. Maybe afterwards?
Populists seem to be generally strengthened in this crisis, but one must be wary of assuming that they will ‘look good’ if mortality rates rise. For some it is a chance to grab more power, but whether they can ‘spin’ this to their advantage in the longer run is another matter. In an ideal world, even populist leaders would rise to the occasion and exhibit non-partisan statesmanship for a time.
Even if there is an attempt to return to “politics as usual” after this crisis passes, it will not be easy when economies are weakened, the relations between countries have exhibited growing distrust, and the democratic activity of society has been temporarily hibernated for the sake of national health measures.
Crises are always times of opportunity. Yet a major effort is required to bring democracies ‘out of lockdown’. After all is said and done, it will be necessary to discern what effects were inevitable, and when to hold authorities accountable for the measures they took (late) or did not take. Much of this was beyond leaders’ control, but not all of it.
That is where the idea of a so-called Marshall Plan seems to be a misnomer, as the historical version was largely a bipartisan effort in the USA to assist Europe after an extended war in which the Allies fought as a united front, and in light of the new threat arising from Stalinism.
Whether the current situation bears any resemblance remains to be seen. The term “Marshall Plan” may end up referring simply to increased public expenditures rather than to a coordinated European project. Current divergence with the post-World War II era includes the fact that there has been little international collaboration and so far the current crisis has largely involved people returning to their own countries to stick out their quarantines at ‘home’.
A new European initiative that is carried out in a post-crisis context of continuing competition between blocs would have little to do with the original Marshall Plan. Whether the common threat of the Corona virus will be enough to catalyze real international solidarity across borders remains to be seen.
Daniel Blanch is the Program coordinator of International Studies at SLU-Madrid.
To quote this article, please use the following reference:
D. Blanch (2020). “Covid-19 and changes ahead ”, Observatory on contemporary crises, April 14,, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/covid-19-and-changes-ahead-d-blanch/