Three Reasons that Will Render Post-COVID Cooperation Imperative –Dr. Andrea Oelsner

Great international crises have led to great international solutions. Looking back at history, we can see how times of extensive uncertainty have resulted in the construction of complex institutions which would go on to promote international cooperation so as to avoid the recurrence of the past.

There are three main reasons that can make us think that the same could happen now. Therefore, will offer first a few historical examples of crises followed by cooperation. Then, in a second part, we will present what we consider to be the possible three sources of post-COVID cooperation.

Crises lead to cooperation

The two World Wars, with their indescribable destruction and horrors, led to the collective creation of new international actors: The League of Nations first, and the Organization of the United Nations later. Their goal has since been the maintenance of international peace and order.

Another international actor coming out of the wars was today’s European Union, the European Coal and Steel Community, which had the aim of avoiding a renewed Franco-German conflict.

Albeit, there are more examples.

In 1962, when the USA and the USSR were one step away from launching atomic attacks on each other, the world was on the verge of intolerable nuclear destruction. Coming back from the brink, the superpowers agreed on a number of cooperative measures. For instance, they established a ‘red line’ of direct communication between the Kremlin and the White House. In the decades that followed, they signed bilateral and multilateral treaties –such as SALT I and SALT II, and the No Proliferation Treaty and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, respectively—in order to regulate nuclear proliferation.

Other great crises have been economic in nature. In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to increase the price of oil four-fold. The ensuing crisis raised awareness in many developed states of their oil dependence and the vulnerability it implied. In a context of – already – accelerated production and trade internationalization and integration, it became clear that no state was fully self-sufficient.

In order to transform economic uncertainties into shared opportunities, states sought to coordinate their actions, cooperate, and build a more predictable environment. They signed international treaties and created regional organizations as a strategy for mitigating vulnerability. Indeed, since the 1970s, the number of international trade treaties and multilateral organizations grew exponentially.

And yet, why should we expect international cooperation now when we have actually witnessed countries following an ‘every-man-for-himself’ strategy? We can argue that there are three interconnected reasons for that: first, a shared humanity sentiment; second, a feeling of transnational solidarity; and third, a rational calculation of risks.

Are we off for an era of cooperation?

The COVID-19 pandemic has instilled a very real sentiment of common human nature. Misery and death no longer have only the face of starving African children or destitute Syrian refugees. Other examples added since: affluent Californians, Catalans, and French; an American President in hospital; and a British Prime Minister in ICU. Any of them could get infected, just like the Brazilians in Sao Paulo or the Chinese in Wuhan. Suddenly, the awareness of our common vulnerability exposed our common human nature, which works as an incentive to seek a common solution too. This leads to the second reason: A sentiment of transnational solidarity.

COVID-19 reached Europe and the United States earlier than it did in the Global South. The vaccine is likely to follow a similar path. When this happens, common humanity will give way to solidarity. We’ve already seen the devastation the virus caused in societies much worse prepared than Europe and North America. In Guayaquil (Ecuador), bodies were left in the street as hospitals and morgues were full. Bill Gates reminded us that “one hospital in Manhattan has more beds in the intensive care unit than in most African countries”. And so, once the vaccine is available, solidarity and compassion will work in favor of international cooperation and aid. But it won’t be just altruism moving countries towards cooperation, because COVID-19 comes in several waves, as we are experiencing now, and because COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic either. This leads to the third reason: rational risks calculation.

With the second wave of the virus returning to the North, it has become clearer than ever that the ‘every-man-for-himself’ strategy won’t benefit anybody in the long run. The risks of not eradicating this and future viruses quickly are far too high. It will be in everybody’s interest—also rich and developed states—to have in place internationally institutionalized mechanisms to distribute the vaccine and/or treatment and rapid tests globally.

In summary, as has been the case in the past, this global crisis will strengthen international cooperation efforts too. Rich and developed countries will want to ensure that poorer countries gain also access to pharmaceutical advances so that next time, in the next pandemic, we are all better prepared. Ultimately, it will be the three interconnected reasons of a sentiment of shared human nature, transnational solidarity and a calculation of risks that will render international cooperation an imperative outcome.

Dr. Andrea Oelsner is the Head of the Political Science & Government and the IR Programs at the University of San Andrés in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Andrea Oelsner (2020),“Three Reasons that Will Render Post-COVID Cooperation Imperative”.

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