PSC Report comment: towards a new post-COVID-19 world order?
We are likely to see increased competition between the US and China, rising nationalism and weak global leadership.
As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality of its aftermath cannot be overlooked. International relations experts agree that, just as 9/11 marked a turning point in global security relations, so the pandemic will be not just a health issue but also a major catalyst for new dynamics in the international system. The resulting shifts have the potential to redefine inter-state relations and global governance in ways that require Africa and the global South, in general, to reposition themselves.
Implications for Africa and the global South
For the global South, comprising largely developing countries and heavily dependent on the North, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 call for new ways of doing things. There is a strong possibility that developed countries will have to reduce development aid while addressing the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Even if development partners have committed themselves to maintaining their support for African countries, a divided focus can certainly be expected. This has direct implications for Africa's dependence on the developed world for aid in many key areas, including peace and security.
As the world order will have to struggle with significant unknowns, Africa and countries in the global South will have to reposition themselves to deal with the new actors that will most likely fill the gap.
Regional solidarity among African states through existing multilateral institutions – particularly the African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (RECs), which have played important roles in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent – will be key. Africa will have to reconsider its current over-dependence on external support and rather commit to its agenda to find African solutions to African problems.
Signs of a weakened international order
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, it was clear that the role of the United States (US) as a central pillar in global governance in a unipolar post-Cold War era was waning. Not only was the US projecting less leadership, but its absence in the mobilisation of multilateral responses was also evident.
This was compounded by the rise of Donald Trump and Trump-style populism in the global North and the resultant assault on global multilateral institutions, environmental governance structures and regional relations. Brexit, for instance, is not just a European crisis, but also a classic demonstration of fundamental challenges to multilateralism.
The injection of domestic populist nationalism into global diplomacy also worsened relations between China and the US, two of the world's major powers, with dire consequences for global economic stability. Apart from the US’ receding role in global leadership under Trump, there has been clear contestation over its unipolar leadership through China's projection of both economic power and influence.
The rise in tension between the two countries has affected many areas of global relations, with major implications for the global South.
The emergence of COVID-19 within this context and the inability of the global powers to take leadership in its management point to the eroding influence that these weaknesses have had on the contemporary global management of crises.
The way in which the pandemic has been handled is thus both a symptom of existing weaknesses in the international system and a major catalyst in the deterioration of those challenges in ways that will affect the nature of global inter-state relations going forward.
Power contestation between the US and China
With the pandemic worsening existing structural weaknesses in the international system, the post-COVID-19 global order is bound to undergo three major changes.
First, tensions between the US and China may go beyond trade wars. It is clear that COVID-19 has put both the US’ and China’s systems to the test and exposed their respective strengths and weaknesses.
While China has had an opportunity to recover and project strength in the handling of the pandemic, fault lines in the US’ healthcare infrastructure, its handling of the pandemic and domestic political leadership have all exposed structural challenges in the American system. The implications of this for the two powers’ contestation for influence and the associated mutual suspicions are bound to remain even after the pandemic is contained.
Control over the narrative of China's initial handling of the crisis is already a major point of disagreement between the two countries. The US’ attack on the World Health Organization's (WHO) handling of the pandemic is clear evidence of this.
The timing of the US’ suspension of funding support to the health body amid an existential threat to humankind is a dangerous assault not just on global health governance but also on multilateralism in general. Its most immediate impact is most likely going to be felt in the developing world, where the services of the WHO could be crucial in supporting health systems’ recovery after the pandemic.
The continued rise of nationalism
The second expected change after COVID-19 is the continued rise of nationalism, resulting in inward-looking states. This is bound to emerge not just from a rise in mistrust among states but also from the realisation that there are dangers associated with over-reliance on China as the world's primary supply chain source for certain essential commodities.
Indications that the US aggressively outbid other countries to prevent them from accessing personal protection equipment (PPEs) in April, an occurrence that has become known as ‘medical piracy’, at a time every country needed such equipment, illustrates the major powers’ self-seeking approach in the response to the pandemic.
As much as the absence of the US’ leadership has affected the struggle to address the crisis, its increasing abdication of global leadership is likely to increase in a post-COVID-19 world. It is likely that all states will have to pay more attention to internal economic recovery efforts and preparations to shield themselves from similar pandemics in future.
In the US, in particular, Trump will be forced to focus on the economy and job creation, which will compound the challenges the country’s leadership is facing across the world. The flaws that have marked the ongoing global response to the pandemic are a mere foretaste of the US’ abdication of global leadership.
Finally, the global South will have to get used to the US’ increasing absence from a post-COVID-19 global order, especially if Trump is re-elected. The lacuna that is likely to result from the decline of the US' influence will not be filled immediately. China's rise is projected through economic power, but it is difficult to establish whether it has what it takes to also provide political answers in the global South, as the US has done since the end of the Cold War.
What is interesting, however, is the emergence of influential multinational entities and foundations such as the Jack Ma and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, which have played a major role in equipping African countries to manage the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether these can be harnessed widely in Africa’s response to the challenges it faces.