Revitalise Liberal Internationalism to End COVID-19, Chaos

Feb 26 , 2022
By Leulseged Tadese Abebe

The international liberal order contributed to one of the longest periods of global peace with the absence of war among major powers, the decline of poverty, and unprecedented socio-economic improvements in human lives. The world needs more of it, not less, writes Leulseged Tadese Abebe, career senior diplomat who has served in Geneva, New York and Tel Aviv. The opinions expressed here are the author's own views and not of any other institution.

Since 2020, COVID-19 has brought devastating socio-economic and political impacts. There are more than 410 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, while nearly six million have lost their lives, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Millions have become jobless and the global economy experienced its worst recession since the Great Depression, with a recovery that remains slow and uneven. The pandemic has increased poverty and further exacerbated inequality. Developing countries face deeper and longer crises due to the adverse impacts of the pandemic. Unfortunately, we are not yet out of this pandemic. Health experts warn that an even worse virus could hit the world at any time.

While the pandemic is an international crisis, a globally coordinated response remains weak, albeit better than two years ago. Though COVID-19 poses a serious international threat, there was almost no coordinated global response at the beginning of the crisis. The chaotic responses have stressed the liberal international order (LIO), which was already in serious trouble. For the LIO, which is anchored on addressing transnational challenges through universal partnership, the pandemic brings more doubts about its future. Unless we reform the global governance structures for cooperation, the pandemic will continue to create havoc, further weakening the liberal order.

In an inter-dependent world, multilateral cooperation through the UN and its agencies offers our best opportunity to address global challenges like COVID-19. Unfortunately, multilateralism, which has been under strain, has failed miserably when it was most needed. Transnational cooperation was required precisely for bad times like this.

Because the US and China have been in fierce rivalry, when the pandemic broke out, instead of leading a rapid and comprehensive international response, they were wrangling with each other. At the beginning of the pandemic, Group 7 failed to issue even a joint statement over a disagreement on naming the new pandemic. Instead of acting in unity against the pandemic, the UN Security Council was fighting on procedures while the WHO, which became a venue for global action, found itself as another arena for superpower competition.

What is deeply disturbing is after two years of the pandemic, the international community remains unable and unwilling to come together to face the common threat with a meaningful and concerted action commensurate with the spread and the devastating impacts of the disease. The poor have continued to pay the heaviest price. The UN reports confirm COVID-19 strikes the poor harder, threatening their hard-won development gains.

This is not to deny that, though delayed, there are signs of global cooperation in supporting developing countries to increase their testing and vaccinating capacities, including through the COVAX initiative. However, while global vaccination is vital to end the pandemic, what we see is vaccine nationalism, further undermining the spirit of international solidarity. Without ensuring vaccine equity, it is impossible to defeat the pandemic. Because of a lack of clear vision and decisive leadership, it is a tragedy that the global cooperative mechanisms are not adequately responding to the pandemic. That is why ending the pandemic requires reinvigorated and comprehensive global action.

The fundamental reason the world is not cooperating to end COVID-19 has to do with the weakened spirit of cooperation and a liberal international order under attack from within and outside. The international spirit of cooperation was weakened and multilateralism was under threat when the pandemic broke out; countries preferred to act alone.

It is undeniable the virus would inflict the world even if governments were cooperating, and the LIO was in much better shape. Nevertheless, the world would have been much more prepared and coordinated to respond in a much more coherent approach to minimise the devastating effects.

To end the pandemic and prepare for a post-COVID world, we have no other choice but to reinvigorate global institutions and multilateralism, with a strong spirit of genuine global partnership. After WWII, it was international liberalism that saved the world. We must repeat this to end the pandemic and ensure a sustainable exit out of the current crisis. This would require fully understanding why the liberal order is in crisis, what needs to be done to fix it and reinvigorating a cooperative model that fits the post-COVID world.

The LIO is in serious trouble. But concluding that it is dead is premature. Without underestimating the challenges, it has been resilient overcoming wars, economic crises and anti-liberal ideological rivals. For the highly interdependent world that faces an unprecedented crisis, it is an open, multilateral, inclusive, and participatory order that would enable it to address its common challenges.

The main features of LIO include an open market, international organisations, and cooperative spirit, including the rule of law. The current LIO was built mainly by America after World War II. With its partners, it was the principal architect in creating the open and rules-based institutions of the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and later the World Trade Organisation. The main objective has been to facilitate cooperation and prevent war by promoting economic partnerships.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unipolar moment arrived when the US was the single superpower. With the US leadership and cooperation of its partners in Europe, the idea of the free market, democracy, and globalisation were expanding. It indeed appeared to be "the end of history" and many thought it was the total victory of the liberal market democratic system over other forms of ideological rivals.

It was not. The US squandered the unipolar moment mainly due to domestic dysfunction and miscalculations in running its foreign policy, affecting the transatlantic alliance. Market fundamentalism brought multiple discontents, including unemployment and income inequality. The 2008 global economic recession and the euro crisis contributed to the erosion of confidence in a liberal international order. Doubts on its benefits and withdrawal from international agreements have undermined multilateralism. People felt threatened and angered by hyper-globalisation, migration, and technological advancement and they embraced populist and ultra-nationalist rulers.

The great power rivalry between America and China is back. Trade wars, military and diplomatic tensions, and dysfunctional multilateral systems seriously threaten the LIO. Failed states, climate change, poverty, conflicts, terrorism, cyber wars and disinformation put additional pressure on its effectiveness and sustainability.

These threats are real and they must be addressed so that the LIO could serve as a renewed order reflecting the new realities. It should not be forgotten that the liberal order contributed to one of the longest periods of global peace with the absence of war among major powers, the decline of poverty, and the unprecedented socio-economic improvements in human lives. As we face this pandemic, what has been achieved so far should inspire the international community to act together with a sense of vision and political commitment.

It is from these abilities of LIO that its solutions could also emerge for COVID-19 and for the broader challenges we face. Primarily, denying the benefits of LIO in a highly interdependent era is troubling as it could further empower populism and uncoordinated national responses. As it is about creating a cooperative system, the pandemic we face can only be addressed sustainably with more liberal principles that promote multilateral problem-solving. It is much better to find vaccines and cures by gathering our global scientific knowledge. Vaccinating every person is the best way to end the pandemic for all. Resuming global tourism would be more effective through coordination and harmonised approach. We have apparent health and economic reasons to foster international cooperation.

It is also imperative to address the economic malaise that created the current economic inequality that favoured the financial elite at the expense of the majority. Implementing people-centred economic reforms is urgent and essential. Eradicating poverty by implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remains one of the best policy options to win the global war against the COVID-19. The SDGs aim at eradicating poverty in all its forms. Before the pandemic, the world was not on track to meet the ambitious targets of the SDGs. Now, with the outbreak of COVID-19, it has almost been certain that SDGs would not be met by 2030 and millions would remain in poverty. Nonetheless, the world has a blueprint for fighting poverty, and implementing it is the right course of action to end COVID-19.

No less critical is to see the great power rivalry as a power transition process as LIO should accommodate the interest of re-emerging powers like China. The rising powers are seeking, among other things, "fair and equitable representation" at the various decision-making processes that reflect their current status. To regain full legitimacy and function effectively, it is vital to reform the existing multilateral decision-making structures to reflect the current power distribution, not the 1950s.

While competition between a status quo and rising superpowers is almost unavoidable, it should not be an obstacle for the US and China to cooperate on ending the pandemic. The US and USSR were in the Cold War rivalry; they still cooperated to control smallpox. The US and China united to fight Ebola in 2014. This is what we need now. What is required is a rejuvenated liberal international order that reflects the current power configuration with the ultimate objective of ending COVID-19 and effectively responding to long-term public demands for a peaceful, fair, sustainable, and prosperous world.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 26,2022 [ VOL 22 , NO 1139]

career senior diplomat who has served in Geneva, New York and Tel Aviv.

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