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Winning the peace against coronavirus

Global Governance / COMMENTARY
Giovanni Grevi

Date: 27/03/2020

Looking at the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Giovanni Grevi warns against unilateral reflexes. EU leaders should realise they are being watched, and their actions now will determine the future of international cooperation

Europe is awash with war talk. Emmanuel Macron and other leaders have proclaimed that their countries are at war. Angela Merkel and Giuseppe Conte have described the COVID-19 crisis as the gravest hitting their countries since World War II. War-like metaphors point to the human cost of the pandemic, the scale of the mobilisation required to defeat the new ‘enemy’ and the challenge of reconstruction.

However, these war narratives also encourage reflecting on the consequences of choices made at historical turning points, as wars have sometimes been.[1] Decisions made at times of deep crisis can plant the seeds of further disruptions or of new, more resilient orders. The impact of the coronavirus requires rethinking the concept of interdependence. Progress towards much more robust arrangements to manage interdependence will make the difference between precarious fixes and sustainable solutions.

While channelled through the arteries of globalisation, the spread of the coronavirus is ultimately a spectacular crisis of national, global and European governance. The inadequate sharing of information, little international capacity to monitor national measures and provide support, disjointed decisions on border closures and travel bans, health infrastructures’ unpreparedness, export bans on medical equipment, occasional shows of solidarity in a void of coordination are all evidence of governance failures. The only remedy to this crisis, and solution to prevent future and possibly larger ones, is to fix governance, not to ditch interdependence.

The tempting wrong move

There is a serious risk that the current traumatic experience will exacerbate simmering tensions among the major powers and spur retrenchment behind national barriers or regional blocs. This would be both a strategic mistake and massively delusional. Beyond emergency measures, withdrawing from interdependence is far too costly, potentially destabilising or simply impossible, depending on the matter at hand. The correct answer to the risks of unfettered globalisation is not isolationism or nationalism but the much tighter management of interdependence.

Decades of globalisation in the shape of all sorts of flows and networks, accelerated and amplified by new technologies, have generated an unprecedented level of interdependence. The perception of interdependence has, however, drastically changed over the last few years. Long celebrated as the tide that lifts all the boats, globalisation is now increasingly regarded as a bunch of chains that not only constrain countries but also make them vulnerable to rivals who weaponise interdependence to gain influence through, for example, economic measures or access to information.[2]

Beyond power politics, the COVID-19 pandemic is also exposing the vulnerabilities embedded in unrestrained globalisation. Connectivity facilitates the spread of viruses (whether physical or digital), fragile ‘just in time’ value chains are prone to disruptions, even large countries are far from self-reliant regarding critical assets (i.e. medical gear), and wild swings in global financial markets multiply damages to economies. No wonder the reflex to just disconnect is strong. However tempting, this would be the wrong move.

The two faces of interdependence

As the spread of COVID-19 risks compounding unilateralism and sabotaging the management of interdependence, it is crucial to pause and take the long view. As a starting point, the debate on interdependence should be unpacked to differentiate between strategic and collective interdependence. While distinct, these two dimensions of interdependence are related because exploiting interdependence as a source of power can not only escalate geopolitical tensions but also cripple cooperation on shared challenges, such as pandemics.

Strategic interdependence is about using the fabric of connectivity – flows, networks and infrastructures – to gain power. Over 40 years ago, political scientists Keohane and Nye made clear that international actors can leverage interdependence through both cooperation and competition, with these two dimensions coexisting.[3] This assessment holds valid, even if the balance of challenges and opportunities changes over time. The current shift in the understanding of interdependence has to do with the fact that the distribution of power and mutual vulnerabilities is in flux, and that digital technologies underpinning all aspects of life are particularly vulnerable to intrusions and attacks.

Responding to the challenges of strategic interdependence is part of a difficult but necessary balancing act. The debate on the emerging US-China rivalry and the prospect of economic and technological decoupling between the two powers shows the complexity of this calculation. While there is much talk of a potential new Cold War, many have stressed that the deep links entangling the US and China make sheer decoupling impractical, if at all possible, and have outlined more sophisticated strategies calibrating cooperation and competition instead.[4]

The more profound point is that, even if decoupling was possible, it would be a potentially destabilising move. Despite the risks it entails, interdependence is a factor of strategic stability. Of course, interdependence does not rule out conflicts but does increase their costs greatly and therefore invites some self-restraint. As Nye put it, entanglement is a component of deterrence.[5]

If, therefore, just disbanding interdependence encourages more risk-taking or confrontation, the better option is to take a more selective approach to strategic interdependence and modulate it across different issues (e.g. trade, investment, finance, infrastructures), to preserve some of the benefits while minimising vulnerabilities. That will also create political space to join forces on the shared challenges of collective interdependence.

Interdependence is not just a matter of choice; it is also a matter of fact. Collective interdependence is a feature of the international system, does not depend on specific decisions (even if it mostly stems from human behaviour) and can be hugely consequential for all countries. The implications of climate change and the spread of pandemic diseases like COVID-19 are primary manifestations of collective interdependence. The unintended dysfunction of future, increasingly complex and pervasive digital networks could be considered another aspect of collective interdependence. Different dimensions of interdependence (e.g. climate, public health issues) intersect, too, with disruptions in ecosystems enhancing the risk of new contagious diseases spreading faster and wider.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has sadly demonstrated, there is no insulation from collective interdependence. Even if individual countries do better than others in particular cases, an increasingly unsustainable and technologically connected planet will likely confront them all with more, even tougher challenges. While the exorbitant costs of climate change are diffused and accrue over the years, the impact of the pandemic is very tangible. If no country can avoid the challenges of collective interdependence, however, joint action to prevent, mitigate and adapt to them is of the essence.

While at war, build the peace

Rejecting interdependence is tempting when confronting its ‘dark side’, but this would be both a strategic mistake and a delusional aspiration. It would not only threaten geopolitical stability and corroborate nationalism but also undermine cooperation in dealing with systemic risks that no country can escape. However, the management of both strategic and collective interdependence must be improved drastically. This requires leadership and innovation.

Leadership on the global stage is in very short supply. The current US administration has dismissed multilateralism, no other single power can step in to lead cooperation and, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the G20 was missing in action for weeks until yesterday’s video summit. The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated, “A global pandemic needs global solutions and the EU has to be at the centre of the fight.”[6]

The EU and its member states can play an essential role as the lynchpin or convener of multiple initiatives of various coalitions. Priorities for international cooperation include mobilising the International Monetary Fund and G20 to cushion the financial impact of the crisis, closer coordination among the major central banks and supporting countries in need through the World Bank and regional development banks working in sync. Alongside that, there is a need to boost the production and swift provision of necessary medical equipment, strengthen the capacity of national health infrastructures to deal with the current crisis and preparing for the next, and establish much stronger arrangements to monitor and review national measures.

Of course, today more than ever, Europe’s traction as a champion of multilateral cooperation depends on the consistency of its international messages and domestic practices. The early weeks of the crisis in Europe have shown a serious disconnect between words and deeds, even though the virus has precipitated a range of powerful moves, including large quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, relaxing state aid rules and dropping the fiscal constraints of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Facing the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, however, the ‘too little, too late’ syndrome that affected the management of earlier crises continues to threaten the health, and perhaps even the long-term survival, of the EU. As they make major choices about cohesion, coordination and risk-sharing, European leaders should know that their decisions will send a strong signal of their commitment to both the EU and the future of international cooperation. While fighting the coronavirus, Europeans should think of winning not just the war, but also the peace.

Giovanni Grevi is Head of the Europe in the World programme and Senior Fellow. 

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] Harari, Yuval Noah, “Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus”, Financial Times, 20 March 2020.
[2] Farrell, Henry and Abraham L. Newman (2020), “Chained to Globalization”, Foreign Affairs, Volume 99, Issue 1; Farrell, Henry and Abraham L. Newman (2019), “Weaponized Interdependence: How global economic networks shape state coercion”, International Security, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp.42-79.
[3] Keohane, Robert O. and Joseph S. Nye Jr. (2012), Power and Interdependence, Pearson (4th edition).
[4] The Economist, “A new kind of cold war”, 16 May 2019; Campbell, Kurt M. and Jake Sullivan (2019), “Competition Without Catastrophe”, Foreign Affairs, Volume 98, Issue 5; Nye, Joseph S., Jr. (2020), “Power and Interdependence with China”, The Washington Quarterly, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp.7-21.
[5] Nye (2020), op.cit.
[6] European External Action Service, The Coronavirus pandemic and the world it is creating, 23 March 2020.

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