Geopolitical orders, including the balance of power, arise to contain threats and promote the interests of nations that benefit from the stability they maintain. The present order is still primarily a legacy of past world wars. National arsenals and multilateral institutions established to fortify that order have all been aimed at not having to fight the last war again or prevailing in a rematch. As such, they are proving woefully ill-equipped for the threats we face going forward: global pandemics like COVID-19 and what some have called “the slow-motion pandemic” of climate change.
Of what use are stealth bombers against a virus invisible to the naked eye? What good are anti-ballistic missiles when what we need are antibodies? How does a modernized nuclear force stack up against mutating microbes? What is the point of a shock-and-awe 30,000-pound bunker-buster bomb when microscopic droplets from a cough or a sneeze are just as devastating?
Clearly, the time has arrived to redefine what defense means in this age of the first-ever real-time global pandemic. The same is true for climate change: How will fleets of submarines and aircraft carriers defend against melting icecaps and rising seas? Exposure to the COVID-19 crisis is also dealing a terminal blow to the elderly multilateral institutions born after World War II that are seeing their last days in the nursing home of a passing era.
If these new threats and convergent interests will shape the next world order, what should it look like?
First of all, it only makes sense for the top powers to start shifting the posture of their defense establishments from a purely hard-weapon military-industrial complex toward a pandemic and climate oriented post-industrial complex. That will involve everything from controversial health surveillance networks to AI processing of bioinformatics to basic research on vaccines and the human immune system. With global warming, it could range from satellite mapping of climate impacts to carbon sequestration systems to engineering coastal protection infrastructure.
While a military balance of power must remain at some level to create enough security for wary nations to open up, the concept loses much of its meaning when microbes and greenhouse gases roam across all borders.
Second, the COVID-19 episode seems to have also drained whatever waning momentum remained in global economic integration. The trade war and race for technological dominance already underway with China has only been exacerbated by a realization that the rest of the world is reliant on what many regard as a suspect power for even medical protective gear during a plague. That is accelerating the reshoring of global supply chains in the name of national resilience. Regional integration projects, like the European Union, are falling apart as well over disputes about stronger economies taking on the debt of weaker ones as they seek to recover economic health. As former World Trade Organization head Pascal Lamy has pithily put it, nations have become “solid,” the European Union has become “liquid” and globalization “gaseous.”
In this context, well-meaning and noble appeals for enhanced International Monetary Fund and World Bank funding for developing countries facing the next deadly round of the pandemic will likely fall flat with already fiscally overburdened developed nations, many with populist leaders that grant little legitimacy to these global institutions in the first place. The call by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for a coronavirus ceasefire in war zones has gone mostly unheeded.
For what they are still worth, these institutions ought not to be abandoned outright, but little should be expected of their capacity to shape events.
Since its mission is fit for purpose in these times, the one multilateral institution that bears revamping, instead of letting it sink into irrelevance, is the World Health Organization. If the U.S. pulls out as threatened, that would leave China, Japan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International among the top funders. This may point to a new way to organize international cooperation generally on a “plurilateral” basis that includes key countries along with sub-national entities, civil society organizations and perhaps even the private sector.
The emergence of such reconstituted or parallel platforms as the old order disintegrates could be the transitional pivot to mission-oriented collaboration on pandemics and climate action that ultimately supplants the post-war institutions where they are least effective, an embryo of what is to come in an era with entirely different demands than the 1950s. Even where China and the U.S. are in conflict on so many other fronts, from freedom of expression to the South China Sea, their self-interest would seem to dictate a “partnership of rivals” where interests most converge — pandemics and climate.
In a departure from fully global institutions founded by the victors of a world war three-quarters of a century ago, this embryonic platform of narrow cooperation between the rival superpowers could be complemented by a coalition of willing nation-states beyond the big two that join together to keep the rest of multilateral cooperation afloat where possible.
Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, has floated a proposal, rooted in what he calls “pragmatic, Rooseveltian internationalism,” that goes in this direction. As he wrote in The Economist this week:
A core group of constructive powers among the G20 should act to reform, fund and politically defend the central institutions of global governance for the post-COVID era. These include the WHO, the World Food Program and the Food and Agricultural Organization (given uncertainty around the global food supply), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (given the as-yet-unknown impact on population movements) and the WTO.
This effort should be led by Germany, France, the European Union, Japan, Canada and possibly Britain (assuming Boris Johnson genuinely believes in a “global Britain”). They could be joined by others, such as Singapore, committed to maintaining an effective multilateral order as a global public good in its own right, rather than as a vehicle for the realization of narrow national interests.
He would call this group the “Multilateral 7,” or M7. Despite the flawed notion of the EU as a somehow unified entity and an echo of the sidelined Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, the idea appeals in what is otherwise a vacuum of leadership.
Rudd continues: “They should become the collective intellectual, policy and political secretariat of this multilateral rescue mission — if you like, its combined planning and operations staff. They should pool the diplomatic and financial resources necessary to advance unapologetically an agenda of keeping as much of the current multilateral system as functional as possible for as long as possible, until global geopolitics achieves a new equilibrium. Indeed, they could become the thin blue line that, for the interim at least, protects us against an increasingly anarchic world.”
Thus, what may be evolving is a three-fold architecture: global institutions of plurilateral cooperation, a partnership of rivals between the world’s two largest economies and a complementary coalition of the willing that salvages what remains valuable from the old multilateral order.
History has taught us that breakdowns that disrupt the inertia of the past must come before breakthroughs open to the future. It appears the coronavirus and the global lockdown have brought us to that brink that will force a redefinition of concepts of defense and a redesign of how international cooperation is configured. Since the proximate cause of the present upheaval is a threat common to all, the hope is that we can also find a common way forward. But, at this early stage, it is just a hope.