The pandemic has made global communitarianism more necessary and more elusive than ever. One would expect, according to theories expounded by social scientists as well as B-movies, that when the people of the world face a major, devastating, external threat, they would unite to fight it. However, the response to the global spread of a very harmful virus, COVID-19, has had the opposite effect. It is leading many countries—in particular, the global leader, the U.S.—to rely on their domestic policies, exacerbate the autocratic tendencies of their economies, and accentuate their populistic-driven nationalism. As Nick Gvosdev put it, "[t]he coronavirus pandemic is stress-testing a global system that was already beginning to crack."
To understand the reasons for the retreat from globalism, and its implications for the future of the global order, one needs to step back to the baseline and ask: What was the global order like just before the pandemic broke, and in what direction was it trending?
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, many believed that most, if not all, nations of the world would adopt a democratic regime and join the Liberal International Order (LIO). However, by the end of the 20th century, it became increasingly evident that this trend was not unfolding as expected. Recently, scholars have been asking whether the world was moving toward a multipolar, bipolar, or no-polar form.
I argued, in an article published in 2018, that, first of all, the LIO was never as liberal as its advocates hoped for and sometimes depicted. The LIO's key elements are free trade, human rights, and free movement of people, as well as reliance on global institutions. Trade, however, was never truly free, as nations protected their own farmers, nascent industries, and others with powerful lobbies, while also restricting imports and exports of various items for security reasons. Human rights were not respected by many nations, including not just China but also Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran, among others. All nations limited the free movement of people by restricting immigration to one extent or another.
As far as international organizations are concerned, the United Nations (UN) is considered the kingpin of the LIO. However, people often fail to distinguish between what they hope it to be and—what it actually is. The UN's main decision-making body, the Security Council, allows five nations to impose sanctions on any other nation, but no nation or combination of nations can impose a sanction on these five members of the Council, because they command a veto power. In effect, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and all the nations of Africa have little say in the Council. Resolutions issued by the UN's General Assembly have no enforcement power.
While international forums and organizations, especially international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), facilitate and contribute to the formation of transnational policies, most negotiations that lead to new shared policies have been carried out by national representatives. Hence, it is clear that power has rested mainly with national governments—even in the heyday of the LIO.
Over the last decade, before COVID-19, the trend was toward less globalization and an even greater reliance on national decision-making. The U.S. increased protectionism; limited immigration and travel; quit various international treaties; and reduced its support for international organizations, the UN included. European nations, opposed to the flow of immigration from one nation to the other, reinstated national borders. And the United Kingdom quit the European Union (EU).
The underlying sociological dynamic of these global events can be best understood by what happened in the EU—by far the most advanced attempt to form a post-national regime. The EU was founded like a typical inter-nation organization, by a treaty that requires unanimous agreement by all members, thus protecting their sovereignty. Successor treaties replaced unanimous decision-making with qualified majority voting in more and more areas of EU governance. Moreover, while originally the EU limited the areas in which its central authority, the European Commission, could involve itself, over the decades these areas have expanded greatly and involved issues that greatly affected the values and interests of the citizens of the member countries. For example, the Commission set the number of immigrants each nation must receive, ruled about the ways the nations managed their economies, and allowed citizens of one EU nation to work in others. These, and many other similar changes, contributed to the sense of sovereignty loss among member nations and their citizens. The result has been growing disaffection with the EU.
One can readily recognize the need for an increase in supranational governance, as many challenges that countries face cannot be handled by each nation on its own or by inter-nation governance, which is slow and cumbersome. However, the development of a supranational government must be preceded, or at least accompanied, by supranational community-building, in which people transfer the kind of commitments and involvement they have with their nation to the new body. Unfortunately, the EU has been unable to develop such a community, but has acted as if one is in place.
To illustrate: The West Germans granted the equivalent of a trillion dollars to the East Germans during the decade that followed reunification, with little hesitation. "They are fellow Germans" was the only explanation they needed. The same Germans resisted granting much smaller amounts to Greece and other EU nations in trouble. They were not members of "our tribe." The power of communal bonds at the national level is most clearly seen in the fact that, although millions of people are willing to die for their nation, few are willing to sacrifice much of anything for the EU. The populist, right-wing movements in the EU are fueled, to an important extent, by European leaders' disregard of the fact that most Europeans' first loyalty and sense of identity is still invested largely in their nation. One can readily argue that these feelings are obsolete. However, as long as leaders continue to fail in forming supranational communities, advancing post-nationalistic, "globalisitic" policies will continue to help engender a strong pushback, mainly in the form nationalism.
The same developments that occurred in the EU also took place on the global level, only on a much lower scale. The LIO, despite rhetoric to the contrary, in effect has included rather few measures of supranationalism, resulting in few "violations" of national sovereignty. However, people increasingly felt as though more and more power has been invested in the UN, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, and other international organizations. Meanwhile, regrettably, the sense of a global community continues to be very weak.
The essentiality of community building in supranational governance was contested by neo functionalists like Ernst B. Haas. In his 1961 paper, "International Integration: The European and the Universal Process," Haas theorized that economic and administrative integration is sufficient to engender community building. In his analysis, as more decisions affecting more interests are moved to supranational governing bodies, more citizens' allegiances will shift from the national to the supranational level. If this were true, there would be no need for engaging in community building per se, as the formation of a supranational community would be the result of successful economic and administrative integration.
In Political Unification Revisited: On Building Supranational Communities (2001), I showed that the neo functionalists underestimate the import of national identity and emotive group attachments in citizens' perceptions of political legitimacy. Hedley Bull's book, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (originally published in 1977), famously distinguishes between a system of states and a society of states—the latter being akin to what is often referred to as an international community—and suggests that such a community exists. In contrast, I hold that, to the extent that such a community exists, it is insufficient to support the rise in supranational governance and its normative design.
The sudden spread of COVID-19 in early 2020 has amplified the trend toward a less globalist, more nation-centered world. International organizations, especially the World Health Organization, have played a role in fighting the pandemic, however it has been a small one. Nations have reached out to help each other, e.g., China shipped medical supplies to Greece and Venezuela. However, these were acts based on inter-nation relations, not international—let alone supranational—governance. Scientists have collaborated across borders to some extent; however, this cooperation has primarily occurred among individuals.
The main trend has been for governments to introduce major nationalistic policies. Nations closed their borders to citizens of other nations (or, if they allowed them in, they required two weeks of self-quarantining). Each nation followed its own health and economic policies. In effect, many nations sought to beggar the other, by prohibiting exports of medical supplies and seeking monopoly rights on vaccines developed in other nations. Countries moved to produce at home many items previously imported from other nations. These included not merely medical supplies and medications but also computer chips and 5G phone exchanges, among others. This intensified the trend away from less managed trade, toward industrial policies and autocratic economies.
The LIO's responsibility to protect (RtoP) policy, which defined the conditions under which it is legitimate for foreign powers to use force to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations—for the sake of endangered individuals, was already much weakened before the pandemic. RtoP suffered a serious setback when the West ignored a brutal ethnic cleansing by the regime in Myanmar, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya. The violence included the rapes of many women; left villages burned to the ground; and nearly 1 million refugees living in camps in Bangladesh. In response, the leaders and main supporters of the LIO took no action, further undermining the credibility of RtoP.
Where do we go from here? The answer depends in part on the results of the 2020 elections, because, if President Trump is reelected, he is very likely to continue his neo-isolationist policies. Because the U.S. has been the mainstay of the LIO, this development alone might go a long way to extend current trends toward a more nation-centered world order. Some believe that China may step in and fill the vacuum the U.S. is leaving behind. However, as I have spelled out elsewhere, China has neither the capabilities nor the ambition to replace the U.S. as a world leader. Additionally, whatever order China would promote would not be a liberal order.
If Joe Biden is elected, he may well seek to rebuild international alliances and global institutions, a position he has declared in the past and recently. However, he will face strong opposition to such moves from many voters, as well as from other governments that continue to face strong nationalist movements at home. Once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, and once it is widely available (which will take longer than many expect), the world may be ready for a measured return to higher levels of globalism. There are many challenges that call for such a change in global order. However, the evidence shows that all such changes in policies will need to be preceded, or at least accompanied, by building a global sense of community.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.