The Coronavirus Pandemic & International Relations, with Nikolas Gvosdev

March 18, 2020

Tehran's Azadi Tower lights in support of China against coronavirus, February 2020. CREDIT: Amin Yari (CC)

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today I'm speaking with Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev. He is also director of the U.S. Global Engagement Program and a professor of national security affairs at U.S. Naval War College.

Nick and I spoke about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on international relations. Will it increase international cooperation or will it lead to more competition and conflict? We also touched on Joe Biden's commanding lead in the Democratic primaries and how this crisis has affected the 2020 election.

As you can hear, we’re not in our usual set-up—we're both working from home and adjusting to our new reality for the time being.

For now, calling in from Rhode Island, here's Nikolas Gvosdev.

Thank you very much, Nick, for taking this call. This is a very different podcast than I'm used to. I'm sitting in my closet right now in Queens. We just had a little chat before. I'm glad to hear you're doing well and your family is doing well.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you. Yes, we're adjusting to new circumstances.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely.

We do have a lot to talk about. You have written an article for The National Interest over the weekend and a blog post for Ethics & International Affairs (EIA) yesterday I believe, thinking about coronavirus and international relations.

Your EIA blog post started off with a very simple premise, which is: How has coronavirus changed international relations, or how will it? What have you seen so far?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think what you're seeing is we are moving in two directions, and we don't know which of these trends is going to win out. One trend, of course, is for greater cooperation, which is that governments are reaching out, they're trying to work together, share information, find ways to combat the virus to ensure that it doesn't spread, to search for a vaccine, and so on. What we have seen on the one hand is that the virus and the pandemic—because it's a global problem; it outstrips the capacity of any one state necessarily to deal with it—creates conditions for governments to realize that they have to put aside differences that they may have in other areas to come together and work for a solution. That's one trend we're seeing.

But we're also seeing a second trend, which is a trend of disintegration, disaggregation, pulling back, borders going up, barriers going up, countries—often driven by the populations as well—wanting a greater sense of security, wanting to be able to feel that they are protected, and so they want to have a sense of barriers going up. They become more distrustful of travelers. They become distrustful of the various sinews of globalization.

People are also now dealing with the impacts of living with vulnerable supply chains. For the last 20–30 years the trend has been toward longer and longer supply chains with materials and components being sourced over long distances, and the sense, of course, that there were cost savings to be had for this. There was choice. We certainly see this in the agricultural sector, where the idea that one cannot have fresh fruit out of season no longer exists because fruit is always in season somewhere, and we have a global supply chain that can deliver it.

But now people are seeing the impact of these supply chain disruptions, so it's causing people to question if we want to retract some of those supply chains, bring them closer to home, become less dependent—particularly if it's understood to be a supply chain that connects with a country that has been hard hit by coronavirus, which has maybe interrupted its transport links as a result to try to combat it. Therefore we see these "butterfly effects" down the supply chain where shortages emerge or goods and services aren't available.

That is causing people to say, "Well, perhaps we should pay a premium in order to make sure that key products are being made closer to home, and if that means we don't get the cost savings of, say, cheaper labor in Southeast Asia or Chinese economies of scale for production, but we're sure that what we're producing is a 200-mile supply chain rather than a 4,000-mile one," that could be a trend moving forward.

Also this trend of disaggregation, the idea that for a number of years—and this has been a constant theme: "Well, the nation-state is disappearing. We're a globalized world. We're an international community." But all it takes is a crisis like this, and people don't turn to an international community, they turn to their national government, and increasingly it's the national government rather than the international community which is seen as the guarantor of their health and well-being. Part of that dependence on the national community is potential for seeing things in an us-and-them approach, which is: "We need to protect our people," and, by implication, others are not going to get help or others are the source of infection and contamination, and therefore they must be kept out. This is a real challenge again for the European project: Has Europe actually created a true transnational community, or does Europe continue to see trends where the nation reemerges as the focal point?

ALEX WOODSON: Turning to China for a minute, a huge story yesterday that might have gotten lost—very understandably—for many people is that China has announced—I'm not sure if it has done it yet, what the process is—they're going to expel journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. I don't know if you have looked at that too closely. I'm not sure if that's a harbinger of things to come or if that's an isolated episode, but it seems like a huge choice by the Chinese government.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It is. Again, it touches on these questions of a Chinese government that would prefer to conduct its policies with less, shall we say, "journalistic oversight," at least from key Western journalists but a sense also that China is going to do—the view of the Chinese Communist Party in particular—is that they are going to take the steps they feel that are necessary, and they don't want Western journalists there to observe, to challenge, or to dispute.

This expulsion is taking place amidst two other things from China. One is that, increasingly, the Chinese government now says that this virus did not originate in China. At least, some of the media and information outlets associated with the Chinese government are now making that claim: "This wasn't our fault."

The other thing, of course, is that China is making the claim that it has passed through the worst of this pandemic and is coming out, that things are returning to normal, that factories will be re-opening, and so on. Either they don't want that assessment to be subject to independent verification by Western journalists or they don't want Western journalists looking too closely at the measures they may have taken in order to do this.

Again, this is part of this "Are we all part of one global information sphere?" This Chinese action suggests it is a harbinger of: "Nope. We're looking at a separate information sphere where we"—the Chinese government, and more specifically the Chinese Communist Party—"wish to control information and narratives and not be subject to the vicissitudes of an international media environment."

ALEX WOODSON: We have talked a few times about some of these issues as they relate to climate change and how that is going to either increase international cooperation or make it more of an us-versus-them approach. This coronavirus pandemic is fast-forwarding the effects of climate change as far as I can see and may be giving us a preview of what the world is going to look like in five to ten years, assuming we can get past this pandemic in a year to 18 months. We could be seeing something similar with natural disasters, or who knows what could actually happen as the climate continues to change.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Exactly. I think this points to a flaw in reasoning on the part of some of the political figures that assumes the only way forward, when faced with pandemics and climate change and natural disasters, is around a path toward increased cooperation and burden-sharing. That's certainly one path, but it's not the only one.

We can easily see as these disasters continue that you're going to have pressure on national governments to husband resources, not to share, not to cooperate, and to want to reestablish barriers to fracture globalization, perhaps not giving up all the benefits of trade and globalization, but making it so that it doesn't necessarily have to encompass all 192-plus countries of the world, and where you would simply say: "There are regions of the world that we want to disconnect from that we associate with pandemics, disease, climate migrants, environmental stress," and so on.

It's a real telling issue that even before coronavirus burst onto the scene the way it has particularly in Italy and to a lesser extent in Spain, Germany, France, and elsewhere that the focal point in Europe was shifting away from a Russia threat back to the migration issue. Europeans are less worried—except in a few countries in Eastern Europe—about Russian political pressure and more about uncontrolled movements of people and wanting those movements stopped rather than saying, "Well, we're going to let people in" or "We're going to try to mitigate the consequences."

This could actually intensify rather than diminish competition among states and nations. The assumption I think people have had that the only way forward is going to be toward increased cooperation—that's one path, but we're also seeing how these crises can intensify competition, particularly if the idea is that a rival or competitor is more likely to be damaged by a pandemic, climate change emergency, extreme weather, droughts, and things of that sort. You may be less inclined to cooperate with them and more inclined to let those events knock your competitors down a couple of pegs or make them less likely to compete with you. I think that is something we do have to look at.

Again, there are ethical considerations back and forth. There is an assumption that one ethical path is toward cooperation, humanitarianism, and cosmopolitanism. People may not define this as "ethics" because of the way the term exists in popular understanding. But this idea of ethics—"Who is a duty owed to?"—in that sense, and something we have already seen over the last number of years with the rise of populist movements, the return of nationalism, and the like, is an ethics of policy that says, "Your ethical obligation is to your own and not to others," or that "Others are responsible for themselves and you are responsible only for your own."

In those conditions, as we're seeing and as we have seen with the travel bans; we've seen it with stopping movement of people, even from close allies, so that when the United States bans travel from Europe, from America's closest partners and allies. In turn when other countries, as we have seen in Central America, decide that they're going to implement a blanket prohibition on Americans entering their countries, that is driven by an ethics not of cosmopolitanism but an ethics of nationalism or an ethics of "Duties are owed only to your own people and not to others." Those are trends that could accelerate rather than diminish in the coming years.

ALEX WOODSON: To turn to American politics for a couple of minutes, we saw last night that Joe Biden won all three primaries that took place. Bernie Sanders, as we speak, is "assessing" his campaign. That could be language meaning his campaign is in its last stages. In any case, it looks like Bernie Sanders really doesn't have much of a path forward for the nomination.

The way I see it, it's pretty clear that many American people would think that Joe Biden is better able to handle a crisis. He has been there before in the White House. He has dealt with some of these pandemics, obviously nothing as bad as coronavirus. Is that how you read it too, or do you think this would have ended up in this situation no matter what?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think certainly Biden's candidacy was helped by this crisis—to the extent that this crisis can be described as "helping" anything—because it does highlight the importance of experience and the importance of having a background in these issues. Therefore, what we have seen in the surge toward Biden in the last week or so I think has been driven by a desire that people have for familiarity, a desire to have someone they think has experience and who knows the mechanics of government. So I think that's what we're seeing here.

One thing I would caution, though. As we have seen, some of this push back toward Biden has been driven by a sense that Joe Biden knows government or how government works. I wouldn't necessarily therefore say—my worry is that there would be people within the Biden entourage who would say, "If we're going to win the nomination, this obviously means that America wants to basically reset everything to the way it was prior to 2016, particularly on the foreign policy questions: "Well, this means Americans want," for example, "NATO enlargement. They want the Trans-Pacific Partnership brought back," and so on.

I think we have to draw a distinction between the appeal of Joe Biden as a candidate who is indicating, I have experience in government and how government works as opposed to Senator Sanders, who has been in the Senate but hasn't really been associated with policy implementation, and Donald Trump as the incumbent, who will have to run on a record of haphazard policy implementation. I think again drawing that distinction between Biden as policy implementer versus a Biden platform which Americans still may not be fully onboard with. As we are seeing, there are elements of the Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang platforms that are resonating more with Americans now, but the belief that Biden would be someone who is more likely to be able to implement policy more effectively than, say, a Bernie Sanders or an Andrew Yang would have.

ALEX WOODSON: It's interesting that you mention Andrew Yang. I was watching CNN last night, and he was on with Anthony Scaramucci. They were both completely in agreement that the federal government needs to do a lot more than the $1 trillion which I think they're proposing as a stimulus. Andrew Yang spoke at Carnegie Council two years ago, and to see his ideas and candidacy enter the mainstream—he says he has been in touch with people in the Trump administration as well, talking about how a universal basic income could work in a situation like this or maybe going forward as well.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Exactly. This again highlights the changes we are seeing. One of the things I'm looking at now is the impact that the coronavirus crisis is having on NATO, and one of the things that very clearly is coming out is a sense that: Will countries want to retain certain levels of defense spending, or will there be greater pressure to divert toward social welfare, guaranteeing a basic income, and so on. Ideas that didn't exist or weren't seen as something to be discussed a few years ago are now being floated as we enter into new ground.

I think that is one of the things we're going to all have to adjust to. This COVID-19 outbreak is forcing us to rethink assumptions about globalization, defense, travel, and trade, because this particular crisis may pass, but we're likely to see flare-ups and we're likely to see additional things of this nature, and I think increasingly we're going to have to have situations where countries and regions within countries may have to disconnect from larger wholes for periods of time, disconnecting from a global system or disconnecting from a national system, in order to protect the health of the population. Those kinds of disruptions are going to lead to real changes in what you think your budget priorities are. I think that is an interesting thing.

It would be interesting also then to compare what Yang said at Carnegie Council in the context of several years ago and then reevaluating it in terms of what's going on today.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely, yes. For all our listeners, we will be posting a link to that transcript and the video. It's a great conversation and happened before most people knew who Andrew Yang was, so I would encourage you to check that out.

One final question, a little bit unrelated to what we have been talking about, but is there any episode from the past that you find yourself thinking about that can be somewhat of a comparison to what we're going through today?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Not to overblow it, but really to look at what we were experiencing a century ago in the aftermath of World War I. Obviously there was a pandemic that occurred at the end of the war, the Spanish influenza outbreak, but also the idea that within a few short years because of the impact of World War I and of all of these changes, how much the world shifted.

There is an excellent book that I just finished reading, called Crucible: The Long End of the Great War and the Birth of a New World, 1917–1924. It looks at this period from the end of 1917 to 1924 and to realize the amount of change that had occurred in the world—changes in governments, changes in international order, changes in domestic societies, the technological change, the birth of mass communication in the early 1920s, the emergence of revolutionary movements on both the right and the left, the fact that all of these pillars of society that in 1913 appeared to be so unshakable 10 years later have all—the landmarks have changed, in some cases beyond recognition.

One of the things I was telling my students in 2019 was that I felt we were on the verge of another shift, that in 1989, 30 years before, we had the fall of the Berlin Wall, and look at all of the change that brought in. You started 1989 thinking the world was one way, and by the end of 1989 the world looked very different. I think we are moving into something where in 2019–2020 the world looked one way, and later on this year it may look like something very different.

ALEX WOODSON: A lot to think about. We have a lot of resources on 1919 as well and how that has affected the modern world, and we will post links to those resources too.

Thank you so much, Nick. This has been great. I'm happy to hear that you're doing well. Stay safe.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You too.

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