Historically, the consequences of pandemics have always been ground-shifting. With drastic increases in mortality and morbidity, they have led to significant economic, social and political disruption on a global scale. Pandemics recorded in history such as the plague of 1720, cholera in 1820 and Spanish flu in 1920 have challenged and changed societies, and state behaviours. The coronavirus-driven pandemic will not be an exception.
The coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China, on 31 December 2019. After only a few months, on 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak a pandemic. The situation seemed stark: one French diplomat, Michel Duclos, made a clear assertion at the onset of the outbreak: “The full economic, cyclical and structural effects are not quite visible yet, but, in any case, they will be gigantic.”
Covid-19 is exposing and accelerating geopolitical tensions and rivalries. It has already shifted interstate dynamics and behaviours. To forecast the scale of these transformative changes, analysis of 21st century epidemics such as SARS or MERS is not enough, as the relatively small scale of these means they offer only limited guidance in understanding the global implications of this pandemic.
Challenges to the state and the market
There have been early indications of a shift in supply chains and economic connectivity worldwide, as states have acted in a stronger and more control-oriented manner in their efforts to manage the spread and shocks of the disease. All states have adopted emergency measures to manage the crisis. Often, these responses have not been adequately planned and synchronised.
The huge economic losses the pandemic has engendered are seen as justifying these inward-looking and protective policies. However, this has also resulted in a rise in isolationism, anti-immigration sentiment and institutionalised racism. A sharp rise in nationalism and xenophobia was evident even before the covid-19 outbreak. For instance, the US was already struggling with political and cultural polarisation backed by massive inequalities in income, wealth, education and health care. When covid-19 wove through the class lines of the US, it disproportionately affected minority groups.
Meanwhile, international markets and businesses are struggling to sustain globalisation. Extended periods of economic self-isolation are forcing governments and companies to find new coping mechanisms. Rising Chinese labour costs, the China–US trade war and advances in technology meant that “traditional” global supply chains were already under threat. Covid-19 lockdowns have increased the enormity of these losses, according to Guan et al. (2020), writing on “Global Supply-Chain Effects of COVID-19 Control Measures”. Companies have been compelled to shrink their previously multistep, multinational supply chains in order to survive. In Bangladesh, according to Dutta (2020) (“Covid-19: An Impending Threat for Bangladesh”), not only has the supply chain of raw materials to readymade garments been disrupted but also global buyers’ demand for such products has dropped significantly.
Challenges to migrants
The pandemic has disproportionately affected the vulnerable and marginalised segment of the population, including migrants and refugees. The vulnerabilities of international migrants, who number around 272 million, have worsened under covid-19, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). As governments attempt to “flatten the curve” of infections, by means of travel restrictions, entry prohibition or even closing borders, migration and mobility have slowed significantly. Refugees are bound by mobility restrictions, with IOM and UNHCR temporarily suspending resettlement programmes.
Changes in global politics
The pandemic has reinforced existing challenges of unequal power dynamics and tensions among states in relation to regional interconnectedness. India has taken the initiative to reassert its leadership in South Asia, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi convening a video conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation states to collectively fight the threats the covid-19 has brought about. However, South Asian collaboration has weakened in recent times, primarily as a result of India–Pakistan tensions. Some countries have started looking beyond South Asia for inspiration, according to Adhikari (2020) (Responding to Covid-19: The Coming of Age of Regionalism in Asia?”
Globally, there has been a shift in the “balance of power” from the West to the East, which may point to the creation of a multipolar world. In Asia, South Korea and Singapore have responded ably to the crisis; China has followed suit, reacting efficiently after early missteps. Counterparts in Europe and North America have been rather more haphazard in their approaches. China and South Korea, which used to be recipients of aid, are now assisting the World Health Organization as well as Italy and other European countries to cope with covid-19. Médecins Sans Frontières, whose assistance has historically been delivered mostly in poor and conflict areas, is now deploying medical camps in Brussels and other locations in developed countries (see Igoe and Chadwick, 2020, “After the Pandemic: How Will COVID-19 Transform Global Health and Development?”
The post-pandemic liberal order
The pandemic is reshaping the liberal world order established in the wake of World War II. Multilateralism and international legal regimes are coming under threat. Isolationist and inward-looking policies are gaining ground in many of the countries that were the forerunners of the liberal order. Even the European Union project is under scrutiny, having failed to meet its own principles of solidarity and cooperation in the early stage of the crisis.
Meanwhile, with some states using this crisis as an instrument to assert power, the international institutional architecture is in a dilemma, with the impartial status of international organisations coming into question. The multilateral financial system, led by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is failing to share resources equally. The global rules-based open and free economy, centred in the World Trade Organization and regional trade agreements, is losing its relevance with the rise of protectionism.
According to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 2020, “The pandemic has prompted an anachronism, a revival of the walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement of people.”
It is increasingly felt that a focus on regional, trans-regional and sub-regional cooperation could provide a way out of the inertia regarding the great collaborative initiatives of the past. There is a need to adapt to this new arena; in particular, diplomatic practices should look to change instruments, apparatus and machinery by moving towards innovation and Artificial Intelligence-enabled approaches.
Foreign policy implications for Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s foreign policy has been built on the concept of “Friendship to all, malice to none,” as envisioned by the country’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The aim is for the country to pursue multi-layered and interdependent partnership with its neighbours and beyond. Bangladesh embraces the principles of sovereignty and equality. It strives towards non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and for peaceful resolution of all disputes and adherence to international law and the United Nations Charter. The nation endeavours to engage in regional and global discourses on critical issues such as sustainable development, migration, climate change, the blue economy, maritime cooperation and human security. Its policies drive towards building alliances in a competitive and national interest-driven world and balancing geopolitical and geostrategic interests.
In considering ways to rethink diplomacy in the face of the global pandemic, at the World Economic Forum 2020 Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “As the world tackles such a complex scenario, we will need a new kind of approach: an approach that fosters cooperation and not isolation amongst all stakeholders.” She presented a five-point proposal on multilateralism and interstate relationships in the future:
1. New thinking on human wellbeing, climate change governance, migration and inequalities;
2. Pro-people and pro-planet business and industry;
3. Use of technology to build a better world;
4. Robust global leadership to reenergise multilateralism and partnership; and
5. A global compact to share responsibility.
When rethinking diplomacy in the covid-19 context, critical strategic thinking and management are crucial. In assessing the geopolitical twists and turns in Asia, Bangladesh must remain pragmatic and balanced, pursuing national interests without abandoning its international obligations. After all, diplomacy has always been about strategically managing the unthinkable, the unknown and the unknowable factors in interstate relations to protect national interests and people as well as the planet.
In any innovative diplomatic strategy, proactive engagement with global powers and international initiatives will be of the utmost importance for leadership that is open and progressive. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has so far demonstrated success in balancing between the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative, and this effort must be effectively sustained. Efforts to build co-leadership will help Bangladesh better strategise when it comes to the global discourse on critical global issues such as the Sustainable Developments Goals, maritime security, migration and climate change.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu