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Coronavirus Could Transform the International Order

Historic emergencies have produced great transformations in the international arena – towards nationalism and conflict or peace and multilateralism. Now is the time to decide what the legacy of coronavirus will be.

We now all accept we are going to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis a different society from the one that entered it. However, in our minds society is often imagined only along the lines of the nation. Many have already written about how this pandemic is going to change the politics and economics of Britain or other nation-states – but far fewer have thought about how the coronavirus may remake the international.

The international arena has taken a bit of a beating over the last decade, with a wave of nationalist populism sweeping through the globe driven by leaders who often scorn and disregard the established international community. In the 1990s, George H.W Bush celebrated the arrival of ‘a new world order’ where international institutions would help spread principles of capitalism, democracy and liberalism across the globe. The language of nationalism was dismissed to the mid-twentieth century as supranational and international institutions lit the torches that led us to the end of history. Yet recently, those same international and supranational institutions have looked redundant in the face of growing protectionism, authoritarianism and nativism.

The declining influence of international institutions was reinforced over the past month as the World Health Organisation (WHO) has seemingly been unable to effectively coordinate the response to coronavirus, its advice being repeatedly ignored by governments until it is too late. Now that we are seeing populist arguments that the answer to pandemics like Covid-19 is more borders, more walls and more division. Will the coronavirus crisis accelerate the decline of the international order? Or, as in the past, will a global crisis lead to a rebirth of arena of international law?

With international law as with Greek mythology, the god of chaos is understood to be the beginning of all things. Before the chaos of World War One, international laws were famously dismissed as nothing more than ‘a scrap of paper’ by German Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg. The violence of the war that followed led to the birth of an institutionalised model of international law, with the League of Nations providing an innovative attempt to ground international law within an organisational home. The League turned international law away from the positivism of the nineteenth century, no longer would the discipline be so focused on matters of statecraft like war or territory. It now took up the task of intervening in the everyday lives of the peoples within nations, making issues of health, hygiene and the moral standards of people into questions that would become the concern of international law.

The first major issue that faced the League was the last major pandemic to decimate the human population before our current crisis – the Spanish Flu. Established in 1919, the primary purpose of the League had been to stop the contagion of war spreading again, but the year of its birth saw Spanish Flu killing in people in even larger numbers than the Great War. In the aftermath of this virus, the League institutionalised the idea that global peace was no longer just a matter of relations between states but also dependent on the production of a ‘healthy’ ideal of human life. This included controls not only around poverty and drugs but also disease, with the League establishing its own Health Committee. After the creation of the United Nations in 1945, this committee would eventually become today’s World Health Organisation.

The WHO was tasked with promoting public health across the world as well as detecting and responding to acute health emergencies as they arrive. Fifteen years ago, the WHO published the International Health Regulations, an agreement between 196 countries which detailed how they would follow the WHO’s direction in its coordination of global responses public health event. The IHR were embedded within a particularly vision of globalisation including in Article 2, a commitment to ‘avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.’ Countries were supposed to refrain from unilateral travel bans in the event of a pandemic. Yet as soon as Covid-19 started spreading at least 72 countries implemented travel bans on outsiders, with only 23 of those countries even bothering to write the WHO an official report explaining their actions. 

In addition to travel bans, several leaders have resorted to nativist language in order to make sense of the pandemic. Trump has taken to calling Covid-19 ‘the china virus’. His friend and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has written about how he believes the virus offers us a chance to see that ‘it is time we all challenged China.’ On the European continent, where the death tolls are currently highest, Matteo Salvani and Marie Le Pen have called for the suspension of the Schengen area and the imposition of hard border.

These calls have come despite the WHO explaining that such limits on movement can have the knock-on effect of blocking the sharing of important medical resources and support. The League of Nations was supposed to be the start of a new institutionalised, individualised international law. A century later, why is the WHO, the international institution tasked with global public health, largely incapable of directing the response of national governments to Covid-19?

The truth is that, at least in part, international law has got itself to blame for its inadequacies. The fundamental contradiction of international law is that it claims a sovereign equality between all nations of the world while ruling over a materially unequal world. This was true when the League was established, with two-thirds of the globe still in colonial bondage. Yet even when those countries won their independence, the inequalities seemed to only increase. During the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, the rise of neoliberalism slowly reduced the role of the international arena to a narrow focus on economic matters.

The ambitions of international institutions regarding health, welfare or human rights have been placed below the requirement for international law to ensure that global capitalism can operate across borders without interruption from unpredictable national governments. International institutions which could pressure countries to adhere to free-market policies – the IMF, the World Bank and WTO – became the ones with real influence. Rather than reject the international, nativists like Trump, Farage or Bannon are actually bringing this narrow economic vision of the international to its full historical conclusion; they may shout loudly about their distaste for international law when referring to protections of refugee or environmental rights, but they will happily support global corporate and property protections. 

Coronavirus has thrown up questions about what form the international arena will take over the coming decades. When Trump calls Covid-19 the ‘Chinese disease,’ he is not only trying to connect the virus with migration and movement of ethnic ‘others.’ He is trying to project a world in which questions of health, poverty, disease are only the concern of the nation, limiting further the scope of international law. Trump’s vision still includes a network of international law and institutions that protect the trade and profits of transnational corporations (like his own hotel brand). But it is quiet on the more humanitarian concerns that crept into the discipline following the major crises of the twentieth century.

It may be successful, if we allow nativist politicians to present Covid-19 as God’s punishment for the movement of populations across the world in recent decades. But what if this is just the first of many pandemics? How does each nation individually confront a virus that has no regard for borders or identity with ever-greater restrictions between populations? There is also a chance that, as with the establishment of the League, this crisis forces us to reimagine the purpose of the international arena. If so, it would be wise for us to imagine an international law that goes beyond the protection of capital, and that is prepared to face not only the next pandemic, climate crisis or humanitarian disaster but also willing to confront how global trade produces the global inequalities that exacerbate, and in some cases cause, these disasters.

About the Author

Kojo Koram is a lecturer in Law at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written for The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Nation, Dissent and The Washington Post, and is the editor of The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line (Pluto Press 2019).