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Global Cooperation in the Time of COVID-19

October 05, 2020
Alice Ba, Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina, et al


COVID-19 is pushing countries and communities to the brink. How is the pandemic playing out in different regions and countries, and will this collective global challenge facilitate a cooperative global response—or just the opposite? Experts from across the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation weigh in.

Alice Ba on ASEAN

As if Southeast Asian states needed more on ASEAN’s plate. The South China Sea. U.S. trade wars and pressures. Climate change. The intensifying geopolitics of the dying Mekong and its challenges to interdependent states and lives along it. And of course, for Southeast Asian states, the no-win, growing challenge of U.S.-China conflict marked by both the rapidity with which the relationship has deteriorated and its seeming ability to touch every other challenge confronting the region. But sure, let’s add a global pandemic to it too.

ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten countries in Southeast Asia—is no stranger to crisis. As many note, the region’s prior experience with SARS—another borders-transcendent infectious disease involving a novel coronavirus linked to China—may help explain why some ASEAN states, compared to more resourced states like the United States, were relatively more prepared, mentally and politically, for the challenge presented by COVID-19. This includes Vietnam, who serves as ASEAN’s chair this year. While foreign to ASEAN governments and societies in 2003, the idea of a health pandemic was not foreign in 2020. Post-SARS channels of communication also meant that ASEAN health and economic officials were tracking the crisis as early as January 2020.

As a crisis, however, COVID-19 still stands out. In contrast to SARS, this time, the pandemic is global. This time, it’s not just Asian economies in the middle of intra-Asian production networks that are disrupted, it’s critical markets beyond Asia at the end of the supply chain. The body blow to the U.S. economy is felt globally but perhaps most of all in Southeast Asia, where international trade constitutes a disproportionate percentage of GDP.

Compounding the crisis of blunted global demand is the local one—COVID-19’s effects on small- and medium-sized enterprises that sustain local communities and domestic employment. Disruptions to tourism add to that challenge. Thus, COVID-19 is an economic crisis, not just a health crisis. And as ASEAN states know (too well), economic crises can quickly spill over into political ones.

Thus, for many in ASEAN, the crisis that may be most comparable to COVID-19 in its political resonance is not SARS, but the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis—another fast-moving crisis that, in that instance, led to domestic instability, destabilizing more than one government. In fact, it is a measure of its importance that COVID-19 has overshadowed some of the more contentious issues, such as the South China Sea, on which there has been little diplomatic activity on items like the Code of Conduct for nearly a year.

The geopolitical challenges presented by a rising China and their associated intra-ASEAN challenges have not gone away. In fact, COVID-19 has not stopped China’s military maneuvers or administrative actions in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, U.S.-China competition coupled with the Trump administration’s assault on multilateralism, including the World Health Organization and other global health cooperative efforts, has added an unwanted layer of challenge to states’ response to COVID-19 in much the same ways it has the South China Sea.

Is anything surprising?  For Southeast Asian states, what is surprising is just how badly the United States has handled the crisis at home. U.S. domestic mismanagement has serious consequences for everyone else, and is a potent reminder (and not the only one) that it is dangerous to overly rely on one country to provide global leadership. The failure of the United States underscores the need for more multilateralism and more regionalization, not less.

For those in Southeast Asia, a lesson of the Asian financial crisis was that the region needed to regionalize surveillance and public policy (as well as financial) mechanisms with other Asian states beyond global institutions like the IMF, catalyzing cooperation especially under the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) framework. After SARS, the lesson and consequence was the regionalization of health networks as necessary supplements to global processes like the WHO, including the ASEAN Risk Assessment and Risk Communication Center, the Network for Public Health Emergencies, the Biodiaspora Regional Virtual Centre Regional Public Health Laboratories Network, and an APT Field Epidemiology Training Network.

Today, COVID-19 is creating the same pressures for regional and multilateral expanded efforts, including a COVID-19 ASEAN response fund. There’s even talk of an ASEAN Centers for Disease Control. Officials are also redoubling attention to economic cooperation through frameworks like the ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN Single Window, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

No doubt, the current confluence of health, economic, and geopolitical crises will challenge ASEAN, and multilateralism in general. COVID-19 also limits, like no other prior crisis, opportunities for informal diplomacy, which is ASEAN’s strength. And true to ASEAN fashion, the approach to tackling COVID-19 will likely be incremental. But past experience suggests that global challenges tend to produce more regionalization, not less. And the region’s response to today’s crisis will be built on the foundations—the lessons, the institutions, and the systems—of crises past.

Alice D. Ba is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware.

Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina on Mexico and the United States

Like many other heads of state, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the popular and imposing President of Mexico, knew the COVID-19 pandemic was inevitably going to reach his country. Aware of what was happening in Europe and several U.S. cities, most notably New York, where at least half a million Mexicans reside, the pressing question is why, like President Donald Trump, AMLO failed to act swiftly and effectively.

Both Trump and AMLO had wreaked havoc on their countries’ healthcare systems prior to the arrival of the virus. In the United States, President Trump led a sustained campaign against Obamacare, weakening many of its provisions. In Mexico, AMLO demolished the “Seguro Popular” healthcare program that had been instituted during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006), creating a new institution designed to consolidate the purchase of medicines, which unfortunately led to shortages in 2019.

More importantly, however, for both leaders, COVID-19 represented a distraction from their planned trajectory. For the man in the White House, the pandemic had the potential to take away the limelight from his record on jobs and the economy (his strongest reelection argument). For the man in the National Palace, it could perhaps get in the way of kick starting his social programs and ambitious construction projects like the Maya intercity railway train and the Dos Bocas oil refinery.

In the taped Bob Woodward interviews, President Trump said he intentionally downplayed the severity of COVID-19 to avoid a mass panic. Perhaps President López Obrador was implementing a similar strategy, but both leaders seemed to preach disdain for the virus rather than moderate caution.

“The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States,” Trump said during a White House press conference on March 11. At around the same time, on March 20, AMLO pointed to his fight against corruption as the answer to all of his country’s ills, including the pandemic, expressing his disagreement with the isolation measures stating that “we must not freeze.” He declared that he was “calm, there is governance, we have reserves, a lot of money, because we have managed well, because there are healthy public finances, because there is no corruption and because there are no superfluous, unnecessary expenses.”

Trump and AMLO sharply diverge when it comes to their handling of the economy.

President Trump and Congress injected a huge sum of money into the economy—almost a quarter of the country’s GDP or $5.4 trillion of goods and services.

AMLO, on the other hand, has refused to increase public spending, push tax cuts, or take any substantial measures to boost failing businesses. So far, the virus has deepened the economic crisis generated by the “Republican Austerity” policies practiced by his administration. The Mexican leader’s response has been driven in part by ideology but also, according to Mexican analyst Viridiana Ríos, a fear of criticism from the right regarding the “inevitable” creation of debt by a leftist government.

Like their neighbors to the North, Mexicans will likely suffer the consequences of an ideological paralysis. Experts estimate the economy could contract between 10 and 12 percent. Ángel Gurría, the Mexican director of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), wrote: “The pandemic overtook Mexico at a difficult time. The national economy had been suffering the effects of the 2019 contraction.” Mexico will likely undergo additional suffering. Its economic contraction could push more than 10 million Mexicans into poverty, according to estimates by the National Counsel for Social Development Policy (CONEVAL).

Both Trump and AMLO could have done a better job to alleviate the worst effects of the pandemic on their people. They seemed to tackle the virus, at least initially, as an inconvenience and not the lethal enemy that it is.

Rafael Fernández de Castro is a professor at the School and director of its Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies (USMEX).

Kelsey Jack on Global Development

The toll of COVID-19 on global development is extremely heterogeneous—some countries are being hit very hard by a combination of high virus transmission rates and/or very aggressive policy responses. The biggest toll of Covid-19 is going to be on the poor, unsurprisingly. It will likely be the result of some combination of mis-matched policy restrictions, combined with the macroeconomic flows that in turn affect commodity prices, trade flows, and access to markets.

The way the U.S. has dealt with the pandemic, and the likely lasting impacts on our economy, has the potential to upset the entire world order. The United States’ position as the globally dominant country was already precarious. This may be the thing that topples it. The combination of what is likely to be a very serious and long-lasting recession in this country and the potential struggle to maintain a global position, probably will not result in generous development policy. The combination of those two things is probably going to distract pretty heavily from any serious positive influence on global development from the United States.

Three things are crucial in terms of development cooperation and global institutions. One is that economies are extremely globalized. Even in rural Zambia where I’m working, farmers are selling commodities priced ultimately by the global market. When the global economy falls, even the most rural farmer in Zambia is affected by it. What that means is that it’s important for the global economy to grow and for it to recover for everybody.

Second, we are all so interdependent; if major global players continue to suffer, it’s going to have implications for everybody. Aid flows and development assistance and development cooperation, done and coordinated in an efficient way, is going to be really crucial. Getting that to the places where it’s most needed is crucial. A dollar in the hand of developing country communities is more useful than a dollar in the hands of a richer community and a richer country. That is particularly true right now.

The third thing is, there has been a knee-jerk reaction by donors to redirect a lot of investment toward COVID. That is short sighted. Now more than ever, continuing to invest in the recovery of institutions and investments we know have long-run payoffs—like basic health care, education—is essential. How do we get kids back in school as soon as possible? How do we make sure that women are not afraid to come to the clinic to give birth because of COVID? This is where the real risks arise—if those types of things stop working in developing countries, not if personal protective equipment is in the village. If I were a social planner, I would encourage development cooperation to keep priorities set on the big, fundamental development investments.

So far, COVID-19 appears to be hindering, rather than facilitating, global cooperation. The British who have been an amazing source of support both directly and indirectly to global development have now embedded DFID with their foreign office, which is leading to an enormous contraction around the world. That is one very salient instance of this, but that’s going to be happening all over.

There is a conversation happening right now that suggests that policy responses and cooperation around COVID-19 can inform thinking and action on climate change, a critical area in global development. While there are probably some things to learn, there are some things that are not particularly generalizable or suggest challenges. One is, as a private actor, the benefit to me of going outside without a mask is potentially large, and the cost are small. The private cost/benefit tradeoff with climate change is very different. For me to take public transportation instead of driving my car is quite inconvenient, and I get effectively none of the gain. Whereas with COVID-19, maybe the costs are still quite high in some cases, like staying home from work, but I recoup a lot more of the benefits, because the virus is a local externality. It’s increasing transmission in my immediate vicinity. Whereas carbon is a global public good, distributed around the world. The fact that it’s been so hard and so costly to do preventative policy in the case of COVID-19, where the behavior change is relatively easy to justify to the individual, highlights the challenge of climate. That said, it’s not above our capabilities to do preventative policy, which is a good thing.

Kelsey Jack is an associate professor in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and director of the Poverty Alleviation Group at the Environmental Market Solutions Lab (emLab).

Christina Schneider on the European Union

By the end of August 2020, over 2 million cases of COVID-19 and 180,000 COVID-related deaths were reported in the European Union (EU). As the COVID-19 pandemic started to ripple through Europe, with devastating effects for public health and national economies, many Europeans turned to the European Union (EU) hoping for a coordinated response to stop the virus from spreading and to help nations’ economic recovery. The initial response disappointed many. Not only was there no EU-wide policy coordination to address the public health crisis, the negotiations about a recovery fund for affected countries have been acrimonious and unlikely to succeed.

There are many reasons why one might be concerned about future European cooperation in light of these failures, but three stand out. First, although the EU has very little competencies in public health, and is therefore ill-equipped to coordinate the policy response to the pandemic, publics have largely assumed that it does and have criticized it for not taking actions that it cannot legally take without support from the 27 capitals in the Union. Second, extreme right-wing and Eurosceptic parties have further inflamed the debate by using Brussels as a scape goat for domestic problems. Third, to further extenuate the challenge to find compromise between 27 governments with oftentimes diametrically opposed policy preferences, the debates around the COVID-19 recovery fund have been further hampered by the long-standing rift between Northern and Southern European countries about financial burden-sharing.

Is European cooperation bound to fail? For some, the failures of the EU to address the crisis more comprehensively doesn’t bode well for future European integration. For experts on European Union politics, however, the current developments look very familiar. Time and time again, the EU faced serious crises and was declared dead. And time and time again, it not only survived the crises, but emerged more integrated as a result.

Although it is too early to draw definite conclusions, there are a number of positive developments, which provide reasons to be hopeful for European integration. Against all odds, the pandemic did not fuel Eurosceptic sentiments throughout most of Europe. To the contrary, public opinion polls indicate that Europeans are demanding more solidarity among governments and have increased their support to delegate more competencies to the EU to deal with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Defying expectations, the EU showed remarkable economic solidarity. It agreed to repurpose structural funds, temporarily loosened state-aid rules, provided new funding for medical research, adopted monetary policy measures through the European Central Bank, and negotiated a recovery fund. The recovery fund was much smaller than proposed, but the final compromise is still a milestone in European cooperation. It gives the EU unprecedented competencies to borrow hundreds of billions on the financial markets to distribute it as budgetary support for member states. Whether this is enough to stem the economic crisis is uncertain, but it does offer hope that Europe is committed to solidarity and cooperation.

Christina Schneider is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at UC San Diego and member of the IGCC Steering Committee.

Etel Solingen on nuclear weapons

The threat of nuclear war may not be in anybody’s mind while coping with COVID-19. Or perhaps it is, especially as—superimposed on the confinements—fires rage and smoke-induced eclipses conjure up analogies to a nuclear winter? Either way, the Doomsday Clock posted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands at “Within 100 Seconds Of Midnight” in 2020, citing the existential dangers of nuclear war and climate change, compounded by cyber-enabled information warfare. This is the closest to Doomsday we have been since the Bulletin’s proverbial clock was conceived in 1947. Where do these heightened concerns come from? In my view, building on previous work on Nuclear Logics, concerns emanate from the deterioration of the broader international context within which the nuclear proliferation regime is embedded. While some of those concerns predated COVID-19, pandemic time has reinforced them.

First, an open global economy has been under threat, especially since 2016. Why does that matter for the non-proliferation regime you may ask? Because internationalizing models and regions thriving in an integrating global political economy had made the quest for nuclear weapons less likely in recent decades. Indeed, the impressive expansion of global markets and underlying international institutions in the 1990s undermined nationalist, populist, mercantilist, inward-looking models. That expansion also bolstered internationalizing models around the world, facilitating landslide Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ratifications and leading to nearly full NPT membership. More countries renounced nuclear weapons and programs than tried to acquire them during that promising era.

Fast forward, and Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, and other processes turbo-charged the rise of inward-looking populist movements and politicians around the world. Historically, new nuclear aspirants have been more likely to emerge in domestic and regional contexts dominated by such models. The Trump administration’s trade and tech wars had already unleashed serious blows to the global economy and COVID-19 exacerbated concerns with supply chains, especially in medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. This one-two punch has deepened uncertainty about the future of the global economy as we knew it. Indeed, together they have engendered the most significant test for the resilience and durability of global supply networks, the underbelly of global integration. This tenuous conjuncture is the subject of a project I organized under IGCC sponsorship, bringing together UC faculty and students along with overseas experts (Geopolitics, Global Supply Chains, and International Relations in East Asia, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press).

Second, the Trump administration’s inward-looking model has not only led to trade wars and protectionism but has also weakened U.S. alliances. Historically, those alliances lowered incentives to proliferate, especially as allies were also partners in advancing global economic integration. The signals from the Trump administration’s “America First” have been equivocal at best and hugely disruptive at worst. Trump himself prodded some allies to develop their own deterrent and to fend for themselves, from Asia to Europe, so as to allegedly lower the costs of protection for the U.S. This approach only deteriorated under COVID-19, as budgets now compete with unprecedented domestic needs.

Third, while the Putin era had restored a rabid populist hyper-nationalism in Russia for decades, inward-looking populism resurged in China only more recently, under Xi Jinping. The superpower troika—Putin, Trump, Xi—has managed to undermine cooperation on nonproliferation; unravelling arms control agreements; eroding consensus on the NPT; modernizing their nuclear and missile arsenals; and glorifying nuclear weapons (each leader pursuing bigger nuclear “buttons” or, in Trump’s recent disclosure to Bob Woodward, “we have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before”).

Under the Trump administration, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review upgraded the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy; the U.S. withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; and it has signaled that it won’t renew the Obama-era New Start strategic nuclear weapons treaty when it expires in 2021. Such an ominous development, never seen in 50 years, would leave the world bereft of a single nuclear disarmament agreement between the U.S. and Russia, even as their nearly 13,000 warheads still stand. Failures to reduce their arsenals (known as “vertical nuclear proliferation”) violate nuclear-weapons-states’ commitments made in Article 6 of the NPT: to phase out their own massive arsenals in exchange for others’ renouncing nuclear weapons altogether. Trump also retreated from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and, in the process, strengthened the most inward-looking factions within Iran, yet another authoritarian regime emboldened by a particularly high incidence of COVID-19 deaths,  triple the number reported by the government, according to the BBC. Trump’s lovefest with Kim Jong Un has yielded only more North Korean tests. And finally, COVID-19 has forced the postponement of the 2020 NPT review conference, at a time of high frustration with the treaty.

Internationalizing models have been an important firewall against the diffusion of nuclear weapons over the years. COVID-19 has generated further economic crisis, weakened economic openness, and revived inward-looking models, heightening existing strains in the NPT regime. But international relations are not pre-determined; it would be premature to conceive of our current world/time as prelude for the long run. The human and economic costs of this COVID-19 crisis could generate entirely new political dynamics, exhausting extremist politics and triggering efforts to restore cooperation and economic openness. It might, one hopes, help develop better tools to defeat common plagues that—like nuclear weapons—are entirely man-made.

Etel Solingen is Distinguished Professor and Thomas T. and Elizabeth C. Tierney Chair in Peace Studies at the University of California Irvine. She leads IGCC’s Great Power research group on the role of design and production networks in East Asia’s international relations.

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