In my last piece, I mentioned in the conclusion that what will make of the post Covid-19 era will depend on how states choose to behave in the aftermath. The purpose of this current work is, therefore, to expatiate on my argument that we can only understand how international relations will look like only by understanding how states choose to behave. This is contrary to other views predicting in certain terms how a post covid-19 era international system will look like. But how exactly will international relations look like in the post covid-19 period?
Analysts have largely concluded that the world will not emerge from the covid-19 pandemic the same. For instance, contributors to a special covid-19 Insight Report (May 2020) of the World Economic Forum writing on different sectors seem to agree on one thing – that the world is going to see an irreversible change in the post covid-19 era. One of the contributors, Sharan Burrow, General-Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation would, for example, posit that “COVID-19 will be remembered as the virus that stopped the world.” This is an interesting assertion because the one who stops another may also have the capacity to redirect its course. How then will international relations be redirected in the post covid-19 era? I address this question by pointing out four key elements of what states typically engage in when we refer to international relations – foreign policy, international cooperation, peace and security and finally trade.
Foreign policy: A country’s foreign policy is the totality of its ideological and practical relationship with all other states. Usually foreign policy is driven by the President through the ministry in charge of foreign affairs and carried out together with diplomatic missions abroad. As a rule, foreign policy is at all times guided by the national interest of the state in question and strategies are adopted to ensure achievement of those interests. Because interests typically change, states usually change their strategies toward specific states or regional organizations depending on what is of interest at a point in time. For instance, the United States and the Soviet Union were friends fighting side by side against a common enemy during World War II but immediate slipped into enemies right after the war. This means the American Foreign policy toward the Soviet Union in both instances would be different. In the same vein during the 2010/2011 Ivorian post-election violence, the then President of Ghana, when questioned by the media about Ghana’s slow response to what was happening to its western neighbour, President John Atta Mills responded by saying “Dzi wo fie asem” meaning “mind your own business.” This was a foreign policy statement which meant it was not in the interest of Ghana to intervene in Cote d’Ivoire at the time. It is interesting to note that following the Great Depression in the 1930s Germany decided to go to war. Other states responded and that resulted in World War II. After the war the US and the Soviet Union got engage in ideological and arms race which also resulted in the Cold War. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the US decided to go to war (later referred to as the war on terror). From a historical perspective, events that have happened to the world are usually separable from the response of states following those events. Following this precedent, I suggest that states foreign policy options will change but will largely depend on their own response to the pandemic.
International cooperation: Apart from foreign policy where states pursue their individual national interest, states also work together to achieve a common goal. This is called international cooperation. All the international organizations we can think of – the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the African Union etc., regional economic communities – such as the European Union, ECOWAS, East Africa Community (EAC) etc. and all bilateral relations – such as between Ghana and Nigeria or Ghana and the United Kingdom, all fall under international cooperation. The work of the World Health Organisation during the covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how important it is for states to cooperate. The pandemic has also helped step up technological and health cooperation in the past few months. However, in the same past few months, citizens all over the world have learned an important truth the very hard way – that when it becomes a matter of life and death they can only turn to their national government for protection. All that Ghanaians have come to know in this crisis, for instance, is not ECOWAS neither is it the African Union but the government of Ghana working to protect them. Thankfully, African leaders appear to have gotten it right this time. Every country is taking drastic measures to protect citizens. What this means is that in return, states are likely to claim greater sovereignty over their citizens – thereby weakening already fragile intergovernmental organizations. Greater responsibilities may lead states to demand greater rights over their citizens.
The example of the European Union even makes this more instructive. When Italy and France were hit by the pandemic, the EU remained largely absent, with each country stumbling over what was the best means to contain the virus within their borders. One of the first measures taken across all EU countries was to close borders – destabilizing the long-guarded European free-trade area. Germany and France initially refused to export medical equipment to Italy when Italy was hard hit. Later on when Italy and France requested that Covid-19 related cost be shared among EU countries, the request was heavily resisted by a greater section of the community led by Germany and the Netherlands. Though relations within the EU and other international organizations have improved since these initial blunders, the Covid-19 era is still reminiscent of the inter-war period where states abandoned the League of Nations and driven by self-interests, got driven into WW II. While we will not see an international war, we are likely to see an intensified pro-nationalist rise against regional integration and even cooperation in general. States will be guided by caution when deciding how much of their sovereignty should be given up for the common good.
Yet, when all is said and done, it is still about how exactly states are going to respond in the post covid-19 era. That is still very difficult to predict now. But remember, it is always useful to separate the event from the response. For example, we can separate the Great Depression of the 1930s from the response of states in the form of WWII; and also separate 9/11 as an event from the response of the West in the form of the War on Terror. Covid-19 is the event, the response will surely follow. Since we are still within the event itself, we can only cross our fingers and wait for the response. The response will not be war but will still be dramatic. We will look at that when we discuss the two other pillars next week – Global Peace/Security and international Trade. But remember, in the meantime, it always pays to stay safe.
Dr. Francis Kwabena Atta
International Relations Lecturer, Wisconsin International University – Ghana