How coronavirus could destroy the Western multilateral order

In a world fraught with dangers and uncertainties, there will be a flight to nationalist solutions.

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In this epidemic, I'm hearing too many people say, effectively, “this is a great opportunity for X” – when X is something they always wanted anyway. Actually, it’s not. Up until now, we’ve been viewing the coronavirus crisis through two lenses: epidemiology and economics, and both present grim pictures. But the geopolitical dimension looks equally grim. 

In the next four weeks we are likely to see the healthcare services of the UK, the US and Spain pushed to the same breaking point as Italy’s – that is, beyond socially acceptable levels of triage, where people begin to die without treatment. After that, it is likely that the disease will begin to spread in poverty-stricken countries of the global South.

While this will create the opportunity for all forms of human kindness and collaboration, it will also open the door to several negative scenarios. In the worst-case scenario, the global order falls apart. Security experts identify three “fragile” states that could collapse under the stress because their health and governance systems are already chaotic or dysfunctional: Iran, Syria and North Korea. Of these, as far as we know, only Iran has an urgent problem, made worse by US sanctions and the reaction of the mullahs, for whose response WH Auden’s phrase “the elderly rubbish dictators talk”, seems apt.

If North Korea’s governance systems were to be overwhelmed, there is a ready and giant ally, China, who could intervene to help. In Syria, already divided into Turkish and Russian spheres of interest, there could be a route to stabilisation. Iran, meanwhile, is a regional superpower, surrounded by politically and religiously hostile countries, with an 81 million-strong population already gripped by the spirit of revolt.

The fragility of these and other states would be manageable if the US were showing any semblance of the leadership role it has claimed for itself since the Second World War. But it is not. It is, instead, scrambling its diplomats to grab as much of the world’s testing and ventilator capacity as possible, an effort that will be redoubled once a vaccine is developed. Though Donald Trump won’t admit it, the US is now a supplicant to countries it has strong-armed in the past.

In turn, the US’s lack of leadership has opened a multi-pronged diplomatic opportunity to China, which having overcome the first wave of the virus is now exporting testing kits and ventilators to other countries. So far the list of countries receiving aid from Beijing corresponds markedly with the countries whose leaders have embraced China’s $1trn Belt and Road Initiative: Italy, Serbia, Venezuela and Liberia. Serbia’s president used the opportunity of an arriving aid plane to blast the European Union whose solidarity, he said “was a fairytale”.

At one level China is simply stepping into a vacuum, leveraging its world-beating manufacturing power to make amends for failing to contain the virus early on. But UK security experts believe it is also consciously shaping the world that comes out of the epidemic: both in terms of diplomatic influence and popularising its own governance model.

At this year's Munich Security Conference the buzzword was “Westlessness” – the fear that in response to the success of authoritarian nationalist regimes in China and Russia, popular belief in democracy and human rights in Western democracies is itself on the wane. It’s a threat felt most acutely in Europe: in March last year, the European Commission described China as simultaneously a partner, an economic competitor and “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”. 

If China’s containment policy – which could only have been enacted by an authoritarian state – actually works, while Trump lets a million Americans die for the sake of a stock market valuation, millions of people across the world will draw political conclusions. They will see that “the West” as a concept is disintegrating, and that highly commercialised and atomised democratic societies cannot even protect themselves against a bat virus, let alone benignly administrate the global order.

And that narrative is not being left to quietly mature in people’s brains. Russian state TV this week told viewers that the EU had effectively collapsed, showing images of razor wire and vehicle checkpoints. According to a report by the European External Affairs Service, Russian state and state-backed media are churning out coronavirus disinformation stories on an industrial scale.

To the Russian audience, the virus is presented as “a form of foreign aggression”, while to English, Spanish, Arabic and Italian audiences, Russian propaganda efforts “focus primarily on conspiracy theories about global elites deliberately weaponising or exploiting the virus for their own ends,” says the report. 

Propaganda recorded on the European External Action Service database and traceable to Russian-influenced outlets includes: that the virus started in Latvia; that it was created in a laboratory; that it has been created as a pretext for Western powers to save their economies by printing money; that some Americans had the virus in September and the US suppressed the news; that liberalism created the coronavirus; and that it is a biological weapon created by America to depopulate the world.

The aim, as with all disinformation tactics, is to exacerbate tensions that already exist, to undermine people’s trust in their own governments, and their attachment to freedom of speech and human rights. So as we move now into the decisive phase of fighting the virus, with huge economic disruption combined with acute distress among families and communities, we need to understand that all social and political elites are engaged in a battle of narrative and ideology. The outcome will shape not just our own country but its place in the world; the 99 per cent, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, have a joint material interest in the survival of a multilateral order, political freedom and a truth-based media.

It’s easy to map the vulnerabilities. The US has a president addicted to fake news, an economy without a social safety net, a hyper-expensive healthcare system totally attuned to the profit motive, and a federal system that is currently allowing states to adopt rival strategies against the virus. Under the influence of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both of which are calling for a swift end to social distancing to save the economy, it is possible that Trump will actually adopt the strategy some in Downing Street toyed with – of simply letting the disease rip.

The European Union – though not "falling apart" as Russian media claims – is clearly facing a crisis. Germany has vetoed the idea of a Eurozone-wide bailout, preferring instead a temporary relaxation of fiscal rules which leaves countries like Italy and Spain still struggling to finance their anti-crisis efforts. 

Meanwhile, the oil-producing countries have decided to play a game of “chicken” with the oil price, using the rapid deflation of global demand as an excuse to try to put each other out of business. Saudi Arabia knows that Russia cannot endure for long the economic impact of $20-a-barrel crude – but in the process it risks destroying the economies of oil producers such as Venezuela and Nigeria.

In a world fraught with dangers and uncertainties, there will be a flight to nation-centric solutions. Just as it is rational for us to demand, once this is over, that the NHS be staffed and equipped with excess capacity to deal with any future epidemic threat, it is also logical to build industrial capacity to produce vaccines, ventilators and medical supplies here. It’s the same with food supply chains and ultimately with finance. If the combined efforts of the Treasury and Bank of England can't stop capital flooding out of London and tanking the pound, the government should (and probably will) consider short-term capital controls – unthinkable heresy since Margaret Thatcher abolished them in 1980.

If every country reacts in the same way, globalisation, at the very least, will look different. At worst it could fall apart, as it did in the early 1930s, as one country after another reneged on its obligations.

How we act now, as the multilateral system comes under pressure as never before, will shape the world that emerges – in terms of alliances, trade patterns and ideologies. 

The voices of authoritarian states are strong; the voices of democratic leaders are weak and cacophonous. What's missing is the voice of the 99 per cent, reaching across borders and enmities to build, out of the practical solidarity against this disease, a collaborative global order that prioritises human life, prosperity and wellbeing.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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