The Post-Corona World
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …
Asad Ejaz Butt
Three months, more than three-hundred thousand dead and nearly three quarters to a billion affected and the endgame to the worst crisis that humanity has faced cannot still be predicted.
International governments, development organizations, global healthcare systems and medical response units are all ‘stunned’. Doctors and health professionals are overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the pandemic whose origins are known with little certainty and whose end no one knows will be what. In a few more weeks, the crisis would hit its peak, causing severe and irreparable damage to the humanity and the economies and global systems that were built painstakingly but with a touch of arrogance. Many observers believe that it’s a wake-up call for humanity; religious clerics think it’s a reprehension for violating religious injunctions and having forgotten the path of God. Doomsday sellers believe that the end of the human race is near.
When World War II ended, analysts wrote that the world had become a different place to live in. Many thought that peace was the logical conclusion of the war and it was the ultimate state in which humanity shall dwell in the years after the war. It was a world with several postwar characteristics. The traditional way of looking at the world, its resources and the international political system had all changed while new systems evolved and institutions that could keep pace with the rapidly changing world emerged. But what the war had changed the most was the way countries interacted and looked at the world. There was a shared sense of existence. Countries were more eager to take responsibility of their surroundings—the world outside. This came to be known as the new world order; the order of peace and co-existence. Dispute-resolution mechanisms were erected and international development organizations, especially in the follow-up to the Marshall Plan, became busy in using monetary imbalances in favour of the developed world to serve specific political and economic ends in the developing world. Their aid caused development as well as havoc in the recipient countries. Results have been mixed but many analysts write that they skew towards the latter.
Counterintuitively however, deep-seated hatred between states continued to have its place and animosities intensified. By mid 1950s, the Cold War between the USA and the USSR—the two leading world powers at the time—began to take shape and achieve ignominious heights. Each of the two powers wanted its particular brand of politics to emerge as the pathway to the overarching global order of peace and coexistence. International relations experts called it the bipolar world. Loyalties were won and bought, countries switched alliances as both communism and capitalism gained ground. Communism met its ultimate demise in 1991 with the breakaway of the USSR into several eastern European, Central Asian and Baltic states. The world became unipolar. It has remained the same in the last three decades and as George Friedman predicts in his magnum opus “Next 100 Years”, in all likelihood the United States would remain the global superpower till the close of the 21st century. He denies predictions that China can become a challenger to the American superiority by claiming that China’s landlockedness and regional disputes with its East Asian neighbours would either contain it or cause its downfall, paving the way for the USA to continue staying on top. Without a doubt, the postwar world was a changed place but was the peace that it achieved during the early 1950s sustainable? There are several answers to this question that I shall explore in greater detail hereunder.
The twin attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 jolted the world order. Although the world didn’t become bipolar again, it was certain that the containment of conflictual relations between states, end to brutal use of force and attainment of everlasting peace would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Many died in drawn-out conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and thereafter during the Arab Spring. Civil wars in the Muslim world and on the African subcontinent replaced world wars while non-state actors began to substitute states. International organizations that were established to keep peace failed and question marks on their ability to resolve disputes were raised. The world was a changed place after the wars, but it hadn’t learnt its lesson. Realist interests and right-wing nationalism still dictated the international political system. In fact, this worsened further in 2015 when populists started taking over and much of what was achieved collectively and with consensus by the international community—steps in the right direction towards peace and collective prosperity—was at the risk of being lost. Countries continued to breed hostilities against each other, regional disputes escalated, and nationalities, ethnicities and religion were shaping how states deal with their people and with each other. At the cusp of 2020 now, we have regressed to 1920 when, after World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated. These two seminal events in hindsight aggravated matters, instead of containing them.
Slightly backtracking to 2019; a weak unipolar world with American hegemony diluted by the presence of the G20 including the emerging economies (e.g. BRICS). Many countries including China are trying to break into the American sphere of influence. China is a contender but for once, not a close one. The size of its economy stands up to that of the US (as per the World Bank data, China’s GDP has surpassed that of the US in PPP terms) but its development deficits and political instability may not allow it to challenge the society and systems that define the modern-day United States. Many would argue that the systems that define the US are withering away, and the stability upon which the great empire was built has begun to shake under the influence of the discriminatory and divisive politics of President Donald Trump. The American society, and the development that it has achieved, still leads one to imagine a world led by the US in 2050. The Trump’s America is much different to what it was under Clinton when uniploarism was a recent phenomenon. But, most of the changes that have occurred under Trump have only resulted in a deteriorated perception of America around the world and has brought some loss of repute to its voters who are now seen as somewhat less rational and tolerant. There is very little damage that Trump may have done to the great institutions and systems that comprise the United States. The changes that he has brought to the society are no less damaging but their bearing on the susceptibility of the US to an imminent decline is weak.
Ethnic and colour factionalism and political division in the aftermath of the 9/11 have rendered the US a staggeringly more polarized society than the one that would have pitched it favourably toward stability. Two defining characteristics of the US that it clings onto ever more tenaciously are ‘capitalism’ and ‘democracy’. Not only has it held onto these defining characteristics of its identity, but ever since the fall of the USSR, has also preached them, with utmost ease and without much opposition, as the most desirable economic and political systems to the world. In doing so, it has met large successes in the developing world where, propelled by foreign aid and international development institutions, its agenda of sweeping the world over by democracy and capitalism has been an easy business. Both capitalism and democracy together have lended quite naturally to globalization—a process by which goods, people, information and culture are allowed to move swiftly across countries and continents. International trade and laxer visa regimes and immigration policies became popular facilitators in the process (this, of course, changed drastically under Trump).
The developed world benefited most out of this arrangement, followed by some emerging markets that have now started taking a larger share of the pie, especially ever since the Eurozone economic crises made it a weaker partner in the deal. The developing world, which had to become the ultimate beneficiary of the process, has albeit gained, but its gains are trivialized in the face of the excesses that the US has made. Since opening its borders in 1979, China gained enormously. Today, it has become an economic force to reckon with. For China, US and several other developed countries of the world, the growth of capitalism, globalization and their own brand of democracy was a win-win situation. They could make money from international trade and use the same to advance political agenda.
As the winners celebrated success and rejoiced their victory over all pre-existing political and economic systems, writers like Francis Fukuyama wrote that it was the end of history. At the same, cautioners, cautioned; they raised alarm bells over the superficiality of the international financial system and lack of sustainability therein, underlying capitalist tendencies like the promotion of consumerism. Some of those cracks prevalent in the international financial system, globalization and the American-styled democracy have now come in the open through the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The world today is in a fix. States are announcing stimulus packages in whatever big or small capacities that they can. The coffers of international organizations are depleting which puts developing economies at the peril of defaulting once their indigenous funds run out. Many of these states have tax revenues below 10% of GDP disallowing their respective governments to enact social safety nets, provide for reasonable health and education infrastructure and to protect marginalized groups like the elderly, children and the unemployed. The business community and the private sector entrepreneurs that often express a strong distaste for the government and hardly ever want to pay taxes are now looking towards an under-resourced state, which is also the case in Pakistan, to do magic all of a sudden and attain the multiple ends of safeguarding their business interests by announcing stimulus packages, protecting their ex-employees through unemployment benefit schemes and allowing greater tax rebates and refunds so that their enterprise could rehabilitate as soon as lockdowns lift. The average citizen who also denies paying taxes and expresses distrust in the state, is now looking towards it for protection against the unavailability of staple food items and an unexpected loss of income.
It is sad to think that globalization and capitalism has failed many including my friends Chomsky, Fukuyama, right-wing populists and private sector entrepreneurs. It has left them at the behest of a state that they advocated was malevolent and ill-meaning. The gods of fortune today smile at the state. Left-wingers seem to dance and prance from the aisles. It’s bad times for the world but a moment of victory for the global left.