April 2020

The virus has shaken globalism, which will yield ground to nation-states

These are the early stages of a crisis that will be of uncertain duration. Will the coronavirus crisis be like the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s, delivering a short but painful blow to the global economy and a limited disruption to civilian life? Or are we in the summer of 1914, expecting the war will be over by Christmas, only to embark on a four-year struggle that left a world transformed?

Plagues have a long history of causing disruption. The Antonine and Cyprian plagues dramatically weakened the western Roman Empire in its later years, while the Justinianic plague crippled the eastern Roman Empire and fuelled the rise of Islam as a political force.

The Black Death in Europe was a social leveller, strengthening the bargaining power of workers and dealing feudalism a mortal blow.

Clearly, we are not in for this level of disruption. Our ability to understand and treat the virus, the quality of our public health systems, and information flows are all orders of magnitude better than even a century ago, when the world was struck by Spanish influenza. But the world's struggle with coronavirus will still alter the shape of global politics, in at least three ways.

First, globalisation, already struggling, will yield further ground to the nation-state. Borders and their effective control by nation-states have been a key tool in managing this crisis. Just look at Europe, where it has been every country for itself as border checkpoints have been thrown up and key medical supplies stockpiled. The European Union and its post-national governance model is nowhere to be seen.

Economically, the crisis has exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains and just-in-time production methods, and the risks in heavy reliance upon any single nation for a vital product or input.

Some 80 per cent of US pharmaceuticals come from China. In Australia, we are worryingly dependent on global suppliers for key inputs such as fuel and fertiliser.

Diversity and resilience of supply will become key watchwords. We can expect to bring more manufacturing capabilities on shore, driven by both commercial and national security imperatives. Australia will need to look closely at our own vulnerabilities in this area.

Second, while it is not the end of international co-operation, we can expect a reversion to a more modest sort of multilateralism. The World Health Organisation has had some serious missteps during this crisis. Its attitude towards Taiwan, driven by "One China" sensitivity, has been bizarre and damaging. Likewise, the WHO's director-general, who has been lavish in his recent praise of China's management of this crisis, was silent and slow to act in the early stages of the outbreak, when China was being less than co-operative.

Realpolitik infects every UN body, but it is particularly concerning when it happens to a UN expert agency. The WHO owes us some explanations at the end of this crisis.

But its performance has improved through this crisis, particularly once China began adopting a more co-operative attitude. And the truth is, even with its shortcomings, we could not manage a global crisis like this without a body like the WHO. It provides a trusted and neutral framework for the sharing and distribution of information and best practice among nation-states. If we did not have it, we would have to invent it.

The coronavirus crisis will accelerate the swing of the pendulum back towards nation-states in the international system, and puncture some of the more ludicrous ambitions of the globalists. This is welcome. National governments are accountable to their people and so enjoy a legitimacy that international bureaucrats and organisations do not.

But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Bodies such as the WHO, which provide critical infrastructure for the functioning of a rules-based and predictable global order, need preservation and even strengthening.

The same is true for other UN expert agencies that provide much of the plumbing underpinning such marvels as global commerce, communications and travel – such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

When the comprehensive audit of global institutions announced by the Prime Minister last year is completed, it will reveal that it is in these more obscure and less glamorous UN agencies that Australia in fact has the greatest stakes.

Lastly, states must be held to higher levels of responsibility for managing pandemics in the future. If a nation asserting global leadership prerogatives had allowed nuclear fissile material or chemical weapons to escape from its control, it would rightly be subject to criticism. A forensic accounting would be demanded, and changes to its internal controls and governance required. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention both provide as such.

But as we have seen, the uncontrolled release of biologically active material – in this case, a new strain of coronavirus – can be just as threatening to global peace and stability.

Once the current crisis is past us, there must be a fulsome accounting and attribution of responsibility. And we must demand stricter standards of behaviour from states when it comes to disclosing and dealing with pandemics.