Living through historically unprecedented times has strengthened the Toynbee Prize Foundation's commitment to thinking globally about history and to representing that perspective in the public sphere. In this multimedia series on the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be bringing global history to bear in thinking through the raging coronavirus and the range of social, intellectual, economic, political, and scientific crises triggered and aggravated by it.
Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University
Or Rosenboim, City, University of London
Jamie Martin, Georgetown University
Cindy Ewing, University of Toronto
Akita Shigeru, Osaka University
With the United States, if not the world, on the precipice of the “darkest winter in modern history,” questions about the future of global cooperation abound. Even though the pandemic reveals an undiscriminating and universal human fragility, this international crisis has prompted responses that are decidedly national. Criticism of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the lack of internationally coordinated responses to COVID-19 underscore the waning prospects for globalism, or a more basic belief in the value of reaching beyond borders to coordinate social and political action in times of crisis. Without engaging in prediction, one would not be surprised if the novel coronavirus, and the resulting worldwide recession to follow, deepen the loss of confidence in globalization and fan the flames of nationalism, tribalism, and the far right.
From allegations about the origins of COVID-19 to the new conspiracism, nationalism is travelling an upward path in the political discourse of many countries around the world. Save for one collective statement calling for global cooperation, the challenges exposed by COVID-19, and its mitigation, remain the concern of states. Comparisons to wartime are painfully inappropriate, not least for the willfully incorrect understanding of the scale of the problem and the absence of the mobilized internationalism that followed the two world wars. Also, the idea of international society remains a distant promise as nationalist groups decry European Union (EU) solidarity and instances of racial violence invite demagoguery. The language of liberation and rights have rung the most loudly from the far right; this only sharpens the grievances that spawned the populist wave of 2016. Xenophobia, the handmaiden of nationalism, justifies a powerful rights talk that takes the nation, not humanity, as its tribe.
Fast-changing events have also erupted into global protests against racism and police brutality, putting into the background an earlier wave of protest against lockdown measures. The rush to attribute blame also draws on nationalist rhetoric, reviving old tropes that frame both the pandemic and protests into xenophobic narratives about threats by outsiders. These outsiders are sometimes on the doorstep, and at other times, they are spectres of globalization abstracted into dangerous others. In this respect, the pandemic crisis may accelerate confrontations and polarizations borne out of slow and simultaneous fractures.
Studying the past may help us understand human nature and analyse how people react to certain situations. But history rarely provides precise recipes for dealing with contemporary crises, let alone for predicting the future. As many experts and commentators have recently learned, the consequences of our current crisis are still difficult to foresee. Therefore, instead of digging into history to extrapolate a concrete solution for our current problems, we should look back to past ideas to widen our conceptual horizons. The history of ideas is particularly useful in this exercise, offering us an innovative mode of engaging with the present by bringing to our attention alternative solutions and roads not taken, which may generate new and imaginative ways to analyse our present conundrum.
The history of globalism in the twentieth century seems especially relevant for our current situation: past global thinkers diagnosed the main problems of their era as distinctly global, and sought to find solutions on a similar global scale. Similarly, our present coronavirus crisis is often discussed as distinctly global, requiring a world-scale solution. Yet, one of the lessons we can draw from twentieth century global thinking is that focusing on the global dimension did not mean abandoning all other scales of political order: global, regional, and national powers could co-exist and cooperate successfully.
Returning to the history of global thinking invites us to consider how these mechanisms of cooperation worked in the past. Thinking globally about COVID-19 can become an opportunity to revise existing national, regional and world orders, and create new spatial systems of collaboration and interaction.
I think that, if there is a striking similarity between 1940s global thinking and contemporary political debates, it is the sense of unprecedented urgency. There was—and is—a perception of a particularly challenging crisis demanding an exceptional solution. Of course, we should not push the comparison too much, because the Second World War generated a strong reaction to a human-made disaster, rather than a natural phenomenon. Similarly, visions of post-war order were motivated by an ideological stance against a common enemy, while in the current pandemic militaristic metaphors seem less than appropriate. Nonetheless, we can trace a similar tendency to aspire for a political order that can provide a global rather than local solution for a global problem. The scale of the challenge seems, then and now, to dictate the scale of the solution. Thinking globally, then and now, does not mean finding a one-size-fit-all solution: often regional systems were set in place as the building blocks of a new world order.
When thinking about Europe, the mid-century moment offers an opportunity to return to debates about the value of central planning and freedom. In the 1940s, promoters of a European federal order, such as British economists Barbara Wootton and Lionel Robbins, suggested that central planning and redistribution of resources and migration would benefit the economic and social growth of the continent as a whole. True, some groups or states may be better off acting on their own, at least in the short run. But only federal planning could generate prosperity and welfare to all, in the long term. This may be a useful lesson for today as well.
Mid-century thinkers like Wootton and Robbins recognised global interdependence as the key characteristic of their time, with clear implications for trade, capital and migration. Today, we see the effects of global interdependence on the world-scale diffusion of the pandemic. Proponents of European federation focused their efforts on imagining a new continental order in the age of global interdependence, paying little attention to Europe’s responsibilities towards, for examples, post-colonial Africa and Asia. Today, it would be impossible to separate regional and global solutions. Envisaging a post-pandemic solution for Europe would have to take into account also non-European countries less prepared for a prolonged health and economic crisis.
Globalist visions of institutional collaboration on world scale remain limited today, and conversations are still centred on the national level. We see different policies enacted within national borders, even within a relatively cohesive political space such as the European Union. While calls for cooperation and pulling of resources are heard, the focus of the response strategies remains national, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Nonetheless, maybe this moment offers a chance to reconnect to David Mitrany’s vision of functional system, a network of agencies that cut across national frontiers to address common problems. Less than a permanent political structure, more than a temporary alliance, the functional order was a foundational inspiration for the European community in the 1950s. Yet the simple message it conveyed—functional solutions for common needs—does not seem to feature in today’s crisis. Could this model set the framework for thinking about global politics in times of urgent need for cooperation?
The intertwined public health and economic crises of 2020 will transform global politics and capitalism in ways that we cannot fully anticipate. We can, however, situate them in the context of developments already underway. These crises are making certain questions about the governance of capitalism and international order much more fraught than they were just a few years ago. These questions, in their basic form, are not new—they’ve been wrestled with for over a century. As a historian of the first efforts to govern capitalism on the international level, which emerged in the years around the First World War and its aftermath, there are three contemporary phenomena—each with a longer historical trajectory—that I’m watching closely.
First, the crisis appears to be transforming the role of central banks in economic policy and the politics that surround them. In most countries, central banks are supposed to be insulated from democratic pressures, though the nature and scope of their “independence” varies from place to place. The stated reason for this independence, however, is everywhere the same: to prevent politicians from demanding loose money to stimulate the economy, at the risk of inflation, in the run-up to an election. Since 2008, these institutions have taken on greater powers and a wider array of functions, devoting many billions to “unconventional” monetary policies, like quantitative easing, and becoming deeply involved in financial regulation. Just in the last few weeks, the U.S. Federal Reserve has gone even further into unchartered territory by stating it will buy corporate bonds and the debt of local governments. Central banks were designed to be removed from the so-called passions of mass politics, but so far they are pursuing more ambitious and experimental policies than the directly elected branches of many governments, which appear more hidebound by fiscal orthodoxies than the institutions that are ostensibly there to discipline them.
What does this mean for the future governance of capitalism in democracies? The recent decision by the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe to admonish the ECB about the legality of its quantitative easing program may offer a taste of what is to come, as conflicts about who, in the end, controls monetary policy become more fraught. Such conflicts are not themselves new: while most associate the emergence of central bank independence as a phenomena of the 1970s and after, there has been debate for over a century between central bankers and government officials about the degree of separation needed between their respective spheres of policy. At times, strict firewalls were erected, such as when the Bank of England insisted on its right to set bank rate without government oversight in the early twentieth century; at the other times, central banks were fully nationalized and operated, more or less, as branches of national treasuries, such as at the end of World War II. But these conflicts are today taking a distinctive form and have higher stakes than ever: the sums involved are far larger, and the power and reach of the decision-makers far greater, as a small handful of central banks, led by the U.S. Fed, now effectively set monetary policy for much of the world.
Central banks were designed to be removed from the so-called passions of mass politics, but so far they are pursuing more ambitious and experimental policies than the directly elected branches of many governments, which appear more hidebound by fiscal orthodoxies than the institutions that are ostensibly there to discipline them. What does this mean for the future governance of capitalism in democracies?
Second, the crisis is also accelerating the politicization of international trade, and augmenting demands to reassert national control over globalized supply chains, mostly for the sake of U.S.-China security competition. This trend had also begun before the crisis, as conflicts over the control of the infrastructures of global trade and finance, accelerated under the Trump administration, have shown that a preceding era of relatively pacific global economic integration may be coming to an end—a phenomenon that the political scientists Abraham Newman and Henry Farrell have called “weaponized interdependence.” COVID-19 has made this conflict even more charged, as the reality of Chinese domination over the manufacture of medical technologies like personal protective equipment and antibiotics has driven home the fact that offshoring, while perhaps good for profits, creates vulnerabilities. In the United States, this is a bipartisan concern: the economist and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (likely angling for a position in a Biden administration) recently commented that the “just in time” principles behind the efficiency-enhancing globalization of supply-chains now need to be balanced by the “just in case” principles of strategic resiliency.
It’s hard to overemphasize the significance of this shift away from the consensus about the economic and political benefits of globalization from just a few years ago. Yet these anxieties also appear, on the surface, to be similar to those shared by European governments on the eve of the First World War. In 1914, a preceding few decades of globalization—when the term “interdependence” came into general use—had led to prosperity and increasing economic integration. But it had also created strategic disadvantages for countries that relied on overseas sources of food and raw materials. The result was the use of wartime blockades and, later, a turn to militarized forms of national self-sufficiency. Today, the COVID-19 crisis also appears to be accelerating a lurch towards economic nationalism and “decoupling,” which is exacerbating geopolitical tensions for little domestic economic benefit.
Finally, the crisis is adding urgency to the long-standing conflict between internationalism and nationalism. On the one hand, an all-out war appears to have been declared on international organizations like the WHO; on the other, an EU plan to pledge billions for a European recovery fund is being hailed as a “Hamiltonian moment” for the project of fiscal union. It’s unlikely that the crises of 2020 will lead to either the collapse or dramatic expansion of institutions like these, which tend to be both very difficult to abolish and to create from scratch or radically reform. But it’s making the competition between the politics of nationalism and internationalism more pressing. These two are always co-constituting: the twentieth century’s greatest moments of international institution-building, of course, came after its worst wars. The unexpected outbreak of a pandemic—a textbook case of a global collective action problem that is unamenable to nationalist solutions, as I and others have argued elsewhere—may have the effect of bringing home the urgency of a kind of practical or technical internationalism to the citizens of countries who can, at others times, afford to ignore the work of bodies like the WHO. Climate change is another such collective action problem. The conflict between internationalist and “disaster nationalist” approaches to handling this crisis may prove to be a dry-run for the politics of the climate crisis going forward.
The second order political and economic effects of COVID-19 have made several long-standing questions about the interplay of global capitalism, geopolitics, and democracy appear much more exigent: how central banks deploy their vast powers and how these are legitimated politically; how the institutions of world trade and finance are appropriated for great power competition; and how the conflicting demands of nationalist and internationalist responses to global crisis are adjudicated. The historical analogies should not be exaggerated; neither future conflict nor “deglobalization” is as inevitable as references to the era of the world wars sometimes suggest. But we do live in a world that is shaped by responses developed to similar problems a century ago. The current crisis will cast these problems in new forms. How we respond is up for grabs.
We have moments in which older international models, concepts, and practices are spent but new ones have yet to emerge from the fog. These are moments in which alternatives flourish. They are also moments in which systems of interdependence become vulnerable to what game theorists call “suasion games.” Suasion games are situations in which co-partners (or “players” in game theory argot) have asymmetrical interests or powers which tempt the richer or more powerful partner(s) to strike unfair bargains with weaker ones. This is sometimes called unrequited cooperation since it’s not entirely or formally coercive; it’s unfair and leaves one side(s) aggrieved but unable to do much.
There are ways to thwart suasion games. One of the effects of the thickening of “international society”—treaties, new global monitoring agents like the press or non-governmental organizations, and new norms—is to curb these scenarios because they foster predatory behavior and rivalry of powerful actors. Not surprisingly, we see breakthroughs after wars in a flurry of promises not to repeat them. Perhaps the most astonishing example was the Kellogg-Briand Treaty (1928) which outlawed the aggressive use of war. The Pact has been maligned by realists for its lack of enforcement mechanisms, for blindness to the persistence of military means to pursue national interests, for letting utopian ideals eclipse realities. This was the gist of E.H. Carr’s famous indictment of internationalism, The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939). But we often forget that this Pact gave the framing for the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials.
Do powerful and rivalrous states, who have rebranded the nation in global affairs, threaten a resurgence of suasion games? This is the question that worries me. What the past shows us is that once in place, the behavior exhibited in suasion games destabilized the precarious post-1918 world, led powerful (European, mainly) nations to collude in carving up Africa (and came close to doing the same in China at the end of the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion) and to condone interventions in the 1890s, driving the weaker partners into subaltern ties with powerful states.
We are not, I think, on the cusp of a new spasm of imperial grabbing and carving. But we can see plenty of evidence of powerful actors driving harder bargains with weaker partners (think: Trump’s efforts to rewrite international trade agreements into bilateral ones), to defect from the constraints of multi-party agreements (think: the unraveling of the OPEC-plus cartel and the ensuing havoc), or to hoard strategic resources (think: the drive to control supply chains of critical minerals, like lithium, which is key to batteries yet 92% of which is located in three countries—the “lithium triangle” of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia). These are a few examples in which removing constraints on powerful actors to prey on weaker ones coupled with rising tensions between powerful actors make for a very dangerous fusion.
We face a paradox. The rules, norms, and institutions built up over the past 70 years are exhausted and yet, they are under more stress now than ever. Because of the global nature of the mounting pressures, from climate change, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities, pandemics, and the migrant crisis, internationalism badly needs a reset. But the strong players—and I mean the US, EU, and China mainly—are either internally hobbled or snarling at each other. And weaker players, because the old multilateral systems are under threat or because they are debt-crippled, are driven into the arms of the snarlers.
My fear is that we get stuck in a trap. Once suasion games gain ground, it becomes harder and harder to lure the powerful back into self-restraining rules and norms. So, while we have been at crossroads before, this one is extremely dangerous.
This pandemic reminds us of the historical meaning of "decolonization" in the Asia-Pacific and the limitations of ‘regional cooperation,’ in the manner of the European Union, in the Asia-Pacific area.
For last ten years, I have undertaken a joint research project on "Comparative Studies on Regional Cooperation" with Dutch scholars at Groningen University in the Netherlands. At the initial stage of our project, the EU was the ideal model of regional cooperation, and Asian countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were to follow and imitate the EU model. From the early 2010s, however, the positions of the EU and the ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN and China, Japan, and South Korea) reversed, due to the weakening of the Euro currency and the issues surrounding Brexit. It suddenly seemed that the loose connection model of the Asia-Pacific region, called ‘open regionalism,’ may be more suitable and appropriate for dynamic economic collaboration and integration in the twenty-first century.
Yet, under the current pandemic, both types of regional cooperation, that of the EU and the ASEAN Plus Three, have shown not to work and to be weak against the crisis. As the virus quickly spread, the EU completely lost its spirit of regional collaboration and closed national borders against foreigners, including people from Schengen-Agreement countries. This is a self-denial of the EU's ideal and aims. In the Asia-Pacific region the situation is nearly the same. Each national government has tried to do its best to protect its nationals and strengthen border controls. Compared with Europe's situation, however, the Asia-Pacific region is faring better—with lower death rates and fewer infected persons. Indeed, Korea and Taiwan achieved great successes in their containment of the spread of the virus.
Based on the formation of open regionalism and a loose cooperation within the ASEAN Plus Three, we would expect more friendly mutual support and cooperation among ASEAN Plus Three members. Unfortunately, in reality there is very limited cooperation and collaboration among member-countries, especially between Japan and South Korea. South Korean governmental authorities tried to offer their knowledge, experience, and materials, in the form of testing kits, to Japanese public health authorities, but found Japanese officials reluctant to receive such generosity, due to Japanese government sanctions against export of the latest IT technology to Korea. Economic dispute and partial economic sanctions have prevented both countries, especially Japan, from undertaking greater medical collaboration toward saving the lives of many.
Under such circumstances, it is very difficult to see and expect the progress of regional cooperation or open regionalism in our Asia-Pacific region. From a historical perspective, the progress and duration of decolonization and attendant post-colonial globalization and formation of nation-states in the Asia-Pacific has been short—around 70 years since 1946. After the end of Cold War in 1989/1991, the pace of globalization accelerated in the region, and many people expected the coming of a new era, or the formation of a sense of global citizenship, even if perhaps most strongly around the Asia-Pacific. But the reality now looks to be a revival of nation-states and the strengthening of their influence domestically and externally. The current coronavirus pandemic has only reminded us of these realities and the limitations of regional cooperation.