Coronavirus and the future of Globalization Process

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

The Coronavirus pandemic is engulfing every part of the globe with its radical consequences on the way how we live our lives, how we produce and consume and how we identify with the members of our in-groups and out-groups. This is a direct challenge posed to the fabric of the globalization process and it will determine the credibility of nation-states being the most legitimate political communities in our world. All of us are now faced with the question: How should the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nature of politics in general and the dynamics of international relations, in particular, be interpreted? 

There are basically two camps in this quarrel, one camp arguing that this is an existential challenge directed to the globalization process and nation-states will come out of it more powerful than ever, while the other camp claiming that the globalization will get stronger in the years ahead, yet with some radical changes having to be made. 

Globalization is weakening

If you are a realist in terms of political persuasion and worldview, you would likely argue that nation-states will gain predominance and preserve their quintessential role in domestic and international politics alongside the war against the virus. Pulling up the drawbridges against outsiders, defining legitimacy of decision-makers in reference to their responsibilities toward the people who elect them to those positions, investing in an internal economic capacity and decreasing the degree of dependency on global supply chains, despising the idea of universal values and multicultural society, defining state and society as constitutive of each other and approaching politics from a security-first mentality are the underlying characteristics of realist worldview. Such thinking might take hold during this process.

From the anti-globalist perspective, the Coronavirus tragedy has undoubtedly made clear that this process should slow down, if not totally end, because shrinking of the world and erosion of time and space limitations have not only made some states more dependent on others but also increased states' vulnerability to external developments. The feeling of holding the reigns and shaping the destiny of national subjects weakens as internal decision-makers have to share their prerogatives and sovereign authority with external actors, mostly international organizations, multinational companies, and global technology giants.

It now seems that the latest coronavirus pandemic has brought back the idea that human beings are first and foremost citizens of their nation-states, rather than netizens of worldwide information technology companies, and that it is still too early to define human beings as Homo economicus rather than Homo sociologicus. The latest crisis has demonstrated that we still tend to identify ourselves more with the members of our in-groups, mostly our compatriots and kinship communities, rather than outsiders.

Anti-globalist thinking will sure make a comeback to politics in the months ahead. Political parties that tend to worship such principles will likely gain an advantage in their home countries at the expense of their liberal rivals. This might also indirectly enhance the legitimacy of many illiberal and populist political movements across the globe. Resisting globalization and interdependencies will likely be the winning ticket in many political elections to be held in the near future.

Globalization is getting stronger

On the other hand, the supporters of ‘globalization is good argument’ voice the view that such crises as global pandemics cannot be resolved only through domestic efforts or the authority of a global hegemonic power. The coronavirus pandemic might now push a growing number of people to question the logic of interdependencies and globalization dynamics, yet the solution of such global problems as pandemics, climate change and migration do increasingly require global and well-coordinated efforts among all relevant parties. The longer these crises remain unresolved, the more damage they will inflict upon the fabric of the contemporary international order, which still reflects a high degree of liberal optimism regarding the ability of humans to transform the Hobbesian jungle of international politics into a Kantian zoo of security communities.

Globalization has already brought people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, national loyalties and religious affiliations much closer together in a span of seven decades following the end of World War II. The shrinking of the world and the gradual erosion of time and space have largely benefited humanity. Not only has the specter of great power wars declined, but the gap between the developed world and developing nations has decreased across many fields, mostly in favor of the latter.

Globalization has not only facilitated the integration of the developing world into the existing international order but also benefited disadvantaged outsiders much more than privileged insiders. Hence the rise of illiberal, populist, protectionist and anti-globalist political parties, movements and personalities across the developed world.

What is shocking in the latest saga concerning the coronavirus panic is that a sizable number of people living mostly in developed countries think isolationism, protectionism and decoupling are solutions. From this perspective, the main culprit for the outbreak of the coronavirus disease is the Chinese Communist Party and it is a charade that China is now trying help manufacture a positive image about itself by playing the role of savior and aid-provider. 

Under close scrutiny, however, it becomes clear that anti-globalist thinking proves to be shallow and is not convincing in today's world for technological, strategic and ethical reasons.

Technologically speaking, we are now living in a global village despite some attempts at erecting technological barriers to human communication. Although some of us prefer to live in cyber ghettos and approach online communication from a tribal perspective, many of us have developed a global consciousness and closely follow those different from ourselves. Despite being citizens of different states, more than half of the human beings on planet Earth have acquired identification from global technology companies. Technology does not recognize borders. Technological interactions fuel the belief that we are subjects of the same global village and cannot remain aloof to whatever happens outside our territorial borders. Technology not only provides us the knowledge of happenings in far-off places but also indoctrinates us with a global consciousness.

Technology seems to have enabled us to become members of different groups simultaneously. Psychically we can sit in our living rooms, but mentally we feel a part of different networks online. Technology has increased the destructiveness of weapon systems, yet it has also pushed people of strategic responsibility to craft solutions to geopolitical problems in more humane ways, decreasing causality in warfare. In general, technological improvements have increased life expectancy, cured many diseases and fostered the belief that humans are intelligent enough to put quality of life at the center of their endeavors.

Despite some negative consequences of fast technological developments in recent years, the humanity does still look at technology to become its savior in the latest coronavirus example. Countries are now racing with each other to discover the vaccine that cures the virus. The experiences of countries matter a lot in how they treat the crisis at home and accumulation of technology-intensive knowledge would likely spread from one nation to another. If not for artificial intelligence, big data, and many other technological innovations in recent years, the humanity would not have been able to decode the secrets of the coronavirus crisis in a short period of time as well as devising the most useful road map to be adopted in its treatment. 

Technology is also strengthening digital socialization by making people all over the world share similar feelings, similar experiences and similar responses to external stimuli. People of different countries do now stand in long ques before pharmacies and grocery stores, shop online, use digital currencies, entertain themselves similarly and hold their rules accountable for their performances in similar ways. Many of us are now locked in our homes, fear the virus and hope a brighter future to come. The point is that we develop such commonalities and a global consciousness through digital technology platforms. Rather than dividing the world into different pieces, coronavirus has now shrunk the world more deeply.   

Strategically speaking, in today's globalized world, defense begins abroad. Forward defense is no longer an offensive strategy aimed at geopolitical control of distant places in a neocolonial and imperial fashion. Borders are no longer opaque or shield us against external threats. How other states are ruled from within and whether the rulers of those states fulfill their responsibilities toward their subjects are no longer issues of foreign policy. As legitimacy in today's world emanates more from responsible statecraft than external recognition, state leaders can no longer turn a blind eye to how their domestic actions are perceived abroad. 

Rather than Western leaders, most notably President Donald Trump, arguing for decoupling, they would do well to support Chinese efforts to win the war against Coronavirus. Helping other states cure this illness sooner than later is not a charity; instead, it is a pure defense strategy, for pandemics do not respect national borders.

Further, any slowing down of the Chinese economy would also hurt western markets. Contraction of the Chinese economy will likely result in a global economic recession and this will negatively influence the living standards of many people across the globe. 

Ethically speaking, the globalization process should now create a new understanding of moral behavior.  A virtuous person in today's extremely globalized world is no longer one who feels responsible only to those with whom s/he identifies on common ethnic, national or religious grounds. As the "Davos men" are now trying to update neoliberal capitalism by transforming it from being primarily shareholder capitalism into responsible stakeholder capitalism, an equal effort is also needed to refine the counters of moral and ethical statecraft and human behaviors. Caring for the ones who do not look like us, and with whom we do not share inherent similarities, should now define the limits of virtuousness. 

Redefining globalization in more humane ways 

What should be problematized from a pro-globalization perspective is not the legitimacy of growing appeals to a more Westphalian international order in which national authorities do still play the traditional role of gatekeepers but the continuation of deregulated globalization process which puts unlimited economic-growth and material self-satisfaction at its center.

The novel coronavirus poses an existential challenge to the supporters of globalization thesis. At stake is how they will reconcile their values with growing calls for adopting exclusionary security measures to help defeat global pandemics. We are not solely global consumers putting our self-satisfaction and material needs at the center of our actions. We cannot now confidently argue that open society and the borderless world will cure all of our problems. In a world of transboundary security challenges, such as refugees and viruses, holding steadfast to pro-globalization values proves to be difficult, if not impossible. We are still more importantly defined as social beings who need respect, psychical security and status recognition in our lives.

Taking pleasure in other countries' failures in dealing with such problems is an inhumane response and defies the logic of globalization process. If we are all travelling in the same ship we cannot remain aloof to the problems of our neighbors living in the next camara.

Hoping that slowing down of the Chinese economy will provide others with immense opportunities is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for any disruption in the global supply chains in today's world would hurt others as severely as China. Coronavirus does not change the reality that the value of national economies emanates from their place in multiple global supply chains. Self-sufficiency cannot offer a panacea to economic problems and the non-development of many states. Jumping from the periphery to the center, approaching the process of value creation from the perspective of designing, branding and marketing would do the trick.

Another exemplary inhumane reaction to the coronavirus crisis would arise if countries were reluctant to offer others medical help in the name of caring first and foremost for their nationals. For example, it is a shame that many EU members failed to assist Italy in these difficult times, while China stepped up to provide the country with the most relevant medical aid.

A anti-globalist would do a disservice to human beings by legitimizing a security-first logic whereas pro-globalists would further contribute to the erosion of liberal values across the world should they continue to define human beings as first and foremost wealth maximizers and self-centric rational actors.

Neither an extreme focus on fear and security nor an unlimited penchant for prosperity and egoism is what we need as human beings. Both positions are likely to refurbish people's egoistic and self-regarding attributes. At stake now is how to strike the right balance between encouraging globalization on digital platforms for the sake of improving psychical security against global pandemics and contributing to the elimination of barriers before free movement of people, goods, services, capital and technology in the real world. How shall we reconcile our two different personalities in a post-Coronavirus world; one psychical personality trying to survive in the real world of pandemics, and another digital personality socializing with others in a reclusive atmosphere?

We are going through difficult and challenging times, and the need to redefine our political values has never been so acute.