In an ideal world, a global pandemic would lead to unprecedented international cooperation. Similar to the unity of citizens following a domestic terrorist attack or natural disaster, countries would join hands to develop a global response to a pandemic using shared resources and knowledge. In a fight for humanity, enemies would become allies and borders would become temporarily obsolete.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic shows us that the world we live in is far from ideal. In the face of crisis, countries are abandoning the pre-existing neoliberal international order. As the death toll increases and unemployment rises, the Coronavirus has silently taken on a new victim: Globalization.
Learning From the Past
However, this is not the norm. In times of global crises, international cooperation does not usually break down—in fact, it often strengthens. During the 2008 financial crisis, countries banded together to prevent another great depression. Global governance and cooperation defied expectations as the international community launched a worldwide stimulus program, strengthened global standards for banks, and discouraged protectionist trade policies.
In fact, 2008 was the peak of globalization, when cross-border financial flows were at their highest. At the time, people believed that globalization was an unstoppable force. Pundits even talked of a future in which the importance of nation states would fade, international organizations would gain power, and capital flows would be frictionless. However, just a decade later, the conversation has completely changed. Political discourse today consists of travel bans and trade wars.
Globalization under Trump
Globalization was on the decline well before the COVID pandemic. In Trump’s America, international cooperation and free trade is painted as a threat to American exceptionalism. In his speech to the United Nations, an institution that prides itself in global governance and cooperation, President Trump said, “We reject globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” In order to build walls, enforce tariffs, and reduce foreign aid, Trump is exploiting fears of xenophobia and nationalistic sentiments while claiming to be fighting for “the doctrine of patriotism.”
Dr. Devin Pendas, a professor of world history at Boston College and Co-Chair of the Contemporary Europe Study Group at Harvard University, discussed the Trump Administration’s disregard for multilateralism in an interview with the HPR. Pendas fears that the America First nationalistic agenda “will get hard-wired into the structure of American foreign policy” if President Trump wins a second term. According to Pendas, these fears also extend beyond the United States. He believes that multilateralism “is starting to break down during the pandemic due partly to the rise of populist nationalism in a number of places.”
President Trump and champions of isolationism are trying to convince the common man that globalization leads to a loss of jobs, increase in crime, and dilution of a white America. Losers of globalization, such as manufacturing workers, have found recourse in this populist message. However, even a cursory look at macroeconomic trends overwhelmingly shows that economic interconnectedness has risen millions out of poverty, increased gross domestic product, and dramatically improved living standards while simultaneously bonding the fate of nations and thereby reducing threats of war.
A Global Trend Towards Isolation
Trump has been spreading isolationist rhetoric since the beginning of his campaign, and now, during a global pandemic, a time when international cooperation is truly vital, most countries seem to be adopting Trump’s message. Stuck in a classic prisoner’s dilemma, every country has chosen to defect from cooperation even though it would have led to undeniably better outcomes. Countries have cut themselves off from international supply chains and have begun to hoard resources, while nations that were dependent on these foreign producers are scrambling to find life-saving supplies. Shutting down the global market of goods and capital flows will hurt all countries — but resource-heavy nations will be able to hold out longer than poorer nations.
Even the European Union, an emblem of global governance, was not able to keep their member countries from turning on one another. At the onset of the pandemic, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic all announced export bans of protective medical equipment. At a time when Italy, another member of the EU, was struggling to handle an outbreak that no other country had experienced, allies cut off life-saving supplies. On the day the export ban was implemented, Germany had only 240 cases while Italy had 4,000. Janez Lenaric, the EU crisis management commissioner, argued that such bans “risk undermining our collective approach to handle this crisis.” Unfortunately, these pleas for international cooperation were ignored.
In Asia, protectionism is also making a valiant return. Extending beyond medical equipment, Asian countries are starting to cut off international supply chains of an even more essential good: food. Major producers of wheat like Russia and Kazakhstan limited exports. Vietnam, the world’s third largest exporter of rice, set strict export quotas and India was quick to follow suit. Cambodia restricted fish and rice exports, Turkey restricted lemons, and Serbia stopped exports of sunflower oil. Relatively wealthy countries who rely on these resources such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are buying up supplies and raising prices while less well-endowed countries are left out to dry. Critics of globalization argue that globalization exacerbates inequities among nations, which in some cases, is a valid concern. However, so far, the abandonment of globalization has dramatically affected poorer nations more than rich nations.
America’s Retreat from the Global Stage
The response in the United States has been no better, and arguably worse, than it has been abroad. In addition to its own flurry of tariffs and export restrictions, the U.S. announced its intentions to withdraw from the World Health Organization. The United States is currently the largest contributor to the WHO and has historically placed itself at the forefront of global public health crises. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union gave the WHO resources to eradicate smallpox. The U.S. was also a major contributor to humanity’s fight against AIDS and Ebola, yet now, in the face of an even greater threat, the United States has selfishly retreated from the global stage.
Not only are we not helping other nations, but we are also actively fighting against them. A scathing report in Die Welt, a German national newspaper, found that the Trump Administration offered “large sums of money” to buy a CureVac, a German vaccine company, and move its research to the United States. The United States wanted the company to develop the vaccine “for the U.S. only.” The deal fell through, but the protectionist sentiment reverberated throughout the world as the story made international headlines. While the Trump Administration denies the report, Germany’s Health Ministry has confirmed its validity.
Dr. Charles Derber, a sociology professor at Boston College, pointed out a contradiction in the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic in an interview with the HPR. Deber argues that Trump is trying to persuade the American public that “the virus is not important and that they got it all solved” while on the other hand, Trump “wants to use [the virus] to bash other countries and build up his nationalistic theme.” Derber went on to discuss the importance of handling global issues through international mechanisms rather than individual actions.
Preparing for the Crises of Tomorrow
Even as it becomes exceedingly obvious that a failure to cooperate on an international scale has worsened the effects of the pandemic, leaders are trying to blame their problems on globalization – and people are buying it. The Washington Times published an article titled “COVID-19 exposes terrible dangers of globalization,” and a recent Foreign Policy article claims that “Globalization is heading for the ICU.” Globalization is not to blame for the pandemic and actually could be a large part of the solution.
If we fall victim to populist arguments against globalization, we will put our country down a treacherous path that will be even less prepared for future crises. The COVID pandemic has taught us a lesson on the importance of international cooperation—a lesson that cost us many lives to learn, and a lesson that we must not forget. If we leverage global manufacturing power and distribute medical equipment based on need and not borders, we can save lives. If we dramatically increase funding to the global scientific community and organizations like the WHO, we can save lives. If we have open international communication with genuine empathy between governments and share best practices, we can save lives.
In January, when the virus had only affected China, US Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross stated that he thinks COVID-19 “will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” The U.S. jobs report currently shows that the pandemic has led to over 30 million lost jobs in the United States. If we approach human progress as a zero sum game, one country’s loss must be another country’s gain. This type of mentality can only lead to isolation and competition. Through the pandemic, we have learned that countries can in fact win and lose together. Whether we like it or not, years of globalization have tied economies together forming an unbreakable bond, and trying to sever this bond will only lead to mutual destruction. The fate of our economies are linked together, so nations must cooperate in order to be better prepared for the crises of tomorrow.
The severity of the pandemic will depend on the presence of global governance. Will nations fight this virus in isolation exploiting nationalism and fears of xenophobia or will they join hands and pool global resources and knowledge to defeat their shared enemy?