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Coronavirus diary – Part 20

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The global health emergency spawned by COVID-19 has exacerbated the struggles among the great powers and imperial candidates in the international community. This instalment focuses on the geopolitics of COVID-19.

I begin with a brief definition of geopolitics, a concept that straddles the spheres of human geography, international relations, politics, and many other fields and sub-fields of scholarly disciplines. So, what is geopolitics? Colin Flint in his Introduction to Geopolitics first published by Routledge in 2006 says geopolitics “is a word that conjures up images. In one sense, the word provokes ideas of war, empire, and diplomacy: geopolitics is the practice of states controlling and competing for territory”.

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Streamlining it further, he says it is about “… how states or countries have competed for the control of territory and/or the resources within them”. Geopolitics is operationalised here as a socio-political phenomenon with embedded power relations traversing spatial, economic, and political spheres of control or domination.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing geopolitical struggles between the US, China, Russia, and other alliance partners. While it lasted, bipolarity provided a canvas of predictability in international politics—an evident ideological bifurcation and a degree of power parity between the US and the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Harrison R. Wagner notes in a 1993 article published in International Organisation, titled “What was Bipolarity?” bipolarity captures the relationship between two superpowers and also helps to explain their behaviour in the context of the Cold War. Gearóid Ó Tuathail and Simon Dalby argue in their edited volume, Rethinking Geopolitics “Cold War geopolitics was always too simplistic a cartography to capture the heterogeneity and irreducible complexity of world politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet the very ideological directness of Cold War reasoning was its strength. It drained international affairs of its indeterminacies and lived off its ability to reduce the organic movements of history to a perpetual darkness of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’”

After an initial shock following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US tried to seize the unipolar moment as a ‘lonely superpower’ to borrow the words of Samuel Huntington. But the US was neither a ‘lonely superpower’ as such in the new unpredictable international environment. It tried to play within a multilateral matrix through what Robert Kagan has identified as ‘instrumental multilateralism’. It was apparent that the world was headed towards a multipolar moment, where according to Martin Wight power distribution does not allow a preponderant power. This does not preclude a possible transformation into James Pinkerton’s Tripolar world, namely, US-led American bloc, China-led East bloc and France Germany and Russian-led Eurasian bloc. To date, there is a prevailing global ambiguity despite the US instrumentalisation of the ‘madman theory’ through irrational behaviour. Truly, a great deal of flux pervades the distribution of power internationally with the abiding resistance of Russia, France, China, and Iran (for details of the global order, see my 2009 article, “Contemporary Nature of International Community”, Nigerian Journal of International Affairs. 35(2), 9-33).

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The extant reality of the world order has played into the global health emergency. As noted by Marijk van der Wende, Professor of Higher Education at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, the existing climate of political control and mistrust between the great powers engendered by COVID-19 is “being fuelled in part by tensions between the United States and China, including over the origins of the pandemic, and pressure from the US administration on Europe over European relations with China in all areas including trade, investment, higher education and research”. Tarık Oğuzlu, Michael W. Manulak, and Martin Wolf have variously reflected in the context of the moment the likely configuration of the global order.

In his “Geopolitical consequences of COVID-19”, Tarık Oğuzlu, Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Bilim University, advances three core arguments in his essay are (1) that Covid-19 has affected core elements of globalisation. Global interdependence could lead to a domino effect as demonstrated by the outbreak of COVID-19. The free movement of people, as well as goods and services, is responsible for the rapid spread of the virus. In effect, it has affected the “China-centric global supply chain.” 2) Efforts to roll back the spread of COVID-19 revalidated the state as the pillar of governance. Fending off economic collapse through stimulus packages, and revamping the health sector are the forte of the state, not the affairs of the private or so-called third sector.3) Post-COVID world order will see an accelerated US-China rivalry and within a threadbare post-liberal global order where the America-first principle will likely continue whether a Trump or Biden takes over the White House. On the other hand, an assertive Xi Jinping-led China will not become “a norm taker”. Indeed “China has changed its course from the “bide your time and hide your capabilities” dictum of earlier times. Oguzlu identifies the battlefields in “good governance practices in such different realms as health, sustainable development, environment protection, climate change, poverty reduction, etc, than military power capacity and territorial control”.

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In his essay, “Geopolitics and COVID-19 – An isolationist future is not in Canada’s interests”, Michael W. Manulak, an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute x-rayed the Canadian place in the emerging global rivalry. He argues against an isolationist proclivity on the part of Canada as “Such an approach would not be in the Canadian interest. Notwithstanding the need to ring-fence industries essential to safeguarding the country’s emergency preparedness, including through the targeted and proportionate use of industrial policy instruments, the crisis demonstrates the need for a continued embrace of international collaboration”. He avers in ways that are prescriptive that Canada is better off economically by resisting the autarchic impulses.

In his words, “Canada is a trading nation and must resist the urge to restrict trade flows. While safeguarding national resilience, the government should continue to use its global influence to reinforce and modernize the international trading system. Canada’s economic security — including vis-à-vis the United States — is enhanced when Canada’s trading relations are integrated into an international framework of rules, norms and institutions. The swift re-establishment of global supply chains is crucial to the world’s economic recovery from any COVID-19-generated recession”. Noting the position of Canada in any fray between its North-American neighbour and China, he would encourage “productive Sino-American relations” based on international rules and norms.

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In his essay published in the Financial Times of May 25, 2020, “China-US rivalry and threats to globalisation recall ominous past”, Martin Wolf drawing on the works of Markus Brunnermeier and Harold James of Princeton University and Rush Doshi of Brookings, compares the current rivalry between US and China to the situation in 1900 onwards in which economic rivalry among the great powers and imperial candidates led to a global conflagration and ultimate death of the “first globalisation”.

As the US treads on the path of “principled realism” that “stresses the threat posed by China to US national security and economic interests”, Wolf is worried that this could lead to an armed conflict. As he puts it, “Rising friction between China and the US, and the weakening of globalisation, have been apparent since the global financial crisis. But Covid-19 has accelerated these trends. The pandemic is turning countries inward. The demand for self-sufficiency is rising. This is particularly true in products relevant to health. But other supply chains are also being broken. The economic collapses, stratospheric unemployment and pandemic-constrained recoveries make some leaders, especially populists and nationalists, happy to blame foreigners. The perception of US incompetence weakens its credibility and emboldens autocratic China. As the US withdraws from international organisations and treaties, and China pursues its path, the fabric of co-operation tears. Even armed conflict is possible”.

Wolf underscores the uncertainty of the moment, and poses the question, “How will Covid-19 change the world? We do not know. But one result is evident: a marked further deterioration in relations between the two superpowers. This is sure to have longer-term consequences.” However, he advises commonsense, “we must not forget how unbridled great-power competition has normally (though not always) ended. Yet today’s world economy is far more integrated than ever before and so the costs of deglobalisation must be correspondingly greater. We need to remember, too, that the weapons now available are far more destructive than those of a century ago. This time, too, there are no outside powers able to save China and the US from themselves. Perhaps most important, we need a far higher level of global co-operation than ever before if we are to manage our global commons”. Dear reader, next week I shall look at the tools of geopolitical struggle under COVID-19.

Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.

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