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by Katja Theodorakis

by Katja Theodorakis, Senior Programme Coordinator for Research and Analysis (Foreign/Security Policy)

This piece was originally published as the introduction to the latest edition of the 'KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot' - a potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer a panorama overview of the debate in these countries.

"Confronting a once-in-a-generation crisis, the world’s middle powers are urgently trying to revive the old norms of can-do multilateralism.The middle-power dynamic may last only as long as the virus. But if it continues, it could offer an alternative to the decrees and demands of the world’s two superpowers."

From 'China Is Defensive. The U.S. Is Absent. Can the Rest of the World Fill the Void?' by Damien Cave and Isabella Kwai , New York Times, May 11 2020

As nations have been adopting inward-looking approaches to contain the COVID-19 crisis within their borders- arguably brought on more by necessity than political choice - questions are being raised about the ramifications for international cooperation and the future of multilateralism. As detailed in a previous snapshot, there has been some concern that this pandemic-induced protectionist turn will result in a marked shift towards de-globalisation or even counter-globalisation. Support for border closures, Trump's immigration ban, the WHO's limited response, blame shifting as well as a general wariness of the reach and efficiency of international institutions have all been regarded as signs of a multilateral order in decline. In contrast, the other view point is that the crisis has in fact highlighted once more how many of today's global challenges cannot be contained within national borders: aptly dubbed as 'problems without passports' by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, issues such as climate change, migration and terrorism have long been seen as transnational challenges requiring internationally coordinated solutions - and the pandemic is the most urgent and clear case in point for this. It is hoped and cautiously suggested that the pandemic also presents an opportunity and could be leveraged to become an inflection point for strengthening international institutions and, at least within Europe, deliver a new boost of solidarity and impetus for increased cooperation. Arancha González, former Executive Director of the International Trade Center and Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, has for example put forward the argument that international cooperation is in fact the only way out of the coronavirus pandemic:

"In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, national responses are vital, but in the medium term, international cooperation will be our best weapon. And reforming and reinforcing the institutions and mechanisms that underpin such cooperation will be our best defense against future global threats."

Similarly, Roberto Montella, the Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has admonished that despite its potential of further corrosion of multilateralism, the COVID-19 crisis can also serve as the catalyst for much-needed change - if it leads to a required rethink of what successful international engagement means:

"European leaders – for instance – should engage in profound reflections on what is really needed to revive multilateralism, and remember that joint bad decisions, as well as joint inertia, which in the end is the same, can run the risk of a vicious circle from which it will be increasingly difficult to extract ourselves."

The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, spoke poignantly on 'lessons learned' at the United Nations Security Council, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII on European soil this past week:

"The COVID pandemic has reminded us how being pro-active can save lives. This holds true for each and every conflict...The men and women who founded the United Nations had hope. Hope that mankind would not repeat the mistakes of the past. That we would learn to overcome our differences by peaceful  means. That cooperation and compromise would triumph over nationalism and narrow self-interest. It is upon us to prove them right."

And based on recent developments, it could be argued that there are grounds for measured optimism in this regard. Starting with Australia's call for a joint inquiry into the origins and spread of the crisis, it appears that there is some form of a 'coalitition of the willing' taking shape, with especially European nations backing Australia's push for international accountability.

As one article put it, "countries in Europe and Asia are forging new bonds on issues like public health and trade, planning for a future built on what they see as the pandemic’s biggest lessons: that the risks of China’s authoritarian government can no longer be denied, and that the United States cannot be relied on to lead"

This comes in response to earlier rifts in the relationship with the US, exemplified by the revamping of a cross-Pacific trade pact after the United States turned its back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. — between countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Mexico and Vietnam, many of them falling under the 'middle power' categorization. Given impetus by Australia's push for a global COVID-19 inquiry, so-called 'first movers' which had confronted the pandemic quickly and relatively successfully - Austria, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Greece, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand - began discussions on joint measures this week. It was reported the Australian government would back a broad European Union motion for an inquiry through the World Health Assembly. Australian officials are also reported to have been conducting weekly dialogues on the post-pandemic future with a group of countries that includes India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Interestingly, a newly released survey by the Lowy Institute provides some backing for a mildly optimistic outlook, showing that support of a globalist stance continues as Australians have largely resisted recent trends towards protectionist and anti-globalisation sentiments despite the ongoing pandemic. The 2020 Lowy Institute Poll recorded that seven in ten Australians see globalisation as ‘mostly good for Australia’ (more than the number expressing the same view in the Lowy Institute Poll 2006 and consistent with responses in 2019). It specifically found that "at a time where many countries are focused on their own domestic situations, Australians are calling for more global cooperation in response to international crises. More than half the country (53%) say: ‘We need more global cooperation, rather than every country putting their own interests first.’ "

Another fledgling sign for a more globalist turn in politics can be found in the Indo-Pacific: The 'Quad', not commonly regarded as a powerful forum for multilateral action, has expanded to a 'Quad Plus' (including South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand) and began meeting with increased frequency, holding multiple ministerial meetings to discuss the pandemic in recent weeks. As a report from April states, the Quad's “slow but steady institutionalisation suggests that its future expansion is a real possibility.” In particular, New Zealand's recent activity in the Quad has been flagged as noteworthy. Despite being a Five Eyes member, the NZ government has generally been reluctant to participate and did not endorse the concept of the Indo-Pacific as a multilateral bloc at its inception, presumably for fear it would hamper its close economic ties with China. It appears that China's lack of transparency and accountability in dealing with the outbreak and spread of the virus has changed this dynamic. This also appears to be the case for India, which is observed as positioning itself away from dependence on China and towards greater inclusion in the Indo-Pacific.

In conclusion, it seems indeed true that we are at an inflection point. Much of the geopolitical outcome of COVID-19 remains to be seen. Yet what has become clear is that national self-interest is invariably connected to international cooperation and a sense of the global commons. While the pandemic has clearly revealed the flaws in the multilateral system to confront this global crisis, it also starkly highlights the dangers and long-term costs of moving away from international cooperation altogether. This means hope- that some good can come from this in the long-run.





Katja Theodorakis