Posted on April 04, 2020

Travel bans, closed borders, lock-downs and blame-games by some of the world’s political leaders — is this the end of global cooperation? Nationalism was already on the rise almost everywhere. Will COVID-19 make countries more inward-oriented, less cooperative and insular? 

In the short run, yes. It looks right now like borders are closing everywhere, even inside countries. But within a year we are likely to need more rather than less global policy coordination. The pandemic itself is creating and amplifying global problems that will now demand accelerated action.

The most obvious need for multilateral policy coordination is in health itself. The pandemic is showing us how important it is to share health information as quickly and transparently as possible. Research efforts are underway around the world to find a vaccine, and researchers need to coordinate and connect as well. The other obvious interdependency is the global economy, and particularly the fate of developing economies. The United States, United Kingdom and Germany are first examples of rich developed countries that have launched massive stimulus packages. That may save their domestic economies in the short term, but what about the global economy?

The G20 met (virtually, of course) on March 26, under the chairmanship of the King of Saudi Arabia Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Said (the country holds the rotating G20 presidency for 2020). Despite some tensions, the leaders pledged additional support for the World Health Organization (WHO) to fight the pandemic. They also promised $5 trillion to prop up the global economy. What many don’t realize is that the G20 became a leader’s forum in response to the 2008 financial crisis (prior to that it was only a meeting of finance ministers from the world’s 20 leading economies). This provided the greatest shock to the global economy since the Great Depression and also seemed to be the death knell of globalization and interdependency. 

Some countries wanted to respond to this crisis by unplugging from the global economy. This was nevertheless accompanied by the wider realization that a global economic crisis requires a suitably global response. Over the next decade, the G20 became a forum for discussing not just economic but global policy challenges, including social, technological and environmental issues. However, as the global economy recovered and problems seemed to recede, the forum was taken less seriously by some world leaders. 

Not now. COVID-19 will provide the same spur for multilateral cooperation as the 2008 financial crisis. But it will be cooperation with a different focus. Obviously, health and pandemics will be front-and-center, as extra help for the WHO demonstrates. However, the effect of the virus on developing countries and their economies will be much greater than the disruption of 2008. Already below international standards, their healthcare systems risk being overwhelmed. 

This issue was raised at the recent G20 talks, with the communique noting the risk to African countries in particular. In addition to “doing whatever it takes” to keep the global economy afloat, G20 leaders committed to supporting coordinated international action for poor and developing countries. Cooperation was also evident in the call for coordination among international organizations like the IMF, World Bank, OECD and WHO. None of this means that multilateral cooperation will happen in itself. Countries and regions that were previously sceptical of globalization will continue to welcome its demise. International organizations may stumble, and G20 leaders (especially the United States) may increasingly become preoccupied with their domestic problems.

We saw some of these potential pitfalls during last week’s meetings of European Union member states. In debating whether to use the European Stability Mechanism to help struggling countries, as well as the introduction of “corona bonds,” the Nordic countries, Netherlands, and Germany were resistant. Closer to home, Qatar has been under blockade since 2017. Ironically, the blockading states are led by Saudi Arabia which currently holds the G20 presidency and chaired the meeting in March calling for global cooperation.

There will be the temptation to reject cooperation, play on old wounds (and find new ones), beggar neighbours, protect, defend and disengage. There will be social media campaigns by state and non-state actors to spread blame and disinformation. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a leading think tank on extremism, it’s already happening. But the pressures for global policy coordination will be stark. Health coordination, as long as the pandemic roils around the globe. Economic coordination, as the global economy plunges into recession. Political and humanitarian coordination, as health and economic turmoil spill over and create regional disruptions, spark conflict, migration and human misery.

As the G20 communique noted, COVID-19 is "a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities.” The virus “knows no borders.” Our efforts to deal with the aftermath shouldn’t either.

Leslie A. Pal (pictured) is the founding dean of the College of Public Policy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University