GIS Dossier: Beyond the pandemic – the politics

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GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey reviews our analysis of the political effects of the Covid-19 crisis. A previous dossier examined the economic repercussions.

As 2020 draws to a close, the Covid-19 pandemic has picked up speed again, infecting higher numbers of people than at its outbreak. While treatments are better and death rates lower, fear of the disease is still prevalent and has transformed politics from the local to the global level.

In an effort to remain safe, societies have allowed authorities to consolidate and centralize power. “Societies are now willing to tolerate any means to contain the disease, regardless of whether it violates constitutions, laws or personal freedoms,” noted GIS founder and chairman Prince Michael of Liechtenstein in October.

The trend can be found in every region and even in supranational organizations. The World Health Organization, for example, has never been so closely watched, heeded, criticized and politicized. International systems like the European Union saw unprecedented breakdowns – though the bloc did quickly recover some of its cooperative spirit.

Perhaps most importantly, governments at the national level have strengthened their influence over private life. This phenomenon was visible across every continent. 

No alternative?

In that statement from October, Prince Michael criticized the notion that ceding ever more power over to governments – and shutting down more aspects of private life and commerce – was the only sensible option. “Certain ideas have been declared ‘alternativlos,’ to use German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preferred mantra,” he wrote. “[T]hey must be adopted by all, because there is no alternative.” The comment was exquisitely prescient, coming just days before United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared there was “no alternative” to a strict new lockdown in his country.

It was an echo of the “scare tactics” governments are using to defend lockdown policies, about which the GIS founder warned in another statement in April.

But reacting with alarm, argued Prince Michael, would only lead to bad outcomes and further put individual freedoms at risk. Not only are governments gaining new powers, they are also creating new bureaucracies and technologies designed to monitor and control the daily lives of their citizens, he said. “Such technologies may be employed to force people to comply with new rules that leave little room for individualism.”

GIS expert Lord David Alton of Liverpool agreed with those sentiments in a May essay where he said that citizens need to be more alert to the dangers of totalitarianism. “All too easily our freedoms and liberties can slip through our fingers,” he warned.

Europe: Under strain

At the outbreak of the pandemic, GIS expert Prof. Stefan Hedlund argued that it had revealed the emerging contours of a weakened Europe. “The EU had been shown to be if not irrelevant then at least a spectacular no-show. As borders were being closed, the fundamental principle of free movement was cast aside.” Tellingly, several member states had moved quickly to protect their national interests by imposing prohibitions on the export of crucial medical supplies.

“When Europe emerges from the coronavirus crisis, the landscape will look fundamentally different than it did at the outset of 2020,” wrote Professor Hedlund. “Most importantly, the EU’s geopolitical clout will have taken a serious hit.”

Meanwhile, GIS guest expert Karl-Peter Schwarz wrote that the pandemic would only make the EU’s problems worse, calling it a “stress test” for the bloc.

“At the onset of the crisis, the EU was conspicuously absent, as if it had given up on itself. There was no European crisis management, no early warning by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. … [T]he Union failed dramatically in its primary task of coordinating the member states’ measures. And also – a much more serious matter – it was unable to keep the common market open.”

GIS expert Dr. Michael Leigh admitted that the EU was having a bad pandemic. “The list of mistakes is long,” he said. However, he argued that the idea that Covid-19 accelerated EU disintegration is “not the only possible reading of the pandemic’s impact” on the bloc, explaining that it had “taken several bold initiatives” to contain the outbreak and mitigate the economic consequences. Among these, he pointed to the European Commission’s quick moves to halt the above-mentioned bans on exports of medical equipment. Moreover, “EU coordination encouraged the exchange of best practices among member states,” he pointed out, and struck an optimistic note about proposals for a European “health union.”

Western Balkans: Infusion needed

In the Western Balkans – so often a source of trouble in Europe – restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic exacerbated political tensions, leading to protests. GIS expert Prof. Dr. Blerim Reka listed how freedoms were limited:

During the first half of 2020, the region’s internal and external borders were closed. … [S]trict lockdowns prevented citizens from circulating freely. Restrictive measures were even introduced through amendments to the criminal code (in Albania), martial law (in Serbia and North Macedonia), or a state of health emergency (in Kosovo). In early July, Western Balkan countries imposed a second lockdown.

Those measures led to potentially lasting instability. The developments could delay or derail the EU accession process, which both Albania and North Macedonia were counting on beginning this year.

Foreign powers rushed in – among them the U.S., Russia and China – all trying to shore up geopolitical support with offers of financial aid. The EU was the most important source of such funds. During a second wave, Dr. Reka argued, the Balkans would need more. “[W]ithout a strong financial infusion, the six countries will face mass emigration and the whole region will experience a financial crash, triggering state failures.”

United States: Continuity ahead

The pandemic has had an enormous effect on the United States, so far infecting nearly 10 million people and killing nearly 235,000. GIS expert Dr. James Jay Carafano took a calming approach in May, pointing out that eventually, the pandemic would subside, and that the U.S. would recover. The question for many policymakers was whether Washington’s rivals would take aggressive measures to try and capitalize on the instability wrought by the responses to the disease.

According to Dr. Carafano, U.S. policymakers were betting that other actors in the great power competition would be restrained and risk-averse while grappling with their own responses to the disease. “We have seen some disruptive activity, including a spate of aggressive propaganda from China, Iranian surrogates attacking American forces in Iraq, and North Korea launching short-range ballistic missiles,” he wrote. “These, however, appear modest compared to recent tensions between the great powers.”

Once the pandemic begins to subside, the U.S. could be expected, “to take a proactive position in driving global engagement.” That would include strengthening partnerships with allies. In Europe, where Russia and China were trying to draw weaker countries into their orbit, Washington would likely take part in the recovery “to sustain the transatlantic community.”

In Asia, the U.S. would reinforce ties with allies to advance its “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept. Washington wanted to combine forces with Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea both to coordinate the Covid-19 response in the region as well as potentially increase cooperation in managing the relationship with China.

None of this is far removed from the U.S.’s pre-pandemic strategy. And despite the bitter partisanship on display in the presidential election campaign, there is a broad bipartisan consensus on this foreign policy strategy, Dr. Carafano wrote. “The most likely scenario is more continuity than change in the U.S. approach to global competition.”

U.S.-China: Rivalry intensifies

In May, GIS expert Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote that the Covid-19 pandemic had solidified China’s position as a superpower. “The upshot,” he wrote, “is a more divided international environment,” adding: “As the geopolitical winds shift, the issue is which nations are with and against China.” This fault line can be easily seen among the nations of Southeast Asia, he pointed out.

In September, he theorized that these factors could change the trajectory of the U.S.-China rivalry. Because Covid-19 has accelerated trends toward protectionism, larger countries that have more diverse, self-sustaining economies will do better, as long as they have the virus under control. From this perspective, China has an advantage, he wrote.

Moreover, countries are using a potential vaccine to serve their geopolitical interests. China is promising to share any vaccine it develops with Southeast Asian and African countries in its orbit. This strategy follows the “mask diplomacy” approach Beijing employed early on in the pandemic, where it tried to garner favor among nations through donations of medical equipment. The U.S. may not be able to match this effort, wrote Dr. Pongsudhirak, while European nations will likely continue bickering among themselves.

Yet as China pushes forward, the U.S.’s entrenched structural dominance will stand in its way. The result will be an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry. The competition both for global markets and for geopolitical allies will ratchet up.

Middle East: Economic disruption

In May, GIS expert Zvi Mazel wrote that as the first wave of the pandemic receded in the Middle East, the infection rates and death toll seemed more limited compared to other parts of the world. Official figures in the region can be suspect, of course, and in some countries, those figures did rise later.

The bigger issue, he wrote, was the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. Exports of oil and gas – on which so many countries in the region depend – plummeted. Tourism and remittances from expatriate workers also fell sharply.

Moreover, there was no respite in fighting in areas where conflicts raged: Libya, Yemen and Syria. In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State seemed to be making new inroads.

On the other hand, restrictive measures imposed in Arab countries halted a series of demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Because the limits made economic conditions worse, unrest will probably rise again when the pandemic passes, predicted Ambassador Mazel.

The GIS expert set out pessimistic and optimistic scenarios for the region. In the former, economic crises would send protesters out into the street, leading to significant unrest and potentially violent repression. The violence could result in another wave of refugees to Europe. In the optimistic scenario, governments would be so concerned with solidifying their hold on power that they would be willing to pull back their engagement in conflicts across the region.

Latin America: Higher instability

The pandemic has also had a major impact on Latin American politics. GIS expert Dr. Joseph S. Tulchin wrote that, in Argentina, the pandemic’s tendency to benefit centralized power has helped President Alberto Fernandez establish himself as a leader, even though his vice president, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wields control over his party. Mr. Fernandez “appears to be in control” of most sectors of the government, said Dr. Tulchin. “He has proven willing to seek points of consensus with the opposition on how to deal with the pandemic.” Yet an “unstable equilibrium” will confront Argentina in the months ahead, he predicted.

In Chile, Dr. Tulchin wrote, the coronavirus added to several factors that were putting the country’s free-market consensus in danger. In October, Chileans voted to draft a new constitution. “Given the level of social discontent that preceded the coronavirus epidemic and has now been, if anything, amplified by it,” he wrote, it is conceivable Chileans would elect vocal and revisionist constitutional framers.

In September, GIS guest expert Ana Rosa Quintana wrote how the outlook for Colombia was darkening due to the disease. It has complicated the country’s attempts to wind down its decades-long internal conflict and to deal with an influx of refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The internal conflict has left seven million Colombians displaced, while 2 million Venezuelan refugees remain stranded in the country. “The rule of law remains Colombia’s central weakness,” wrote Ms. Quintana.

Across the region as a whole, the Covid-19 pandemic has emerged as a powerful incentive for cities with high-density slums to rethink urban renewal programs, explained GIS guest expert Ines de Marcos. With so much money focused on fighting the disease, funding gaps for infrastructure investment are widening, while the number of people in informal settlements continues to rise. However, “A silver lining of the pandemic could be the political and social focus on the issue and the increasing reliance on new technology solutions to tackle the urbanization challenges,” she said.

Africa: Reforms on hold

In Africa, Covid-19 had significant political implications. In June, GIS expert Teresa Nogueira Pinto focused on Ethiopia, where the coronavirus put up roadblocks to reform. The country was seen by many as the paragon of the “African renaissance,” but due to the pandemic, elections scheduled for this year were postponed and economic reforms were put on hold.

Ethnic tensions had already started to rise in 2019, and some worried that the political and economic stress would worsen them. Yet the pandemic led to a truce of sorts between political factions.

Ms. Pinto predicted that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would take advantage of this situation to consolidate his party’s hold on power while accommodating demands for multinational federalism. The solution, she thought, would “prevent political fragmentation or disintegration.” Moreover, she predicted that “substantial external aid” would strengthen the prime minister’s popularity.

Source: GIS Reports


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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