Covid-19: Impact on Global Politics and International Institutions – Takeaways and Reflections

by Dr. Mark Meirowitz*


As a result of the momentous events confronting the world community and its leadership, there has been a great deal of analysis and reflection on what the impact of COVID-19 has been, and will be, on global politics and international institutions. The experts are divided on these issues, which leads to the observation I once heard from a seasoned diplomat – that prognostication in world affairs is certainly not an exact science. Nevertheless, there are some reasonable takeaways that might follow from the current crisis.

* Associate Professor, State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College

Complete Failure of International Institutions to Deal with the COVID-19 Pandemic

While the call of the UN Secretary General of the UN to end all world conflicts[6] has certainly been well intentioned, this request has gone largely unheeded, and has made barely a dent in ongoing conflicts throughout the world. Said the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, that “[t]he fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the fight of our lives”[7]. Yet the UN has literally done nothing to deal with the crisis, and its specialized health agency, the WHO, appears to have actually hampered the international effort to combat the virus. While it is true that Saudi Arabia called for a cease fire in Yemen[8], the other combatants in the conflict are not complying.The United Nations as an institution has been completely absent from this crisis, and the World Health Organization (WHO), the specialized agency of the UN tasked with concerns about global health, which claims that it “works worldwide to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable”[1] has been a woeful embarrassment. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, took note of “[T]he near irrelevance of the World Health Organization”.[2]The WHO has failed to act as the international leader on what is unquestionably the world’s pre-eminent global health issue, and questions have been raised about the WHO’s close relationship with China.[3] Indeed, “[t]he WHO’s position regarding China has also renewed a longstanding debate about whether the WHO, founded 72 years ago, is sufficiently independent to allow it to fulfill its purpose”[4] and President Trump has even taken action to stop funding the WHO.[5]

The EU is in complete disarray, with Germany opposing an EU Aid Plan to help Italy, which is suffering terribly from the Corona Virus[9]. Add to that the dislocation of Brexit, and the EU is completely dysfunctional. This is somewhat ironic because the EU was set up to create a borderless Europe – yet the border lines now appear to be up and strongly maintained – so a united Europe now appears to be an utter fantasy.

NATO has faded from view, not only on this issue, but has also failed to clearly define its mission.

Institutional failure goes well beyond the international arena. In the opinion of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “[w]hen the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed”.[10]

How did we get to this point and how will COVID-19 affect the global order going forward?

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is of the view that the “pandemic will forever alter the world order”[11].  Kissinger further observes that the crisis requires global attention but has largely been addressed on a national, rather than international, basis. Says Kissinger:

“Leaders are dealing with the crisis on a largely national basis, but the virus’s society-dissolving effects do not recognize borders. While the assault on human health will—hopefully—be temporary, the political and economic upheaval it has unleashed could last for generations. No country, not even the U.S., can in a purely national effort overcome the virus. Addressing the necessities of the moment must ultimately be coupled with a global collaborative vision and program. If we cannot do both in tandem, we will face the worst of each”.[12]

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is of the view that the way the pandemic has been handled shows the “triumph of sovereignty” and that the response to the pandemic has been based on “individual countries deciding” how to deal with the virus. Secretary Rice is sympathetic to the fact that because of the urgency of the crisis, that the “international system” has not been “on point” and that countries now are focused on “trying to take care of their own.” However, she also believes that the time should come soon when “international institutions take on a larger role”.[13] Secretary Rice does contrast the global and organized response to terrorism after 9/11 (where the world community understood that the threat of terrorism was “borderless” and worked together) to the global reaction to the pandemic, which has failed to address the pandemic on a global basis. [14]

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that the “pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it” [15]. In his view, “the world after the pandemic is unlikely to be radically different from the one that preceded it”. He blames waning American leadership, faltering global cooperation and great power discord for the difficult situation we find ourselves in and expects these factors to continue to be present even after the crisis abates.[16] Haass bemoans the fact that while:

“[i]deally, the crisis would bring renewed commitment to building a more robust international order, much as the cataclysm of World War II led to arrangements that promoted peace, prosperity, and democracy for nearly three-quarters of a century…there is little reason to believe the past will repeat itself after this latest global calamity. The world today is simply not conducive to being shaped. Power is distributed in more hands, both state and nonstate, than ever before. Consensus is mostly absent. New technologies and challenges have outpaced the collective ability to contend with them. No single country enjoys the standing the United States did in 1945.”[17]

Prof. Joseph Nye of Harvard University is of the opinion that COVID-19 will “not change the global order” and that the US will remain pre-eminent after all of this ends[18]. He states that “[d]elays and obfuscation wasted crucial time for testing and containment, and the opportunity for international cooperation was squandered”.[19]

Who ends up on top of the world power game – China or the US?

In Prof. Nye’s view, both in soft power and hard power, the US will prevail after the crisis ends. As for soft power, Nye observes that “China starts from a weak position…Beijing has created its own obstacles by exacerbating territorial disputes with neighboring countries and by its insistence on repressive party control, which prevents the full talents of society from being unleashed in the way that happens in democracies.”[20]. With respect to hard power, too, says Nye, “the balance favoring the United States will not be changed by the pandemic. Both the U.S. and Chinese economies have been hit hard, as have those of the United States’ European and East Asian allies. Before the crisis, China’s economy had grown to two-thirds the size of the United States’ (measured at exchange rates), but China entered the crisis with a slowing growth rate and declining exports. Beijing has also been investing heavily in military power, but remains far behind the United States and may slow down its military investments in a more adverse budgetary climate.”[21].

Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the UN, is of the view that the COVID-19 pandemic will not fundamentally alter global economic directions. In his opinion, it will only accelerate a change that had already begun: a move away from U.S.-centric globalization to a more China-centric globalization. [22]

How Should the US Approach China after the crisis ends?

To my mind, this pandemic will engender a more pragmatic and realistic approach by the US and the world community to China and will not lead to a more China-centric world. There will be more questioning of China’s motives and intentions in the world. The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s actions in the South China Sea, together with its internally repressive regime (which prevented information about the origins of the pandemic in China from being released – which would have been very helpful to organizing an effective worldwide response to the virus) will be seen for what they are: China’s efforts both domestically and internationally, to expand its influence, control and hegemony. Former Secretary of State Rice observed that when the SARS epidemic occurred, China (just as it did with Covid-19) also refused to provide information about the origins of the epidemic[23]. The world community must demand that China become a responsible world citizen. Rice suggests convening a UN Security Council Meeting to discuss the origins of COVID-19 and seek to have a discussion with the Chinese about this issue. She does not envision such a meeting as being one involving or seeking sanctions, or involving vetoes, just a frank and open discussion on how the pandemic started.  The Chinese leadership should realize that its propaganda about the Covid-19 pandemic is simply not being accepted by the world community.

How do we avoid a repeat of this crisis in the future?

Global cooperation is essential and “America First” and the Trump Doctrine, which eschew multilateral agreement and resolution of disputes, will simply not work in the post-COVID-19 world. We can’t retreat into the medieval approach of the “walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement of people.”[24]. Certainly, as suggested by Secretary Rice, a world institutional structure must be set up to deal with the next, inevitable, pandemic.[25]

Also, American leadership is desperately needed to engender a world order where the American concept of the “rule of law” prevails, rather than the “Chinese World Order,” which would subject the world to continued Chinese expansion seeking world influence and hegemony, amid misinformation and disinformation.

The world is at a crossroads. Let’s hope world leaders heed the wake-up call and start thinking about future global cooperation and planning, rather than myopic nationalistic and isolationist approaches which will only cause America and the world to retreat into a “walled city” where we won’t be protected from global and international threats and challenges.


[1] Who.int. (2020). Home. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int.

[2] Haass, R. (2020). The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It. [online] www.foreignaffairs.com. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-07/pandemic-will-accelerate-history-rather-reshape-it.

[3] Griffiths, J. (2020). The coronavirus crisis is raising questions over China’s relationship with the World Health Organization. [online] cnn.com Available at: cnn.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Klein, B. & Hansler, J. (2020). Trump halts World Health Organization funding over handling of coronavirus outbreak”. [online] cnn.com. Available at: cnn.com.

[6] (2020). COVID-19: UN chief calls for global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’”. UN NEWS, 3-3-2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] www.aljazeera.com. (n.d.). Saudi-UAE unilateral ceasefire in Yemen begins; Houthis balk. [online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/saudi-uae-coalition-declares-2-week-unilateral-ceasefire-yemen-200408185013981.html.

[9] Correspondent, J.B., Brussels (2020). Germany accused of abandoning Italy amid coronavirus crisis as Berlin rejects EU aid plan. [online] Express.co.uk. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1264621/Italy-coronavirus-EU-aid-coronabonds-Germany-Netherlands-economy-update-europe-latest [Accessed 24 Apr. 2020].

[10] Kissinger, H.A. (2020). Opinion | The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order. Wall Street Journal. [online] 3 Apr. 2020, Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=4 [Accessed 24 Apr. 2020].h11585953005?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=4

[11] Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13] www.c-span.org. (2020). Condoleezza Rice on Coronavirus and National Security | C-SPAN.org. [online], 4-14-20, Available at: https://www.c-span.org/video/?471200-1/condoleezza-rice-coronavirus-national-security

[14] Ibid.

[15] Haass, R. (2020). The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It. [online] www.foreignaffairs.com. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-07/pandemic-will-accelerate-history-rather-reshape-it.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nye Jr, J.S. (2020.). No, the Coronavirus Will Not Change the Global Order. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/16/coronavirus-pandemic-china-united-states-power-competition/.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Mahbubani, K. A More China-Centric Globalization in Walt, J.A., Nicholas Burns, Laurie Garrett, Richard N. Haass, G. John Ikenberry, Kishore Mahbubani, Shivshankar Menon, Robin Niblett, Joseph S. Nye Jr ,.Shannon K. O’Neil, Kori Schake, Stephen M. (2020). How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/20/world-order-after-coroanvirus-pandemic/.

[23] www.c-span.org. (2020). Condoleezza Rice on Coronavirus and National Security | C-SPAN.org. [online], 4-14-20, Available at: https://www.c-span.org/video/?471200-1/condoleezza-rice-coronavirus-national-security

[24] Kissinger, H.A. (2020). Opinion | The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order. Wall Street Journal. [online] 3 Apr. 2020, Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=4 [Accessed 24 Apr. 2020].h11585953005?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=4

[25] www.c-span.org. (2020). Condoleezza Rice on Coronavirus and National Security | C-SPAN.org. [online], 4-14-20, Available at: https://www.c-span.org/video/?471200-1/condoleezza-rice-coronavirus-national-security


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