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Will COVID-19 infect the world order?

Mehr News Agency – Professor Larry Backer in an interview with Mehr News Agency argues that the concept of COVID-19 may penetrate the world order like the virus attacks individuals. The current COVID-19 ravaging every corner of the world and many states are desperate in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Nations and governments are panicking and the economy has already collapsed. This crisis is expected to deepen more and more without a serious global willingness and cooperation.

Due to the great impact of the coronavirus on the world from different aspects, many believe that changes to existing world order and international relations are inevitable in the post-corona era. In an effort to make the dimension of the changes to the existing world order by coronavirus clearer, we reached out to Larry Cata Backer, Professor of Law and International Affairs at Penn State University.

Here is the full text of his answers to our questions: 

What will be the effects of COVID-19 on the current world order?

First, it is important to underline that there WILL be effects on the current world order. That is an important premise because it was not at all necessary, nor was it necessarily predictable at the start of the COVID-19. Thus, the first step in answering this question is to answer the question on which it must be based: have the influential elements with responsibility for the maintenance of the world order determined that the COVID-19 pandemic MUST produce effects. The answer to that question has become clear by the middle of April 2020—the COVID-19 pandemic must produce effects on a world order that, in retrospect will be understood, at the end of 2019, as a world order ready for change but unable to move by reason of inertia.

In effect, then, COVID-19 will have effects on the world order precisely because those with the power to shape the narrat8uves on the basis of which mass society understands and responds to the world have given that signification to the pandemic itself. Was it necessary to invest the pandemic with this change power? –NO! But does that matter anymore?—again NO!

Second, with the decision to invest the pandemic with this significance—that it must necessarily have an effect on the world order—the principal question comes into better focus. That question goes to the direction of the changes to the current world order that may emerge. Again—the effects and the direction cannot be understood as “natural” in the sense that there is an organic connection between the existence of pandemic and the vectors of change that it produces. The opposite is true. The changes to the world order triggered by the COVID-19 will reflect the application of rival ideologies through which the great powers see the world. 

For Marxist-Leninist States, like China, the pandemic and their struggle against it proves and was crafted to exhibit, the virility and power of the Chinese political-economic model to meet and overcome the COVID-19 challenge. That, vindication, in turn, will likely enhance the possibility for the emergence of a more visible new Communist international around the principles (now internationalized) of the Chinese Marxist Leninist system with application first within developing states participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, and thereafter (again modified to suit context) in other states. The result, under a best-case scenario, will be the emergence of a new approach to international ordering grounded on the Chinese vision with the transnational application.

For liberal democratic states, the same is also true. Here the COVID-19 is also both a “test” and a “portal” through which the fundamental principles of the political economic order are tested, modified and from which they will emerge stronger. In these cases, there will likely emerge two variations reflecting the ancient fissures between the old Roman world (the EU) and its northern frontier (now under the leadership of the US as its most perfected vanguard force). Where the Chinese system will emphasize centralization, planning, and the superiority of the political sector, the liberal democratic versions will emphasize decentralization, markets (private power), and the superiority of the economic and societal sectors. 

Thus, the effects of COVID-19 will not be revolutionary in the sense of abandoning old systems. Rather it will accelerate tendencies already well observed.  It will also further refine a tendency toward differentiation (and choice) rather than toward convergence. But again, these dominant ideologies invested the COVID-19 with a very specific signification—and an ancient one: it was a test (which could be rationalized in religious or secular “scientific” terms). That test was meant to prove the value of the system tested. But it was also meant to serve as a furnace within which the weakness of those systems might be burned away, leaving only the strong core from which the system could emerge changed and re-invigorated. But changed in ways that will hyper emphasize some of its organizing principles (described above) and scorch away the rest. 

It is in that context that one can consider the effects on globalization. Many members of the intellectual sector who produce analysis for a living, as well as the planning sectors of governmental organs, are now obsessed with what they might (mis)interpret as the rise (again) of the state. And yet a closer view of “pandemic effects” might suggest that something else is at work here. Consider the focus on the way in which states “take control” through the re-invigoration of borders. But borders have always been a key element of economic globalization. Global production, itself grounded in the organization of segments, require that those segments be policed and protected. 

Economic globalization could not have existed in its current forms if it did not maintain these compartments that then could be used to segregate and contain risk. States, then, within the global order, were meant to work like watertight compartments on a 20th century ship.  The danger for globalization with respect to the state was that the compartments could not be sealed off when necessary. That, in part, was one of the reasons that migration erupted a s a crisis in the 21st century. At least with respect to that, the state operated more like the compartments on the Titanic than as wholly self-containable units (with the possible exception of North Korea).

Thus understood, the role of the state—as cogs in translational orders—emerges more clearly. Pandemic was precisely the moment with the protection of global production required the state to use its police power and its borders. But at the same time, the pandemic drew much more clearly the difference between the state as an agent for the protection of the free movement of goods, capital, and investment (even where those might be divided among the big three emerging globalist empires) on the one hand, and the use of the state as the custodian of their respective human capital. While trade was affected (and sometimes severely) the organization of trade at its foundation was not. It will be re-arranged of course. That is the primary effect of the COVID-19 on globalization. But more importantly, it will be used (its principal significs) to reposition the state as the shepherd of human capital corralled and to be utilized within their respective pens. 

These pens, once known as states, now serve an additional and important purpose not for the greater glory of the state necessarily but rather as the middle managers of global production. Of course, the other effect of the pandemic will be to make clearer the differentiation in the character of that role between apex states, and those below them. It will be to their organization around vertically differentiated global production chains arranged around the new imperial centers, and the rules created to facilitate trade between these centers, that will likely mark the core transformations that the COVID-19 will leave in its wake.

The current world order is majorly based on liberalism and to some extent on realism approaches. What are the deficiencies of the said approaches revealed by COVID-19?

The answer to the first question changes the complexion of this second one. At its simplest, the answer must be that any event of severe stress—like pandemic—will likely reveal the weaknesses (as well as the strengths) o dominant systems that order political-economic-societal life within vertically arranged hierarchies in which some elements are privileged, and others survive as they can. But that answer applies equally to all systems, not just liberal democratic systems. And, indeed, the pandemic illustrates, for those who care to observe, the way that the stress it produces reveals both strength and weakness in all systems.

However, it is important to look more closely at the way that the stress of pandemic might reveal deficiencies in powerful or powerfully influential systems. By 2019, it had become a cliché among all political sectors and the intelligentsia that provided the foundations for their conclusions, that the post-1945 liberal democratic order and its manifestation in contemporary constitutional orders and the international framework of principles on which it was supposed to be based (or at least reflect) was either broken or in need of reform. 

Those at the margins of that discussion (Marxist-Leninist theorists, theocratic political-moral orders, so-called Third World and development oriented theorists) of course profited from that internal discussion.  While many took that as a sign of the weakness of the system, for others, me included, it suggested an underlying strength.  It suggested that the system was still quite “alive” in the sense that it was still the central element of the ordering of reality around which political-economic-societal systems could be ordered. 

Enter the pandemic. An extraordinary entrance to be sure—in six months or so it has managed to sweep away much of the veiling behind which these discussions and battles for control of the “heart” of the system were taking place. And among those in the midst of the battling, it provided the signal—the sign—that they chose to interpret as permission to accelerate their move to seek control of the ordering norms of the system. It is in this sense that one might usefully understand the all too real view among virtually everyone about the deficiencies of the liberal democratic system as well as the way in which the pandemic provided the excuse necessary to reveal more publicly what was already well contested within the highest levels of the leadership of that system.

But it does not suggest the sort of fundamental deficiencies that might imperil the system. The opposite, I think, is true. In that light, the deficiencies must be understood within context. And that context can be divided into two parts. One context would examine the deficiencies of the liberal democratic order from the perspective and through the lens of the ordering principles of political-economic-moral systems fundamentally incompatible with those of the liberal democratic order. For this perspective there can be nothing but deficiency precisely because the making of meaning with respect to the most fundamental objects of social ordering are impossible to reconcile. 

They simply cannot see the same thing in the same way. From this perspective it is true, as the question suggests, that the pandemic highlights all of the critical failings of the democratic order—the hijacking public policy by private institutions, the sovereignty eroding effect of markets on policy, the inefficiencies of public organs subject to multiple layers of consultation and fractures of authority, and the paralysis inherent in systems in which power is both sharply held and the success of its execution widely dispersed. 

In contrast to this outsider perspective analysis, an insider perspective might yield a different analysis. The insider perspective would examine the deficiencies of the liberal democratic order form one of two distinct analytical positions. The first would take as a given the soundness of the fundamental organizational principles of that order and focus instead on the deficiencies of its implementation. Those deficiencies might derive from system failures (e.g., the political institutions ought to be reformed to correctly reflect principle, or the law must be enforced in accordance with a correct application of principle, etc.). The second would focus on the need to reform or further develop but not reject) the fundamental ordering principles themselves. 

In the context of pandemic these might center on the division of authority between different levels of government, to the division of authority within a political institution. In the United States this translated into furious debates about the way that American federalism impeded or advanced the fight against the pandemic. But they might also center on the substance of the principles themselves—and these may then create a discursive space around corruption (e.g., should the state provide support for business or to working people? How should medical resources be rationed? To what extent may the state o private actors mandate personal behavior among the masses? And the like). 

In the international sphere, these deficiencies are marked by the borderlands between public and private sectors which are evident in the organization of global production. Thus, for example, the need to impose a responsibility on multinational enterprises for the effects of economic decisions taken in consequence of the pandemic that cause severe harm to local economies down their production chains. This has been particularly apparent in the context of the production of garments in which decisions taken by large Western multinational firms might severely affect the economic viability of states like Bangladesh.

Taken from this perspective, the usual reporting about winners and losers is stripped of much actual significance. The pandemic has not produced a list of winners and losers along the conflict binaries that were popular before the pandemic: the state versus the private sector; bureaucracy and planning versus the market; liberal democracy versus Marxist-Leninism; China versus the United States, etc. Much more interesting is the way that the intelligentsia and the political classes they serve have sought to develop a discourse around the pandemic that its critical significs is the way that it will decide or change the contours of battles for global leadership. This is the sort of material one feeds mass opinion for the purpose of the propaganda wars that are an integral part of inter-systemic competition.  They are important for the fury with which they are pursued, and their ability to sway common understanding.  But they have very little to do with the actual movement of dominance under conditions in which no one system has emerged spotlessly triumphant. 

If the pandemic shows the world anything, it is that all systems under stress will have to change in light of their failures and will need to exploit those areas which showed each at their best. From that the battles for control of global narrative, of leadership, and the like, will continue even as the character of the combatants necessarily changes. But those changes, again to underline the opening perspective, has little to do with the virus itself—it has everything to do with the way that people invest these actions with meaning, and the extent to which such meaning is widely embraced. No magic here; and there is no organic progress toward triumph of one or another of the camps; it is all strategy, and work, and discipline, however those can be advanced within the rules of the respective “operating systems” of these actors.

If we accept that the post-corona world order will be different from the existing one, will the changes be structural and fundamental ones? Which meanings will experience fundamental changes?

At last, we come to the most profound question, but also the one that may be easiest to answer—at least in general terms. The changes suggested above are both broad and fundamental. They will likely produce structural and fundamental changes. While it is far too early to provide much detail, the changes may be sketched in broad outline.

First, the fundamental relationship between the individual and governing institutions (the state in Marxist Leninist systems; the state and private institutions in liberal democratic orders; and the state and religious leadership institutions in theocratic systems) will change in profound and quite noticeable ways. While it is likely that the discourse of personal liberty and of individual autonomy will not change in the short term, the application of those principles will change. The broad outlines of those changes are already apparent. The first cluster of changes revolve around the power to monitor. Surveillance will become central to the organization of society and the understanding of privacy will change to suit the need.

This does not mean that there will not be opposition, indeed there will be, but that it is likely that the opposition will have an effect only at the margins. In a sense this ought to come as a surprise to no one. All systems have embraced, some with enthusiasm, cultures of compliance and accountability for business and economic conduct. It is only a small step to transpose these now muscular cultural expectation around accountability to the individual. The framework around which accountability s driven is monitoring and reporting. It is grounded in data harvesting and in judgment manifested through data analytics. The rationale will be based on the protection of the individual, first; and then on the protection of society from individuals whose conduct have (they always have) spillover effects. It will be difficult to resist this trajectory made more compelling in the shadow of COVID-19. 

But surveillance will not mean merely the burden of being observed. As suggested above, it also implies the duty to account and to submit to systems of accountability. One sees this already in the systems developed in Israel and then Russia designed to track targeted individuals and then to warn others who might be exposed to them. It is seen in the way that Taiwan and South Korea have aligned their information systems for the purpose of surveillance with specific objectives (public health in this case) in mind. Even in the United States, the recent exposure of the way that large internet platforms (Google for example) to track people and to use that in the service of the police power in a crisis reveals the extent to which such surveillance is already normalized. Its rationalization remains at the earliest stages of development.

Second, the scope of governmental authority will likely change. It is difficult, though to predict the direction of that change and it is likely to be highly contextual. Part will defend on the way in which a system disperses power between its public and private organs. But the character of that power will change as well. There will likely be an acceleration of the trend, already quite evident in most systems of moving away from the increasingly primitive view of government as actually managed by high (sometimes elected) officials in which the issues revolve around the exercise of sovereign executive, legislative and judicial power (however arranged) to a system that is centered on administration by managers. 

The bureaucratization of all aspects of life actually signals the movement of power from the political to the managerial elements of institutions. The pandemic revealed in all its majesty that the state and its principles are captive to the administrator, to the technician, to the field expert, and to those who design and operate systems that connect policy to implementation. States that expose that connection tend to do well; states that seek to suppress this trajectory by muzzling or sidelining their technocrats often find themselves criticized and their efforts undermined.

Third, the nature of borders will change. As mentioned in more detail above, borders will indeed matter more for the control of people. At the same time, they will matter less for the organization of economic activity.   At the same time, the nature of the porosity for economic activity will depend on the alignment of particular states within clusters of states organized around a vanguard state. The result, of course, is a fundamental reorganization of globalization. But this is unpalatable. So, expect that these changes will occur without much comment. Expect as well that those at the forefront of change will reject any notion that they are changing anything.,  And expect as well that eventually the principles of globalization will be re-interpreted to provide the discursive basis for legitimating the new global organization of economic activity.

Fourth, few people speak to international financial institutions and their role in the post COVID-19 world. That is a pity. Largely left behind, perhaps as a matter of policy, perhaps because their bureaucratic girth makes nimble movement difficult, it is possible that the role of IFIS will be changed. On the one hand, in the middle term public IFIs may become a useful tool for the implementation of normalized expectations for national shepherding of their populations to ensure maximum productivity (and thus maximum contribution, in the aggregate, to collective wealth).  

Loan conditionality, technical assistance and the like, the now ancient tools of IFI management of states can be used to those ends. But that requires consensus about what exactly is to be expected of states. That latter project will likely provide a window in the contests for global control of narrative among the US-China-EU with second order powers working furiously at the margins. Irrespective of the way that it is resolved, the application of the fundamental principles of animal husbandry through the language of rights will likely grow.

Fifth, the discourse of migration, as well as its management, are likely to change. One of the peculiar consequences of the COVID-19, already much noted, has been the way that states, without much resistance, were able to reconstitute their borders for the protection of their populations. But borders are tools with a rich palette of uses—even if only directed against people. While it is unlikely that the discourse of migration will change much in the short term, it is possible that the management of migration—especially where it can be reconstituted as the movement of peoples (collective movement) rather than the product of individual circumstances—may begin to assume a different form, and one that is more restrictive.

At the same time, this broader movement will be masked by wide variations among states, given their national challenges.  More interesting will be the extent to which migration becomes a challenge more among states with vulnerable populations, than of migration between the periphery and the “metropolis.”

Sixth, the nature of the police power will likely change as well. It is likely that the future of power will be shaped as much by models based on data analytics, as it will be founded on the application of principles and human judgment. Machine learning and modelling has driven the response to COVID-19 irrespective of the political-economic or moral model to which the responding state adheres. The human factors has been disappearing from the development of approaches to protecting the human factor in societal organization. One speaks here to “at risk” populations, to the science of transmission, to predictive analytics. One speaks here to the use of analysis to align health, sustainability, economic and political consequences in ways that maximize the objectives of those applying the analytics. 

One sees, in the end, the emerge of automated management as the principal consequence and effect of the COVID-19 on the way in which the global order is conceived and managed. In the future it is as likely that contests for power will be between distinctive approaches to data analytics, and the effectiveness of the algorithms used to provide incentives and punishments than it will be about the  underlying principles around which society—even global society—is ordered.  

Professor Larry Backer researches globalization, especially as it relates to the emergence of ways of understanding constitutional and enterprise law. His most recent work touches on the regulation of multinational corporations, sovereign wealth funds, transnational constitutionalism, and the convergence of public and private law. He researches issues of governments as private actors in global markets, the development of law and social norm systems to regulate business and human rights.

He teaches classes in constitutional, corporate, and transnational law and policy. Professor Backer is a member of the American Law Institute and the European Corporate Governance Institute. He served as chair of the Penn State University Faculty Senate for 2012-2013.

Interview by Payman Yazdani

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