Will the COVID-19 pandemic be the final straw in the dismantling of the American-European alliance? Does the coronavirus crisis threaten the Pax-Americana order that has dominated Western politics since the end of World War II? To what extent is it changing power relations, as it creates new norms for assessing national strength and prestige? Questions like these that are now part of the global conversation.
The recent news that EU states were intending to bar the entry of U.S. citizens due to America’s failure to combat the spread of COVID-19 suggests a jolting response to these queries. It is deeply ironic that citizens of the country that liberated Western Europe from Nazi occupation 75 years ago and played a central role in rebuilding the region as an economic powerhouse are now unwelcome in Europe. This grim milestone is more than just a blow to American prestige; it highlights profound skepticism about the ability of the U.S. to lead globally, and new criteria about who deserves to do so.
Breaking dramatically from precedent, the United States, has abdicated its traditional leadership role during the pandemic, leaving forums like the United Nations Security Council and the G7 virtual ghost towns. America’s domestic response to the virus – especially in recent weeks, as the center of the crisis has moved from the country’s Northeast to the South – has also been flailing, inconsistent and divisive, further undermining any remaining U.S. claim to global excellence.
The U.S. is not the only global powerhouse that has failed to demonstrate competence and leadership. Indeed, one of the most startling revelations of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the faltering responses from a number of the world’s most powerful capitals, even as a number of smaller states have tackled the crisis with surprising efficiency and innovation.
For its part, the European Union displayed a remarkable lack of coordination during the initial stages, with its centralized mechanisms stuck in neutral, cooperation between member states foundering, and national-level responses running the gamut from disastrous to inspired.
While China’s unprecedentedly aggressive lockdown of Wuhan surely averted a worse disaster, its costly initial delays, early efforts to silence whistleblowers and destroy test samples, and doubtful health-data transparency cast a pall over the more successful elements of its pandemic response.
At the same time, a handful of small to mid-sized countries, including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Germany, responded impressively. Other states are now emulating these pandemic “high performers” in seeking effective policy solutions and possibly to communicate both to their citizens and other states that they are competent and responsible actors, deserving of respect and legitimacy.
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We may be witnessing the emergence of a new normative-political global order. As countries are increasingly assessed and ranked by their ability to combat the spread of the virus, pandemic response will likely become an important source of state prestige and legitimacy.
Why norms matter
Norms – the appropriate conduct or behavior of an actor within a given community – have become a subject of study in recent decades in several academic disciplines. In international relations, the study of norms is commonly associated with the constructivist paradigm and has proved particularly valuable for examining change that leads to the creation of global regimes.
Mobile contact tracing, simply, is seen as what responsible, legitimate states do, while those that fail to conform to new standards of behavior could be increasingly seen as reckless or incompetent.
In contrast to realists and liberal institutionalists, who believe states are motivated mainly by a cost-benefit analysis of material interests, social constructivists observe that states are also motivated by a “logic of appropriateness,” a concept proposed and developed by political scientists James G. March and Johan P. Olsen. State behavior, they posit, is often primarily driven, shaped and interpreted by what other states will see as appropriate, right and good. Such ideals matter to interactions among states just as they matter to individuals who are socialized within a rule-governed environment. States, ensconced within a larger collectivity or “society” of states, follow certain patterns of behavior because the latter are expected prerequisites of group membership.
Domestic considerations about responsibility and appropriateness may be the starting point of a normative structure, but when a challenge is global in nature, new norms are likely to emerge on the international level. This has been the case in the past, with such challenges as WMD proliferation, climate change and, to a degree, epidemics (such as AIDS-HIV and Ebola). In the case of the “nuclear taboo,” for example, since the idea of using nuclear weapons is now seen as so abhorrent by a critical mass of people, nuclear powers have restrained themselves from using their arsenals.
Shifts in global norms can help explain large-scale changes. For example, countries that once saw imperial conquest and slavery as acceptable, even desirable practices, now view them as abominations. The fact that such behaviors were themselves once seen as befitting a powerful state also raises an important qualification: Norms do not necessarily motivate states toward positive or productive behavior in some absolute or universal sense.
The seminal work of international relations scholars like Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink on norm “life cycles” argues that global norms emerge from “norm entrepreneurs” – influential actors with deeply held convictions, who use political power and persuasion to convince other actors to shift their conduct. The ideas promoted by successful norm entrepreneurs may eventually be codified into institutional practices and law.
While many scholars assume that these entrepreneurs are from civil society, more recent scholarship has suggested that states can also perform the same crucial role. For instance, scholars have noted that Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden and Norway have played activist roles in shaping global norms in the realm of nuclear disarmament.
Already we can say that the COVID-19 will be a transformative moment in human history, with certain patterns already evident. First, while the success of certain high-performing states in containing the virus is already driving important new policy discourse worldwide, the overall impact of these states may extend to other realms. The rapid proliferation of mobile contact-tracing systems is an instructive example.
Governments and private firms in every region are rushing to develop and roll out such capabilities, which have allowed stand-out countries like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea to effectively enforce quarantines, and provide citizens and officials with timely epidemiological data. Taiwan and South Korea’s pioneering efforts in this arena perhaps drew particular attention not only because of their efficacy but because both countries are liberal democracies, suggesting that such policies had the potential to be adapted to and adopted by other countries that respect civil liberties.
As countries struggle to find workable policies that balance concerns about both public health and the economy, these contact-tracing models have become increasingly attractive, particularly as long as the world lacks a vaccine. The UK, France, Finland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, Israel and India are among the diverse liberal democracies that have rushed to develop their own contact-tracing apps; India’s already has 100 million users. Meanwhile, Google and Apple are collaborating on refining an anonymized contact-tracing application programming interface that has been adopted in a number of countries.
States such as China, Turkey and Bahrain are, unsurprisingly, well-disposed toward contact-tracing systems that facilitate increased surveillance of their own citizenry. As many commentators have noted, the adoption of invasive health surveillance systems worldwide could have astounding consequences, including a vast increase in state authority and a host of opportunities for serious abuses by private firms and individuals as well.
How significant is it that countries and companies have been inspired by the early successes of countries like South Korea and Taiwan? Some observers might describe this dynamic as a type of policy diffusion: States are mirroring and replicating the pandemic “winners” as they seek life-saving measures. However, a more nuanced read is that states also want to appear, at home and abroad, as technically capable, competent, responsible and forward-thinking. According to international relations scholar Ian Clark, legitimacy is the essential glue holding together international society, defining standards of conduct and membership.
In other words, states are adopting such new technologies not only because they can produce certain outcomes but also because they are, (a) perceived to be part of an emerging category of rightful international conduct; and (b) affirm a state’s place at the table of the wider community of nations. Mobile contact tracing, simply, is seen as what responsible, legitimate states do, while those that fail to conform to new standards of behavior could be increasingly seen as reckless or incompetent.
What are some of the other variables that seem to separate pandemic winners from losers, and may evolve into normative state conduct?
States like South Korea have clearly been able to muster substantial societal trust and high rates of compliance from citizenry. Political scientist Sofia Fenner, in an interesting examination of state response to the pandemic, calls this phenomenon “societal buy-in.” Lack of societal buy-in seems to be a pronounced issue in low-performing states. In the U.S., for instance, mask-wearing quickly became subsumed into the country’s contentious “culture wars,” understood on some level as indicative of a person’s political orientation. A similar dynamic appears to be at work in Brazil, where supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro have reveled in defying public health measures like social distancing.
As high-performing states manifest increased confidence and willingness to raise their voices internationally, elites from countries that have performed poorly may be more willing to listen.
Some of this discordant societal response is a product of defective political leadership. Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu” (until he was himself infected) and President Trump has, until recently, not only refused to appear in public wearing a mask but recently remarked that citizens who do are merely trying to spite him. In any event, it is likely that a new set of norms will almost surely involve a state’s willingness and capacity to inspire citizen solidarity in the face of a public health threat.
Indeed, mask wearing has probably become the most visible emergent social norm of the pandemic. Western countries have greeted the practice with some suspicion. Masks, of course, were not previously a quotidian reality for many and had associations with specific and sometimes alarming contexts: a hospital operating room, say, or a bank robbery.
In the early stages, Western medical authorities were ambivalent about mask-wearing. In the U.S., health officials fretted that encouraging the practice would drain stockpiles of PPE needed by nurses and doctors. When new studies indicated the clear utility of widespread mask wearing, many Western societies got onboard. Others, however – for example, the U.S. and UK – dug in their heels. When masks became mandatory in some American locales, the measures generated political protests (sometimes attended by heavily armed militias), arrests and even violence. In one case, a security guard in Michigan was killed after telling a customer to put on a mask. There is clearly an emerging global consensus that this level of resistance to mask wearing is highly, even radically, dysfunctional. What was once a specialized, unfamiliar activity has quickly become expected, sensible, and normative.
Another norm likely to emerge from the pandemic is the idea that leaders and governments should overtly support national health officials and institutions. The most dysfunctional pandemic responses have been from countries like the U.S. and Brazil whose political leaders have actively undermined public health leadership, in an effort to score political points. This is a clear and now-proven recipe for chaos and disaster.
The global laboratory
Another unique dimension to the current crisis that may be driving the emergence of a new normative system is the comparative framework that has arisen as states have endeavored to respond to the virus. The pandemic is playing out over an extraordinary setting – in a sense, a human laboratory of global proportions – that allows the situation in different states to be scrutinized, evaluated and ranked empirically. The fact that the crisis is producing easily accessible and constantly updated charts and spreadsheets of pandemic data might prove a motivating factor for norm entrepreneurs: Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a starker record of failure and success.
Interestingly, many analyses of pandemic winners and losers do not simply seem to be based on better results – that is, fewer infections and deaths. A certain normative element appears to be creeping in, with high performers appearing to be more moral and good than the low performers. This could indicate that pandemic response is not just about finding policies that produce particular outcomes, but also about achieving a deeper sense of state legitimacy.
In the media, many comparative analyses of pandemic responses have contained unmistakable finger-wagging and moralizing. For instance, a recent Economist article chastising the UK’s disorderly response referred to the country as “the sick man of Europe.” Much coverage of Sweden’s performance has implied that the country’s relaxed approach was an irresponsible and even ruinous gamble – particularly as compared to the more cautious policies of its neighbors, which more closely followed the global trend of society-wide shutdowns. Both scholarly and journalistic examinations of South Korea’s impressive universal testing and mobile contact tracing models have contained shadings of awe, self-critique and even envy.
The subtext to many analyses is clear: How can we (the losers) be more like them (the winners)? When life-saving solutions are so clearly visible among a spectrum of possible state responses, failing to implement the “right” policies can appear less like an honest mistake and more like a national, moral failing.
For a new set of global norms to emerge, dedicated human agency is required. But who will be the trailblazers? One possibility is individuals and groups from the “winning” states, which could leverage their increased international prestige and sense of moral authority to advocate for clarifying and strengthening the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations. This might be a particularly useful institutional space to advocate for a new and more elaborate set of global norms.
It is possible, then, that the coronavirus crisis could alter the global order and the way power is measured and ranked internationally. While many of the high-performing states are small, their impressive responses may lend them a newfound type of “soft power” – the ability of states to shape the behavior of others through the power of attraction. According to the influential international relations scholar Joseph Nye, who developed the concept of soft power, states with widely admired cultures, political values and institutions are better able to shape the preferences of others.
Some states on the short list for “best coronavirus response” are already enviously regarded for other achievements associated commonly with soft power. South Korea, for instance, is admired for its contributions in the realms of music, fashion and cinema. New Zealand is often applauded for its economic egalitarianism, gender equality and sparkling paucity of corruption; its president, Jacinda Ardern, has been rightly feted for her compassionate leadership not only during the current pandemic, but also in the aftermath of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings.
States commanding newfound soft power could find their influence further augmented by coordinating among themselves. In fact, pandemic winners have already begun serious discussions – at bilateral and multilateral levels – about synchronizing safety standards and promoting travel, tourism and other commercial interests. New Zealand and Australia, for instance, are in the midst of negotiating a “Trans-Tasman travel bubble” between the two countries.
As high-performing states manifest increased confidence and willingness to raise their voices internationally, elites from countries that have performed poorly may be more willing to listen. In bilateral and multilateral forums, officials from the former are likely to be afforded increased regard, respect and prestige. Policymakers in floundering countries like the United Kingdom and United States may increasingly turn to nations like South Korea for advice and to more fully understand how they “got it right.”
This is particularly true now, as countries emerge from economically devastating lockdowns without adequate plans for responding to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. In the U.S., it would not be surprising if local and state officials and health authorities, who have already been compelled to take the lead on pandemic response will increasingly seek out the advice of high-performing states abroad. This in turn would allow the latter competent countries to further entrench a new global norm: Being cast as advisers will put them more firmly in the driver’s seat.
It is also possible that individual citizens as well as businesses and other organizations, in countries like the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Italy or Spain may look to, and emulate, countries that have managed the crisis well. Private companies, philanthropists and NGOs could lead calls for the adoption of pandemic response standards and for large-scale changes to public health systems.
For norm entrepreneurs in countries whose pandemic response has been flawed and disordered, the shame over those failures, particularly in comparison to high performers, may prove to be a powerful catalyst for policy change. After all, no citizen wants to belong to a country perceived as a global “leader” in coronavirus deaths.
Will the new grouping of small- and medium-sized pandemic winners endure in a post-pandemic world? It’s too early for concrete forecasts. The final outcome of the current crisis depends on a variety of still undetermined factors, including its duration, the trajectory of the virus and the successful development, manufacture and distribution of a vaccine. It also remains to be seen if the high performers continue to respond effectively and smartly as they grapple with new outbreaks of COVID-19 within their borders.
Nevertheless, we dare to envision a world where pandemic high performers are able to leverage their increased soft power to articulate a set of global norms governing pandemic response, leaving the world better positioned for future and perhaps even more ruinous crises. More broadly, we could be witnessing the first ripples of a transfer of global political power and legitimacy from traditional military and economic powerhouses to a constellation of smaller states that have proved to be islands of competence, innovation and good governance during the most desperate of times.
Mikael Gaelen Kelly, a recent MA graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), is a Presidential Management Fellow with the U.S. government. Avner Cohen is a professor of nonproliferation studies at MIIS.