Don’t mourn the death of internationalism — look harder


A shorter version of this article was published in the Nepali Times, but this one includes the role of the media, a point I had to cut from the published version because it was too long. Please let me know if you agree.

© Diwakar Chettri

COVID-19 is laying waste to international cooperation as well as health systems. Countries have retreated into themselves, barring makers of medical equipment from exporting goods and in some cases hijacking shipments en route to other countries. The Trump administration has exited the World Health Organization (WHO) and is leading an attack on the organisation’s credibility. Internationalism is on its deathbed.  

Or is it?

It’s a conclusion you can easily draw from media reports, which thrive on drama and conflict. “During this global pandemic there’s been precious little sign of intergovernmental collaboration and collective leadership. Instead the worldwide response has been characterized by national self-interest, mutual suspicion and recrimination,” intoned Stephen Sackur, host of BBC’s HardTalk, while interviewing former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband recently.

Cooperation unnoticed

But for every confrontation that makes headlines, there are acts of cooperation that go unnoticed: the US prevents 3M from exporting masks, Washington and Ottawa agree to extend an agreement to keep their border closed till June 21; Trump freezes funds to the WHO, Finland pledges to boost its contribution. 

Of course, you can argue that such acts of cooperation are motivated by self-interest, but what isn’t in global relations? Governments create multinational organisations and sign treaties in the expectation that together they will be stronger – better able to prevent annihilation via wars, more effective at preventing the hole in the ozone layer from growing — and that individual nations and citizens will benefit. 

Development assistance is pledged in the hope that its recipients one day will become players in the global, wealth-generating trading system, which, at least in theory, benefits all participants. (More cynically, donor countries ‘tie’ aid to receiving countries doing business with their own manufacturers).

US, not Covid, killing cooperation

Speaking of treaties, Trump has announced the US will withdraw from the Open Skies treaty, which permits governments to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over 35 states, including Russia. Are you seeing a theme here? A huge chunk of the ‘COVID has killed cooperation’ thinking is based on events originating in Washington, and while the US president is undoubtedly influencing fellow leaders from Orban to Bolsanaro, as with many Trump-related issues, it’s better to wait and see what the final outcome will be. 

Here in Nepal, the US was one of the first governments to provide aid to Kathmandu, in March, to fight the outbreak. Many others have followed: China, India, UAE, Singapore, Switzerland, Germany, etc. Yes, Nepal’s powerful neighbours India and China both continually vie for influence in strategically-placed Nepal, and Switzerland and Germany are long-time donors, but if these governments were motivated solely by self-interest wouldn’t they be retreating into their own crisis-ridden states rather than assisting Nepal, where only 13 people have died to date of the coronavirus? 

Last month, France and Germany proposed a €500 billion European Union rescue fund that would benefit mainly southern EU states like Spain, Greece and Italy, which have been devastated by the virus. Those governments would not have to repay the money. Of course the move, which still needs to be agreed by all members, is also motivated by self-interest — any failing nation will drag down all EU members — but if agreed the deal would mark a major response that belies the prevailing ‘charity begins at home’ narrative popular in these times. 

Global $ always fall short

The international response to COVID-19 includes $44 million deposited by governments into the United Nations Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund, $217 million into the WHO Solidarity Fund, and €7.4 billion pledged for vaccine research. Even the US development agency USAID has announced $99 million in global emergency health funding. Countries have anted up to finance a global response to the pandemic but as usual in times of crisis it’s, not enough. In May, WHO reported it is $900 million short of the $1.7 billion it will need to respond to the virus in 2020. 

The WHO has become another flashpoint in US-China relations, which have soured in a trade war since Trump took office in 2017. President Xi Jinping used the recent meeting of the World Health Association, the decision-making body of the WHO, as a platform to pledge $2 billion over two years to help nations fight COVID-19, which dwarfs the roughly $500-million US contribution to the global health body. 

Yet more than 100 countries are participating in WHO’s Solidarity Trial to speed up development of a vaccine, and last month 140 world leaders, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, signed a letter calling for all virus vaccines, treatments and tests to be patent-free, mass produced and distributed fairly. These actions seem to signify that much of the world agrees that just as the virus threat is global, the response too must be international. 

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