Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs
Focuses on foreign policy, inclusive security and gender
IS THE POST-COVID ‘NEW NORMAL’ NEW AT ALL?
Is there such a thing as a perceived ‘new normal’ in international affairs, heralded by the post-COVID era? History begs to differ. Let’s not forget that the breakdown of the stability of the bipolar system, after the end of Cold War, had also been characterized as a ‘new’ albeit more unstable international order, monopolized by gloating American hegemony. Disparate attempts to challenge such hegemony remained at that, as contenders’ ambitions surpassed capabilities. Better still, during the post-Cold War era, events unfolded under the mantle of interdependency and collective decision-making, in a maze of post-World War II international institutions, treaties and occasional glimpses of international law. All these survived the collapse of bipolarity and thus, bestowed a sense of familiarity and system continuity to anyone who cared to watch. As per Fukuyama’s famous dictum, many assumed that humanity had reached ‘the end of history’ and was on an inevitable linear path to progress towards democracy, liberalism and globalization.
It was, thus, easy to miss the obvious, while living through it- that this period of American power monopoly (1990-2020) was, in fact, our very own ‘Thirty Years’ Crisis’, the intermittent phase between equilibrium failed and equilibrium restored. Thus, the pandemic is not about to destroy our normal; the pandemic is now speeding our recovery towards normal. A renewed equilibrium, underpinned by Balance of Power games, is made more necessary and possible in the absence of an American vision of how the future world should look like, exacerbated by US unwillingness to clutch onto world supremacy. No world power monopoly has ever survived for long, unless it underpinned its reign in blood and iron. And in that respect, America is no Rome.
Additionally, one can say with certainty that the façade of global collectiveness has been dealt a serious blow by the COVID pandemic. Although attempts at collective action are nothing new, the lessons of history are much too stern to be ignored. The Congress System, the first attempt in modern times to create a common foreign and security policy in Europe, followed the Napoleonic Wars; the League of Nations came after WWI; the United Nations right after WWII. Following war, there comes hope. Plus an attempt to divide the spoils and manage the aggressor. However, once law and order are restored, against a hitherto existential threat, conflicting interests make a comeback. Bearing in mind that aforementioned collective arrangements collapsed, once they outlived their usefulness, the existence of the UN, at least in the form which we know of today, seems an aberration rather than the norm.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the US has recently expressed no real wish or interest in taking the United Nations forward. In fact, it’s been some time now that American appreciation for the role of the UN has dissipated and funding was subsequently cut by the Trump administration. The World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations affiliated organization, has just received the exact same blow: budget cuts accompanied by scathing critique, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind about Washington’s de-legitimization intentions, even in the midst of a pandemic. One wonders whether the US is gradually pulling the plug on the UN network, much like the British previously did to the Congress system, as it has become an international vehicle which no longer serves American ambitions.
The post-World War, Cold War drivers are now obsolete. German aggression was reckoned with. Communism crashed and burned. In practical terms, the UN is not calling the shots in resolving most ongoing conflicts. Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict- these are all conflict hotspots where pretenses of needing the UN in order to create and maintain a peace process or for the big players to proceed with military intervention on either warring side is long gone. The UN is now defied, in very much the same way that the League of Nations once was. Even in the case of the most serious security issue that humanity has had to face in the 21st century-that of COVID19- no common action for a common threat was taken by the UN Security Council. No wonder then that the Security Council appears lackluster and rather unnecessary in order to keep peace and security anywhere on the planet, whereas the General Secretary comes across as irrelevant and is largely ignored in international affairs.
In such global ambivalence, enters China. COVID19 did not create, but has rather exacerbated an already widening rift, between Washington and Beijing- a rift which we can say with certainty will only increase, under the strain of the global pandemic. Currently, each side, while claiming the high moral stance, hurls serious accusations against the other, pursuing a blame game regarding the spread of the deadly virus. But in the leeway that Washington has allowed and with the golden shackles of the Belt and Road Initiative firmly in place, China seems to have been patiently following its very own sacred teachings – ‘Abide till your time comes’. And now while the US is imploding, China is expanding. A new contender to the American throne. Is it yet time?
 As per EH Carr’s well-known diatribe of the interwar period, 1919-1939, which he had aptly described as ‘The Twenty Years’ Crisis’- the lull between two storms.
 An interesting case in point would be to assume humanity to be currently at war, albeit against an invisible world enemy, just as President Macron has stated. It would make a convincing argument for demolition of the old, birth of the new and a reshuffled world order, under changing circumstances. Exactly as it happened after WWI and WWII.
 Despite an appeal for a global ceasefire as the world was being ravaged by the global pandemic, Guterre’s pleas fell on deaf ears, with little effect and that only initially. In any case, the average person on the street would hardly know that this global appeal for world peace, albeit temporary, ever happened.