Letter from London: Viral Internationalism

What does the coronavirus crisis tell us about the present and future of internationalism? 

February 2021

I write from the heart of a double crisis. 

On one hand, the United Kingdom, with its outrageously high absolute and per capita infection and death rates, has done very poorly in the face of the pandemic. Remarkably, when the Global Health Security Index, on 24 October 2019, ranked countries on how well prepared they were for a viral pandemic, the United Kingdom was second in the world (the United States was first). That seems a long time ago, and now most of us know someone who has been, or is presently, in hospital; ambulances seem more visible; there are many more, though smaller, funeral cortèges winding their way up Highgate Hill; and the streets of central London are eerily bereft of people. 

At the same time, the United Kingdom’s character, indeed very being, is slowly dissolving. I have three identities and a soft spot. My identities—European, Scottish and British (the soft spot is for the city of Melbourne)—are disappearing in the solvent of Brexit (and COVID-19 prevents me from travelling to the soft spot). After a lifetime in the EU (or, earlier, the EC), I am no longer politically or economically European. Meanwhile, my British identity is threatened by a resurgent Scottish nationalism. Maybe one day I will be forced to choose and find myself, unexpectedly, uncomfortably, and for the first time in my life, English.   

What should we make of these contagions, political and viral? More specifically, how should internationalists respond to all of this? Many of them view this moment as one of renovation and hope. Prompted partly by Donald Trump’s removal from the White House and the return to American ‘normality’ under Joe Biden, liberal multilateralists have urged us to grab the opportunity, learn lessons and renew our commitments to doing things together and at the global level. In the General Assembly late last year, the assembly president called for a new global compact: ‘we can work better together’, he announced”.1 COVID-19 and the disasters of Trumphave induced, among some elites, a nostalgia for globalism. Might not the very multilateralism of the virus—negotiating its way across borders, exploiting globalisation, sidelining sovereigns—be a model for a political multilateralism that does the same? The idea was to become COVID—or like COVID—and transcend national appetite and vanity. The virus, blithely dismissive of frontiers, is somehow, then, a reminder that globalisation has not gone far enough. The answer is more globalisation, an ‘international response’ to coronavirus.2 This, it’s fair to say, is the internationalist orthodoxy.

Some cautionary notes might be useful here. 

The first is that we should understand multilateralism as a choice: a decision to do something with certain people, at a certain level, in advance of certain interests, and not, as is commonly assumed, some sort of free-floating good that we ought to promote at every turn or an ideal destination that we must reach as soon possible. Multilateralism has a politics—one need only consider the way in which red and blue states in the United States might divide on this question. But I get the impression that members of the global liberal mainstream don’t like to think of it in this way. For them, enthusiasm for doing things multilaterally is more a matter of polite manners or right thinking, maybe even a tribal instinct. A lot of serious internationalism is like this and possesses a kind of syllogism: ‘global problems need global solutions’. 

But we might want to pause here and ask: what is a global problem and why would it require a global solution? And who loses and who wins when we think about problems in this way? It may be, for example, that multilateralism is the place where promising ideas go to die. Perhaps Google would prefer it if the Australian government, instead of introducing national legislation with a view to curbing the rapaciously disruptive and homogenising tendencies of the tech giants, continued to work through the OECD for a solution that may never come. Clearly this is not just a question of adjudicating between two different levels by deploying some managerial calculus in order to do things in the most efficient manner. Instead, it is a struggle of blood and bone and ideas in the pursuit of a substantive politics.     

The second cautionary note is really a reminder that what constitutes multilateralism in the first place is highly contested. There are so many different ways to be ‘multilateral’—at the UN, outside the UN, in private fora, in public places, with your friends, or with everyone, legally, extralegally or alegally. So, for example, when people use the phrase ‘multilateral intervention’, it can mean many things: intervention by a group of states, intervention by a group of like-minded allies, intervention authorised by some public body or other, or simply ‘intervention I happen to favour’. Multilateralism comes in many cultural and political forms, from Sino-imperial ‘Belt and Road’ to non-alignment to European collectivism. There are many ways to be multilateral, though we are often given the impression that there is only one.

But third—and this is what I want to focus on—is that COVID may also end up having a chastening effect on support for multilateralism or, at the very least, fondness for Euro-American practices of internationalism. Perhaps this will be because the WHO might have made some mistakes too, or because internationalist expertise was itself ambiguous and divided, or because of a wider loss of faith in global governance or because of a moral and technical failure at the Atlantic core of liberal internationalism.3  

Liberal multilateralists have a stock response to all of this: when multilateralism goes wrong it means we have adopted the wrong type. So, their support for a reversion to multilateralism tends to be accompanied by a very familiar set of reform proposals. As always—and we have seen this in the midst of the virus—international institutions are said to be ‘slow to react’ or the regulations are inadequate or there is a need for ‘an independent review’ or international organisations defer too much to the Great Powers or to sovereignty, or there is an inability to ‘enforce compliance’. So, for example, in relation to the WHO, the French and the Germans have called for more funding and ‘more independence’. Independence and funding to do what, though? These calls to be ‘international’ operate alongside an almost mythical belief in the angelic quality of the space of the international, a space potentially beyond politics, if only states, Great Powers and self-interest would get out of the way—an imperfect but perfectible place, a project of reform cynically deferred.   

Yet when international lawyers have weighed in on what, say, the 2005 WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) required of states, the results have been decidedly contentious. My old friend Gianluca Burci was the co-author of an essay in The Lancet in which the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties was applied to IHR Article 43, which concerns the lawfulness of travel restrictions: ‘Upholding the rule of international law is needed now more than ever. Countries can start by rolling back illegal travel restrictions that have already been implemented and by supporting WHO and each other in implementing the IHR’.4 These restrictions, they argued, are illegal because the scientific evidence does not support them (the footnotes relate to earlier pandemics like Ebola) and because the WHO recommended against them in February 2020.5 

But if this is the rule of international law then there would be widespread rebellions against it in Australia and New Zealand, and maybe now in the UK, too. But it is more likely that, as usual, the rule of international law is not subject to authoritative determinations along these lines, that this is not a matter of technical expertise. Instead, the international rule of law turns out to be the usual hodgepodge of vaguely enunciated norms, questionable interpretation, shooting-in-the-dark expertise and scientific dissensus.6 

But there are two deeper problems for multilateralism. The first is that COVID has made it even more obvious that that we are always operating in some inscrutable space between national and international. But the second, more specific to Anglo-American multilateralism, is related to what I sense might be a shift in internationalism’s moral and technical centre of gravity. 

Global governance is felt and experienced at home, in local places. So UNICEF has been taking out large adverts at my local bus stop saying that, along with the WHO, it will be distributing two billion vaccines. Multilateralism has always been at home, but now it is advertising its own localism. But in a more obvious way the crisis has summoned the state back in. A puzzling new state nationalism has emerged out of this crisis. First, we’ve had the naming of the virus—the Wuhan pneumonia, Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’, the South African variant, the Brazilian variants, the English mutation. It all sounds very Andromeda Strain. And for a virus declared to be global, its various incarnations sound decidedly local. 

In the meantime, the British government is engaged in a chauvinistic boosterism—we are told we have the best genome-splitting laboratory in the northern hemisphere, the quickest roll-out of vaccines in history. And one senses a glee in some countries about the record in other countries. The appalling death rates in Brazil are evidence of Bolsonaro’s unfitness for office (ditto Trump in the United States), the lockdown in Australia or China proof of a carceral mindset or authoritarian discipline, the infection rate in the United Kingdom punishment for British insouciance. 

At the same time, here in the United Kingdom at least, and also in Australia, there is a muscular sub-nationalism. As one Australian friend put it as the state of Victoria locked down its citizens: ‘Now I know what the states are for’. In the United Kingdom two things have happened. The first has been an extra-constitutional or proto-constitutional accretion of power in Scotland and Wales. Suddenly a devolved health policy becomes a very powerful tool of government, especially when placed alongside an accrual of symbolic prestige (Nicola Sturgeon is now sounding more and more like the prime minister of Scotland). Alongside this is the emergence of regional bases of authority in places like Greater Manchester, with its threatened mini-rebellion at the beginning of one of the lockdowns.7 It’s not quite Game of Thrones, but one gets the picture.   

What can we say about all of this? Well, on one hand, there is no there—no place that is beyond the relentless, endless negotiations of the global and the local, the national and the international, the cosmopolitan and the provincial, the private and the public. Nothing is essentially global or local; we act politically to make it so. At a deep level we are all at the same time multilateralists and unilateralists, cosmopolitans and sovereingntists. That is how I am able to deplore the failure to get vaccines to states in Africa, say, and at the same time condemn the failure to get one to my 93-year-old mother in West Sussex. This makes global governance a terribly complicated, even enigmatic, concept or practice or ethics. 

But on the other hand we look out at the world and see circumstances that seem cruelly unjust (extreme asset wealth, dire poverty, general inequality, preventable child mortality). Our problem—which is also a solution—is to put together these instincts with some sort of understanding of what global governance might be intellectually and to participate in a debate about the globe or global politics without giving in to the platitudes that count as respectable thought or the morally pacifying intellectualism that declares the destitute too complicated to save. 

Another question has arisen, though, about the location of the centre of geopolitics. This is partly related to the rise of China, partly the slow recession of US power, partly the fragmentation of European identity. But now we have a collapse in confidence in places that understood themselves to be a kind of centre. Not only can the centre not hold, it is no longer experienced as a centre. The way in which coronavirus has spread sometimes feels like an accelerated version of this uncentring. 

Seen from Europe, it began with a familiar set of motifs. Like SARS, like avian flu, like Ebola, this was an exotic ailment happening elsewhere, in places with inadequate health care or low levels of expertise. We would send experts from the centre; we would provide aid, medical support. Thousands would die, but not here, not now, not us. People in London warned me against flying to Singapore in March. Was it wise? ‘You’d be safer at home’, they said. Ten months later, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty (a famous, and famously baleful, figure seen nightly on the BBC News), was gravely informing me that it was best to assume that everyone I met in London had coronavirus. 

So, state failure, infrastructural collapse in the West (Italy, United Kingdom, United States) and relatively successful medico-political interventions in the East (South Korea (testing); Taiwan, Singapore (border controls, exhortations)). Since then—and let me put this out as a provocation—there has been a cultural, maybe even a moral, shift in the understanding Europeans have about their place in the world. The Wuhan pneumonia was one thing, but the Kent mutation? Then Europeans were denied entry to other states. 

And, for the first time in my adult life, we Amero-Europeans ceased to gaze out at the world with our usual mixture of transient humanitarianism and inactive charitableness and instead became the subject of a sorrowful gaze from elsewhere.  

It’s easy to overplay a crisis, but this might mark an adjustment in the structure of our thought about the world, an undermining of our instinctive faith in multilateralism and a shift in our assumptions about where global expertise and good governance—even pity—might be located. 

1 The plan emerging from the meeting was anti-climactic to say the least. In a lonely little paragraph at the end of the minutes there is a paragraph entitled ‘Action’. This ‘action’ apparently required the adoption of a resolution commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the UN and the decision to allow observer states and political entities to deliver a pre-recorded statement to be played in the General Assembly Hall. 

2 Hathaway et al., ‘Covid and the WHO’, Just Security, 2020. There is a lot of understandable enthusiasm for the COVAX Programme, with $2 billion allocated for vaccinations around the world. This is pretty much exactly the same as the bailout for BA and EasyJet airlines in the United Kingdom, and around 4 per cent of Jeff Bezos’s increase in wealth as a result of the pandemic (billionaires have dedicated $7.2 billion to relief during the pandemic).

3 The WHO is an interesting example of this. Many people have been outraged by the attacks on the WHO from the Trump administration, the defunding of it just one more disgraceful, impeachable act and a decision that rendered the WHO more appealing than ever. Initially, in the United Kingdom too, people seemed to like the idea of WHO expertise. First, they wanted the government to tell them what to do, then they wanted scientists to tell the government what to do via SAGE (its committee of medical experts), then they wanted international experts to tell our experts what to do. Every week or so, a WHO official, David Nabarro, would appear on the BBC News or Radio 4. He was afforded an enormous amount of deference—someone speaking to us from the international centre and thereby capable of acting as an adjudicator between our experts (some of them stay-at-home types who wanted us to lock down forever; others cavalier types who insisted that we should ‘eat out to help out’). It soon became clear that WHO expertise was just as unreliable as its national analogues. An examination of the WHO’s performance in the COVID crisis reveals a very mixed record. The history of the Johnson government’s response to COVID has been met with ire by people who believed that lockdown and travel bans should have been instituted in a more timely manner, along the lines of the East Asian, Southeast Asian and Australasian models. And yet, UK government policy tacked fairly closely to the recommendations emerging from Geneva in the critical early stages of the pandemic. For example, at the first meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee in early 2020, ‘Several members considered that it is still too early to declare a PHEIC (a Public Health Emergency), given its restrictive and binary nature’. See WHO Emergency Committee at https://www.who.int/news/item/23-01-2020-statement-on-the-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)

4 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30373-1/fulltext

5 https://www.who.int/news-room/articles-detail/key-considerations-for-repatriation-and-quarantine-of-travellers-in-relation-to-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov/

6 The WHO had declared an emergency during the Indonesian H1N1 outbreak (with a 61-per-cent fatality rate), and having jumping the gun there for a flu that was normalised it seemed less inclined to make the same mistake twice (so it made a different mistake).

7 Things have taken a Schmittian turn, we might say, with the capture of sovereignty through extra-constitutional means. In early January, who was in charge of the US armed forces or the Nuclear Football? Pence? Pelosi? Trump? Who called in the National Guard after the attack on Capitol Hill? Pence or Pelosi? Who determines the Brazilian response to COVID? The governors or the president? Whose writ runs in the favelas

About the author

Gerry Simpson

Gerry Simpson is Professor of International Law at LSE. His latest work, The Sentimental Life of International Law: Literature, Language and Longing in World Politics, will be published by Oxford University Press in the autumn. He is currently writing a study of the Cold War (with Sundhya Pahuja at the University of Melbourne) as well as The Atomics, a philosophical memoir.

More articles by Gerry Simpson

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