Issue Briefs

How covid will affect international relations

By Michael Binyon

May 01, 2020.

Is traditional foreign policy still possible during a global pandemic? Are nations able to focus on security, trade, alliances and influence when their governments are preoccupied with death, disease and the collapse of their economies?

Britain has just appointed four new roving ambassadors, with a mandate to coordinate the effort to deal with the consequences of Corvid-19. It looks like a vigorous assertion that the Foreign Office is still central to Britain’s global role and that diplomacy remains the means to strengthen ties with allies, end conflicts and promote national interests. In fact, little attention can now be paid to these goals. Instead, nations are turning inwards, closing their borders, halting foreign travel, going ahead with their own strategies for tackling the Covid-19 virus and paying little attention to what their neighbours are doing.

British Foreign Secretary had to stand in for Johnson

Indeed, Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, had to set aside his role as the minister responsible for Britain’s role on the international stage and focus almost entirely on the domestic fight against the virus. When Boris Johnson was ill and then taken into intensive care, Raab was appointed to coordinate the Cabinet’s response to coronavirus. He did not take over as deputy prime minister, as he was designated only “first secretary of state”, but effectively he stood in for Johnson.

Have diplomacy and international alliances become victims of the pandemic? The European Union is certainly worried that its institutions are under strain. All the members’ borders are closed. There is no longer any freedom of movement or of labour. Countries are pursuing different policies on lockdown and on when and whether to lift restrictions. Indeed, one member, Sweden, did not impose any full lockdown – to the consternation of its immediate neighbours. The EU is also not able to offer collective financial support for the businesses devastated throughout Europe – with the implication that it will be up to each country to decide to how revive their economies when the crisis subsides. In southern member states this has severely dented the EU’s credibility. A poll showed a majority of Italians are now hostile to Italian membership of the EU.

Loss of prestige for international organizations

The authority of international organizations has also suffered. The World Health Organization, the main United Nations body responsible for coordinating global responses to any pandemic, has been dealt a heavy blow by the decision of the Trump administration to halt all American funding. The call by the UN for a halt to wars and civil wars, especially in the Middle East, to allow countries to focus on fighting the virus, has also been largely ignored. Despite a Saudi cease-fire in Yemen, the rebel Houthis have not halted operations. In Syria there is no let-up in the government’s operation to retake control of the rebel enclave in the north-west of the country. And terrorist organizations are reportedly trying to use the

pandemic both as a way of galvanizing Islamist militants and to regain control in areas there they have been defeated.

Relations with China will get cooler

Some foreign policy issues have nevertheless been underlined and exacerbated by the virus – in particular, relations between the West and China. President Trump has frequently blamed China for its initial refusal to disclose the origins of the virus in Wuhan, has pointedly talked about a “Chinese virus” and has stated several times that the US is not happy with China. And not only Republicans are talking about a worsening of relations: the Democrats too are sharply criticising Beijing and talking about the Trump administration’s weakness in standing up to China.

This mood is echoed in Europe. Politicians are talking about a change in future relations with China. There is growing concern that Beijing might use the current crisis to strengthen its global influence. That position is strengthened by European perceptions that the Trump administration is losing both international credibility and its interest in global leadership.

As a result, many European countries are looking at reducing their dependence on Chinese trade when the immediate crisis eases. Britain, along with other countries, has expressed concern that globalisation made it so heavily dependent on supplies from abroad, especially from China; and there is much talk of rebuilding industrial capacity in Britain and of ensuring a properly functioning domestic production of essential items – especially, of course, medicines and pharmaceuticals.

Less globalization

Indeed, the whole concept of globalisation has become toxic to many voters in the West. There is a renewed interest in nations being more in control of their own affairs and less dependent on “just-in-time” supplies from overseas. The comparisons with the Second World War – the only other great global emergency of comparable scale – are apposite. Britain and other nations depended then on a crash programme to produce their own food to avoid starvation. Indeed, another “land army” is again being recruited on British farms to replace the migrant workers who are mostly no longer able to travel to Britain to harvest fruits and vegetables.

Cooperation still needed

The irony is that the need for international cooperation has never been greater if the world is also to meet the other big challenge of climate change. Britain was due to host a climate change conference in Glasgow in November. The COP-26 summit has had to be postponed until next year. But whenever it happens it will need intensive preparation and a spirit of international cooperation if it is to have any chance of agreeing on an advance on the previous Paris summit. A worsening relationship between China and the West will not be a good backdrop for further progress.

For Britain there is one other overriding foreign policy issue that cannot be postponed: negotiating a new post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union. Even before the virus hit Europe, the timetable was tight: a deal should be in place by the end of December, if Britain is to avoid a no-deal scenario and the immediate breaking of all current trading arrangements.

A new calendar for Brexit?

Boris Johnson’s government was elected last December largely on the promise to “get Brexit done”. He and other cabinet officials have rejected growing calls for the December trade deadline to be extended. But British business leaders have looked with horror at the possible disruption caused by a no-deal result, saying that this would be a terrible blow on an economy that will only just be beginning to recover from the long lockdown.

Dominic Raab, one of the most hardline Brexiteers in the cabinet and a former negotiator with Brussels, has had little time recently to concentrate on Brexit, but is said to be determined to stick to the original timetable. Already London has started to accuse Brussels of “unrealistic” expectations of how the trade talks should be conducted – a sign that things are likely to become difficult soon. The EU also is in no mood to focus now on Brexit, believing the need to salvage European unity and cooperation after the crisis has eased will be a much more important task.

Global cooperation only among scientists

Foreign policy may therefore become a question simply of managing crises as they arise. The only real international cooperation at present is medical and scientific. All nations are racing to produce a Corvid-19 vaccine and all have promised to share their results. Countries are also exchanging views and experience on how to cope with the crisis and how to manage its aftermath. But even Britain’s four new roving ambassadors will be only a token addition to this huge effort to overcome the devastation – political, economic and diplomatic – caused by the coronavirus.

Michael Binyon has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.