COVID-19 has Revealed a World of Strong States and Global Enmity

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Image courtesy of Yuri Samoilov

‘Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity, the colour of your skin or how much money you have in the bank.’ The words of WHO official Dr Mike Ryan about Coronavirus (COVID-19) would seem to many of us common sense.

What appears ‘common sense’ does not, however, always manifest in the reality of global politics. Rather than ‘global solidarity’, the international response to COVID-19 has been one of suspicion, enmity, and a buttressing of state power. One after the other, states have declared situations of emergency whilst frequently seeking to shift blame to their international rivals. When it is over, one of the lessons COVID-19 will doubtless leave us with is a sober dose of realism regarding humanity’s capacity to unite in the face of global challenges.

As a political philosopher, I understand my role as to help interpret the political world around us so we can better appreciate the situation we are in. In trying to come to terms with global politics as it responds to COVID-19 it has struck me how this situation of ‘emergency’, coupled with enduring international enmity, has unfolded very similarly to the worldview of the conservative German political and legal theorist, Carl Schmitt.

For Schmitt, political sovereignty lay with whomever could decide this ‘state of exception’. As Schmitt argued in Political Theology, the test of political power is the ability to ‘decide whether there is an extreme emergency as well as what must be done to eliminate it’. This was important to Schmitt as he believed a political community was doomed if it could not act decisively in the face of an existential threat. Liberalism was weak in this sense as its reliance on abstract norms made it unable to give clear and effective guidance on how to act decisively in a crisis. Only a strong authoritative state, Schmitt believed, would be powerful enough to make and enforce the extreme action required to survive an emergency. At the centre of politics, Schmitt maintained, was a system of sovereign states with the capacity to act decisively in a crisis.

In the face of the purported existential threat of COVID-19, it has been states who have taken the decisive initiative in declaring a state of emergency. In Europe, this has occurred in spite of apparent liberal norms such as free movement (as enshrined in the Schengen Agreement) and criticism from leading officials in the European Union. Many declarations of emergency, such as that issued by the Czech Republic, have emphasised the state’s sovereign right to declare an emergency to fulfil their paramount responsibility to protect its citizens. The situations of emergency have shown how political power lies not with international institutions or liberal norms, but with states and their capacity to take drastic action in a crisis.

Nonetheless, there has been genuine fear that such extreme actions may not remain temporary, but point towards increased domestic authoritarianism across the globe. Victor Orbán’s Hungary has stoked fears in the European Union that the pandemic could be used to establish indefinite emergency rule. Fears about Hungary’s actions are informed by the continuing dispute between the Orbán regime and the European Union regarding who has control over the nation’s borders. Hungary’s declaration of emergency in relation to COVID-19 is, in fact, not a novel and isolated act, as Orbán controversially declared a national emergency in August 2017 in relation to the ‘dangers’ of ‘mass immigration’. In the case of Hungary, the ‘state of emergency’ has been shown to be a response not just to existential crisis, but a tool in asserting state sovereignty against international norms and institutions.

One of the most notable examples of growths in state power and the exercise of extreme measures has occurred not in Europe but China. Despite concerns that the humanitarian crisis in Hubei could weaken the Chinese State – the crisis even being referred to as China’s ‘Chernobyl moment’ – recent months have seen an accelerated growth in China’s authoritative power. This authority has included the deployment of an unprecedented range of surveillance techniques, ranging from high-tech drones and health apps to traditional roadblocks. Medically speaking, it ought to be observed that such measures have been endorsed by many international researchers. Politically speaking, it cannot be denied that China’s response has revealed the incredible extent to which a powerful state can act in response to a crisis, and the more severe the crisis appears the more power and control the state can legitimately wield. Schmitt’s words in Political Theology are certainly worth bearing in mind at this time: in such extreme times, ‘the state remains, whereas law recedes’.

Schmitt believed that the essence of politics was a dichotomy between friends and enemies. The ‘specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced’, Schmitt argued in The Concept of the Political, ‘is that between friend and enemy’. Subsequently the declaration of emergency was accompanied with the identification of an enemy, the ‘enemy’ being the existential threat the state was combatting.

In many ways we might have expected COVID-19 to be this existential enemy. Indeed, many countries have followed the example of China in declaring a ‘war’ on the virus. However, in addition to the ‘invisible enemy’ of COVID-19, many governments have also declared war on more traditional ‘human enemies’. Orbán has attempted to draw a connection between the existential threat of COVID-19 and that posed by illegal immigrants, leading to accusations he is weaponizing the virus to stoke xenophobia and make immigrants a scapegoat. Addressing the Hungarian parliament on March 25th, Orbán further sought to stress the foreign nature of the virus, emphasising COVID-19 was ‘transported into Europe’ from Asia. The foreign dimension emphasised in such claims does not just present Hungary as under attack from a global pandemic but suggests Europe has been invaded by an Asian menace.

Orbán is not alone in stressing an Asian nature to the virus, and indeed many western politicians have taken the opportunity to lay considerable blame on China. Most notably, Trump has insisted on associating COVID-19 with China, notoriously labelling it ‘the Chinese virus’. In the United Kingdom, The Daily Mail released claims that the UK government held China responsible for the pandemic, asserted China would become a ‘pariah’ for its handling of the crisis, and would seek ‘a reckoning’ with the ‘communist state’. The Australian city of Wagga Wagga has ‘refused to share solidarity’ with China and severed ties with its Chinese sister cities. Wagga Wagga councillor, Paul Funnell, further accused China’s ‘totalitarian communist regime’ of being responsible for bringing ‘death and destruction across the world with COVID-19’. Interestingly, those who supported the severance of ties with China did so whilst simultaneously stating solidarity with the United States. Here, the solidarity is apparently against not only COVID-19 but also Chinese ‘subterfuge’. Political action again falls into the friend-enemy dichotomy: the US-led West against ‘communist’ China.

China has also sought to shift blame on to the West. Chinese State media has suggested that it is not certain that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, and could have rather originated in the US or Italy. Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, has further participated in the ‘blame game’ by retweeting conspiracy theories that the virus actually started in the USA and was brought to China by the US military. The US and China subsequently intensifying their mutual enmity as ‘trade wars’ mutate into COVID-19 ‘blame games’. Trump has even halted US funding for the WHO, notably accusing the international organisation of not only ‘failing in its duties’ but also of being biased towards his Chinese rivals, a move China has been quick to claim demonstrates the West’s obsession with ‘politicizing’ the crisis.

There have of course been instances of global solidarity and cooperation: Germany notably treating patients from France and Italy as well as donating ventilators to the UK. Other efforts in international cooperation have however come under more suspicion. China’s claims to lead ‘global solidarity’ have been questioned following accusations that ‘donations’ of equipment made to Italy were secretly ‘sales’.

Other states have been more bluntly self-prioritizing. Trump has seemingly remained true to his ‘America First’ mantra, diverting protective masks meant for Germany – an act German officials equated to ‘modern piracy’ – and calling a halt to exportation of US-made respirator masks to Canada and Latin America. Hostility to ‘outsiders’ has meanwhile deepened, with reports of COVID-19 related racism being reported from Mexico, to Britain to China. Overall, the world has not witnessed a universal pulling-together but deepening suspicion, fear, and enmity towards ‘the other’. At the outbreak of the crisis, we may have naively hoped that inter-state rivalry could be set aside, and the world would rise, united, to meet a universal indiscriminate foe. Schmitt would have likely shaken his head dismissively at such optimism, and it would appear he would have been justified in doing so.

Image courtesy of Yuri Samoilov (website). [CC BY 4.0]

Ruairidh Brown

About Ruairidh Brown

Ruairidh John Brown teaches International Studies at the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo Campus, working at the campus since receiving his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017. His research lies predominantly in the area of Political Theory, centring around issues of obligation, friendship and State legitimacy. He is the author of the book Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry into the Situation of Political Obligation (2016, with Palgrave Macmillan).

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