Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
More than a year has now passed since the mass outbreak of the coronavirus disease
at a global level. Now that we are in the second year of the pandemic, it is obvious that the worldwide vaccination effort is essential to decreasing the magnitude of Covid-19’s impact on all aspects of our lives, including our economies, social lives and international policies. Currently, only a fraction of the world’s population has been vaccinated and the task of expanding this effort is becoming a truly global challenge- one that has only just begun.Vaccine research, development and production have been a high priority for developed countries. Ever since the first outbreak of Covid-19, the world’s great powers, including Asia, Russia, the EU and the US, have used their scientific, technological and industrial capabilities and infrastructure to work on the first vaccines and quickly set up and develop distribution infrastructures. Even though the task is an enormous one, there has already been significant news about the successful distribution and administration of the vaccination process in a select group of countries.Covid-19 is pushing countries and communities to the brink. How is the pandemic playing out in different regions and countries, and will this collective global challenge facilitate a cooperative global response-or just the opposite? Experts from across the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation weigh in.The South China Sea. U.S. trade wars and pressures. Climate change. The intensifying geopolitics of the dying Mekong and its challenges to interdependent states and lives along it. And of course, for Southeast Asian states, the no-win, growing challenge of U.S.-China conflict marked by both the rapidity with which the relationship has deteriorated and its seeming ability to touch every other challenge confronting the region.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten countries in Southeast Asia is no stranger to crisis. As many note, the region’s prior experience with SARS-another borders-transcendent infectious disease involving a novel coronavirus linked to China may help explain why some asean states, compared to more resourced states like the United States, were relatively more prepared, mentally and politically, for the challenge presented by Covid-19. This includes Vietnam, who serves as asean chair this year. While foreign to asean governments and societies in 2003, the idea of a health pandemic was not foreign in 2020. Post-SARS channels of communication also meant that asean health and economic officials were tracking the crisis as early as January 2020.As a crisis, however, Covid-19 still stands out. In contrast to SARS, this time, the pandemic is global. This time, it’s not just Asian economies in the middle of intra-Asian production networks that are disrupted, it’s critical markets beyond Asia at the end of the supply chain. The body blow to the U.S. economy is felt globally but perhaps most of all in Southeast Asia, where international trade constitutes a disproportionate percentage of GDP. Compounding the crisis of blunted global demand is the local one Covid-19’s effects on small-and medium- sized enterprises that sustain local communities and domestic employment. Disruptions to tourism add to that challenge. Thus, Covid-19 is an economic crisis, not just a health crisis. And as asean states know (too well), economic crises can quickly spill over into political ones. Thus, for many in asean, the crisis that may be most comparable to Covid-19 in its political resonance is not SARS, but the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis another fast-moving crisis that, in that instance, led to domestic instability, destabilizing more than one government. In fact, it is a measure of its importance that Covid-19 has overshadowed some of the more contentious issues.
Such as the South China Sea, on which there has been little diplomatic activity on items like the Code of Conduct for more than a year. Global cooperation using cultural diplomacy strategies might actually be the most urgent foreign policy priority of the nation state in the year 2021. Which global risk is currently greater? Which enemy is currently taking the lives of more humans? The main question is which countries will be first to step up to the challenge of bringing their greatest minds together for this common purpose? Cultural diplomacy can be used to break this international standstill a cold war between economic and scientific communities. The walls of silence and competition need to be torn down and we must immediately initiate cultural diplomacy initiatives and platforms to serve as hosts for discussion, exchange and debate between the greatest minds in the world. The next generation of cultural diplomacy will not be a jazz concert in Moscow or an art exhibition in China, but rather the exchange of scientific knowledge and theories related to Covid-19 that will help to bring real solutions to real problems that are affecting every human being in the world. During the research and development process, however, authorities and institutions around the world have been raising questions about the reliability of the vaccines, problems in implementing their distribution, pricing, patents, and the challenge of enabling vaccinations for all. At the same time, discussions about anti-vaccination movements and campaigns have been taking center stage in public and private debate. Western institutions in particular are working with high standards of quality and control, making it even more difficult to deliver the vaccine to large numbers of citizens in a short period of time.At the same time, in the eyes of Western scientific institutions, questions over the reliability and quality of, for example, the Russian and Chinese vaccines have been strongly argued.
In this period of global disorder regarding cohesive policies and solutions for the Covid-19 crisis, the world needs sincere cooperation between Western countries, Russia, China and multilateral governance organizations in order to cope with the virus’ challenges and keep up with the demand for vaccinations.This grave situation enables a key opportunity: The possibility of real global cooperation in order to offer joint solutions for vaccine development, production and distribution, as well as Covid-19 prevention measures and academic research. The disease offers a special occasion to bring together countries that are currently experiencing political tensions or opposition toward a common goal of immunizing the entire human population against a common enemy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the ancient proverb tells us; so let us identify Covid-19 as this enemy, which we must all work together against.One of the greatest assets of cultural diplomacy is the ability to sensitively and smartly adapt to the situation at hand. It can be used where other traditional forms of diplomacy are of limited use. As martial artist Bruce Lee once famously put it: “Be as water, my friend. Lee explained how water always adapts to the situation it is put in. If you put it in a glass, water takes the form of the glass. If you put it in a bottle, it takes the form of the bottle. Water can be gently poured or come crashing down with incredible power. Cultural diplomacy acts exactly like water and can be adapted accordingly specifically for the crisis at hand, in this case the lack of international cooperation when it comes to Covid-19.Cultural diplomacy practices can also be used to create a positive dialogue to counteract vaccine skepticism among institutions and citizens, convincing them of the necessity of vaccination.
That is one very salient instance of this, but that’s going to be happening all over.Covid related deaths were reported in the European Union (EU). As the Covid-19 pandemic started to ripple through Europe, with devastating effects for public health and national economies, many Europeans turned to the European Union (EU) hoping for a coordinated response to stop the virus from spreading and to help nations’ economic recovery. The initial response disappointed many. Not only was there no EU-wide policy coordination to address the public health crisis, the negotiations about a recovery fund for affected countries have been acrimonious and unlikely to succeed.
There are many reasons why one might be concerned about future European cooperation in light of these failures, but three stand out. First, although the EU has very little competencies in public health, and is therefore ill-equipped to coordinate the policy response to the pandemic, publics have largely assumed that it does and have criticized it for not taking actions that it cannot legally take without support from the 27 capitals in the Union. Second, extreme right-wing and Eurosceptic parties have further inflamed the debate by using Brussels as a scape goat for domestic problems. Third, to further extenuate the challenge to find compromise between 27 governments with oftentimes diametrically opposed policy preferences, the debates around the Covid-19 recovery fund have been further hampered by the long-standing rift between Northern and Southern European countries about financial burden-sharing.Is European cooperation bound to fail? For some, the failures of the EU to address the crisis more comprehensively doesn’t bode well for future European integration. For experts on European Union politics, however, the current developments look very familiar.
Covid-19 has generated further economic crisis, weakened economic openness, and revived inward-looking models, heightening existing strains in the NPT regime. But international relations are not pre-determined; it would be premature to conceive of our current world/time as prelude for the long run. The human and economic costs of this Covid-19 crisis could generate entirely new political dynamics, exhausting extremist politics and triggering efforts to restore cooperation and economic openness. It might, one hopes, help develop better tools to defeat common plagues that-like nuclear weapons-are entirely man-made. As it looks now, the move of global health to the top of the world’s agenda will probably not end when Covid-19 is defeated. We predict that global health will stay on the agenda for decades to come. The billions of dollars spent on fighting the pandemic will make sure that Western countries and their institutions will keep global health as a top priority. The development of issues surrounding it will only increase as it poses existential risks from all directions: Health, security, economic and social.So now is the time for cooperation at all levels of society, and across all borders, in order to improve the global health situation. Cultural diplomacy can help to establish cooperation this is a proven fact. Every minute we lose now, more people are dying, generations of financial savings are being burned, and our quality of life is gradually deteriorating. The time for cooperation is now, not tomorrow or next week. It is, therefore, vital that great positive changes and improvements in the relationships between the superpowers emerge from this disaster.
Writer and Columnist