A stress test for global governance

Published on March 20

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the capacity to react of national governments worldwide, as well as the global system’s harness that is beginning to crack.  The situation doesn’t just raise the question of how the world should be organized to counteract this new threat but also has consequences on the perception of globalization and the future of international cooperation.

The Return of the National State

A few years ago, different academics and international experts began to suggest that national states were becoming less relevant in world affairs and that other political actors (such as NGOs, multinational corporations, and cities) were gaining more weight. There were two conflicting options for the future of governance: a new decentralized and local model, coordinated through enabling actions by agencies such as the UN, or a paradigm in which the private sector and the third sector were more actively involved in global structures. However, this new global crisis shows us that states remain the main players in contemporary global politics. When new dangers arise, people seek protection in national governments. Even with the support and value of technical agencies such as the World Health Organization, the States, ultimately, decide whether children and adolescents should go to school, whether we can catch a flight or whether we should place entire cities under quarantine.

This rediscovery of national states does not detract from global governance. Broader efforts are necessary, and we know that cooperation is possible. We have rules and institutions that allow States to cooperate when they are interested in doing so. We also know that, with all its challenges, globalization has positive results. But international cooperation is often fragile, and isolationism is on the rise. More and more people, such as Brexit’s defenders in the UK, are willing to change openness for autonomy.

In this context, COVID-19 appears to help accelerate the de-integrative processes. The United States leads the way in unilateralism and Europe fails to provide coordinated responses – several of its member states have even resorted to individual, solitary strategies. In Latin America, the pandemic arrives after a year filled with social conflict that put the legitimacy of many governments (Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia are just a few examples) in check and, at least for now, denotes the absence of supranational coordination: beyond informal contacts between governments, no regional mechanisms have yet been activated to address the problem. Meanwhile, some leaders are beginning to look at China as an international leader in dealing with the virus. This new geopolitical landscape could benefit the country’s positioning and its ability to build soft power.

The pull between the global need for cooperation and isolated reactions can lead to extreme results, but we are likely to stay somewhere in between. Perhaps the result is what some call fractured globalization, with more compact partnerships or even fragmented, bilateral or regional agreements.

History is not yet written, and this challenge reminds us of the importance of cooperation in managing cross-border challenges. Let us hope that this situation will call us to rethink globalization rather than to end it.


María Belén Abdala

Coordinator of the Political Institutions Program

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