The Difficulty of Learning Global Security
The current pandemic has placed in front of us a series of brutal contradictions, the resolution of which—uncertain for the time being—probably heralds several years of hesitation and stalemate in the international game.
The first contradiction concerns the positioning of old powers, which are more affected by the virus today than developing countries are. This ancient world of power and modernity is discovering, brutally and in fear, the tragedy of “global risk.” The phenomenon was already commonplace in international chronicles but it was generally neglected or treated with indifference and distance. We should recall that hunger affects 825 million humans in the world, whether severely or moderately, and kills 9 million people every year. We should also not forget that a parasitic disease, malaria, for a long time has hit some 220 million people, killing 450,000 of them each year and disabling both physically and intellectually many others, in particular the younger victims. We should also add the more or less conscious environmental risks that are now part of the rhetoric but that only marginally weigh on public policies.
The second major contradiction is that the transformation of the world has totally altered our grammar of security, and therefore of the international game, even if world leaders have refused to see it: the UNDP had warned us that the world had moved from a military insecurity to a mostly human insecurity as early as 1994 in its world report on human development, which enjoined states to deliver men and women from fear caused by parameters determining their survival: food, environment, health, economy, individual (threats on fundamental liberties), cultural, economic, and political. The report and its theses have been ignored, except by some rare states—such as Canada and some Scandinavian countries. Worse: who, amidst the heat of the health crisis, evokes the concept of human security? Blindness and obsession mix and continuously reconstruct security in the exclusively military terms that have made our long history and our Westphalian memory.
Substituting Global Security to National Security
The reflection that was initiated some years ago has allowed for some progress to be made in terms of our acknowledgment of this mutation, which today has become central: substituting a global security for the old national security that is at the basis of everything that has been built and thought in terms of national and international political life. This—light—awareness emerged gradually 50 years ago in the environmental sector, and more particularly concerning climate change. This slow maturation relates to the fact that the environmental risk is hitting more and more people in industrialised countries whereas other risks concern mostly the Global South. We are beginning to understand that the real threat is no longer specifically aimed at a national territory, that it is not the work of a strategic enemy, nor does it mobilise an army seeking to invade or “overwhelm” the other. Global insecurity stems from a new vulnerability, resulting, not from the ambition of the rival, but from the mechanics of the world. COVID-19 is close to this logic that is now beginning to make sense in the minds of each individual, touched in their body, in a way that cannot be more individualised. However, the change remains rhetorical and it places us at the heart of the following contradiction: if we guess the relevance of this new conception of security, none of our institutions, national or international, has been made or especially rethought to deal with it. Our entire institutional set-up is composed according to a national syntax of security. Beyond a mocked and under-resourced WHO and paralysed multilateral institutions, the response remains considered in national terms, dramatically suggesting that the addition of 193 national health policies conceived in an emergency would in no way allow progress to be made, quite the contrary. Worse still, these policies are outbidding each other by engaging in a worrying process of renationalising performance, cruelly visible through the war of figures and statistics, the war of masks, the war of tests and now of vaccines. These are so many pitiful battles of the Marne that should designate a winner, but also enemies, of which China is the providential incarnation.
A new contradiction is arising: while the evil is global, it is nationalised and “sovereignised.” It has re-established the borders that are supposed to stop everything, just like those that once stopped the Chernobyl cloud in its tracks. In the United Nations Security Council, the five permanent members (P5) performed a hymn to sovereignty in early March, blocking any prospect of a robust resolution on the coronavirus. In doing so, they confirmed a long-standing tradition of the Council, reluctant to broaden the scope of security to consider human—including health—issues. There have not been many precedents: two timid resolutions on AIDS, and two equally imprecise on Ebola. Since the nineteenth century and the creation of the International Office of Public Health, the distant ancestor of the WHO, international law has been shown to be reluctant to take up health issues. To do so would too much affect states’ privacy, their populations, their economies, their education systems, their religions. However, this stubbornly sovereign treatment of a global risk is as much a matter of misdiagnosis as one of contraindication. It distorts security to make it regress to the point of modestly reincarnating it in the idea of national resilience. It is no longer a question of removing a threat, but simply a matter of “holding on”: a low-intensity formula that may predict a lasting state of new international relations, where victory is replaced by resistance and a solution by palliative action. If we look closely, this new model also covers the other key issues linked to globalisation (environment, trade, violence, etc.).
This leads us to the following contradiction: in this effort at resilience, the call to the state is urgent, the demand for protection is rehabilitated. In the face of the cold monsters of neo-liberalism, the welfare state is coming back into fashion, while at the same time, we see the still poorly formulated conviction that the state cannot do everything, that the territorial is devoid of means in the face of the global, that the national radius does not have the necessary scope to deal with a threat that is by nature inclusive and encompassing. In short, we want more State while we are aware that we must now reduce its sovereignty in the administration of the remedy. We note, in the same perspective, that there is no “Europe of health”, nor a WHO capable of regulating. In fact, 2020 is prolonging 2019, the time of the demonstrations and social movements which, from Santiago to Paris and from Beirut to Port-au-Prince, demanded more social action without knowing exactly whom to turn to!
This impasse manifests itself in a rhetorical production that brings, in turn, its own contradiction. Today as yesterday, in 2019, globalisation is stigmatised as much as it is celebrated. The bearer of all evils, and in particular of the coronavirus, globalisation has become at the same time the target of accusations and the new window for all expectations. Teleworking and simultaneous communication have, in times of containment, saved what remained of possible economic activities, while, from the invention of the vaccine to preventive policies, efforts are being made to tighten the national links of a protection that is still largely fictitious. In the absence of knowledge of how to do this, it is oversimplified: globalisation as a technological process that would be irreversible in its progression and irreducible to the naiveties of “demon-globalisation” is mixed up with globalisation as making, which some persist in considering only one way, that of a neo-liberalism inherited from the Chicago school and an economic scientism that refuses “any alternative form”. In fact, there is a perceived need for social support for globalisation that, in the face of this confusion, many prefer to send immediately into the sphere of utopias.
Is an International New Deal Possible?
Herein lies the final contradiction. The world obviously needs its new deal, finally governing global security, controlling globalisation, reforming and extending multilateralism, reinventing the data of regional construction, laying the foundations for global governance, in the health, environmental, food, and economic fields. But who could be the entrepreneur? Fear, urgency, and need have been sources of innovation in many areas. What about at the international level? The impulse worked, in 1815, with the invention of the European Concert, in 1919, with the invention of the League of Nations, in 1945, with the creation of the United Nations. Each time the entrepreneur, Metternich, Wilson, or Roosevelt, preserved the sovereignist setting: perhaps not enough for the second of them, which led to partial failure. What happens when engineering commands a reduction in sovereignties? Is it possible today to find an entrepreneur that accepts such a burden? Is there one among today’s leaders? Is such an international investment perceived as sufficiently profitable by those who have their sights set on their national deadlines? Is the level of trust they enjoy among the public, which is nowadays weak or thwarted by complex parliamentary arithmetic, still sufficient to be credible? And if it were, would this entrepreneur not give rise to an invincible coalition against him of all the nationalist princes, so numerous as to populate the planet? Isn't the contradiction insoluble and does it not push everyone to prefer, under these conditions, an institutional status quo of lesser cost—the very one that has been perpetuated since 1945 and which, like a vicious cycle, feeds populism and reactivates an inter-state competition that stubbornly goes against history?
This is probably the trend for the years to come, somehow like the end of cycles, perceptible in the eighteenth century when absolutism was running out of steam, or during the 1930s, when inter-state competition was delivering its last energies.
Two more positive tracks deserve to be stated, however, to qualify this prognosis.
The first concerns international public opinion: never before has the international public arena been so present and responsive. The health crisis has touched almost every individual in the flesh, instilling a concrete and personalised fear. Never before, therefore, has a component of collective security been experienced in such a way: even the climate risk remains abstract for a large majority of the population who have never had to suffer directly from it or who, at least, believe so. For its part, the health risk has given rise to pressing expectations on the part of public opinion, inevitably relayed, in the long run, to the political market, triggering the need for action, proposals, programmatic efforts, and integration of this problem into the ordinary political market. This new story cannot be closed and will give rise to many new vocations among political entrepreneurs.
The second track is more visible: even if for the time being the health crisis has spared sovereignty and sometimes even maliciously revived it, it has in fact considerably mistreated power, queen of yesterday. By an irony of chance or mysterious necessities, the most powerful states have been more affected than the others. Strangely enough, the P5 countries are paying a higher price than the others in this crisis. The South and many emerging countries seem, for the moment, to be on the sidelines of the pandemic.1 What is more, arrogance has not paid off: those countries that made a show of bravado in front of the virus, like the United States, Great Britain, or Brazil, have been hit hard. This link between power and failure has yet to be built and may never be built. However, the image will remain and perception will eventually do its work, showing the vulnerability of the richest and strongest. No one has been spared: while China has shown responsiveness and a good capacity to deal with the crisis, it has also shown, beyond the statistical uncertainties, that its development model may not be as solid as it was thought to be and that it has shown signs of fragility in terms of public health. Likewise, none of the P5 powers has had the courage to propose the necessity of reform, taking refuge in the minimum multilateral service, or even denouncing it in a thunderous manner, like Donald Trump. China wanted to be the bearer of the new multilateralism but collusively blocked the Security Council’s deliberations on the subject while chairing the body in March 2020. None of the classical power springs—military, economic, technological, not even soft power—has demonstrated its effectiveness in the face of this challenge.
In the end, this bankruptcy will leave traces and images in people's consciences, in the face of yesterday's certainties and tomorrow's challenges. Under these conditions, is a power politics still as attractive as it once was? Far beyond that, we can see the dawning of a new temptation, a new invitation to reconsider one’s international positioning in order to be more effective tomorrow. Are there not new positions to be taken in order to play a more relevant normative role in the construction, which has become necessary, of a global governance of health like other human security issues? Can we move beyond the “blue line of the Vosges” of the day before yesterday and yesterday’s so-called regime changes? A new face of power is emerging, earning bragging rights and credibility by working to invent new standards, to arbitrate between public policies that inevitably need to be coordinated, to design useful—even before it is ethical—solidarity, and to set up global assistance in countries where the fragility of the health system is a cause for concern. This was once the ambition of new middle size powers, too small to win on the battlefields and too big to do nothing: Lloyd Axworthy’s Canada, Japan, some Scandinavian countries. We find some of the same today, in addition to some old emerging or new Southern states.
It is now better understood that, without these initiatives, frustrations with deteriorating human security will mechanically turn to violence, and thus to further collective losses. This dramatic equation, peculiar to uncontrolled globalisation, is clearly evident in today's sequence. At least we are now aware of it, and that is, for the moment, the only good news.
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