The coronavirus crisis as a critical juncture for Ukraine and the world
Deliberations on the political repercussions of the ongoing pandemic for international relations and Ukrainian foreign affairs.
In their seminal 2012 study Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daren Acemoglu and James A. Robinson identified the Bubonic Plague of 1346-1353 not only as one of the greatest calamities in human history. The Black Death – as the pandemic is also called – also acted as a critical juncture in European political history. While the 14th century pestilence encouraged the gradual abolition of feudalism in Western Europe, it led to the so-called Second Serfdom in most of Eastern Europe – not the least, in parts of today’s Ukraine.
The Black Death thus fundamentally reset European affairs during the Middle Ages, resulting in consequences that reach as far as today. The COVID-19 pandemic will presumably result in far fewer victims than the Bubonic Plague, which claimed the lives of between 70 to 200 million people. Yet it seems that the coronavirus crisis could also become a critical juncture in world history, with far-reaching repercussions for both states’ domestic affairs and their international relations.
Today, most serious politicians and experts share a general understanding of the pandemic’s wide-ranging consequences for the world system. But there is, so far, no common and clearly articulated understanding regarding the exact nature of these political repercussions as well as how to properly react to them. There is even less thinking, so far, regarding the international coalitions that will need to be created in order to implement plans designed to address the pandemic’s socio-political impact. For the time being, many leading thinkers are cautious in their inferences, forecasts and proposals.
Being employed at a Kyiv think-tank suggestively called ‘Institute for the Future’, we have decided to do the opposite. At a time when it is still unknown how and when the crisis, as well as the subsequent disorder generated by it, may end, we are starting a series of texts concerned with how the world system could and should change. Drawing far-reaching conclusions and suggestions has become possible as the ongoing crisis is causing a fundamental break with the past and may soon be joined by other challenges in years to come. For Ukraine, moreover, the stakes are especially high regarding how this and other future international crises will be resolved.
Of course, a transformation of the international system is hard to predict and even more difficult to enact by its very nature. Yet postponing debate regarding what is already happening and may happen in the future could delay our understanding of these fundamental changes. A transition to some new world order already appears under way and is likely to become contested in the future. Starting to discuss these issues now may ultimately help improve the quality of future outcomes.
Such reflections can, at this early stage, be neither systematic nor definitive. Rather, we address in the following texts a range of areas where radical changes are likely and/or desirable. Subsequently, we develop some tentative propositions regarding these ideas. The geopolitical transformations we are foreseeing here may, to be sure, not happen in the immediate future. But we expect these transitions ultimately to occur and be comprehensive.
Ukraine needs to take an active part in international discussion regarding these new and forthcoming political challenges. Kyiv also needs to participate, as far as possible, in the search for possible solutions to these problems as well as in their implementation. The current crisis and its political repercussions bear special risks for the Ukrainian nation. But they may also contain chances for the country to move from the global periphery closer to the centre of international decision-making.
The rise of the deep state
First, as a result of the current crisis, both national and international public institutions are likely to obtain stronger popular mandates. In the future, they will consequently play a larger and in some cases more authoritative role in societies than today. The relations between people and their states will likely change as domestic and intergovernmental institutions become increasingly focused on providing basic necessities. In some cases, the transfer of new powers to these institutions may be well-defined and limited. In other cases, such as Orban’s Hungary, this has led and may further lead to a strengthening of executive powers that undermine democracy. Despite this, not all of these new powers will necessarily lead to more authoritarianism, with many state organs using these novel competences in a different manner.
A desire to ensure better public protection and professional expertise may, in particular, lead to a strengthening of what has come to be known as the “deep state”. This concept is here understood in a neutral sense and not in the way the phrase has been misused by Donald Trump and various conspiracy theorists. The original meaning of the term “deep state” refers to those highly qualified bureaucrats, diplomats, experts and researchers whose often invisible work secures the proper functioning of governmental or semi-governmental institutions. Members of the “deep state” are assumed to combine patriotic devotion to their country with high professionalism in their public service. If other global challenges similar in scale to the coronavirus crisis appear in the coming years, a trend of strengthening governmental structures as a whole and of the “deep state” in particular may become ever more prominent.
For international relations, this growing importance of state institutions in relation to the wellbeing of societies can mean either of two things. It could imply a strengthening of classical principles of state-centred realism and increased competition between different national institutions. Or it could lead to new levels of interaction between national governments and especially the “deep states” of many countries.
The latter scenario may eventually lead to the formation of a “deep globalism” that would be different from the current structures found in the UN and other international organisations. “Deep globalism” would not only embrace today’s international bureaucrats. Rather, it could result in properly institutionalised, funded and empowered global networks of experts or “epistemic communities”, who would collect and analyse critical information on a transnational scale. Ideally, these associations of specialists – that nascently already exist in academia – would have sufficient authority to make and implement decisions based on the best of their knowledge.
This development would mean that classic representative democracy and relations between governments will no longer operate as they do now. To justify, organise and, most importantly, legitimise this new values-based and expert-driven international structure would constitute a considerable political challenge. Yet it is clear that current models of interaction and cooperation between states have become inadequate. They are only able to produce insufficient responses to various health, economic, environmental and migration crises that we are now facing and will be probably even more encountering in the future.
As for now, the old concept of ‘every country for itself’ is benefitting from these increasing challenges. However, while we are far from the end of the pandemic, the problems facing the national model of crisis management are already visible. They were illustrated, for instance, by the bizarre world-wide hunt for face masks by states during March and April. Still, even an international solution to these material and economic issues may not be enough by itself.
For example, a global multi-phase Marshall Plan is now being discussed by governments and international bodies. Any project that supports the world economy should only be welcomed. Yet, these anti-crisis measures will remain incomplete as long as they only focus on international financial transfers, developmental support and investment incentives. Without a simultaneous reset of the international political system, these measures will not prevent a repetition of past and current problems. Purely economic measures will not provide for a more secure and sustainable future.
The problematic post-World War II system and Ukraine
Second, as countries continue to pursue national forms of crisis management, they naturally draw on lessons from their own experiences. So far, only the corona virus itself appears, to most people, as a truly global question to be solved by international networks of researchers, medical staff and health care workers. Addressing socio-economic issues resulting from the pandemic and meeting today and tomorrow’s international challenges is still largely seen through a national, rather than international, lens.
Since World War II, a number of prominent stuctures and projects, to be sure, have emerged that are designed to foster closer cooperation between nations and civilisations. Theoretically, they could and should provide platforms for solving virtually all relevant international questions. Yet, today most critical issues continue to be resolved mostly at levels other than global. These uncoordinated efforts sometimes lead to fierce national, regional and local competition for resources. As long as countries continue to prioritise solving their own problems, richer states will possess a better chance to survive and thrive. The strong will become even more powerful while weak states will become even more feeble.
Ukraine is, by most indicators, a third world country. Even among this group it is not in the first tier. Consequently, for Ukrainians it is difficult, if not impossible, to win in this growing competition between nations. For Ukraine and other relatively weak states, therefore, the emergence of stronger intergovernmental and even supranational institutions represents a preferable vision of the future. However, participation in such new or renewed global organisations implies that Ukraine will need to radically improve the quality of its own national institutions.
Third, when Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began in 2014, it was not only Ukrainians who realised that the existing system of post-war international institutions is ineffective. An aggressor that has a permanent seat in the UN Security Council continues to use its position and veto rights to prevent full official acknowledgment that an aggression is taking place. This has led to an absurd situation in which one part of the UN Charter cannot be implemented due to conflict with another. By its mere existence, the UN’s most prominent decision-making body, the Security Council, has implicitly legitimised an illegal territorial expansion by one of its permanent members at the expense of a recognized UN member state. Paradoxically, the UN’s peculiar structure thereby undermines one of its key founding values.
In the past, there was little that Ukraine could do other than to continue fighting Russian aggression. There has been, to be sure, some talk recently about reforming the Security Council. Working groups were created, some new concepts were developed. However, these developments did not lead anywhere.
That is because the world’s key players saw no real need to reset the existing international system. Even worse Russia, despite facing sanctions after being expelled from the G8, has attempted to convene a summit solely comprised of the Security Council’s permanent members. The Kremlin wants to discuss the fate of Ukrainians and others without them being present by exploitating the outdated peculiarities of the UN’s structure.
Towards a new international system
After the pandemic – which has often been compared to a war – a new international situation, however, may emerge. This could amount to a new critical juncture resembling the situations at the end of the two World Wars. Such sentiment may not only renew debate regarding humanity’s general norms. Repercussions from the current pandemic and future global challenges could also trigger a direct crisis in the existing structures of major international organisations. Under these circumstances, it could become possible for countries like Ukraine to find influential, like-minded actors with whom they could raise the issue of a fundamental transformation of the UN.
Resistance, to be sure, to such a proposal would be strong. However, the UN system is already today losing legitimacy as a result of poor crisis management regarding, for instance, the ongoing pandemic. The world’s current institutional set-up is already perceived by many, not least by Ukrainians, as having become irrelevant in dealing with international challenges and ineffective in addressing increasingly acute human problems.
Today’s reform-minded UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has not been able to implement any of the substantive changes he had planned when he took office. As a result, we may have already missed the chance for gradual reform of the UN system. The world’s current institutional structure is increasingly perceived as inadequate when it comes to addressing some of today’s most burning issues. With every passing month, radical rather than moderate change is becoming increasingly likely.
In order to reset the entire UN system it would have to be thoroughly reassessed. This would ideally be done by an external and independent auditor. The body perhaps in most need of reform is the World Health Organization, which failed to provide adequate monitoring and warning of the corona virus when it began spreading. More timely analysis, clearer public communication and more resolute advice may have saved tens of thousands of lives. Preparations for the pandemic could and should have started earlier. This includes Ukraine where the prior coronavirus surge in Western Europe was at first not taken seriously.
In light of this and other experiences, humanity should ideally reinvent rather than merely reform the current UN system. The organisation and its organs simply do not deliver what they are expected to provide. They often give only belated and/or limited responses to crises or emergency that they are designed to tackle. What is the purpose of a World Health Organization that behaves “politically correct” when assessing the outlook for an epidemic? Why does much of mankind now have to pay dearly because WHO officials were, in a crisis situation, unwilling to complicate their relations with China? International institutions that cannot act on the basis of impartial analysis are doomed to be ineffective. They put under question the reasons why they were created in the first place.
What could the future international system look like?
The question regarding what institutions or groups could adequately deal with these and similar questions remains, however, unresolved. There does not yet seem to be a clear driving force that could initiate and enforce a reset of existing international institutions.
Some speculate that a reboot of the current international system will lead to the emergence of a global structure with executive powers, which would effectively be a form of world government. Yet, the chances of such an institution, even with limited powers, appearing any time soon are low. The creation of a permanent supranational institution by nation-states, that would have to relinquish their powers, is currently unrealistic. In spite of its common values, geography and heritage, European civilisation has for almost 70 years failed to transform the European Commission (once founded as the European Coal and Steel Community’s High Authority) into an EU government.
One could imagine, however, a worldwide structure that could act only during emergencies. This organisation would have the task of temporarily coordinating countries in order to ensure an urgent transcontinental crisis is resolved. As the current pandemic continues and ever more clearly global challenges will become urgent, such an idea may increasingly find support among politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and citizens around the world. The financing of such a new organisation could be secured by collecting a global emergency tax or contributions to a world insurance scheme. Such an institution could have a supervisory board consisting not only or not at all of politicians, but of scientists as well as other experts with a high global reputation.
Obviously, the creation of such an international body would be difficult. For example, the exact conditions under which a supranational structure would take over powers from the national level would be difficult to formulate. Many governments of the world may perhaps support such an idea in principle. Yet, some will try to resist any real sharing of power and cost even in the case of a global emergency. Still, future transnational crises, similar to the current pandemic, could over time delegitimise and gradually reduce such resistance. Each subsequent calamity will presumably increase the popularity of global emergency structures or other similar schemes.
Changing geopolitics and Ukraine’s Western integration
Fourth, there is increasing speculation regarding whether border changes may soon appear on the current world map. Whether or not the unification or separation of countries happens will depend on the length and intensity of crises that question today’s nationally ordered system. What exactly will happen is difficult to foresee. However, it seems clear that a profound transformation of the existing means of interaction between countries is under way.
The peculiar system of balances and institutions created after World War II can neither be wholly abandoned nor be revived. A sort of “Yalta 2.0” – that is, a conference of great powers concerned with the partition of the world into spheres of control – is also no longer possible. Maintaining clear areas of influence in today’s world is difficult. For instance, armed intervention today can be resisted by a variety of non-military means. It can also be repelled with non-conventional methods that cause unforeseen damage and costs to the intervening force.
The domination of regions by the world’s big players will, to be sure, remain a regular fixture of the international system. But zones formerly subject to semi-colonial control will become increasingly hybrid. They will experience neither full nor no control by one large power, but rather a mix of competing influences at various levels. The Kremlin understands this well, as illustrated, for instance, by its issuing of Russian passports in the Donbas and its promotion of Ukraine’s “federalisation” (i.e. Bosnification). Moscow feels that its grip on the former USSR republics is waning. Despite this, it wants to maintain influence in post-Soviet republics like Ukraine that may experience Western integration in the future.
Whatever else Moscow may come up with, joining NATO as a full member will remain Ukraine’s strategic goal. Can Ukrainians, however, be sure that NATO will be ready to embrace a country with potentially millions of Russian passport holders? Will NATO countries be ready to observe, with regards to Ukraine, treaty obligations to protect a fellow member of the alliance? Even today this is an open question among the organisation’s member states.
Ukraine’s desire to be a future EU member is no less of a challenge. Joining the EU requires even more purely Ukrainian action. The basic patterns which govern Ukraine’s state and society must be fundamentally changed. Even so, deep reforms will not be enough.
We also have to win the hearts and minds of other Europeans. This includes, for example, the French and the Dutch, who will one day hold a referendum on the question of whether Ukraine can join the EU. If we act as we have done before, it will be difficult to win this battle. Perhaps, the pandemic and its far-reaching repercussions can give Ukrainians a chance to jump over our own shadow.
Unlike other politicians and commentators, we do not expect today’s crisis to cause the weakening or indeed disintegration of NATO and the EU. On the contrary, we believe that strengthening these organisations is necessary for the West’s continued leadership in the future. If NATO and the EU do not live up to the expectations from them, the transatlantic space of today will no longer exist. The stakes are indeed high, but that may be also an advantage.
For Ukrainians, the stakes are even higher and are nothing less than existential. Will we remain a socio-economic hybrid and geopolitical grey zone, or will we finally enter the Euro-Atlantic community? To believe that we will be welcomed into a renewed transatlantic world simply because of who we are is futile. The coronavirus pandemic as a critical juncture does not change our goals. However, it does provide us an opportunity to abandon old mentalities and build new institutions necessary to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic space with the help of our friends and partners.
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