Tõnis Saarts: Coronavirus crisis and the future of democracy

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: ERR

The idea of a night-watchman state and neoliberalism have become so unpopular that it will hardly prove possible to reanimate them in recent form. Tõnis Saarts writes about what could take their place in a comment originally published in the Sirp magazine.

The world is still reeling from the first wave of the pandemic. No one yet knows how this century's most extensive global disaster will affect policy, international relations and the future of democracy.

It is a widespread opinion that democratic countries demonstrated inability to effectively handle such cataclysms. If we compare Donald Trump's America and Xi's China, it is rather clear which model has proved more resilient to the stress test.

Besides, we know from history how all manner of crises and especially a major recession are grist to the populist mill.

It is believed we could see liberal democracy surrender ground and the future belong to authoritarian regimes, such as China, and populist illiberal democracy. However, such an approach is extremely simplified.

It is far more likely that we are entering an interim period where the old ideological (neoliberalism) and geopolitical (U.S.) hegemony is shaking, while new global lines of force and whether they favor liberal democracy or not will only become clear in the second half of the decade.

Are we looking at a triumph of right-wing populism?

The radical right that have always emphasized national independence, economic protectionism and warned against the harmful effects of globalization are finding more people share their views today.

It seems to many that perhaps all of these troubles are the result of global openness. Tougher border control, smaller dependence on foreign markets, foreign labor restrictions and moving production back home – these tenets of right-wing populism seem to be the pillars of post-pandemic economic policy. Many also believe international cooperation and helping others are excess luxuries in a situation where one's own house is on fire.

That is why it is time to clip the wings of ineffective organizations like WHO or the EU that simply get in the way of nation states taking care of problems.

And so, it might seem at first glance that the hour is at hand for the radical right, globalization is over and done with for the time being and the world will enter a phase of deglobalization where nation states will once again put their foot down and everyone will have to fend for themselves.

However, it is far from certain this approach of national reticence and anti-globalization will come to rule the day any time soon. The coronavirus crisis has taken the edge off one of the radical right's most effective weapons – channeling the insecurity of voters into xenophobia.

At the start of the crisis, both Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orban in Ukraine tried to pin the virus mainly on foreigners and immigrants. It did not work.

It is also difficult to claim, in the conditions of the looming economic crisis, that immigrants are taking locals' jobs or cashing in undeserved benefits. Everyone suffers, irrespective of their race, religion or nationality. Secondly, it is almost impossible to see any connection between the spread of the virus and global openness.

Why did countries in Southern Europe that fall well behind their Nordic counterparts in the globalization index suffer more in the coronavirus crisis? Why did Russia, as the poster boy of national reticence, quickly become one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak, while Germany that is a far more open society did not? There is no correlation between globalization and the spread of the epidemic.

Upon closer inspection, proud national isolation does not protect one from viral diseases, climate disasters or cyberattacks. It seems that international cooperation is the only way to bring the disease under control on a global scale if we do not want to be left with a smoldering humanitarian disaster in the global south that will make its way back to wealthy counties like a boomerang.

Will the radical right, after coming to power in the meantime, be prepared to tell their voters why nothing was done in time? Deglobalization will sharply increase the risk of trade wars and both civil and international conflict.

The world will become more dangerous and unstable than it is currently. Will the radical right succeed in convincing voters, a generation that has spent its entire life enjoying the benefits of globalization from free movement to cheap goods, that a world where everyone is looking out for number one is a better place to live than the current one?

Shades of gray instead of a black and white canvas

We also haven't seen right-wing populists currently in power in several countries do a particularly good job of handling the COVID-19 crisis. While it is likely that populist leaders who have managed to secure their power in the past, such as Orban in Hungary or Erdogan in Turkey, will have no trouble holding on to that power. At their disposal lie considerable administrative and media resources to create suitable narratives in the crisis.

Chances of success might be much slimmer for the rest, including Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and Truth and Justice in Poland, especially should their countries be hit hard by the economic crisis. European populists currently in the opposition (like Salvini, Le Pen and the Swedish Democrats) could see openings provided they know to press the right buttons when the economy bottoms out.

The picture is so checkered that talking about a fast and overwhelming triumph of populism would clearly be an exaggeration.

Has China's time come?

It might also appear that China is poised to exit the crisis stronger than everyone else upon capitalizing on the global power vacuum created due to America withdrawing from the global arena and being mired in domestic problems. It seems to many that China demonstrated the efficiency of its political system by containing the epidemic far more successfully than liberal democracies.

The crisis really seems to be opening a rare window of opportunity for China. Having shaken the crisis first, the Chinese economy will likely recover faster than those of other major countries.

This would allow China to launch a so-called new Marshal plan to help the Third World and middle-income countries. The latter will culminate in China having more potential friends and allies than the U.S. in Africa, Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe.

Provided America will stick with the Trump administration and its disregard for international cooperation and leave its recent allies to their own devices, China will become the moral world leader – the only superpower to help contain the spread of the virus globally.

Of course, this can only happen if China opts for attempts to restore trust and a seemingly altruistic policy of helping others, instead of its recent practices of trying to cover up mistakes and preaching the superiority of its system. Now, is that really a likely scenario?

First of all, it is an illusion that authoritarian systems and especially China have managed the coronavirus crisis more effectively than democratic ones. A quick glance at China's neighbors is enough to convince oneself that democratic Asian nations, like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, were better still at getting the disease under control early on.

Looking at Europe, the scales are tipped even further in democracies' favor. In the case of exemplary liberal democracies, governments were honest with their citizens, relied on expert assessments from the first days and made no attempt to ignore bad news.

It is noteworthy that the top ten of the most successful Western countries when it comes to combating the virus includes many that are ruled by women (Germany, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand etc.) A fact that should take authoritarian male politicians down a peg.

There are several signs to suggest China's position in the world is weakening instead of being consolidated. Even if protectionist tendencies will not become prevalent, countries are trying to move toward shorter supply chains and switch to so-called near-sourcing. This means that a part of production will be brought back from China and investments with it. China could be looking at a serious recession.

This in turn erodes the social contract where the Communist Party promises to keep the Chinese middle-class wealthy in exchange for the latter keeping its mouth shut when it comes to freedoms and democracy. The regime's obvious failure to react quickly enough to the new virus has already impacted citizens' trust in the powers that be, with a potential recession poised to pile on tensions.

China's international reputation is at a low as the country is not trusted anywhere in the world. Attempts to cover up mistakes, flexing of economic muscles, extortion for the purposes of garnering influence and targeted influence campaigns cannot leave anyone feeling positive.

There is nothing to suggest the Chinese leadership is willing to learn from its mistakes or plans to/is capable of taking on the role of a moral global leader and helper.

Geopolitical interregnum

All three global superpowers will exit the crisis much weaker than they were going in. The EU will also likely be fighting its in-house battles for years to come, with the main question being whether the wealthier and less-suffered north should help the struggling south.

America's international position will continue to get weaker as the recent hegemony will be addressing domestic problems further deepened by the incompetence of the Trump administration.

Columnist Arvind Subramian has summed up the situation rather eloquently. "A weak society riddled with in-house conflict cannot become the world leader no matter how wealthy it is – also a society that is not an enviable example to others." Do Xi's China and Trump's America really serve as examples to many other countries today?

Joseph Nye, a living classic of international relations, looks at the two world leaders and finds that both come up short. Neither has qualities necessary to change the world as could be found in post-WWII leaders.

Neither Trump nor Xi realize that the current global crisis cannot be solved by any one country without cooperation while attempting to play zero sum games from a position of power. Such an approach is shortsighted and will very likely result in new and worse epidemics and economic setbacks.

They do not have what it takes to become global leaders of the post-coronavirus world with authority and ability enough to offer something new, better and inspiring… It is also difficult to imagine Russia, Brazil or India, the first two having been hit particularly hard by the epidemic, filling the vacuum left by the three superpowers.

Rather, we are entering a geopolitical interregnum, with lines of force that describe the updated world order yet to manifest. Whether the leading role therein will be played by China, USA or the EU depends on which one of the three can offer a program that speaks to other members of the global community and has potential to positively change the world. The current leaders simply aren't up to the task.

Ideological bewilderment

A similar interregnum or settling in period will also take place on the ideological arena. The neoliberal hegemony that has been shaping the way we think for the past 30-40 years is crumbling. Even hitherto orthodox economic liberals admit that "this is not a time to let the market sort things out."

Talk of fiscal balance and austerity measures has been forgotten in all corners of the political spectrum. The government is very much back in town, as an interfering welfare state no less.

The epidemic showed with exceptional clarity that countries where healthcare services were largely entrusted to the market experienced great difficulties (the U.K. the U.S., the Latin American countries), while countries sporting a strong social state despite liberal market reform (such as Germany, Finland and Denmark) did much better.

The idea of a night-watchman state and neoliberalism have become so unpopular that it will hardly prove possible to reanimate them in recent form. It is a far more important question what will replace them.

There are two realistic possibilities – renewed social democracy or a more moderate right-wing populism. It would be difficult to imagine a more opportune moment for the social democrats. Market liberalism has discredited itself and expectations for the state to intervene in the economy and ensure well-being are extremely high.

Women being the heroes of this crisis (nurses, doctors and social workers, in addition to politicians) should lend support to the gender equality agenda. More frequent epidemics that are clearly tied to man's careless invasion of the natural environment should help put climate change and environmental issues more firmly on the agenda.

The core of the social democrats' program should aim to strengthen the middle-class, create smart jobs that can keep up with new technology, reinforce the welfare state and above all create a new and more humanistic globalization model (climate cooperation, global healthcare, tax agreements etc.)

Because social democratic parties have been pushed to the sidelines in several countries, it remains questionable whether they can rise from the ashes and put their foot down. The social democrats will not be given long to set their sights, as even though the radical right is unlikely to find immediate success in the post-crisis world, they are not about to capitulate either.

A very likely scenario will see moderate conservative parties gradually adopt several popular ideas cultivated by the populist right, such as economic protectionism, nationalist sentiment, limiting immigration, generous welfare state for the indigenous population (with immigrants sidelined to an extent) etc.

Mainstream parties will likely be able to implant these ideas in a more moderate and professional manner that will allow them to both disarm the radical right and go after potential voters of social democrats – mostly unskilled labor and the lower middle-class.

It seems that there is a global recession in store for us after the coronavirus crisis that will be followed by an interim period of several years characterized by instability and recent ideological and geopolitical hegemonies wavering.

However, this period will be of crucial importance in terms of shaping the foundations of the changing world order, the key question being whether the architects of this new order will be capable of offering a new, credible and hopeful program.

It should concentrate on the two main dark sides of the neoliberal globalization project that are deepening social inequality and lack of regard for the natural environment. Should this plan fail, I cannot see a bright future for liberal democracy and openness.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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