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COVID-19 may change how we think about international relations

COVID-19 may change how we think about international relations

While it is unlikely that democratic governments are suddenly going to become authoritarian, shifts in governing and community expectation can lead to more gradual changes

When Wuhan went into lockdown in January to curb the spread of coronavirus, it almost seemed like something that could never happen in Australia. Footage of coronavirus sufferers being dragged from buildings by police and apartment doors being welded shut to stop inhabitants leaving, reinforced the idea that these extreme actions were something that could only happen under an authoritarian government. But as coronavirus cases outside of China began to climb, leading to lock down first in Italy, then elsewhere in Europe, it became evident that democratic governments across the world would be forced to consider similar actions.

In Australia, the conservative coalition government has had to take drastic measures both to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 and respond to the economic fallout. While restrictions on movement and physical proximity may seem authoritarian on the one hand, the introduction of (temporary) free childcare and increased welfare payments have been labelled by some as too left-leaning, even socialist.

None of the measures put in place in response to the pandemic in Australia or elsewhere are likely to stick around, and, according to Associate Professor of International Relations Chengxin Pan, nor will the systems they allude to.

“The Australian government, perhaps like many governments around the world, has maintained that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. There has been a notable shift towards more government control over individual freedom, but if there is a wide understanding that these are ‘extraordinary’ measures, the government would need to justify their continuation or repetition once this crisis is over.”

While it is unlikely that democratic governments are suddenly going to become authoritarian, shifts in governing and community expectation can lead to more gradual changes, A/Prof Pan said. “Of course, there is a risk that once people are used to such measures, it helps normalise them and make people less guarded against ‘authoritarian creep’ down the track. In the end, I think principled pragmatism should inform government action and public opinion when it comes to the making of public policy. Ultimately, rigid doctrinism in its various disguises does not accord with the true spirit of democracy.”

A/Prof Pan believes that, although we are not about see a shift away from democracy, global responses should be used to enlighten attitudes to thinking about governments. “The varied responses to the crisis and different outcomes across the world call into question the conventional wisdom of political analysis that places so much a premium on regime types (e.g., democracy and authoritarian state)”, he said.

“Different political systems may be a factor in the effectiveness of government responses, but their role can be overrated. More relevant to this crisis is how states maintain a healthy balance between state capacity and free market mechanisms, between state responsibilities for citizens and responsibilities for capital, and so forth.”

According to A/Prof Pan, the experience of COVID-19 will also mean a necessary shift for international relations more broadly, “This crisis has really highlighted the importance of human security and the enormity of challenges from non-traditional sources. While interest in such issues has been growing in recent decades, international relations continue to be seen as mostly about inter-state relations, and this trend has been exacerbated particularly by the recent focus on great power competition and the emergence of a new Cold War between the US and China.”

Traditionally, international relations have been seen through a political and legal lens that focuses on human-driven activity, but as A/Prof Pan highlights, it may be time to reassess what international relations really means. “The coronavirus pandemic caught so many by surprise, but perhaps it should not be so surprising given that the natural environment provides the foundational context for social life and politics to take place, and what we are witnessing right now is that the often taken-for-granted environment (or to be more precise, its imbalance and crisis, such as in the forms of climate change or pandemic outbreak) can wreak havoc on such a grand scale within such a short period of time. In this sense, the crisis is also an opportunity for international relations scholars and practitioners to rethink their focuses and priorities in the pursuit of power, national and global interest and security.”


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