With governmental executives infected, delayed trade deals, and the destabilization of international partnerships, COVID-19 has proven the serious implications of its global reach.
However, the virus has also forged new sets of partnerships that have the potential to reshape current geopolitics. The pandemic presents a challenge to the political and economic order beyond that of traditional interstate warfare or terrorism that can shift regional and global balances of power.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened uncertainty within and between countries, exacerbating tensions between traditional allies while also forging new partnerships. Leadership illnesses and quarantines have important implications for shifts in regional dynamics involving agreements, cooperation, and foreign policy.
In the Middle East and North Africa, COVID-19 has the potential to further destabilize already fragile states, where public trust has eroded in the decade since the Arab Spring. However, when Iran’s cases among leaders and the public skyrocketed, the region witnessed a strengthening of ties, with several of Iran’s traditional regional rivals sending medical aid.
“More than 6 months into this pandemic, this is not the time for any country to take its foot off the pedal. This is the time for countries to continue to work hard, on the basis of science, solutions and solidarity," — @DrTedros #COVID19 #coronavirushttps://t.co/4AIFL5EVZS pic.twitter.com/mCMAuh6ZDb
— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) June 9, 2020
Conversely, the pandemic has exacerbated states’ inward-looking foreign policies and further undermined the European Union’s already fraying solidarity. The EU’s actions, such as its unwillingness to distribute crucial medical supplies to states vying for EU membership, as well as minimal aid to members such as Italy, have weakened the region.
Global catastrophes present opportunities for regional cooperation that could have far-reaching consequences. Cooperation in providing aid and containing the virus may lead to cooperation in other areas down the road. On the contrary, unwillingness to cooperate during global crises may increase distrust and the potential for future conflict.
Pandemics as Unlikely Mediators
In the Middle East, the COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated unlikely cooperation. Israel and Palestine are purportedly coordinating their responses to the outbreak.
Additionally, several states have come to Iran’s aid, a virus hotspot with over 230,000 cases and nearly 11,000 deaths. This development is notable as the Islamic republic is often at loggerheads with its Sunni Arab neighbors and because the first outbreaks in other countries may be traced back to Iran.
As Iran grappled with the formidable death toll of both its leaders and citizenry, its economy continues to be undermined by national lockdowns and border closings. The US’ continued sanctions are economic blows that Iran can ill afford. The country’s $11.8 billion tourism sector flounders in the absence of the typical boost from pilgrimages to the holy city of Qom.
The world is suffering and Iran is one of the nations severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Freedom Tower in Tehran was lit up with flags and messages of hope in solidarity with all countries affected by the COVID-19.
Credit: AFP. pic.twitter.com/Bb1Gtohui4
— Salamander Media (@SMDRMedia) April 1, 2020
In its time of need, Iran appears to be making connections with its neighbors and the broader international community. Iran has, for the first time in 60 years, requested IMF funding.
Additionally, several neighbors with traditionally hostile relations have provided desperately needed aid. Notably, both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates sent multiple shipments of medical supplies to Iran. The UAE also assisted the WHO in delivering aid to Iran. Kuwait, whose own COVID-19 outbreak may come from Iran, has donated $10 million to combat Iran’s outbreak.
These ties, forged in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, could transfer into higher-level cooperation down the road.
Undermining Regional Solidarity
In contrast, the global COVID-19 outbreak has visibly weakened EU solidarity, especially in the area of migration and border security.
The mass migrations of refugees fleeing political instability to European destinations led to the rise of nationalistic leaders and increasingly stringent migration policies. Countries such as Italy, which already bore the brunt of migration, have been some of the hardest hit by COVID-19. Italy remonstrated the European Central Bank after remarks by its president indicated Italy was on its own.
Euroscepticism is growing amongst ascension countries too, who are not yet in the EU but expected to abide by EU policies. The announcement that non-EU countries could not import medical equipment from the EU led to the declaration of a state of emergency in Serbia. A furious Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, indicated a significant shift in his country’s future alignment in a March 15 address: “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper.” Vucic indicated a new desire to turn east instead of west, calling China’s president “not just my personal, but a friend and brother of this country.”
Meanwhile, Hungary’s democratic backsliding continues, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s granted the ability to rule by decree in direct violation of EU membership requirements. These powers concern EU leaders and exemplify the limitations of cooperation.
As a result, European solidarity may be in much worse shape when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Lastly, the virus has further complicated the UK’s exit from the bloc. The fate of the UK’s major trade deal with the EU in the wake of Brexit has been undermined, first due to the infection of chief negotiator Michel Barnier, and then the infection and hospitalization of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The COVID-19 outbreak has influenced global stability in unexpected ways. In some instances, the outbreak’s consequences may create or exacerbate tensions between states. Not only is this evident in regional dynamics, such as among EU members and accession states, but also in bilateral relationships, as evidenced by the rapidly deteriorating US-China relationship.
In other cases, closer relationships were forged. The Middle East and North Africa witnessed unprecedented cooperation to address Iran’s COVID-19 crisis, and Saudi Arabia temporarily declared a ceasefire in its five-year war in Yemen, which may impact the shape and scope of the country’s civil war.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.