Pakistan and the post-Covid world By Dr Rifaat Hussain

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The writer is a professor and HOD at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, NUST.

While it may seem premature to pronounce the end of Covid-19, all indications are that this pandemic has entered its terminal phase.

During the past few months, ever since its outbreak first in Wuhan in December 2019 and its instant transmission to Europe, the U.S and the rest of the world, this pandemic has already affected 30,000,000 people and claimed more than 95,000 lives. This number is likely to grow in each category as thousands of cases from India, the US and Brazil are being added to the tally. But the global trend for Covid-19 has begun to decelerate and with the discovery and testing of multiple anti-Corona vaccines the pandemic may start to attenuate in its intensity.

Yet, we may not see return to the status quo and older ways of doing things nationally and globally. What kind of global order should we anticipate? What would be its impact on state-society relations? More significantly, what would be the impact of this pandemic on the strategic behavior of countries; will it alter the existing pattern of amity and enmity across regions?

The starting point for the search for answers to these fundamental questions has to be the recognition of the failure of the system to deliver on its promise to improve the lives of millions of people all across the globe.

It is almost a truism to say that the liberal international order based on Western values, norms and institutions which relied on the twin pillars of US military strength and its economic power has crumbled and with it the unipolar moment of the existing power structure has finally passed. This fracturing of the liberal international order has been caused by “soaring economic inequality and rapid demographic change” that have “fueled populist resentment, ethno-nationalism, and a sweeping distrust in national and international institutions alike. Massive shifts in technology and communication have heightened the avenues for surveillance and enabled the proliferation of disinformation.

“And with the increasing prominence of China on the world stage, along with new waves of authoritarianism cresting across the globe, it is clear that we inhabit a multipolar world whose aims and values no longer necessarily align with those of liberal democracy.”

The most visible sign of this fracturing can be found in the US’s failures to control and mitigate the virus in sharp contrast to China’s more deliberate response that has only affirmed Beijing’s centrality in the 21st-century world order. As noted by Hal Brands and Francis J Gavin, “Covid-19 marks a moment of reckoning for our era. While this disease, thankfully, is not likely to claim as many lives as the period from 1939 to 1945 did, its impacts on the global economy, on democracy, on public health, on food security, and on governance will reverberate for years to come. It is a multidimensional emergency that requires the efforts of all disciplines: a public health crisis that demands new tools to prevent the spread of this devastating disease and to conduct effective testing and tracing; a medical crisis that necessitates new modalities of treatment to heal those who are afflicted; and, in the recent words of an open letter whose signatories include former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a “political crisis that threatens the future of liberal democracy.”

The emerging power structure because of the diminished geopolitical role of the US will be marked by a tendency towards loose multipolarity. In this loose multipolarity there would be intense competition among great powers like Russia, China, Europe, the US, Japan and regional powers like India, Brazil, South Africa for influence, resources and market access.

Military power will play a less important role in this competition than smart power based on a combination of ideational and material sources and leadership qualities. It seems evident that countries such as China that display smart power qualities are better placed than the US to expand their zone of influence. That is one reason why Washington under Trump has elevated China to the top category of its adversaries and is currently engaged in efforts to contain the growing influence of China.

As stated by American Secretary of Defense Mark T Esper on September 16, 2020 “in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China then Russia, as our top strategic competitors. These revisionist powers are using predatory economics, political subversion, and military force in an attempt to shift the balance of power in their favor, and often at the expense of others.” Dr Esper went on to cite China’s “One-Belt, One-Road” initiative as an example of Beijing’s “malign influence” which had left “weaker nations with crushing debt, forcing them to take their economic relief at the expense of their sovereignty.” He accused both China and Russia of “expanding and modernizing their armed forces, and extending their capabilities into the space and cyber domains, in order to exert greater pressure against other countries.”

The intensifying great power competition means that countries like Pakistan which traditionally have maintained a careful balancing act vis-a-vis great powers would soon be faced with what John Mearsheimer has described as “bandwagoning” – a tendency to pick the dominant power as their preferred alliance partner. The choice of alignment in case of Pakistan would be dictated by such factors as geographical proximity, mutual trust, leadership’s definition of its perceived national interest and its calculation that great power would offer it security protection in dealing with its key adversaries. In this context, Islamabad has already picked China as its security provider and this choice may lead to the degradation of Pak-US ties in the post-Covid security environment.

This shift in Islamabad’s strategic posture is a direct response to Indo-US alignment that has been strengthened as part of Washington’s pivot to Asia. Known as the Indo-Pacific strategy, it seeks to contain the growing reach of China’s power in the Asia Pacific theatre and to ensure that US remains a dominant power in this vital region.

Another feature of the post-Covid world order may be the further dilution of US commitment to multilateralism and international institutions. It seems likely that the future of international cooperation would increasingly be held hostage by the rise of forces of economic protectionism, political populism and a growing sense of interstate cooperation being viewed as a zero-sum game. Instead of viewing interstate cooperation as a win-win situation based on common interests, these relations will increasingly fall prey to the logic of narrowly defined self-interest.

Yet another feature of the post-Covid world order is the emerging salience of health issues in public discourse. Pandemics were not factored into the strategic calculus of states. As late Roy Priewerk had stated in 1977, the entire focus of discipline of international relations was “ignoring people from its discourses”. Analysts and academics were more interested in studying power equations between states and were less interested in focusing on needs of the people. Covid 19 has sharply focused attention on the need to pursue security from a human security perspective.

One of the reasons mature and rich democracies have so miserably failed to cope with the devastations of Covid-19 is the absence of public health issues from dominant security discourse which had privileged state-security over people’s security.

Given the rising public demand for recognizing universal health coverage as a fundamental right, the functional state of the future will be judged by its ability to provide for the well-being of its people who cannot afford healthcare.

Like all other crisis, Covid-19 has created new space for addressing the concerns of the weak all across globe. Pakistan has been spending less than two percent of its GDP on public health and not only has to increase its funding but also find ways to set up a robust infrastructure of health facilities that can meet the minimum demands of its more than 220 million people.

In order to do so, Pakistan must not only remain a security state but must also become a developmental state. The ongoing cooperation between Islamabad and Beijing in the health sector must be continued and expanded beyond Covid-19. There is a lot that Pakistanis can learn from China’s experience. Prime Minister Imran Khan often talks about learning from China; it is time we paid close attention to how China managed to pull out 800 million of its people from the poverty trap in less than thirty years.