The geopolitics of COVID-19: Can liberalism win the day?

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The pandemic is an unprecedented global challenge affecting all humanity, which is suffering the consequences at very considerable social and economic cost.

The world was already in disorder before COVID-19 made its appearance but the crisis has undoubtedly deepened the great power rivalry between China and the U.S., aggravated by a far-reaching trade war starting sometime before the pandemic hit.

Trust in international systems of cooperation have been impacted. Although coordination is better right now, and concrete initiatives are underway to try and ensure that the eventual vaccine is a global public good for health, the scramble between countries to be first to have their populations vaccinated will sorely test the world’s ability to cooperate together again.

COVID-19 has also been an opportunity for some governments to crack down on freedoms. Countries with little respect for human rights have been taking advantage of the world attention’s focus on the COVID-19 to clamp down more strongly on human rights defenders, minorities and other elements they consider undesirable. On the one hand, anti-government political protests petered out in places like New Delhi, Hong Kong and Thailand because of dangers associated with large crowds spreading the virus more easily. But now, the lockdown and confinement has also resulted in increased radicalisation of societies, with an upsurge of violence from the extreme right and extreme left, egged on by forces aiming at further destabilising western societies.

Mainland China has undoubtedly taken advantage of COVID-19 in taking a more aggressive stance towards the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), Taiwan and in the South China Sea – as well as conducting disinformation campaigns, alongside Russia, targeted at western democracies to undermine the resilience of our societies. The tone of Chinese diplomacy has grown remarkably strident and dismissive of western concerns about its actions.

What should the UK’s and EU’s positioning be vis-à-vis an ‘America-First’ United States and authoritarian China? If the unspeakable happens and Trump wins the November 2020 Presidential election, the UK and EU will need to carve out their own distinctive policies and take the lead working even more closely with other remaining likeminded countries to be the defenders of last resort of the multilateral system and the liberal order.

Can the liberal order fight back successfully against rising authoritarian regimes? How can we ensure freedom wins at the end of the day? This is yet another critical moment in history. The Lib Dems, along with fellow liberal parties, worldwide must play their part internationally to help win the day.

* George Cunningham is Chair, Federal International Relations Subcommittee on China and a former Deputy Head of China Division, European External Action Service, Brussels. He is also the Chair of Lib Dems Overseas.

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  • john oundle 1st Aug '20 - 12:03am

    ‘ the UK and EU will need to carve out their own distinctive policies and take the lead’

    Not going to happen, as we have seen with Russia & China, Germany always puts trade first.

  • I love the photo.

  • Liberalism can, and it probably offers the best routes with education.
    However liberalising the licensing controls under covid has been a horrible and dangerous disaster for coastal towns and resorts, and city centres, in particular. Countless peaceful towns and villages are fearful in the face of huge numbers of visitors, many attracted by the grab and go ‘takeaway’ alcohol culture covid has produced. No one has asked residents or even councils whether they want this, it just happens and much worse of course goes on undercover of the mingling crowds.

    Why is it okay for coastal towns to have their inhabitants put at risk from large and ‘relaxed’ crowds in a time of pandemic? What do restaurants and bars need to offer all day every day glasses of beer and ‘cockstails’ to go. How is track n trace to work in such an environment?

    Why are we saying nothing??

  • Peter Hirst 1st Aug '20 - 5:13pm

    Covid is giving the global community an opportunity to come together to combat a common threat. I’m sure there will be others though each one ignored makes the next one more of a challenge. Unless world leaders can come to a common understanding of our shared destiny, the future for mankind seems depressing.

  • John Marriott 5th Aug '20 - 9:05am


  • Peter Watson 5th Aug '20 - 10:16am

    @Peter Hirst “Covid is giving the global community an opportunity to come together to combat a common threat. I’m sure there will be others …”
    The dilemma is that Covid also seems to drive people apart in so many ways: physically because of social distancing; socially and psychologically because of a lack of trust in our neighbours and friends who might be carrying the disease; scientifically as we disagree over how or whether to deal with it; politically and philosophically as we consider degrees of state intervention and control; etc.
    Climate change is an obvious example of a “common threat”, and the global response to Covid raises a lot of the same issues but with a greatly accelerated timescale so perhaps much can be learned.

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