COVID-19 and the Contradictions of Interdependence

by Patrick Holden, University of Plymouth

The human experience of COVID-19 is full of contradictions. We talk of society ‘coming together’ by implementing social distancing and refraining from normal human relations. Notwithstanding the incongruities, the pandemic has demonstrated in the most vivid way possible that ‘society’ is a thing. Whatever our pretensions to individualism we share physical spaces and particulates on a daily basis. This interdependence has also been (re) illustrated at the global level, again in contradictory ways. It has demonstrated the very real interdependence of bio-systems and political structures. Strict European regulation of animal welfare and food safety has not saved Europe from viruses emerging in other parts of the world (while the industrialised agriculture we are all complicit in helps create these new diseases).  On the other hand the political, economic and public policy implications of the virus seem to diminish cooperative interdependence.

As has been often mentioned, COVID-19 has reiterated the fundamental importance of the state. Even in an integrated region such as the EU it makes an enormous difference whether you reside in (for example) Germany, Sweden or Italy in terms of the policy response, economic impact and your likely health outcomes. Sovereign governments still have the ultimate power over regulation of society, control of borders, taxation and maintenance of the economy.

To combat the virus many of the flows of what we can call globalization have been halted (in terms of people and many goods, though not finance or digital interaction). Some of this will be temporary but the political economy paradigms seem likely to change. In a global economy, countries rely on being able to import even the most fundamental products (food for the UK, essential medicines for the US). The perils of this are evident as states compete for access to scarce medical equipment (only the European Union has made an effort to moderate this, within its region). Many states have paced temporary restrictions on the exports of key equipment and medicines (see the WTO’s list here) while trade more broadly has been decimated due to the national societal and economic shutdowns.

So what does this mean for the theory and practice of interdependence? In contemporary IR it emerged via the concept of ‘complex interdependence’ in the 1970s and also informed international regime theory (in some senses a forerunner of globalization theory). Keohane and Nye argued that relationships like, for example, the US-Mexico relationship had so many forms and levels of mutual interaction (including many different forms of societal, economic, security, ecological, political interdependence) that domination, even for a power such as the US, was not practical and cooperation was a necessity.

Practical interdependence provided the basis for a lot of international regime theory, which offered a hard-headed counter point to realist statism (stressing that international institutions mattered not because of high minded liberal idealism but because of the practical imperatives for cooperation over issues such as monetary policy and trade). Generally regarded as a liberal concept it was criticised as obscuring the real power realities by those who, whether based on a realist (usually state-based) or a Marxist (class and economic forces based) perspective, retained a rigorous focus on power. Susan Strange’s unique analytical framework  disdained the term interdependence; what, after all, did it mean to say that the US and Guatemala were interdependent? The term asymmetric interdependence offered a little more precision and ‘realism’ here.

Interdependence as concept also permeated what can be called globalization theory (some of the excesses of which are now painfully evident) and ideas of global governance. Liberal globalization in particular rested on classic liberal economic assumptions that states should not pursue autarchy or self-reliance but could rely on being able to purchase what they need in the global market.

What new forms of interdependence will emerge after this crisis? There is no determinism here. Certainly the intensity and scope of this shock may result in new political regimes with radically different socio-economic policies. Globalization still has its defenders, Sandbu argues that intelligent globalization can bolster national resilience (there was nothing to prevent states buying cheap emergency equipment and stockpiling it for events like these, or at least globalization was not the reason that did not take place).

It is certainly true that no average country could aspire to even a limited form of autarchy. Could the UK feed its 66 million people? Could Honduras make its own medical equipment? A vision of regional (as in continental and sub-continental) autarchies based on regional supply chains is perhaps more realistic. However, we have often had predictions of the world devolving into protective regional blocs but that dog has not barked (partly because most regions are hopelessly divided).

Also, as Hans Kundnani notes, thus far only some elements of economic/financial globalization have been shut down (financial flows and the digital economy are proceeding and expanding in the latter case). Although anger at China is evident, the need for the PPE and medicines it produces is more acute than ever at the moment, thus countries pursue a delicate balancing act (in some cases between racist scapegoating and commerce).

 As noted, interdependence is generally regarded as a liberal concept as it implies a need for cooperation, but it could also be read as implying a need for domination.  Absolute domination is not practical but could we see heightened struggle to control the commanding heights of technological, financial and economic networks or what Farrell and Newman call the ‘choke points’ of interdependence? If states emerge with new, more radical, socio-economic visions from this crisis they will have to navigate these also.

Patrick Holden is Programme Leader of the Masters in International Relations, and leader of the Global Instability and Justice Research Group, at the University of Plymouth.

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