Articles - August 2020

Pax Pandemica

UN Secretary General's Call for a Global Ceasefire Transforms Into Reimagining the Way Nations Cooperate
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

The Fury of the Virus Illustrates the Folly of War In a virtual address entitled “The Fury of the Virus Illustrates the Folly of War,” delivered as COVID-19 began its global spread, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called on warring parties across the globe “to sheathe their swords and join forces to combat coronavirus” as it spread across the globe disrupting daily life, requiring people to engage in social distancing, closing schools and businesses, suspending major sports competitions including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and bringing even the world’s largest and most productive economies to their knees.

There is an old adage that says: "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  Translated this means something like “make the best of a bad situation” or, perhaps, “every cloud has a silver lining.”  In the midst of a global pandemic, the Secretary General attempted to take this proverbial wisdom to heart.  “It is time,” Guterres emphasized, “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.  To warring parties, I say: Pull back from hostilities.  Put aside mistrust and animosity.  Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes.”

Linking Conflict, Contagion and Ceasefire

Emphasizing the vulnerability of the world’s population, Guterres noted that “The virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith.  It attacks all relentlessly.  Meanwhile, armed conflict rages around the world.”  His goal was not simply to call for an end to conflict but to make an explicit link between the costs of conflict and the threat to health.  “In war-ravaged countries, health systems have collapsed.  The most vulnerable – women and children, people with disabilities, the marginalized and the displaced – pay the highest price.  Refugees and others displaced by violent conflict are doubly vulnerable.”

As he called for “an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world,” the Secretary General sought to turn up the diplomatic heat to resolve conflicts by calling on the world’s nations to undertake a global mission at once humanitarian, diplomatic, economic and life-saving.  “End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world,” the UN leader implored.  “It starts by stopping the fighting everywhere.  Now.”

Following his initial call for a COVID-19 ceasefire, Guterres reiterated his proposal at a G-20 virtual summit.  “We are at war with a virus,” he observed, and “we need a war-time plan to fight it.  Solidarity is essential, among the G-20 and with the developing world, including countries in conflict.”

The essential solidarity called for proved, however, to be in short supply.  The virus continued to spread with major outbreaks not only in the United States but also India, Brazil and Russia.  Contagion spread throughout the world reaching Latin America, Africa and Asia. By early August, the global total of confirmed cases exceeded 18.5 million, a quarter of them in the United States.  Deaths worldwide exceeded 700,000.  And the official statistics likely represented underestimates.

Such a war-time plan would require three areas for critical action suggested Guterres.  First, the transmission of the virus would need to be suppressed as quickly as possible.  “All countries,” he stressed, “must be able to combine systematic testing, tracing, quarantining and treatment with restrictions on movement and contact.  They will have to coordinate a strategy to keep [the virus] suppressed until a vaccine becomes available.  At the same time, we need massive support to increase the response capacity of developing countries.”

Second, the Secretary General emphasized that what the world’s economies face as they confront the virus “is not a banking crisis; it is a human crisis.”  In the midst of confronting this global pandemic, slower in reaching the developing world but with enormous consequences for economic development and quality of life among those least able to “distance” themselves from their human surroundings, massive investment cannot be limited to the developed economies but also include the emerging world.

Third, he observed that the world “must work together to set the stage for a recovery that builds a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable economy, guided by our promise – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  Notably adding, a specific “appeal for the waiving of sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic.”

More Than a Symbolic Gesture 

In a world that has become accustomed to an extended period of prosperity, significant economic growth that promoted uneven but nonetheless real development, rapid and widespread communication transforming traditional media and making extensive use of social media – whether to promote human interaction or to stir a mix of fear and resentment, and where truly planetary challenges like global warming and pandemic disease could be downplayed or pushed aside, the United Nations became the object of widespread criticisms.  Rising nationalism, regional conflicts, authoritarian reactions and global inequalities led to the United Nations being denounced as ineffective, inefficient, hopelessly idealistic and fecklessly aspirational in a world that seems relentlessly realistic and stubbornly conflictual.

In that atmosphere it becomes easy to belittle the call for a Covid-19 ceasefire as naïve optimism, empty rhetoric and pro forma behavior from the United Nations.  And, yet, despite its inability to bring about an immediate global ceasefire, the proposal Guterres put forward contained real substance designed to catalyze progress in the face of the frightful human and economic challenges posed by this global pandemic.
Sweepingly general as this call for a global ceasefire might seem, it served a positive purpose by illuminating a mosaic of connections between the disease and the virulent spread of regional conflicts, simmering economic inequalities, disruptive terrorism, fragile public health systems, stalled sustainable development efforts, and the vulnerability of vaunted national security apparatuses.

The call for a global ceasefire in the form of a pax pandemica went beyond a generalized call for peace to conjoin the concept of a ceasefire with the imminent threats posed by exponentially growing rates of infection and the persistent multi-continental spread of the complex disease, which could be slowed by evolving treatment measures but could not be stopped short of the development and introduction of safe and widely available vaccines. 
In the meantime, the world’s leading economies were severely disrupted, unemployment soared, education floundered, and supply chains for everything from critical medical equipment to foodstuffs began to crumble. The threat to human life posed by this pandemic, without regard to state boundaries or claims of sovereignty, went beyond medical symptoms to present severe challenges to the maintenance of public order.  The UN leader's vision underscored the reality that the virulent infection and persistent conflict each exacerbate the deadly effects of the other.

From Hope to Disappointment

The ambitious thrust of the Secretary General’s original proposal was the idea that the unique nature of the threat posed by Covid-19 would so shock the world’s governments that it would present a unique opportunity for the pandemic ceasefire proposal to be accepted.  His goal was to use the fear generated by the pandemic to create political space for parties in conflict around the world to accept the idea of local and regional ceasefires in order to turn their shared attention to combatting this “novel” disease and its consequences.

Initial response to his proposal was hopeful and built over a period of weeks.  Fifty-four member states were quick to sign on, and that number would grow to 180 member states and one non-member Observer State, the Holy See, by the end of June.  More than 20 non-state armed movements – often at the heart of persistent conflicts, and more than 800 civil society organizations also voiced their support.

Assessing the impact of his ceasefire proposal after several weeks, he was cautiously hopeful. “There are signs that it is resonating across the world, albeit with uneven implementation. In a number of situations, former adversaries have taken courageous steps to declare an end to violence and fight the pandemic. Gestures of international solidarity have created important, albeit fragile, opportunities for continued dialogue, de-escalation and conflict resolution.”

The opportunities were fragile, indeed. The hope had been that governments and armed opposition movements exhausted from protracted conflict would seize on the ceasefire plan as an off-ramp, an opportunity to lay down arms with the goal of beginning negotiations.   By late spring, however, it became increasingly obvious that suspicions and distrust were too deeply seeded to allow the ceasefire proposal to build on its initial gains.

At the same time the UN Security Council found itself at an impasse, unable to catalyze the chemistry the United Nations leader had hoped to employ.  Tunisia and France made concerted efforts to get the Security Council to act on the war, peace and pandemic issue but were met with a great power roadblock as the coronavirus crisis triggered deepening conflict between the United States and China, with the World Health Organization caught between the two.   Hopes for regional ceasefires stalled paralyzed by persistent grievances and overshadowed by the continuing spread of the pandemic.

“In the Middle of the Mist:” Revisioning a Post-Pandemic World

Despite the many disappointments that the Secretary General’s early call for a global ceasefire encountered, or perhaps because of them, over a period of months the initial proposal evolved in the direction of an updated United Nations system and a fresh structure of international relations that would take account of 21st century global realities.
Such a revised global framework would learn from the past and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations but would not be mired in that 20th century post-war world.  Instead, it would seek to develop a fresh model of world politics that would move beyond the superpower contest of the Cold War, escape the pretentions of a unipolar world shaped by the United States in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and overcome the contentiousness of the new nationalism that has disparaged multilateralism and decried the realities of globalization.

If nothing else, the havoc caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus underscored the failures of the international political system to find a new vision and an accompanying vocabulary for the realities of the 21st century.  Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the best scholars have done is to refer to critical turn of the century events as the post-Cold War world.  Neither have scholars found a new trope to replace the shop worn language of political polarity, even as the states of the world confront a series of challenges that respect neither boundaries, nor sovereignty, nor ideology demanding instead new levels of global cooperation.

"We are," in his own words, “in the middle of the mist.”  As the United Nations marks its 75th anniversary, the world faces “a time of colossal global upheaval and risk.  The pandemic has laid bare severe and systemic inequalities.  And it has underscored the world’s fragilities more generally – not just in the face of another health emergency but also the climate crisis, lawlessness in cyberspace, and the risks of nuclear proliferation again.  People are losing ever more trust in political establishments and institutions.  None of us can predict what comes next.”

A Human Tragedy Has Created a Generational Opportunity

As the pandemic spread unabated, Secretary General Guterres built on the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic presented the world with both extraordinary challenges and unique opportunities by exposing critical risks that have long been ignored or downplayed.  By mid-summer his speeches began to move beyond the themes of peace and security to emphasize broad transformational themes, notably the issues of of global inequality and the institutional restructuring the United Nations as it marks its 75th Anniversary.

Confronting the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus on a wide range of global systems – health, trade, food supply, climate, cyberspace, nuclear proliferation – the world must learn the lessons of interdependence and fragility that the pandemic has dramatized.  “As we strive to respond and recover,” he reflects, “we must reexamine many longstanding assumptions and reconsider the approaches that have led us astray.”

“We must also reimagine the way nations cooperate,” Guterres asserts.  “The pandemic has underscored the need for a strengthened and renewed multilateralism.”  That multilateralism, he projects, must seek to move the 20th century vision of the United Nations Charter from the language of inspiration to concrete actions that will fulfill its promise in a 21st century environment that is very different from the shattered post-World War II world that spawned the organization.

The original promise of the United Nations oversaw the end of colonialism and the birth of scores of new nations, in the process changing the face of the UN institutions and building an infrastructure of multilateral initiatives determined to focus on human development.  Now, 75 years after its birth, a 21st century United Nations must move beyond aspiration to specific achievement designed not just to rebuild from the havoc of a post-pandemic world but to reshape the political maelstrom that allowed the pandemic to fester, spread and ravage both public health and national economies.

This new multilateralism, the UN leader insists, must be “built on trust, that is based on international law and is geared toward the overarching goals of peace and security, human rights and sustainable development.”  “We need,” he posits, “a networked multilateralism, in which the United Nations and its agencies, the international financial institutions, regional organizations and others work together more effectively with stronger institutional links.”  So too, he continues, “we need an inclusive multilateralism, drawing on the critical contributions of civil society, business, foundations, the research community, local authorities, cities and regional governments.”

Underlying the call for a strengthened and renewed multilateralism is the recognition that: “Inequality defines our time.”  And, while wealth inequality may receive the most public acknowledgment, notes Guterres, COVID-19 has sharpened the world’s acuity to see how “multiple inequalities intersect and reinforce each other across the generations.  Inequality works against human development.  High levels of inequality are associated with economic instability, corruption, financial crises, increased crime and poor physical and mental health.  Such inequalities are a direct assault on human rights.”

“COVID-19,” insists the Secretary General, “is a human tragedy.  But it has also created a generational opportunity.”  As the months passed, however, he came to see that the political space created by the pandemic’s spread might open opportunities for what he terms “a New Social Contract and a New Global Deal that create equal opportunities for all and respect the rights and freedoms of all.”

Such a New Social Contract within societies, “will enable young people to live in dignity; will ensure women have the same prospects and opportunities as men; and will protect the sick, the vulnerable, and minorities of all kinds. Education and digital technology,” Guterres emphasizes, “must be the two great enablers and equalizers.”

There must be an emphasis on equal access to education that includes the full spectrum of opportunity from early childhood learning to lifelong education.  Alongside that emphasis on education there must be a parallel emphasis on expanding and exploiting the digital revolution to provide global access that will connect the four billion global citizens who lack access to the Internet in an affordable and sustainable way.

Responsibility to Respond

As the opening of the 75th Anniversary General Assembly of the United Nations approaches, the organization faces a different world because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.   Typically the opening of the General Assembly would bring dozens of heads of government and foreign ministers to New York for official speeches and many multilateral and bilateral meetings, on and off the record.  The 75th Anniversary gathering of the General Assembly was intended to be a celebratory occasion honoring and energizing the work of the United Nations.   That will happen, but the realities of the global pandemic will make this year’s event the first “virtual” opening of the General Assembly.

World leaders will stay away from New York for personal and public health reasons.  Instead, each member state as well as observers and the European Union have been invited to submit a pre-recorded video statement delivered by its designated high-level official.  The statement will be played in the General Assembly Hall and will be introduced by a representative of each state, who will be physically present.  Other General Assembly related events are also expected to take place online rather than in person.

Despite the relative emptiness of the General Assembly Hall, however, Secretary General Guterres has endeavored to keep the work of the United Nations on track in ways that engage the realities of the virus and its impact on the world.  “COVID-19,” he notes, “has laid bare the risks that we had ignored for decades.  We need to address the fragilities that [have been] demonstrated by the pandemic.”  Reiterating persistently, we must address “the global commitment of resources needed to rebuild the international community for this new century.”

“At this pivotal moment,” he insists, “with COVID-19 still spreading, geopolitical tensions rising and the call for social justice ever more urgent, we have a responsibility to respond to the anxieties, fears and hopes of the people we serve.” 
COVID-19 has ushered in an era of virtual diplomacy where meeting chambers are empty and communication is at once distanced and face-to-face, physically separated yet inevitably connected and interdependent.  Isolation, the virus has taught, does not imply immunity from problems – health related, economic or social – in an inescapably globalized world.   Assertive sovereignty is no panacea for a pandemic, not when critical dangers are no respecters of boundaries.   Physical distancing does not require diplomatic distancing.  Instead, the nature of diplomatic communication is dramatically changed . . . for the moment.   Tele-diplomacy, like telemedicine, is an inevitable innovation that may have positive effects, but there is much to learn about its possibilities and its limitations.
The Secretary General confronts a world of states preoccupied by the COVID-19 pandemic and the havoc it has wrought on lives, generations, economies, institutions, education and health care.  His goal throughout the spring and summer has been to simultaneously show concern for the destructive impacts of the pandemic, emphasize its transnational character, highlight the fragilities in the global security systems it reveals, and underscore possibilities for restructuring an outmoded system of relations between states that the virus exposes.

The outstanding question is whether his efforts can serve to transform national preoccupations with combatting the virus into a global recognition that the search for collective security, which prompted the founding of the United Nations, has not gone away but has taken on new forms that reach beyond militarized concepts of security to acknowledge new realities that pose unfamiliar threats, uncertain consequences, and inescapable challenges for the current century.

NOTE:  This article has been curated from a selection of the Secretary General’s public statements over the period from March through August 2020.  It represents the record of hopes, realities, disappointments and fresh vision as Mr. Guterres sought to steer the UN’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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