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 the Chair of Liberal Democrats Overseas.