Coronavirus and the Collapse of the Liberal Order: Europe’s Fate Called Into Question
Valdai Papers
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Timofei V. Bordachev

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
Academic Supervisor;
Valdai Discussion Club, Moscow, Russia
Program Director


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Valdai Discussion Club  

Massive restrictive measures related to the need to respond properly to the challenge of the pandemic spread of coronavirus infections is quite possibly the factor that was needed to recognise that the “liberal world order” has completely disintegrated. 

Confusion over its collapse was long discussed in the forums where Western countries dominated. But they were not alone – the lack of clear ideas about how to go on living – this is no less a concern for “revisionists” from China or Russia. The ability, while temporary, to stop face-to-face communication, even though it’s impossible to move everything online, perfectly reflects the aspirations and demands of many world leaders, especially in the West. The main victim of mass self-isolation has been those orders that were created in times of relative stability. We can agree that against the backdrop of the first global pandemic and a global market crash comparable to 1929, all the shocks of the past 15 years look like a soft workout.

These orders arose following the results of the Cold War and during its course. They were more or less fair because they relied both on an objective global balance of power, and on the rules and norms created through international practice amid a confrontation between the blocks. They were, in many ways, ideal from the point of view of the experience of relations between strong and weak nations, which has always been an aspect of the history of relations between sovereign states. The strong, the United States and its allies, were limited in their arbitrariness by international law and the powers of the UN Security Council. The fact that the United States repeatedly violated this right was proof of their inability to manage it. Otherwise, a reform of the UN Security Council in accordance with the then distribution of forces would have been carried out as far back as the 1990s, when China and Russia did not represent significant international players. This could not go on forever. The strong ones inevitably weakened, while the rest increased their capabilities. The necessary balance of power and morality in international politics was destroyed due to the instability of its first, most important element. Morality alone cannot act as a reliable regulator.

Among all the global players, the main blow falls on Europe. It was very powerful in a world where military power did not matter, and its welfare states reached unprecedented heights in terms of development.

Now we are taken aback as we observe the European countries close their borders even to each other, displaying examples of national egoism on a scale that previously could not be imagined. The question arises: is the coronavirus pandemic the very “last game” after which a blow will be dealt to European integration that it can no longer withstand?

The impotence of EU institutions in general amid dramatic conditions is not exclusively a result of the lack of necessary powers. These immensely sweet, professional people – Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, David Sassoli and even Christine Lagarde – were able to take their positions as a result of internal collapse.

Could the European leaders fathom the likelihood of such an epidemic when they forced the authorities of Italy, Spain and Greece to drastically reduce health care costs in order to overcome the Euro crisis in 2013? This question, in fact, resembles another: that of whether they thought about the possible consequences for European security when they were drawn into a conflict with Russia in their desire to capture Ukraine’s markets and resources at all costs. In both cases, the reason is the gap between political action and responsibility for its consequences. But this is not the fault of European states. They were defeated in World War II and were denied the right to an independent power policy. All security issues where military power remained central shifted to reflect the nuclear superpower dyad established between the USA and Russia, which was later joined by China.

The reader can reasonably object that this could not change the nature of the state and its responsibilities to citizens. We know the main characteristics of this nature from the principle work of Thomas Hobbes. And these responsibilities are, in fact, what citizens generally need a state for. Now the European states are trying to fulfil these duties, despite the fact that certain members of their community of nations remain lying on the road, suffocating from deadly agony. It would be strange if France or Germany acted less egoistically. But the whole construction of European integration was built on the hypothesis that the selfishness inherent in human nature is surmountable for the common good.

Warnings about the consequences of Europe becoming an “economic giant, while remaining a political dwarf” turned out to be much more serious and ultimately led to disarray inside the union itself.

The fate of Europe is of less and less consequence to the rest of humanity. This perspective even applies to Russia. The Chinese government isn’t helping the European states or the EU as an organisation. It understands perfectly well that the very next day after the epidemic declines, the Italian Prime Minister will vote for the next round of restrictive measures targeting Chinese business. China does good deeds for the sake of ordinary Europeans, being convinced of the correctness of its vision of justice. Now Beijing has received a very powerful argument in favour of this belief. But for Europe itself, the acquired “dwarfism” turns out to be destructive in an area not subject to technocratic decisions. The use of mathematical methods in assessing international politics remains meaningless precisely because of actions of people with their emotions. The most revolutionary of these emotions is a sense of injustice. That it is what the citizens of Italy are experiencing now.

During the years of its post-war development, Europe was able, by and large, to overcome within itself the problem of inevitable injustice caused by the difference in power potentials. However, the solution of this problem required not only formal institutions, but also a special political culture in relations between peoples. Europe, as Russia is well aware, could be very predatory where it enjoyed power predominance. But within itself, abandoning elementary predation was not enough. It was necessary to strive for even higher forms of social organisation, in which the basic rights of the weak are guaranteed regardless of their contribution to overall development. Europe, as the practice of the last 10 years has shown, has been unable to overcome this barrier, especially in our time.

I personally have no doubt that the European states’ amazingly egoistic behaviour amid conditions where their ability to ensure the security of their citizens is at risk, will not lead to the immediate destruction of the main achievement of integration — the common market. But history has repeatedly proved to us that in real life, political considerations have always dominated over economic gains. The Baltic countries received huge dividends within the USSR. They always lived better than most Soviet citizens. At the heart of their quest for independence was a deep sense of injustice over lost sovereignty, and this was not quelled by remunerative compensation.

The “liberal world order” is living its last days, and it will be good if this demise is not accompanied by a world war. It is unlikely that any new order will turn out to be better or fairer – the strong states, which now include China and Russia, address problems that are so great in scale that their solution does not leave many opportunities for attendance to the rights and feelings of the weak states. Europe, which, alas, was never able to build a humanitarian paradise, is living out its last days, months, and even years, having served as an example that at least it’s possible to pantomime progress towards a multinational order that marries utopia and reality.

Valdai Discussion Club