Will COVID-19 mark the end of the old international order?


The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest shock to the international system in decades, and unlike previous shocks, major powers like the United States have not stepped forward to lead the world through it. Thomas Wright joins this episode to explain how the leadership vacuum has shaped the response to the pandemic and contributed to the rewriting of the post-war order.

Wright is one of the authors of the new book.Aftershocks: Epidemiological Politics and the End of the Old International Order‘, which examines the political background of the pandemic and how institutions perform once they arrive. He and David Dollar discuss why some economic institutions such as central banks have proven to be quite resilient and what the general lack of international coordination for the United States and China means and the global balance of power.

David Dollar: Hi, I’m David Dollar, host of the Brookings Trade Podcast dollar and sense. Today, my guest is Tom Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Tom’s new book, Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order, has been released. This change in the international system will be our topic today. Welcome to the show, Tom.

Thomas Wright: Thanks David, it’s great to be on the podcast.

dollar: So one of the themes in your book is that the current shock of the pandemic is different. We experienced a lot of different shocks to the post-war order 50, 60, 70 years ago. What is different about this shock?

right: I think the most striking thing is that the book was co-authored by Colin Cale, and Colin and I spoke early in this pandemic. What really impressed us was that this was a global shock when there was no international leadership. In fact, there was a lot of rivalry, nationalism and unilateralism.

If you compare it to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, this was an incomplete response, but the world came together for a moment. There was an important meeting of the G-20; The G-20 was high. The United States and China put differences aside and worked together. Dan Drezner wrote a book about that period and called it “The System Went” because despite a lot of problems, the international community basically cooperated.

In this case, you have the Trump administration in power in the United States and not particularly interested in the international system – you actually see it as somewhat of a threat. In China, you have a kind of repressive and secretive regime probably more so than you did at the time of the financial crisis. You have the US-China rivalry as an overarching framework for the relationship. Then in Brazil we have Bolsonaro. In India, Modi. In the United Kingdom, Brexit has occurred. So around the world, politics is becoming more national and less collaborative. What we wanted to do was document this period and say what worked, what didn’t, how bad it was, and how does the world respond when there’s no one at home to steer the ship? This was the overarching question we wanted to answer.

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