Today’s #ReadInstead Lit fest session introduced by Yamini Aiyar, saw Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon have the most insightful conversation on the issues and solutions for the present and future in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Read their astute conversation below:

The coronavirus hit a world that is deeply interconnected. In more ways than one, the rapid spread of the virus from one province in China to nations all across the globe should be a reminder to all of us how interconnected the world truly is and how deep globalisation has impacted every aspect of our lives – from our social lives, to our economic lives and even our security lives. Yet, nations are responding in a rather de-globalised way by closing off borders and shared spaces, and ‘absent’ seems to be an institutional structure that brings nations together as each battles a crisis that started because we are connected but is being responded to in a way that leaves us deeply unconnected. However, the fact that the majority of the world has now resorted to the internet to connect and interact with each other suggests that, perhaps, going forward, the post-corona world is going to look very different. 

Shyam Saran: Precisely at a time when there is a compelling need to have a collaborative global response to what is obviously a global challenge, the collaborative approach is what seems to be lacking. In the recent G 20 virtual meeting, apart from announcing the 5 trillion dollar package that the member countries will inject in the economy, there was no reference to how the countries will come back together. How do we handle cross-border control? How do we handle global trade? How do we ensure that the basic levers of the global economy continue to function during this crisis? Is there a way to pool our resources together to try and fast track the discovery of an effective vaccine? When we, finally and hopefully, get over this crisis, what is going to be staring us in the face is that we are not only not looking at global responses, not only not looking at multilateral processes, not only not looking at international solutions that can help us, but, we are going to crawl into a private nationalist world, and that would be a tragedy. With regards to the geopolitics that is unfolding, is there any ray of hope in terms of countries coming together?

Shivshankar Menon: This crisis is going to accentuate trends that we already have. Deglobalisation is something that people have been trying since the 2008 economic crisis – but the fact is that we are still a globalised world. In political terms, this is going to be a smaller, meaner kind of world where countries close their border. For instance, it is going to be very hard for Europe to start Schengen again. Trade is going to be deeply affected. But the longer the crisis takes, the deeper the geopolitical effects will be.

In the smaller, meaner world, what does it do to domestic politics? The November US Presidential elections will be affected. Will it just accentuate current trends like social polarisation, the rise of authoritarian leaders, divisive politics, or is it actually going to tear apart our social fabric, if it lasts long enough? Social order does not collapse very easily. In the 1930s everybody thought that aerial bombing of cities was such a horrible thing that it would create widespread panic and it would lead to a social collapse. But what happened was the opposite. Crisis can force a blitz mentality. In England, when the Germans started aerial bobbing cities, people actually came together. So it can work both ways. The shock – if it is sufficient – can actually force people to work together. If the effects of this shock are realised in terms of economy, society and politics, then the multilateral system – which frankly has been in decline and probably looked petty terminal even before this crisis – could, if it stepped up, start doing its work. The effects of this crisis are going to be severely long term, but if we treat it has a short-term crisis, because most politicians are ultimately short-term maximisers, they will just use this to confirmed in all their prejudices. The populists have not done very well in handling the crisis so far. The ones who have done well are South Korea, Taiwan etc which do not have flamboyant populist leaders. But of course, people in the West would say that democracies have dealt with it better, whereas Chinese would say that China has handled it the best.

It is an opportunity for India to work with her neighbours. Our borders are very porous, and we made a good start with SAARC and we now need to start work on the ground, to be providers of human security for our neighbours, and that we can do. 

Geopolitically, it’s harder to say. The first reaction of the world is to blame somebody, but international relations don’t work like that. The other first instinct is to look for winners and losers. But if this crisis lasts long, then it is like asking who was the winner of The Great Depression. Such crises are not solved top-down. History tells us that this kind of crisis is actually solved by social mobilization, by a whole set of actors acting together, by governments doing what governments should do – governance, but also societies actually working together. There is a shock here that we should use as an opportunity to revive multilateralism, to also understand our common interest in dealing with these cross-border global issues like climate change, pandemics etcetera, which none of us can solve alone. 

Shyam Saran: Sometimes, a shock like this introduces an element of solidarity amongst the people, which is a good thing going forward. In India, despite this crisis, there is a certain resilience in our society which will probably see us through. The same is true for many other countries as well. Although the degrees of pain faced by different countries will be different – I do not see countries as going down under because of this pandemic. We may not be able to predict the kind of reshuffling of power relations that may take place because of this pandemic, but it is certainly true that the kind of response that we should have seen, like we saw during the global financial crisis

This is one particular piece of the larger puzzle that we are looking at. This particular crisis is intimately related to other crises which have also been unfolding over the last several years. For instance, the ecological crisis. The current issue has occurred because you are bringing together animals from the wild with domesticated animals. This is how the transfer of the virus has taken place from wildlife to humans. Thus, there are deeper reasons why this has happened. There needs to be a worldwide response, for instance, a complete ban on wildlife trade. These things cannot be done by one single country. We are looking at little bits of the larger picture and missing the bigger picture. We are today living in a world that whatever happens inside our countries is very much impacted by what is happening outside our countries and vice versa. This is what the corona virus has taught us. 

Are we sufficiently aware and will this crisis make us sufficiently aware, despite the short-termism that today’s political leadership displays, is there some point at which you think here will be some transition somewhere from mere leadership to statesmanship? This is a key question for today’s times.

Globalisation is a genie that you cannot put back into the pot. Putting walls around ourselves will never stop globalisation. We have to now be geared to deal with a world which is already very different from what we have known before. We must also confront the fact that the Westphalian nation state, about which we have known for decades, needs to be radically adjusted in terms of dealing with the problems that we now face. We cannot have a concept of total sovereignty. Giving up some sovereignty in order to be able to deal with huge issues and crises is absolutely critical.

Shivshankar Menon: I hope and wish that leaders would display this larger idea of a common destiny, especially in a moment of crisis. But do I expect it? I am afraid not, because ultimately if it accentuates political trends within and between polities in the world, then we are talking about a world that is already fracturing. There are societies that are increasingly polarised within themselves, one is seeing a pushback against globalisation, there is increasing inequality within societies, and one has seen the political effects in the election of authoritarians. Domestic politics is also fracturing and polarising. Therefore, the crisis for most leaders will be ‘how do I stay in power?’ There has been increasing US-China contention over the last 3-4 years, and now the first thing that happens is that each one blames the other for the virus. An official spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Office saying that the US Army was in Wuhan and the virus has spread through them. The Americans on the other hand are preventing the G7 foreign ministers from agreeing on a communiqué because they insist on calling it a ‘Chinese virus’. Surely that’s not the issue here. The issue is – how do we work together to deal with something that affects us all? Thus, this situation is accentuating existing trends, and one cannot be sure to count on the political leadership that we have today in the world because one problem with most of these authoritarians who are in power is that they base their legitimacy on ultranationalism. Therefore, the room for actual compromise, the give and take that actual diplomacy and working with other people requires, that compromise, becomes much harder for them because it affects their ability to project their ultranationalist image. Some of them may manage it, but not all of them.

The other problem is that what we might get are temporary alliances of convenience in dealing with the consequences of the crisis because each of us are in a different stage of the crisis. It is an economic crisis for everybody. But if every country were to do the same thing which is stimulate their own economies and pump money into them – it is self-defeating in a globalised world economy. With regards to the politics of it – we are on different stages of what we expect from the world and what we expect from each other. And today, each one is trying to consolidate their own power and to avoid being blamed for this crisis not by the rest of the world, but by their own people. Thus, in this situation it is hard to believe that there will be meaningful multilateral cooperation. Maybe slightly later, when we are past the immediate crisis, when one is looking at prevention of a recurrence and second/ third/ fourth waves – that is when, hopefully, medical professionals and scientific researchers, who have a better habit of cooperation than politicians, can lead us to a better understanding.

Shyam Saran:  Our tendency to look at bits of the crisis prevents us from looking at the bigger picture. This is a health crisis, but also an economic crisis and an ecological crisis. It will soon be a severe social crisis. Even though we acknowledge that societies have proved to be resilient in the past, the fact is that there is going to be an immense social strain and managing all these tensions together is going to be very difficult. 

The economic crisis is somewhat unique today, because unlike what happened during the global financial crisis, we are not only dealing with a demand shortage but we are dealing with what is probably going to become an even more severe supply shortage. One has a set of instruments that you can deal with with regard to boosting demand, one has a set of instruments that can be used in order to boost the production processes. But what do you do when both of them together are in crisis? These are unprecedented situations that we are going to face. Essentially, each country is groping in the dark and hoping for the best. 

It will also be a crisis which will completely change the manner in which we look at economics and we look at what economic policy needs to do. For example, trying to separate economic policy from social policy – after all, it is individuals who are economic actors, institutions are economic actors, and their perceptions have a major impact on the economy. What is the level of confidence amongst the consumers and investors?
So, with regard to the economic impact is going to be much worse than what it is today. And the WTO world, the multilateral investment world is dead and we have not yet come to the point where we are willing to look at what can, in fact, replace it in terms of some kind of a multilateral order. So what we are going to see is essentially autarkic economic policies being pursued by governments across the world. 

What we see generated by this crisis are very very disturbing trends, but I also see some encouraging trends. The fact that politicians respond to what they think what will be the perceptions of them – so at least even in terms of self-interest, if people are beginning to consider the question of business-as-usual or inequalities, then there is a ray of hope. For instance, the plight of the migrant workers in India – what is encouraging is that across social categories there is a great deal of concern for their well-being and people are coming together to try and assist them. Of course there is a huge social churning that is taking place, and there are some positive trends in that social churning. People are beginning to see that what we have been used to in the past will not work anymore. Perhaps governments, even authoritarian ones, will need to respond to these very new sentiments amongst the people of the world.

Shivshankar Menon: People everywhere are turning to the state and their governments for a solution to this crisis. So in a sense, we are also in the space of negotiating the social contract. We are demanding governance from our governance, which, in the recent past, we have not. We have held them to very low standards of behaviour. And when politicians see the people demanding much better standards of governance and better behaviour – that is when maybe we can turn crisis into opportunity. 

Watch the complete conversation on our Youtube channel:

You can now read Shyam Saran’s ‘How India Sees The World’ for free on the Juggernaut App!

Stay tuned for more such conversations and knowledgeable sessions during the #ReadInstead Lit fest. Self-isolate, stay safe, and keep reading! 



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