Brave New World. How the Pandemic Is Changing the International System and Ukraine's Place in It

May 6, 2020
As a result of the continuing quarantine, many highly-respected people have found themselves with more time and motivation to contemplate humanity's state and future. For understandable reasons, moreover, we are all carrying a great emotional load. As a result, one can now learn every day about new captivating ideas on what the world may or ought to look like after the pandemic.

Most well-known publicists are writing about how our current world will and/or should be changing, and are discussing  their visions with colleagues. These fascinating intellectual exchanges bring some much-needed joy to these otherwise difficult times (though there are also also plenty of banalities being bandied about). When surveying the leading newspapers, political magazines, think-tank websites, and high-brow periodicals, one can get absorbed in a variety of topics -- from new international logistic solutions to fresh approaches in teaching and learning to the(generally)  novel ways in which people work and communicate with each other.

So far, however, these different visions are yet to add up to a full picture of the future that awaits us. What almost all authors agree on is only that it will be impossible to live on as we did before the pandemic. During the past month or so, this conclusion has become so common that it's now almost a cliche. Intriguingly, in Europe, accustomed to comfort and stability, the thesis of the globality and depth of the ongoing social changes seems to be more recognized and widespread today than in the US or Asia. In all other dimensions, an enormous spectrum of competing innovative thought is mind-boggling.

Debating an Unknown Future

If one surveys comments on the possible consequences of the pandemic for geopolitics and international affairs, however, the number of conclusive texts narrows down considerably. Thoughtful politicians and serious experts share a general understanding of the pandemic's tremendous implications for the world system. But there remains no common and clearly-articulated understanding about such political repercussions' exact nature as well as about effective strategies to react to them. There is even less thinking, so far, about the necessary international coalitions to address the pandemic's socio-political impact. Many of the leading thinkers are still keeping to cautious inferences, forecasts and proposals.

Being true to our think-tank's name, we at the Institute for the Future have decided to do the opposite. We are now starting a series of texts about how the world system could and should change, when it is still unknown how and when the Corona Crisis and its resultant global disorder will turn out. The depth of the ongoing break with the past has made it possible to make far-reaching conclusions and suggestions about the world order in the years to come and how it will face subsequent global challenges. For Ukraine, moreover, the stakes of whether and how this and future international crises will be resolved are especially high.

Pavlo Klimkin and Andreas Umland, authors of the article

To be sure, a transformation of the international system is by its very nature hard to predict and even more difficult to enact. Yet, a postponement of the imagination and debate of both, already happening and, in the future, necessary fundamental change may delay its understanding and thereby put under question future international stability. A transition to some new world order seems already under way. It is likely to become contested at some point, in any way. If we start deliberating it sooner rather than later, we might help it turn out for the better.

At this early stage, our reflections can be neither systematic nor comprehensive nor definitive. Rather, we seek to address in this and subsequent texts a range of areas where radical changes are likely or/and desirable, and then to develop some tentative propositions. The geopolitical transformations we are foreseeing here may, to be sure, not happen in the short or even  medium term. But we expect these transitions ultimately to come about and to be profound.

Ukraine needs to take an active part in such international discussion of new political challenges. Kyiv also needs to also participate  in the search for possible solutions and in their implementation. The current crisis and its political repercussions carry special risks for the Ukrainian nation. But they may also offer the chance  for Ukrainians to move from the global periphery closer to the center of international decision-making.

The Rise of the Deep State

First, as a result of the current crisis, national and international public institutions are likely to obtain stronger popular mandates. In the future, they will seemingly play a bigger, and in some cases more authoritative, role in society than today. Increasing demand for more adequate conduct of domestic and intergovernmental affairs that is able to sustainably secure basic necessities of living will change relations between the people and their states. In some cases, the transfer of new powers to governmental and semi-governmental, national and international agencies may be well-defined and limited. In other cases, as, for instance, in Orban's Hungary, this has led or will lead to extensive reinforcement of executive prerogatives which manifestly undermine democracy. Not all such new mandates must necessarily lead, however, to more authoritarianism, and the novel powers that state organs will likely attain can be used in different ways.

The desire to ensure better public protection and professional expertise may strengthen what some would call the "deep state" - in a sense of the term, not in the way the phrase has been misused by Donald Trump and conspiracy theorists. A positive meaning of the term "deep state" refers to those highly qualified bureaucrats, diplomats, experts, and researchers whose often invisible work secures the proper functioning of governmental or semi-governmental institutions. Members of such a "deep state" are assumed to combine patriotic devotion to their country ​​with high professionalism in their public service. If the Corona Crisis is not the last such global challenge in the coming years, a trend of strengthening governmental structures as a whole, and of the "deep state" in particular, may become ever more prominent.

For international relations, this enhanced importance of state institutions for the existence of societies can mean either of two things. It could imply a strengthening of the everyone-for-themselves principle and increased competition between the quality of different national institutions, or it could lead to new levels of interaction between national governments and especially between the "deep states" of many different countries.

The latter scenario may eventually lead to the formation of a "deep globalism" that would be quite different from the current structures of the UN and other existing transcontinental organizations. "Deep globalism" would embrace not only and not so much today's international bureaucrats, i.e. the employees of existing intergovernmental institutions. Rather, it could mean properly institutionalized, funded, and empowered global networks of experts or "epistemic communities" which transnationally collect and analyze critical information. Ideally, such international formal or informal associations of specialists would have sufficient authority to also make and implement decisions based on the best knowledge and intelligence of mankind.

Such a development would mean that classic representative democracy and international relations between governments will no longer operate as they do now.

To justify, organize and (most importantly) legitimize a new global expertise-driven and values-based international public contract would constitute a considerable political challenge. Yet it is obvious that current models of interaction and cooperation between nation-states have become gravely inadequate. They are able to produce only poor responses to the health, economic, environmental, migratory, and other world-wide crises of the present and of the increasingly frightening future.

As for now, to be sure, the old paradigm of everyone-for-her/himself is benefitting rather than suffering from the ever-accumulating challenges. However, while we are far from the end of the pandemic, the unviability of the national model of crisis management is already visible. This was illustrated, for instance, by the bizarre world-wide hunt for face masks in March and April 2020. Still, even a satisfactory international solution to such immediate material and economic issues may not by itself be enough.

For example, a new global Marshall Plan is now being discussed and could include several phases, as well as new tools. Any project to support the world economy should be welcomed, but trans-border anti-crisis measures will remain incomplete as long as they are only about trans-national financial transfers and investment incentives. Without a parallel political rebooting of the international system, their outcomes will not prevent future recurrence of past and current problems. Purely economic measures will not provide for a real breakthrough into a more secure, sustainable future.

The Defunct Post-World War II System and Ukraine

Second, as countries continue following largely country-level crisis survival strategies, they keep drawing lessons mainly from their country-level experiences. So far, only the coronavirus itself appears to most people to be a truly global question to be solved by international networks of academic researchers, medical staff, and health care workers. Addressing the various socio-economic issues resulting from the pandemic -- and meeting other transcontinental challenges of today and tomorrow -- is still largely seen through the lenses of nation states or their coalitions rather than within an inter- or supranational context.

Since World War II, a number of prominent structures, initiatives, and projects have emerged to foster closer cooperation between nations and civilizations. Theoretically, they could and should provide platforms for solving virtually all relevant international questions. Yet today, most critical crisis issues continue to be resolved at national and sub-national levels. These internationally uncoordinated efforts sometimes lead to fierce and even shameless national, regional and local competition for salient resources.

As long as countries keep solving primarily just their own problems, the prosperous among them have better chances to survive and thrive than the poorer. The strong will become still stronger while the weaker will be weakened even further. Ukraine is, by most indicators, a third world country, and even among these, it is not in the first tier. For Ukrainians it is thus difficult, if not impossible, to win in such an accelerating global race among nations. Therefore, for Ukraine and other relatively weak states, more, better and stronger intergovernmental and even supranational institutions would represent a preferable version of the future. Yet, fully participating in new or renewed international organizations would imply that Ukrainians will have to radically improve the quality of their own national institutions. Progress works only for those who can take advantage of it.

Third, in 2014, when the Russian aggression against Ukraine began, it was not only Ukrainians who realized that the existing system of international institutions created after the Second World War is ineffective and sometimes totally nonfunctional. An aggressor country that has a permanent seat in the UN Security Council keeps using its privileged position and veto power to prevent official acknowledgment that  aggression is taking place. This has led to the absurd situation that one part of the UN Charter cannot be implemented because of another. By its mere existence, the UN's most prominent decision-making body, the Security Council, has come to implicitly legitimize a military territorial expansion by one of its permanent members, at the expense of another UN member state. The UN's peculiar structure thereby undermines today a (if not the) central rationale for why this Organization was created after World War II. 

In the past, there was little left that Ukraine could do, within this sad reality, other than to continue fighting Russian aggression. There has been, to be sure, some talk recently about a reform of the UN Security Council. Working groups were created, some new concepts were developed. However, these beginnings are yet to lead anywhere.

That is because the world's key players have so far seen no sufficient need to reboot the existing international system. Worse, Russia, though expelled from the G8 and under sanctions, has been engaged in diplomatic bypass maneuvers by way of trying to convene a summit solely of the permanent members of the Security Council. The Kremlin wants to discuss the fate of Ukrainians and others without them being present, and by means of exploiting the outdated idiosyncrasies of the UN's structure.

Towards a New International System

After the pandemic -- often compared to a war -- a new international situation, however, may emerge which bears similarity to the global moods after the ends of the two World Wars in 1918 and 1945. Such sentiments could not only renew debate about humanity's current institutional setting. The repercussions of the current pandemic and future global challenges can also trigger a direct crisis in or of the existing major international organizations. Under such circumstances, it may become possible for countries like Ukraine to find influential like-minded actors with whom to raise the issue of a fundamental transformation and not just of a partial reform of, above all, the UN.

Resistance to such proposals would be stiff. However, the current UN system could, in the future, be losing legitimacy as a result of this and coming global crises, and inadequate reactions. In fact, the world's current institutional set-up is already perceived by many, not the least by Ukrainians, as irrelevant to topical international challenges and ineffective in addressing increasingly acute human problems.

Today's reform-minded UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has not been able to implement any of the substantive changes he had planned when he took office. As a result, we may have already passed the chance for a gradual reform of the UN system. The world's current institutional structure is being increasingly perceived as inadequate to react to some of today's most urgent issues. With every passing month, radical rather than moderate change is becoming the only thing that fits the bill.

The world's current institutional structure is being increasingly perceived as inadequate to react to some of today's most urgent issues.

To start a reboot, the entire UN system would have to be thoroughly reassessed -- ideally, by an external and independent auditor. The most obvious candidate for change already today is the World Health Organization, which failed to provide adequate monitoring and warning of the current pandemic at its beginning. More timely analysis, clearer public communication and more resolute advice could have probably saved tens of thousands of lives. The limitations of, and preparations for, the pandemic could and should have started earlier, including in Ukraine, where the prior coronavirus surge in Western Europe was, at first, not taken seriously.

In view of this and other experiences, humanity should ideally reinvent rather than merely reform the current UN system. The Organization and its organs simply do not deliver what is demanded of them. They often give only belated or/and limited responses to exactly those crises or emergency situations that they are designed to tackle. What is the purpose of a World Health Organization that prioritizes "political correctness" towards its members, as it understands it, when assessing the outlook for an epidemic? Why does much of mankind now have to pay dearly because WHO officials were, in a crisis situation, unwilling to complicate their relations with China? International institutions that cannot act on the basis of an impartial analysis of information are doomed to be ineffective. They put into question the reasons why they were created in the first place.

What Could the Future International System Look Like?

The issue of which institutions or groups could initiate, formulate, and implement a global answer to these and similar questions remains unresolved. There does not yet seem to be a clear candidate camp or driving force that can initiate and push through a reboot of existing international institutions. Such a transformative actor or coalition of players has yet to emerge.

Some speculate that a reboot of the current international system would lead to the emergence of a global structure with executive powers, i.e. a kind of world government. However, the chances of such an institution appearing any time soon, even with limited powers, are low. The establishment of a permanent supranational institution by existing nation-states which would have to relinquish their powers to a world cabinet is unrealistic. In spite of its common values, geography and heritage, European civilization has, for almost 70 years, failed to transform the European Commission created in 1951 (then as the European Coal and Steel Community's High Authority) into a government of the European Union.

One could imagine, however, a worldwide structure which would act only in the event of emergencies and would have the task to temporarily provide ad-hoc coordination between countries in order to ensure the resolution of an acute crisis. As the current pandemic continues and more global calamities accumulate, such an idea will increasingly find support among politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and ordinary people around the world. The financing of such a new organization could be secured by collecting a global emergency tax or contributions to a world insurance scheme. Such an institution could have a supervisory board consisting not only or even not at all of politicians, but mainly or exclusively of scientists and other internationally-respected experts.

Obviously, the creation of such a global body would be difficult. For example, the exact conditions under which a supranational structure would take over powers from nation-states would be difficult to formulate consensually.  Many governments of the world may perhaps support such an idea in principle, but some will try to resist any real power- and cost-sharing even in the event of a global emergency. Still, future transnational crises similar to the current pandemic could over time delegitimize and gradually reduce such resistance. Each subsequent global calamity will presumably increase the acceptability of world-emergency structures or similar international protection schemes.

Changing Geopolitics and Ukraine's Western Integration

Fourth, there is increasing speculation about whether the current political map of the world will hold. Whether or not unification or separation of countries will happen depends on the duration and depth of accumulating crises that question today's nation-state-oriented system. What exactly will happen is difficult to foresee. Yet it seems already clear that the existing mode of interaction between countries and the zones of influence of the great powers are beginning a profound transformation.

The peculiar system of balances and institutions created after World War II can neither be revived nor left behind. On the other hand a sort of Yalta 2.0 -- a conference of great powers partitioning the world into spheres of control -- is also no longer possible. Keeping static areas of influence in today's world will be difficult. Military intervention, for instance, can today be resisted not only militarily. It can also be repelled with non-conventional methods, incurring unforeseen damage and costs to the interventionist.

Certain domination of world regions by the big players will remain, to be sure. But erstwhile semi-colonial zones will become increasingly hybrid. They will experience neither full nor zero control by one large power, but more and more mixing of competing influences at different levels and in different dimensions. The Kremlin understands this well, as illustrated by policies like its massive issuance Russian passports in the Donets Basin and its promotion of so-called "federalization" in Ukraine. Moscow feels that its grip on the former republics of the USSR is slipping. Nevertheless, it wants to leave a foot in the door of future Western-integrated post-Soviet republics like Ukraine.

Whatever else Moscow may come up with, joining NATO as a full member will remain Ukraine's strategic goal.

Can Ukrainians, however, be sure that NATO will be ready to host a country with potentially millions of Russian passport holders? Will NATO countries be ready to observe, with regard to Ukraine, Article 5 of NATO's Washington Treaty on the protection of all signatories by all members of the Alliance? This remains an open question even among today's member-countries.

Recent polls in NATO member countries indicate that most citizens are satisfied with the Alliance. But not all of them are convinced of the necessity that their homelands need to duly fulfill Article 5  in the event of an attack on another member country. For Ukrainians, this sentiment even from within the Alliance means that NATO membership will not come by itself. It is, for Kyiv, not enough to loudly shout pro-Western slogans and raise NATO flags in its capital. Ukraine needs to formulate -- especially for West Europeans -- a clearer narrative of why the Alliance needs Ukraine.

A NATO task force was recently set up to prepare proposals for the future of the Alliance. This initiative was, among other things, a response to Emmanuel Macron's recent provocative critique that NATO is "brain dead." France will be represented in this working group by former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who has repeatedly criticized an alleged US desire to drag Ukraine into NATO. Ukrainians need to find convincing arguments to explain to all NATO members that their security will be strengthened if Ukraine joins, and vice versa. Kyiv is yet to develop and communicate these arguments.

The situation with Ukraine's future EU membership is no less challenging. Joining the EU requires even more purely Ukrainian answers -- while  the Union is, in principle, open to any European country, it is yet not ready to take in a country as dysfunctional as Ukraine. These answers thus lie in a fundamental change of the basic patterns and algorithms which govern the Ukrainian state and society. Even so, deep reforms will not be enough.

We also have to win the hearts and minds of Europeans, including for example the French and the Dutch, who will one day hold a referendum on the question of whether Ukraine can join the EU. If we act as we have usually done, it will be difficult to win this battle for Europe's soul. Perhaps the pandemic and its far-reaching repercussions will give Ukrainians the chance to jump over their own shadow.

Unlike some other politicians and commentators, we do not expect a weakening and, even less so, in the disintegration of NATO and the EU, as a result of today's crisis. On the contrary, we believe that strengthening these organizations is a necessary prerequisite for continued Western leadership in the future world. If NATO and the EU do not live up to their expectations, the transatlantic space of today will no longer exist. The stakes are thus indeed high, but that may be an advantage rather than disadvantage.

For Ukrainians, the stakes are nothing less than existential. Will we remain in a socio-economic hybrid world and geopolitical gray zone, or will we finally enter the Euro-Atlantic community? It is futile to hope that we will be taken into a renewed transatlantic reality simply because we are who we are. The Coronavirus pandemic has not changed our goals, but it does provide us an opportunity for shaking off the old mentality and for building new institutions necessary to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic space, with the help of our friends and partners.

The Changing Public Life

Fifth, Ukrainians and other nations need to be prepared for the struggle for information hegemony among global mass and social media companies to become ever more aggressive. Countries especially vulnerable to disinformation campaigns, like Ukraine, should be aware that principles of national sovereignty, security, and influence are already losing ground in world-wide communication. For example, Facebook recently stopped broadcasting a speech by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro because Facebook's administrators believed he was spreading fake news about the Coronavirus.

The internal rules and codes that will be followed by major media companies will be decreasingly accountable to preferences of national governments. Mass and social media will be operating less and less according to some presumed professional standards than in accordance with their own predefined preferences and artificial intelligence algorithms. For Ukraine, which has gained first-hand experience in combating information aggression from the Russian Federation, these novel developments may entail not only risks, but also new chances.

Mass and social media will be operating less and less according to some presumed professional standards than in accordance with their own predefined preferences and artificial intelligence algorithms.

Sixth, the era of biometric passports, which has only recently begun, is already coming to an end. In the future, we may have to provide bio-passports, i.e. documentation of our current health situation, instead when we want to travel visa-free, or even to travel at all. It is probable that we will also have to agree to real-time monitoring of our individual and family health parameters. The question of who has the ability and should be allowed to collect, evaluate, and use this personal data is still an open one.

Although people will probably continue spending more time in virtual space after the Corona crisis than before the pandemic, this does not compensate for travelling and social contact. We are not created for social distancing. Nevertheless now we may have to pay for this luxury with access to our medical records. How the management of such private information of mankind will be organized -- no one can say for sure at this point.

Last but not least, in the coming "new brave world," as the pandemic has shown and further global crises may confirm, physical endurance during major calamities may be very precarious for tens of thousands of people. The continued existence of currently-existing national communities and states is also not guaranteed. This pandemic is neither the last nor, perhaps, the major contemporary misfortune of mankind, as the ongoing man-made climate change indicates.

Adequate social organization is, in such a fragile world, not only an instrument to secure a good quality of life, but a matter of simple survival. For example, Ukraine has millions of capable people, but it has few truly effective major institutions. We have our country and good people, but no coherent state structure capable of protecting and helping its citizens.

Ukrainians critically need allies and partners that they can rely on and who can also rely on us. Help for Ukraine simply because we need it will not come. We have to deserve it and most likely to do something in return. Our partners' requirements for assistance during and after the pandemic will become more and more demanding. The next upcoming IMF tranche should not mislead us. Further requests from our partners will not only and not so much be about specific reforms, but will be asking, even more so than before, for a systemic transformation of our country to finally move away from the post-Soviet model. Not exploiting this urgency as an opportunity may mean that we will never manage to create an effective state.

Pavlo Klimkin and Andreas Umland
for UkraineWorld