-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — Much has been written in recent years on the collapse of a world order where the United States plays a key role in its construction and upkeep, and on the possible implications for international relations. Idealized traits of this order included: Near-universal free trade and liberal democracy, the existence of common rules, and multilateralism and globalism. All of these supposedly contributed to the peaceful coexistence of nations, the fluid functioning of the global system and, ultimately, collective wellbeing.

While this is a caricature of a project whose inner contradictions ultimately nurtured the crises that led to its downfall, the absence of world leadership has seriously affected our collective capacity to fight problems that are inherently ignorant of borders, such as global warming or pandemics. As these issues create shared costs and affect the weakest populations, they demand joint, consensual policies in response.

But instead of a coordinated strategy that pulls the entire international community in the same direction, there is dissonance in the efforts of different countries to contain the coronavirus, if not finger-pointing and mutual incriminations. Trump, for example, has been attributing the "foreign virus" invading U.S. territory to Europe's lack of action. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of exporting the virus, South Korea has condemned Japan for restricting air traffic, and Colombia's President Iván Duque has closed the border, refusing to talk to Maduro on the other side. He is thus encouraging illegal entries by Venezuelans, which is even more dangerous. Both Russia and the Saudis are, for their part, fishing in murky waters, looking to make some capital from a dirty oil war.

Crises bring out the worst in states bereft of proper leadership

We may not like the conductor role the United States has played in the past but even the most critical observers, with whom I identify, must admit to feeling some nostalgia at this juncture. This would be the time to issue a political call for cooperation and solidarity, and take a collective decision for which there are currently no ideal voices, not even among multilateral bodies like the UN. The situation is being aggravated, and the possibility of collective action thwarted, by protectionism, nationalism, unilateralism and xenophobia. All of these elements have been rising since the previous great crisis, the financial crash of 2008.

Crises bring out the worst in states bereft of proper leadership, as well as in societies — especially when they are subjected to a high dose of fear and uncertainty. Still, besides mutual suspicions, discrimination and selfish hoarding, crises also sow expressions of altruism, compassion, solidarity and collaboration. The moving gesture these days by Italians and Spaniards coming to their balconies to applaud and encourage those fighting the war on the coronavirus produces a different kind of nostalgia. A sort of wishful hope that, once our world is so shaken up we no longer recognize it, we may learn to face our present and future together.


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