Introduction

COVID-19 is the first genuinely global health emergency. Although earlier pandemics devastated regions, they often took months or years to spread and had little impact elsewhere. The novel coronavirus moved faster and farther, affecting every population across the world. Infection and death rates from Wuhan to São Paulo dominated the evening news in every country.

But any hopes that this historic crisis—the first universal threat to human health—would mobilize global solidarity were quickly dashed as the stress of the pandemic reinforced nation-first thinking. Across the world, nations turned inward. Protecting one’s own citizens trumped all other concerns, and xenophobia proliferated. Anti-globalization rhetoric ramped up as economic inequality skyrocketed. Instead of fostering global cooperation, the pandemic caused foreign policies to shrink in terms of substance and reach. Geopolitical rivalries deepened and multilateral cooperation and institutions suffered from the pervasive spread of the nation-first mindset.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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Climate change is an even greater and more complex global challenge. But the political dynamics of combating it are profoundly different. While a nation-first mentality was a plausible response to a threat that could be contained by raising barriers and reducing contacts to the outside, it is deeply counterproductive when it comes to mitigating global warming. By its very nature, this task requires concerted international action. Weakened and reduced to a sideshow during the health crisis, diplomacy must be reinvigorated to ensure a necessary—and fair—transition toward a carbon-neutral world.

The Shrinking Horizons of Foreign Policy

Since it began, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated public life, leaving little space for much else. Over the past two years, there has been not only a marked decline in the attention devoted to international relations but also a reduction of the efforts and resources spent on foreign policy.1 A massive problem at home inevitably diminishes the capacity to be active elsewhere. But, of course, international challenges have not gone away altogether. In fact, managing the health crisis itself has required a great deal of foreign policy prowess, ranging from repatriating stranded citizens, to procuring medical supplies, to maintaining international trade relations.

Much of this activity has concerned transborder problems between neighboring countries. Consequently, apart from the most powerful countries, which have maintained their global outlook, many nations have shifted to focus on their neighbors and immediate region. In the early days of the crisis, restrictions on travel and trade created considerable friction between some neighboring countries. After two years and much troubleshooting, however, the crisis has brought many of them even closer together. Paradoxically, a massive global challenge seems to have reinforced the relevance and value of geographic proximity.

U.S.-Chinese Rivalry and the Crisis of Multilateral Diplomacy

China overcame its health crisis and recovered rapidly, even as the United States faced multiple new waves of infections. This boosted Beijing’s self-confidence and assertiveness, while deepening concerns in Washington. Instead of working to mitigate the geopolitical rivalry, leaders on both sides have used the pandemic to exacerbate tensions. Just like Donald Trump before him, U.S. President Joe Biden has made the rivalry with China the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, subordinating many other relationships and concerns.

U.S.-Chinese blame games about the origin and handling of the virus have further damaged multilateral cooperation—which had already been badly weakened by the Trump administration’s retrenchment. Trump’s decision to quit the World Health Organization (WHO), which Biden reversed when he took office, was only the most visible part of the collateral damage.

Already in March 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres had appealed for a universal humanitarian ceasefire to allow for better management of the health crisis. But due to squabbles among its permanent members, it took the Security Council until July 2020 to endorse this idea. Both appeals remained without noticeable effect. In February 2021—this time with the participation of the Biden administration—the Security Council adopted Resolution 2565, which reiterated the call to pause armed conflicts so that vaccines could be distributed in conflict and postconflict areas. Again, the practical follow-through has remained uncertain, mainly due to the insufficient global supply of vaccines.

Economic Inequality Fuels Global Instability

While Russia and China tried to score geopolitical points through so-called vaccine diplomacy, COVAX—a global alliance of governments and nongovernmental actors aimed at distributing vaccines to developing countries—badly underperformed, delivering only a third of the target amount. Bureaucracy and coordination issues plague COVAX, but the main reason for its disappointing record was the egotism of rich countries that hoarded vaccines and deployed their financial power primarily for their own benefit. By September 2021, of 5.7 billion vaccines delivered, 73 percent of the doses had been administered in just ten countries. Only 3 percent of people in Africa had received jabs—a tragic failure of global solidarity.

Access to vaccines is also a key factor in economic recovery. While wealthy countries’ economies have grown rapidly in 2021, low-income countries remain disproportionally affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic. Massive job losses and a dramatic outflow of capital threaten to push at least 150 million people into poverty, reversing much of the progress made in recent decades. After three years of decline, development assistance increased modestly in 2020, partly in response to the pandemic, but it failed to compensate for the massive reduction in the other income flows that developing countries rely on—namely trade, foreign direct investment, and remittances. When wealthy countries mobilized 16 trillion dollars of funding for COVID-19 stimulus measures, just 1 percent went to helping developing countries cope with the crisis.

If these shortfalls are not tackled rapidly through reenergized multilateral cooperation, the pandemic will result in a drastically more unequal world. For the poorest countries and regions, the severe economic setbacks will likely lead to increasingly fragile conditions and more intra- and interstate conflicts.

Foreign Policy Goes Virtual

Despite technological advances, most operational foreign-policy work until 2020 was still handled through traditional means—diplomatic missions, the exchange of letters, phone calls, meetings, and conferences. As in-person gatherings and travel became difficult due to coronavirus-related restrictions, it didn’t take long for the business of diplomacy to go virtual.

It soon became clear that the new mode of operating had both advantages and some considerable limitations. Going virtual meant that high-level actors were more available than ever before to participate in events. While phone calls have for a long time been an essential tool of bilateral diplomacy, videoconferences became the new vehicle of choice for multilateral work on both the regional and global levels. During the pandemic, national leaders and international organizations have been able to hold more online meetings, often at short notice—some that even the most ambitious travel schedule would never have allowed. Moving online also enhanced possibilities for wider participation. UN Security Council briefings, for instance, which used to be reserved for diplomats and UN officials, can now involve a broader range of participants, such as local government officials and representatives from civil society. New audiences are also able to tune in, bridging the divide between traditional and public diplomacy.

All of this works well as long as the primary objectives are the exchange of information and political messaging. But when it comes to solving problems, the limitations of virtual diplomacy have quickly become evident. Managing complex negotiations is almost impossible online. Key aspects—like forming alliances, exerting pressure, and offering incentives to selected participants—demand informality and, thus, proximity. Quiet side conversations let parties explore redlines and seek compromises. It’s possible that technological advances (such as improved virtual reality) will over time diminish these constraints, but it is unlikely that in-person interaction can ever be fully replaced by virtual communications. Confidentiality remains another major constraint. Even among countries with fairly sophisticated systems, it is hard to know exactly who is in the other room—and who might be listening in from outside.

With high-level travel reduced, diplomats on the ground proved their full value. In multilateral settings—such as the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the European Union—permanent delegations were able to continue physical meetings and move vital business forward. Embassies were able to track the crucial internal political dynamics that ensure high-level virtual encounters are more than just empty rituals.

The coronavirus is not going away. But thanks to vaccines, the situation is improving in the wealthier parts of the world, where economies and lifestyles are returning to a more normal state of affairs. Will the diplomatic status quo ante return as well? How many of the changes of the past two years will remain in place?

For many reasons, not least climate change, travel—particularly air travel—is likely to become more expensive and politically taboo in the future. Just as in the private sector, financial constraints will favor online activities. Political leaders will continue to travel, but probably less often than before. Virtual encounters and conferences will remain an important part of their schedule. For mid- and low-level officials, travel may become an exceptional experience, which could negatively impact the development of expertise and understanding of complex situations.

A substantial portion of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy will probably migrate permanently to the virtual space. Information and views will be exchanged on-screen or in hybrid meetings, where some participants are in-person and others online. A physical presence will remain irreplaceable for sensitive and results-oriented negotiations, making the decision to participate in-person or online an indication of the importance assigned to the matter. The choice of meeting format will always involve a trade-off between quantity and quality, between breadth and depth.

Even before the pandemic, digital communications—particularly social media—had become major vehicles for public diplomacy. The pandemic only boosted this trend. For politicians forced to stay at home, writing op-eds or blogs and posting on Facebook or Twitter were quick, safe, and cheap ways to remain active and visible. The line between public messaging and classical diplomacy is increasingly blurred. Combined with the imperative to accommodate the news cycle, this has resulted in massively accelerated public messaging, often at the cost of deeper reflection. Amid the stress of the pandemic, cyberspace thrived as a prominent battleground and a fertile environment for propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories that often drowned out fact-based information and careful analysis.

Lessons for the Fight Against Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic could have been a uniting experience for humanity. After all, everyone from the U.S. president to a rickshaw driver in India can be infected by the same virus and struggle with the same symptoms, though of course access to treatment varies greatly. Apart from a few cranks, few denied the existence of the virus or the magnitude of the challenge, which absorbed the full attention of both political leadership and the public for many months. Climate change, by contrast, is more nebulous. Its impacts include droughts, floods, storms, fires, and heatwaves—to name just a few. Each particular situation must be tackled individually and on its own terms, and the underlying cause is not always apparent. Compared to the coronavirus, understanding climate change as a single collective threat to humanity is much more difficult. The challenge is certainly global—but the experience is often local.

Fighting a pandemic by containing its spread, erecting barriers and restrictions, and protecting those inside from those outside makes a certain amount of inherent sense. This defensive dynamic, based on the logic of exclusion, explains much of why so many countries have embraced a nation-first mindset over the past two years. It is the main reason why this global challenge has been met with such a fragmented response and so little solidarity. Global warming, on the other hand, is already everywhere. There is no point trying to keep it out of a particular territory or containing it to certain regions. Mitigating global warming inherently transcends the scope of national action. It will be achieved through concerted efforts at the global level or it will fail.

The two challenges therefore have asymmetric political dynamics. In the case of the coronavirus, it was primarily a defensive, every-man-for-himself mentality of crisis management that hindered international cooperation. This was aggravated by the sudden appearance of the virus and the absence of adequate preparations. The panic that initially gripped governments and the public alike made a common international response even more difficult.

In the case of climate change, the nature of the threat is less immediately tangible. Therefore, raising awareness about and promoting the urgent need to address climate change becomes a political task—and the key to effective action. In recent years, substantial progress has been made. Massive international mobilization, particularly of young people, has shifted politics in a more eco-friendly direction in many parts of the world. But large swaths of the public remain skeptical. Natural catastrophes—such as the historic floods, storms, and fires of summer 2021—create a temporary surge in attention and concern, but interest levels tend to wane rather quickly. Other crises, such as the pandemic or economic setbacks like the current rise of energy prices, tend to hold the attention of the public and of the political leaders for much longer.

The WHO, a fairly traditional international agency, proved too weak and too easily politicized by geopolitical rivals to lead an effective global response to the coronavirus. Now, the fight against climate change has resulted in its own elaborate UN-led institutional framework. Climate diplomacy has defined common objectives, established monitoring and review mechanisms, and in-place structures for financial burden sharing. Regular climate summits serve to update the commitments and coordinate international cooperation.  However, in the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism, reaching the commonly defined goals of the Paris Agreement still depends on the action of individual states. Consequently, progress is hampered by the inherent difficulties of collective action, including deficient leadership, free-riding, and cumbersome decisionmaking. Vested interests, a partly skeptical public, and an overly cautious political class are preventing vital measures from being implemented as urgently as required.

Ultimately, there is a crucial difference between national measures intended to stop the spread of a pandemic and those meant to curb global warming. Whereas actions taken in a pandemic can deliver immediate concrete benefits to the population (by keeping the virus out or reducing infections), the success of efforts to slow climate change largely depend on other international actors taking similar steps. The relatively small size of each nation’s emissions compared to the global total is a favorite excuse for inaction. And lingering doubts about the seriousness of commitments made by the biggest polluters—such as China or the United States—can lead to defeatism and paralysis.

Therefore, while foreign policy was a sideshow during the pandemic, it sits at the heart of any effort to mitigate global warming. Achieving a carbon-neutral world doesn’t depend on one country or even one continent. Ambitious national or regional objectives, such as  Europe’s commitments, must run parallel with efforts to build effective global action through partnerships with other countries. This endeavor needs to go far beyond traditional multilateral diplomacy. All instruments—including trade, finance, development cooperation, and technology transfer—must be employed to establish the strongest possible commitment to stop or slow global warming.

Amid both global challenges, scientific collaboration and progress have been bright spots. Effective public-private partnerships and intensive international cooperation produced vaccines in record time. Through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists have established a comprehensive assessment of the threat that climate change poses and identified the parameters for avoiding the most catastrophic outcomes. In both instances, cooperation among scientists has been largely uncontaminated by geopolitical and economic rivalries. Science and technology will also play a crucial role in achieving a carbon transition. However, technological innovation will not happen by itself. It will require political decisions that create economic incentives, ensuring that the necessary level of funding and direct investment reaches the most promising projects. This presupposes an unprecedented level of international cooperation among governmental and business actors.

Whereas mitigating global warming inherently hinges on global cooperation, adapting to a changed environment could usher in a return to the nation-first mindset. The rich parts of the world, which are most responsible for global warming, will have the resources they need to adapt to many of the changing conditions. The poorest regions, on the other hand, are likely to be the most affected and the least able to manage the consequences. Similar to the pandemic, it will be tempting to prioritize immediate national interests, at the risk of neglecting more vulnerable populations elsewhere. In order to avoid furthering the divide between developed and developing countries, effective support for the Global South must be an essential part of the overall strategy. The experience with the wholly insufficient global vaccination effort must not be repeated. 

A final positive lesson can be gleaned from the pandemic. Society’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances turned out to be greater than many had previously assumed. The aforementioned transformation in the diplomatic sector is just one example of the radical economic and social adjustments imposed by the pandemic. These range from working from home, to social distancing, to large-scale financial support for vulnerable sectors and populations. Effective action against climate change will no doubt require similar resilience and even greater capacity to innovate. Some aspects of the fight against this pandemic give reason to hope that this is possible.

Conclusion

If the pandemic has been a trial run for coping with a colossal global challenge like climate change, the developments so far have not been encouraging. Narrow-minded national thinking has hardened, geopolitical rivalries have heightened, the North-South divide has deepened, and the multilateral system has displayed worrying fractures and weaknesses. Even if the worst of the pandemic is behind us, its legacy will weigh heavily on the efforts to slow down climate change. Apart from these trends, this also includes the challenge of managing multilateral diplomacy during a health crisis, the superficiality of many aspects of virtual diplomacy and a media scene filled with conspiracy theories and fake news.

However, many of these negative phenomena may be unique to the inherently defensive fight against a pandemic. An approach based on keeping insiders safe and outsiders out, by its very nature, breeds national egotism. Global warming, by contrast, imposes the opposite logic. No nation can be safe unless all relevant players act together. This basic solidarity, derived from the nature of the threat, should prompt governments to move beyond the nation-first mindset that has characterized their pandemic response.

Transforming this fundamental common interest into an ambitious plan for climate action should be the top priority of political leaders in the coming years. Their greatest ally will be science. The pandemic demonstrated the revolutionary potential of mobilizing scientific expertise. There will be no vaccines against global warming. But similar comprehensive efforts can produce technological solutions that, together with responsible economic and social policies, can realize the transition toward a carbon-neutral world. No doubt, progress will also require far-reaching changes to our living conditions and lifestyles. But if the fight against the coronavirus has proven anything, it’s that societies are far more able to adapt and innovate than previously assumed.

 

Notes

1 Based on conversations with diplomats and journalists.