Bretton Woods 1944 conferenceBretton Woods Monetary Conference 1944. [photo: World Bank]

[This is an excerpt from a research article appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

International order

It is becoming clear that in a post-Covid-19 world, a new international order will be redrawn by the powerful countries taking into account the lessons learnt from the performance of totalitarian regimes and free democracies in dealing with the current pandemic. But let it not be a repeat of the post-World War II arrangement where the victors constructed an international order for the rest of the world, and imposed their conventions on every state to follow without consulting their peoples. It is interesting that the Bretton Woods System and the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, predated the independence of many Afro-Asian countries which became independent as part of the decolonisation process and had to accept many international conventions and protocols as successor states.

Countries with complete or partial success in controlling the pandemic with lower death rates (China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Taiwan and South Korea) do not have political systems the world may necessarily aspire to follow, compared to the liberal democracies in the US, UK & the EU, which were unable to prevent the spread of the disease in the initial stages, resulting in thousands of deaths, including those of their health professionals. They may also not do as well as China in recovering from the economic recession that is predicted to engulf the world in the remainder of 2020.

The creation of a new international order will need to take into account the fine balance between political totalitarianism and free-market economy as both have shown to have different strengths. Even if the death figures were censored, China saved its nationals from coronavirus deaths to a considerable level despite being the most populous nation on earth, while the US, the UK, Italy, Spain and France could not do so with their best healthcare systems and equipment.

A unipolar world will not suit the new international order. It should not be an order where a country decides to limit the export of a medicine needed by its population to treat the symptoms of a disease but reverses its decision after receiving a phone call from another powerful country threatening of ‘consequences’ if the shipment of the medicine were stopped. It should not be an order where the owner of a natural resource is not the country where it is based, but another country, which has the power and ability to destroy it, if its terms are not accepted. It should not be an international order where the raw material from a country is exported in cents per metric ton but after reprocessing and value addition, it is imported back by the same country in dollars per metric ton.

Growing disparities within and between countries may result in work strikes and a sharp increase in government subsidies. This may also revive the debate about the relevance of old ideologies of liberalism and socialism to address economic problems, as represented by the US and Chinese economic models, and sharpen the rivalry between these powers.


In the new international order the role of multilateral institutions will be critically reviewed. Countries will be reluctant to fund organisations, which are no longer relevant in the new world. The funding structures in the UN, the Commonwealth, WHO and OIC point to a fundamental weakness under which major contributors hold the power to force these organisations to work for their national interest first before pursuing wider common interests. New rules will be adopted to make these institutions more accountable to donors. This will obviously take the democratic reform agenda a step back. The inability of the UN to prevent conflicts, control refugee flows and respond with successful disaster mitigation, and of the WHO to predict and prevent this pandemic and earlier epidemics have already come under strong scrutiny. Part of the reason for their underperformance is that the rich and powerful countries have stopped taking global institutions seriously. There are parallel limited and global forums such as G-7, G-20 and World Economic Forum which are taken more seriously than the UN and its agencies. There is also duplication and absence of coordination in the work of international organisations.

Intergovernmental meetings might rely more on virtual meetings to make these more efficient with the groundwork done by their diplomatic missions located in the organising country. In March 2020, the Indian Prime Minister successfully convened a virtual conference of SAARC leaders to coordinate response to the pandemic. The EU Foreign Ministers also met virtually to agree the EU emergency credit for members. Since then, many high-level regional and global political and business meetings have taken place virtually in support of this new trend. It is not inconceivable that at the 2020 UN General Assembly Session next September, some Heads of State or Government might address the meeting on streaming video instead of travelling to New York from their capitals to deliver their country statements.

A lot of work will be required by leaders to re-stitch the delicate patchwork built over decades to agree collaborative mechanisms for making globalisation work for all. If President Trump wins the November 2020 Presidential election, the world may see the return of US isolationism which it pursued during the great depression of the 1930s. On the contrary, US–China rivalry might increase in manufacturing and trade, which is the opposite of what is required to improve the well-being of people worldwide. The only silver lining in this scenario is the role of the EU, UK, ASEAN and Russia, which will not allow this rivalry to cloud international cooperation. They will also resist the emergence of either the US or China as the leader of another unipolar world.

Syed Sharfuddin is a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

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