9 May marks Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) – commemorating the definitive victory of the Allied forces over Germany in 1945 that brought World War Two (WWII, as it is known) to an end in Europe. (It took a little longer for Japan to surrender after the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
If we recall it 75 years later, it must not be purely as a day of victory or even of remembrance for those who lost their lives during the World War. For 9 May marked the victory of a group of allies who called themselves the United Nations, and paved the way for their conversion from a war-fighting machine to a peacetime organisation. From 9 May, a new world order became possible.
The UN System Was the Lynchpin of the New World Order
Ironically, on its 75th anniversary, that world order is under threat as never before. Not from tanks or airplanes, but from the geopolitical consequences of a new world war, this time against an unseen enemy, the coronavirus. Call it not the Cold War, but perhaps the ‘COVID War’.
Following the devastation of World War-II, a few farsighted leaders, shaken by the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, were determined to prevent global conflict ever again. Their answer lay in the creation of institutions to manage world affairs after the cataclysm – anchored in an emerging idea that came to be called ‘global governance’.
They drew up rules to govern international behaviour, and they founded institutions in which different nations could cooperate for the common good. That was the idea of ‘global governance’ – to foster international cooperation, to elaborate consensual global norms and to establish predictable, universally applicable rules, to the benefit of all. The United Nations system was the lynchpin of the world order that was inaugurated with the victory of 9 May. That new world order emerging from the ashes of WWII inaugurated a prolonged period of relative peace.
- 9 May 1945 marked the victory of a group of allies who called themselves the United Nations, and paved the way for their conversion from a war-fighting machine to a peacetime organisation.
- From 9 May, a new world order became possible.
- Ironically, on its 75th anniversary, that world order is under threat as never before. Call it not the Cold War, but perhaps the ‘COVID War’.
- Today, the coronavirus pandemic has plagued the international community at its weakest moment, where national politics and economic parochialism are upending the idea of ‘one global village’.
Democracy & Human Rights Are Now More the Norm Than the Exception
True, paradise did not descend on earth on 9 May 1945. We all know that tyranny and warfare continued, and that billions of people still live in extreme and degrading poverty. But the overall record of the second half of the twentieth century is one of amazing advances. A third world war did not occur. The world economy expanded as never before.
There was astonishing technological progress. Many in the industrialised world now enjoy a level of prosperity, and have access to a range of experiences, that their grandparents could scarcely have dreamed of; and even in the developing world, there has been spectacular economic growth. Child mortality has been reduced. Literacy has spread. The peoples of the developing world threw off the yoke of colonialism, and those of the Soviet bloc won political freedom. Democracy and human rights are not yet universal, but they are now much more the norm than the exception. The world order might have been imperfect, but it was a lot better than what had gone before.
Amid COVID, Globalisation Is Being Confronted by Economic Nationalism
Today, the coronavirus pandemic has plagued the international community at its weakest moment, where national politics and economic parochialism are upending the idea of ‘one global village’. Globalisation is now being confronted by economic nationalism. Open borders are being met with demands for a wall. Strongmen politicians are leveraging multiple grievances — real and perceived — to legitimise populist rule. And international norms and institutions appear less relevant to managing the global commons.
There is a sense that the gains of interdependence are being undone. There is a visible reassertion of sovereignty and protectionism, from democracies and others. And above all, the pandemic has created is an uncertainty about what this century has in store for our societies. Headlines from around the world bear testament to these symptoms. The Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ instinct has seen it attempt to source a vaccine for the American people alone from Germany, to cancel pharmaceutical imports from China, to suspend funding to the WHO, and to stymie global consensus on the response by insisting divisively on referring to the ‘Wuhan virus’ at the G-7 and the UN Security Council.
Beijing, meanwhile, has got away with letting the virus loose, handling it initially in an opaque manner, and manipulating the institutional architecture that should have responded to it. It is now attempting to play saviour by supplying emergency medical equipment to the world and emergency medical teams to Italy, all of which come at a steep price. Experience suggests that nations will pay for this help with silence on China’s misdemeanours. Even the EU — the last torchbearer standing of regional integration and globalisation — is divided over the issuance of ‘corona bonds’ to protect its weaker members, has struggled to support its member states in their worst public health emergency in modern history, and may emerge much the worse for it.
COVID Crisis: A Damning Indictment of the State of Our ‘New World Disorder’
Had global governance been working effectively, the world would have identified the coronavirus as soon as it emerged; sounded a global alarm earlier about its dangers; and identified and publicised the best practices that should have been adopted by all countries to prevent or limit its spread. That this did not happen is a damning indictment of the state of our ‘new world disorder’ (the title of my last book, co-authored with Samir Saran).
The rapid and global spread of the coronavirus epidemic is a devastating reminder of the consequences of global disorder. It is also a timely memo to sovereign states that the re-assertion of sovereignty must not imply an abandonment of global responsibilities. Attacking WHO’s performance, as the US has done, cannot mean cutting off funding and undermining the organisation when it is most needed – but that is also what the US has done.
When the current pandemic is over, the globe must learn lessons about what happened, and how international systems and institutions can be strengthened and radically reformed in order to forestall its recurrence. India, which also celebrated military victory on 9 May, must work towards this more lasting victory if all the gain of 75 years ago are not be undone when the COVID War is over.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor, is a Congress MP and an author. His most recent book is ‘The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative’, co-authored with Samir Saran. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)