Anti-Virus Measures in European States Show the Weaknesses of Nation-States

Romanian harvest workers land at Hahn Airport, Germany with government organized flights. April 13, 2020. Thomas Frey/PA. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 highlights the inadequacy of national driven solutions to global problems. So why is nationalism on the rise?

The coronavirus pandemic and the following containment measures inflicted great pain on individual livelihoods. Another one of its victims is the myth of the nation state. Around the world, people are not asking what they can do for their country. The question of our times is what your country can do for you. The answer is — not much. While national governments are likely to see a surge in popularity following this crisis, a deeper truth is that nation driven solutions have failed to rise to the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early lessons for future disasters

As the crisis unfolds, there are many uncertainties we are still grappling with. In the meantime, we can identify five key lessons for our future dealings with global crises.

The first lesson is that nation-states are limited by their own managerial tool-box. Imposing national restrictions on freedom of movement and shutting down borders are quick answers to a complex problem. This is also a handy strategy that can temporarily hide the lack of robust preparedness by projecting raw force. Centralising decision making through executive orders, military rule or by imposing a state of emergency is the usual answer to security threats. This virus is not the usual danger that can be dealt with by rolling the army out into the streets as some countries have chosen to do (e.g. Russia, Romania -EU member, Bulgaria — EU member, Serbia — non-EU member ). Despite promoting high penalties and threats to impose the lockdown, all governments had to co-opt the willingness of the people to participate in lowering the burden on health systems. The managerial liability was shared with the citizens, who have been expected to make self-interested, responsible choices and fend for themselves and their families while maintaining the wider interest of the community in mind. The lesson here is not that more executive powers led to more success. On the contrary, the most successful strategy in dealing with the virus — world — wide lockdowns — was a result of individuals’ opt-in.

The second lesson is a reconfirmation that borders do not work. On the surface, it would seem that closing down borders made the difference between overwhelming or safe-guarding health systems. But closing borders is a symbolic move more than an effective measure to mitigate the virus. It showed voters their cabinets are taking care of their needs exclusively. In fact, domestic travel was also largely restricted, people incentivised to stay at home and social life paused throughout the countries of the EU. It would have made little difference if internal EU borders had not been closed under the same restrictions. In fact, people have been asked to shelter — in — place. This meant to effectively stay where the virus outbreak found them or where they have most resources at hand — emotional and financial — to deal with the crisis. While it was still possible, some chose to leave and be with family or friends in their country of origin, some chose to leave their country of origin and meet family elsewhere.

Thirdly, we are more than ever faced with the reality that there no exceptional nations. People’s anatomies are great equalizers when faced with life threats. It is similar in the case of pollution related illness or random terrorist attacks. Resource rich countries, with illustrious, long histories and military successes tally human losses with equal grief to younger democracies with less resources and less celebrated forefathers. By way of example, US or UK ‘exceptionalism’ has not shielded these nations, but proved a weakness in the hands of national-populist leaders who delayed crises responses. Moreover, the virus confirms that artificially binding communities to histories or cultures is a weakness. Associating COVID-19 to a group of outsiders — ‘Chinese’ in the US, ‘migrant Iranians’ in Hungary, the ‘traveling diaspora’ in Romania or Poland — does nothing to stop its spread, but stigmatizes certain groups. On the contrary, the type of elected leaders, the strength of institutions and long-term preparedness for an ever more interconnected world will improve citizens’ quality of life.

The fourth lesson is that while experts and key workers are hailed as national assets, they are the first line of global citizens. Health expertise, physical and mental coping strategies, technical know-how — these and others are borderless resources. Researchers, economists, political scientists and journalists debate and spread ideas and solutions. Most often, they are the first to understand that stopping the spread of the virus in one country or restarting national economies are temporary achievements without the rest of the world following suit. Tech companies and data researchers release pandemic mitigation tools that are not limited to nations. Doctors, nurses, key workers in the food services, transportation, agriculture and many others keep the world moving regardless of their clients’ or their own nationalities. While nobody else keeps calm, they carry on.

[Stanford researchers lead effort to build rapid-response ventilators]

The fifth lesson is also a sobering outcome of previous observations. Nation oriented solutions are more than ineffective, they are damaging. On every continent, we observe how opportunist autocrats impede individual freedoms, censure freedom of expression and place responsibility for their own unpreparedness on imagined enemies. They use their position of authority to incentivise nationalism and contribute to unravelling international forums of cooperation.

Democrats are also limited by the blunt tools of national sovereignty. They are inclined to use superior national economic power to compete for medical resources, rustle up needed seasonal workers from less affluent economies and hide their unpreparedness. They reconsider commitments to international solidarity mechanisms. Trying to placate nationalist drifts at home and preserve popular support, mainstream parties in government also overlook their role as symbolic guardians of liberalism and tolerance and dilute their soft power worldwide. Such short term solutions disrupt, breach the spirit of treaties and create disorder. This behaviour raises tensions within the EU and between Washington and Brussels.

Global threat, global solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerates trends of globalisation and further dilutes the utility of nation-states. The coronavirus pandemic reveals how individual choices and personal responsibilities are the main solutions to global threats. It highlights how communities are much more complex than their ascribed nationality, more dynamic and more interdependent. Climate change, cross continent migration, extremist ideologies are other issues that fundamentally ask for non-nation driven responses. The coronavirus pandemic shows we are not prepared with the right strategies. Such uncertainty provides fertile ground for simple answers: nationalism and isolationism. The virus is giving fast-forward lessons in dealing with globalisation and contemporary cross border challenges. The question remains if we are going to be fast learners.

Veronica Anghel is a Postdoctoral Fulbright Fellow and Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar at The Europe Center. Her research focuses on the challenges to democratic state building and party politics in post-communist Europe.

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FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.