Swimelar: COVID-19 will change globalization, international relations

Opportunities and pitfalls exist in national and international responses to the current pandemic, and some early effects are already happening, according to Safia Swimelar, associate professor of political science and policy studies.

Once the world is on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will have to grapple with some big questions, says Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Safia Swimelar.

Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Safia Swimelar

Will countries and regions further retreat from democracy into advancing waves of nationalism and xenophobia, or will we feel more connected and collectively responsible for global well-being?

“We could go two ways,” Swimelar, also the coordinator of Elon’s International and Global Studies program, says. “Will this lead to more globally connected communities and systems to prevent this from happening in the future? What does global capitalism look like? What is our understanding of and interest in the public good?

“Or we could go the opposite way, with a backlash against globalization, more xenophobia and nationalism … with countries acting in their own interests first.” Hungary’s turn toward undemocratic and authoritarian practices in the name of public health is especially concerning, she says.

She doesn’t think the choices are mutually exclusive and expects to see both trends advancing concurrently, as they already are.

Swimelar likened the current and near-future choices to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when America and other nations embarked in a “war on terror,” leading to questions around protecting individual freedoms versus public security. Those are questions governments are still creating policies around nearly 20 years later. Today we may be examining public health versus privacy and liberty.

“I don’t think we have to pick one or the other. It’s a balance,” Swimelar says.
She views COVID-19 as a pivotal moment for the United States, both in domestic politics and international relations.

Swimelar points to a possible “de-militarizing” of American patriotism. The idea of patriotism has been tied to military service in popular culture for decades, a trend that intensified after the 9-11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

“Maybe we restore a more civic sense of service and patriotism,” she said, “as we see doctors, nurses, teachers, utility workers, delivery and food service workers on the front lines of this battle.”

Noting that the Trump administration hasn’t yet called world leaders to convene around solutions, she wonders if this is a defining moment in global politics.

“You look at the financial collapse of 2008 all the way back to World War II” when the U.S. took the lead in creating international systems of diplomacy and congregating global leadership around cooperation and solutions. Now, Swimelar sees China asserting itself more in a power vacuum left by America’s absence.

“We still have a part to play,” but we aren’t the global superpower we were 50 years ago.

Regardless of immediate outcomes, 2020 and COVID-19’s impact will be examined by future generations.

“People are going to be studying this for a long time,” Swimelar says. “For me, this is a perfect example of something we have to look at through all lenses: science, media, politics, economics, history and popular culture.”

Political scientists especially will study which types of governments responded in which ways, and to what extent that mattered in containing outbreaks. What have been the differences in responses in China, Italy, South Korea and the U.S.? Were certain “regime types” more effective in the moment? What are the variables among nations and systems we will come to identify as useful or effective in a pandemic?

“When it’s all over, I hope we’ll think about global interdependence in a positive light,” she says. “I hope there will be more thought about global systems, like the World Health Organization, to prevent the spread of disease and aid (humanity).”

That’s the hope, but the realities of the world today — rival nations, an erosion of democracy, and recent rises in nationalism and xenophobia —make achieving total global cooperation a challenge.

“Rolling back globalization isn’t an option, so how do we take on globalization in the future?”