Interview: In the post-Covid-19 world, the national state will have a bigger role and bigger challenges: Professor Bahgat Korany

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 12 Apr 2020

After the end of the Covid-19 crisis many international powers that have been engaged in regional crisis resolution efforts will be focused on home, says expert Bahgat Korany

Bahgat Korany
International Relations Professor Bahgat Korany

There is no telling when or how the Covid-19 scare will recede, much less come to an end. But whatever happens over the coming few months, argues Bahgat Korany, professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo, the world is set to have new terms of engagement.

“Clearly things are changing and they will continue to change,” Korany said. He added that we have seen how this new coronavirus brought to question the very concept of globalisation, and how it gave a new lease of life to the role of the national state.

An obvious example, he said, is the European Union whose organisations have failed to reach a unified or even synchronised plan to face up to the enormous health challenge posed by Covid-19.

“So, yes, we could safely argue that in the post-Covid-19 world we will see a bigger role for the national state, given that it has been the national state that had to face up to the challenge of the new coronavirus,” Korany said. 

He nonetheless added that the national state will also face serous questions about the quality of governance.

“We have seen how the health systems of some European countries have failed to cope efficiently with the new coronavirus and once the crisis ends, governments will have to answer to the people,” he said.

But Korany cautions against arguing that the new coronavirus outbreak ends the inevitability of globalisation.

According to Korany, globalisation will still be there. “Think, for example, of the World Health Organisation and its unprecedented central role in the management of the Covid-19 crisis. So it is too hasty to argue that globalisation is coming to an end. Instead, globalisation will be redefined,” he said.

In parallel, the core precepts of international relations will be redefined after the end of the pandemic. “The very concept of security is set to be revised. We will not be just talking geopolitics when we talk international relations. We will also be talking epidemics,” he said.

Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, Korany argued, many countries will have to focus on stimulating their economies devastated as a result of lockdowns aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus.

The Middle East, Korany argued, is one region that should expect less international interest in the management — much less the resolution — of its many chronic conflicts, from the Palestinian cause, to the security situation in Libya or the refugees problem of Syria.

The attention of countries of the north Mediterranean, he suggested, will be more focused on stopping waves of illegal migration that have been coming from south of the Mediterranean. As such, the political investment of European countries in the management of the Libyan ordeal will be more focused on its affects rather than finding a sustainable political solution, “at least in the short run.”

The Middle East, Korany reminds, has a little over five percent of the world population while its share of world conflicts is only a little under 20 percent. During the past few years, these conflicts attracted many political initiatives from several world capitals, almost replacing the role of UN missions. This, Korany added, is set to change significantly.

“When I think of acute problems like those in Syria, Libya or Yemen, I am not sure that for the next few years the world will have a lot of energy to launch new initiatives for political resolutions,” he said. Meanwhile, some regional powers that opted for a consequential political role in the region might have to give up on their ambitions.

This, he said, would apply to Turkey that has already overstretched its political capital in the region and is now facing a serious challenge with the new coronavirus.

Iran too, Korany argues, which suffered one of the toughest waves of the outbreak of Covid-19, will need to reconsider its priorities and might well opt for a less confrontational foreign policy in favour of more regional cooperation that could help Tehran overcome the tough impacts of the new coronavirus under prolonged international sanctions.

Korany added that Arab Gulf countries with ambitions to play a consequential regional role might have to tone down their expectations in the face of severely declining oil prices and at a moment of a significant slowdown in the world economy. “Clearly their resources are already declining and it might well be the case that part of these resources would still have to cover for the many expensive arms deal they already signed with the West. Or maybe even new contracts they will be signing in the near future,” Korany argued.

“And, of course, they would have to have bigger resources for their national health systems and invest more to serve the interests of their populations, as many other countries will be doing after the end of the Covid-19 outbreak,” he added.

Regional crisis management will pass to countries directly concerned, Korany argued. “For example, Egypt for obvious security reasons will continue to work on the situation in Libya while Saudi Arabia will continue to invest in the political management of the situation in Yemen."

The traditional role of significant outside players in the region, like the United States, will not completely disappear, but will continue on an already-initiated path of disengagement.

Korany reminds that for years now, since the administration of former US President Barack Obama, Washington has been showing less interest in the Middle East and this is likely to continue past the management of the Covid-19 crisis.

“The US will be busy putting its economy back on track and managing its already outstanding differences with China, that have exacerbated with the exchange of blame over the outbreak of the new coronavirus. The European Union, which was barely overcoming its woes over Brexit, will now have to look in the mirror after it failed to come to the rescue of Italy, which was hard hit by Covid-19. This will not leave much political energy for the management of chronic Middle East problems,” Korany said. 

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