The Pandemic Paper: Ed Bryan on Geopolitics and Covid-19

Darren Wong 11 May 2020
Image Credit: B. Rich, Hedgeye

In the second part of the interview series, I reach out to Ed Bryan, a PhD Candidate at the Department of Geography specialising in political and historical geography. The history of mankind has witnessed numerous pandemics and economic recessions — still lingering in the public consciousness are the more recent SARS and H1N1 pandemic, as well as the global financial crisis in 2007/08. It does appear that the expansiveness of globalisation today has put us in a more favourable position to take on global challenges by pooling together knowledge and capital. Yet, while countries have largely been transparent and collaborative in sharing research output and sourcing for protective personal equipment, Covid-19 has been a crucible for increased tensions around the world, most notably between China and the US, and within the European Union.

In shaping international relations and diplomatic practices, there is great potential in the pandemic being a decisive factor in bringing countries closer or reifying their differences. Ed raised the European Union as an interesting case study – an institution committed to the principles of multilateralism, it faces an uphill task in coordinating an EU-wide response with many of its member states being hit hard by the pandemic. “On the economic front, the Commission will be acutely aware of the need to avoid a recovery initiative similar to that which was implemented following the 2008 financial crisis, wherein the Commission emerged as the ‘bad cop’ to the EU member states’ ‘good cop’. In a post-Brexit Europe, any economic response package which ostensibly isolates or places a greater burden on particular states could sound the death-knell for the European project as a whole.”

Much of the responses to the pandemic have been orchestrated at the level of individual states. “In the event that this more inward-looking style of government persists into a post-pandemic world, a multilateralist EU could find itself increasingly out of step with the rest of the global community.” The European project is one that hinges on cooperation and interdependence between its members, but recent events of disunity have sounded alarm bells. The European Commission President recently offered an apology to Italy for its inaction at the start of its deadly outbreak while there have been internal disagreements over the details of a huge financial package to support the economically weaker South.

With many world leaders electing to turn their back on the EU’s multilateralist ethos, its member states may well feel that they only have a responsibility to those who share their commitment to the indivisibility of interests and diffuse reciprocity.

Scars will remain and Ed referred to the “emergence of a more disengaged Europe. With many world leaders electing to turn their back on the EU’s multilateralist ethos, its member states may well feel that they only have a responsibility to those who share their commitment to the indivisibility of interests and diffuse reciprocity.”  Interestingly, Ed highlighted the “importance of inter-bodily practices to diplomatic relations, such as handshakes and informal social meetings in bars or restaurants”. Having halted formal diplomatic mechanisms, there will be repercussions for global politics as “diplomats are being forced increasingly to conduct their affairs via the detached, distancing, and often error-prone mediums of e-meetings and email threads.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the US has been hit by a triple whammy — the year-long trade war that has strained US-China relations, the already gradual shift in the balance of power from the West to the East, and overshadowing the economic and political instability is the US presidential elections at the end of the year, leading to significant politicisation of the way the pandemic is handled. Given that the early outbreak in China has afforded it an earlier recovery, has the pandemic cemented the shifting spheres of influences, and what can we expect with global leadership in the coming months (and years)?

Ed suggested two interrelated factors. “The first is the extent to which the Chinese state will be able to recover from the pandemic and craft a favourable narrative about this response. China is also facing huge demand-side problems as the global economy continues to contract under the weight of the pandemic. The Chinese authorities have, somewhat unexpectedly, been reluctant to discuss the domestic consequences of this dramatic fall in demand. But there can be little doubt that this economic downturn – in conjunction with the extensive social effects of Covid-19 – will hinder state-led attempts to position China as an unrivalled political and financial ‘leader’ of the international community.” On the other hand, if China were to emerge comparatively more robust than other parts of the world, its narrative about being the wave of the future will likely become uncontested.

“Perhaps aware of this fact, the Chinese state has embarked a massive publicity campaign which seeks to position it as a responsible, benevolent, and decisive geopolitical actor.” Ed cited China’s use of domestic media to promote its export of medical equipment, data and expertise to hard-hit nations like Italy to bolster its prestige. Yet at the same time, “we have also witnessed persistent – and, to some extent, increasing – international criticism of the Chinese leadership’s response to Covid-19. Accusations that the reported number of cases in China have been doctored and downplayed continue to circulate, whilst journalists have additionally accused Chinese authorities of intentionally hoarding vital medical equipment.”

With US President Donald Trump’s protectionist policy inclinations, the other factor is the World Health Organisation, which has been encumbered by the inability to “fall back on its staple response of forming a member-state coalition”. “The resulting confusion has, by the WHO’s own admission, led to a series of errors with regard to its management of the crisis, and also prompted some to suggest that future global emergencies might be better handled by individual states.” The coming weeks will be a test for the World Health Organisation as states begin launching their respective recovery programmes while seeking to keep the virus at bay — its success or failure will see “moves on both sides of the Pacific to re-frame global health security as a matter of either American or Chinese responsibility.”

The resulting confusion has, by the WHO’s own admission, led to a series of errors with regard to its management of the crisis, and also prompted some to suggest that future global emergencies might be better handled by individual states.

The discussion of international relations often broaches intangible concepts like power and diplomacy on the global scale. Displacing the Cartesian eye with a more relational and embodied perspective, how can we understand the relationship between the statist production of security discourses surrounding Covid-19 and the ways of seeing and feeling of security on the ground in everyday sites and spaces?

“For some, the rules which have been introduced are much more than a necessary inconvenience — they represent an alarming and Orwellian over-extension of government authority.” Ed drew a link between concern of the UK becoming a “police state” and political geographer Joe Painter’s “separate spheres” conceptualisation of the state. “In this formulation, ‘the state’ constitutes and occupies a discrete geopolitical arena which, in turn, ‘regulates’ and ‘interacts with’ other social spheres such as ‘civil society’. When viewed through this lens then, actions like the closing of parks and dispersal of public gatherings exceeding two people appear to be symptomatic of an invasion by ‘the state’ into the discrete realm of ‘everyday life’”.

Highlighting how the state/civil society divide is hardly a distinct one, Ed discussed their mutually constitutive relationship — identities and everyday practices shape reconstructions of the state and the international, at the same time that global and statist geopolitical discourses have shaped our daily lives and bodies. “I would suggest the relationship between government-led Covid-19 initiatives and their materialisation in ‘everyday’ life can be theorised more appropriately if we begin from the position that ‘the state’ is not a pre-existing ‘thing’, but an idea which must be continually performed into existence. From this perspective, ‘the state’ does not simply exist – it is an imagined collective actor whose ‘presence’ emerges from the prosaic, improvised, and often mundane practices which are enacted in its name.”

“What we have witnessed in recent weeks and months, therefore, is not so much a resurgence of ‘the state’ or expansion of its territorial reach. Rather, populations across the globe have, by virtue of their adherence to these new measures, brought the idea of ‘the state’ to the forefront of their consciousness and subsequently bestowed it with renewed authority.”

Rather, populations across the globe have, by virtue of their adherence to these new measures, brought the idea of ‘the state’ to the forefront of their consciousness and subsequently bestowed it with renewed authority.

As with my previous interview with Professor Mobarak, my final question for Ed addressed the ways in which Covid-19 might have proved or disproved any mainstream or prevailing understandings in political geography or international relations. Ed was reluctant to speculate, however, noting that that “these questions are incredibly difficult to answer” and “should generally be avoided… [because] we are still in the very early stages of the pandemic, and it will take years to assess fully the extent to which Covid-19 has transformed how we theorise the geography of politics”. Instead, theories are ultimately “analytical tools which can be moderated and modified to grapple with new topics — not as ideas which need to be proven definitively as either ‘true’ or ‘false’”.

True, the lessons imparted by academic investigations often tend to be cautionary tales or exercises in expanding the imagination, rather than precise policy roadmaps or prescribed ways of thinking about issues. Nonetheless, Ed pointed out a renewed interest in dissecting the “thorny topic of agency”. While we traditionally think about agency in terms of individuals and institutions, “the pandemic has given us a stark and tangible reminder that humans are by no means the only actors which drive global politics.” Witnessing how the exigency of Covid-19 containment has overshadowed other considerations in political decisions, such as the responses of people, society and organisations, Ed believed that the pandemic will “give renewed impetus to already established efforts in political geography to interrogate the role and significance of the non-/more-than-human”.

“This line of inquiry does not propose that humans possess no agency when it comes to politics. Instead, it calls for an appreciation that the policies and actions shaping our world stem from constantly evolving assemblages of bodies, objects, emotions, and yes, viruses.”

Instead, it calls for an appreciation that the policies and actions shaping our world stem from constantly evolving assemblages of bodies, objects, emotions, and yes, viruses.