“Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia” – interview with Parag Khanna

Dr. Parag Khanna is a leading global strategy advisor, world traveller, and best-selling author.

Sometimes crises put history on fast forward. What would you expect to be the geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? To what extent is Covid-19 accelerating some of the trends that were discernible even before the pandemic? 

For me the biggest geopolitical and geoeconomic trend under way for quite a few years is regionalisation. It is an organic process given the growth of the Asian regional environment, given the renegotiation of the North American trade relationships, but also because of the US-China trade war. In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances. In short, there are many reasons why we will see this emphasis on the region, instead of the global. This is a very significant geopolitical trend that began before the pandemic.

There is no West…

You are a researcher of globalisation and connectivity. What will change in the pattern of globalisation? How will globalisation be restructured and recalibrated? Especially in a context shaped by pressures for decoupling and fears of deglobalisation.

It is very important to emphasise that decoupling and deglobalisation are different things. Deglobalisation is if all globalisation stops. But Europe and China are both trading more with Asia, therefore you do not have deglobalisation. Decoupling simply means that the US might invest less in China, it might buy less from China and the reverse. Some connections are weaker and some connections are getting stronger. But when it comes to trade, the United States is not nearly as important as Asia. We should be looking at the globalisation of trade from the Asian standpoint, not the American standpoint. Trade between Europe and Asia is much larger than trade with America. There is not necessarily deglobalisation, but we can identify sectorial decoupling. 

In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances.

We can talk about increasing globalisation or decreasing globalisation by sector. In the energy sector, you have deglobalisation because oil is abundant, but consumption is down, so you have less trade in oil. You have some slight deglobalisation of finance, as some portfolio capital has been removed from some emerging markets. In digital services there is an increase of globalisation – everyone is using Skype, Zoom and Netflix. We have an increase in trade in digital services, which is a very high value-added component of globalisation. It is more important and more valuable than oil. We usually see the oil tankers as the embodiment of globalisation, but they are not. Internet is a better embodiment of globalisation.

To what extent is this phenomenon of decoupling reinforcing the trend of regionalisation? In both United States and Europe we can hear calls for reshoring some strategic industries and creating some sort of Western resilience from this perspective. Should we expect massive shifts in this direction? 

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately. For example, Europe is moving towards some degree of decreasing the dependence on fossil fuels, therefore it is not competing for global oil supply. When you look to North America – United States, Canada and Mexico, all are major energy powers. North America has energy self-sufficiency, a large labour force, it has industrial potential, it has technology, labour, land. All of these potential inputs for self-sufficiency and resiliency are present in North America. Europe does not have its big software companies, but it has more people than North America, it has enough land, it has renewable energy, it has financial capital. It still needs to import some energy, it is still importing food from different parts of the world, but it is trying to be more self-sufficient. If Google were to stop Internet access for Google in Europe, that would be a problem for Europe. But there is no particular technology where you would say that if Europe switches off that access to America, then America is in trouble.

Time for Europe to take itself seriously

I also want to discuss a bit the dynamic that you see inside the Atlantic system. The COVID crisis that started in China hit the West dramatically, right at its core. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the strategic unity & solidarity of the Atlantic system? We see a lot of calls from the other side of the Atlantic trying to persuade Europe to align with the U.S. in the broader great-power competition.

Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia. Europe is much more export-dependent than America is. Europe still needs to trade and export to Asia. That is why you can see that while the US is trying to block the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Europeans were joining the AIIB. There are different perspectives on this issue. In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

How would you see the EU faring in a post-COVID international system where we see so much internal fragmentation, between North and South, Old Europe and New Europe, but at the same time a world in which the “return of history” and Machtpolitik, not multilateralism define the new normal? 

I don’t believe in the language of Robert Kagan. It is reflective of a trend focused on measuring capabilities in a way that is very different from the way sophisticated people measure capabilities today. In the XXI century, there is no particular reason to privilege the size of a nuclear arsenal over market access. Europe’s strength derives from areas where a) it acts coherently, and b) where it demands reciprocity and where it insists on high standards. This is a very important source of European influence. Europe has to actually act on these capabilities in trade, in regulations, in human rights. What we are seeing over the last couple of years is Europe trying to be tougher on China in terms of reciprocity, demanding to have a greater share in the BRI projects, demanding reciprocal market access, it has declared China as a strategic competitor, it is working to develop a big fund to support strategic industries. All of these are indications that Europe does want to be a more coherent strategic player, but this will require of course that Europe evolves towards a common fiscal policy as well.

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately.

Balancing China

In the recent past, the way China has been rising has created a lot of resentment in Japan, in Australia (as we’ve seen in the last few weeks) in the whole East Asia, because of Beijing’s aggressive push in the South China Sea. Does the US have the ability to create a balancing coalition to check China’s strategic ambitions there? Or is that a role to be played first and foremost by local countries (like the TPP-11)?

The answer is definitely both. The most important thing to remember is that Japanese, Indian, Korean and Australian interests have been aligned for a very long time. As neighbours of China, they’ve been concerned about China’s rise for much longer than anyone else. It is important not to argue that the United States are leading the effort to balance China. That is not true. Japan and India really are leading the effort. America has the most powerful capabilities and it is wisely supporting efforts like the Quad arrangement (Australia, India, Japan and United States). The four navies are working together to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The aim is to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, from dominating the Indian Ocean. This is going to shape Chinese behaviour. It is not a formal alliance, as in Asia alliances are very rare. It is a coalition of countries based on a very strong structural agreement on the desire to contain China.

In the book (“The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century”) published last year you point out that “Russia and China are today closer than at any point since the heyday of their 1950s Communist alliance”. Do they learn from each other in challenging the status quo? Are they coordinating their movements?

It is more an axis of convenience than a real alliance. Russia remains very suspicious of China, but Russia is also accepting a lot of investment from China. What will happen over time is a China that is being very careful not to alienate Russia, as it could potentially cut down on the amount of the Chinese investments in the country, even though it needs it desperately. In the long term, China has significant interests in using Russia for access to Europe and the Arctic, but it has to be careful not to appear too dominant. I can see that right now Russia is the country that is most compliant with the Chinese interests, but in the medium term it could be the country where there is a substantial backlash against China.

In a shifting global landscape where we will see a change in supply chain patterns, will the Belt and Road Initiative remain a comparative advantage for China or could it become a liability?

The Belt and Road Initiative is an integral part of China’s grand strategy. A lot of people are discussing whether China is going to speak less about BRI or de-emphasise it. We should focus less on what they say in speeches and more on following the money. This is the bigger issue. What we will see is that China will talk less about BRI as it has become controversial, but I think it is still a strategic priority to achieve the supply chain diversification, to build these infrastructure corridors, to access West Asia and access Europe through infrastructure. There will still be BRI, but China will talk less, it will try to multilateralise more and it will have to make concessions on issues of debt relief in the wake of the pandemic.

In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

Lessons from Asia in managing COVID-19 

South Korea and Taiwan were at the forefront in managing the pandemic. What lessons in terms of resilience and effective governance should be learned from their example, including by the West?What is crucial to remember is that these are democratic states (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan) that performed very well during the pandemic. The key aspect is that they are democracies, but they are also technocracies. They have democratic elections, independent branches of government and separation of powers, but they have a very strong civil service, really competent and professional bureaucracies that know how to get things done to meet the basic needs of the people to deliver high quality medical care. It is very important to appreciate that countries can be democratic and technocratic at the same time. Very often that is something that we ignore.

The experience of Singapore

Singapore is a country that embodies a lot of hesitation and concern about China, even if it is a majority Chinese country. You have Chinese people in a country that is not China, but they are very worried about China. In a way, the more Chinese Singapore has become demographically, the less comfortable it has become with China geopolitically. I believe there have been times when, even though Singapore was suspicious about China, it was also naïve, as they hoped that China would have a peaceful rise. That has not been the case. Now, Singapore has been very clever to make sure to emphasise to China that it will maintain its strategic relationship with the United States, that it will not back down from allowing American naval forces to have a presence on its territory. It is a strong sign of Singapore’s independence and neutrality. When it comes to the US and China it is much more of a binary. But countries like South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have been very good at maintaining good relations with both. This is tricky because there is very strong US pressure on one side and very strong pressure on the other side.

Short-term vs. long-term trends

“The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century” is about the competing efforts of the United States, of Europe and of China to develop spheres of influence in emerging regions and ‘swing-state’ sort of areas like Eastern Europe, Arab world, Latin America, Central Asia or Southeast Asia. In each of those regions you see a very different landscape of influence. In the short term you hear people saying that Russia calls the shots in Syria, that it is very influential in the Middle East. In the long term that is nonsense, because Russia cannot be influential in those regions. Through the 2000s we thought about Central Asia as part of the American dominion because U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and had a very large military presence there. In 2020, American presence has declined to almost a symbolic one and American influence is almost zero. Geopolitically we have to make a distinction between a very artificial and short-term situation like the occupation of Afghanistan, versus the long-term reality that countries like China and Iran will be much more influential in countries like Afghanistan.


Parag Khanna is Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. Parag’s newest book is The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century(2019). He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.

“Governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside” – interview with Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? 

The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?

I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.

For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.  

Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold WarThere is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.

How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal? 

This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where  European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.  

It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?

We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.

Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.

These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?

I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? 

During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.

Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?

High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.

I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them. 

In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.     

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.

Human Security Carving Itself Out in a (Post)COVID-19 World

States have traditionally dominated the orthodox concept of security. This is not without reason, as history attests to an international community ravaged by deadly wars, with the two World Wars as probably the most infamous examples. Given the ever-present possibility of threats from external aggressors, the notion of (in)security has been heavily associated with states.

But amidst the ongoing health crisis, this pandemic has clearly demonstrated that security is indeed a far more complex notion than nuclear threats and military build-ups. A non-state threat, such as a microscopic virus, can very much threaten and erode a nation’s sense of security.

COVID-19 has taught the world how closely societies are interwoven with one another, and it has highlighted that the international community is only as strong as its weakest link. It is within this context that the world’s great powers will have to play a critical role for the necessary international cooperation that would aid the entire globe and enable other countries to be assisted in a more effective manner.

In fact, the world just might have become aware that its default security paradigm needs to change, and focus more on living human beings rather than states and institutions.

Reshaping the security framework

With the push for a greater understanding of human needs and the emergence of other, equally pressing phenomena such as climate change, migration, health issues and the rise of Information Technology, the concept of security has been expanded and intertwined with the concept of human development. Human development pertains to the broadening of people’s choices, while human security involves protecting people’s freedoms to exercise those choices.

In 1982, the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues articulated the first stretch of the idea of security beyond a state-centric conceptualisation and military-heavy approach when it proposed to incorporate the well-being of people. The concept of human security, however, was only formally defined and enshrined in 1994 in the United Nations Development Programme’s publication, the Human Development Report, which puts forward a holistic vision of security that incorporates not only state-security and military solutions but also lays emphasis on the forgotten needs of human beings.

Hinged on three pillars – the freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom from indignity – human security advocates an expanded notion of security that involves different facets (security, economic, food, environmental, personal, community, political, and health) and fields (security studies, international relations, development studies, human rights, among others), and locates it at all levels (global, regional, national, local).

Expanding the notion of security resonates greatly at the individual level because, after all, a sense of insecurity may easily arise in the face of hunger, disease, or repression, and not necessarily from a war – although these could be tightly interwoven in some occasions.

Security beyond conflicts and weapons

By the end of July, the John Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center has reported that the outbreak of the coronavirus, known officially as the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has already yielded 16,747,268 confirmed infections and claimed 660,593 deaths at the global scale. What started as a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China, as the World Health Organisation’s Office in China reported on 31 December 2019, rapidly spread across borders in a very short time.

Further still, the consequences of this pandemic extend beyond the boundaries of health. Lockdowns causing a halt to business operations and goods transfers have triggered a global recession. CleverMaps, a spatial data analytics company displaying the number of COVID-19 cases alongside the expected economic impact on GDP, shows that the change over time in terms of economic effect from 22 January to 2 June 2020 is a loss in filtered time of US$152,952,074,798, with the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain as the top five countries incurring economic losses.

In terms of the impact on the labour market, millions of workers have been directly affected by the lockdown. Although some have been able to continue their work through remote working arrangements, many have experienced temporary unemployment, the reduction or total loss of their livelihood. Upon the onset of the spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, around 190 million people across the world were already unemployed, and the lockdowns, whether partial or full, have only intensified these.

At present, the disruption in work has affected 2.7 billion workers, which is equivalent to four out of every five members of the world’s workforce. Those in the informal sector are among the most vulnerable in the labour market, with 1.6 billion being drastically impacted by the lockdowns.

Unemployment is linked to the concept of relative poverty, which the International Labour Organisation defines as “the proportion of workers with monthly earnings that fall below 50 per cent of the median earnings in the population”, a figure that is estimated to increase by almost 34 percentage points globally for informal workers, 21 percentage points for upper-middle-income countries, and 56 percentage points for lower-middle-income countries.

Juxtaposed to the economic woes are mental health issues that have been triggered or magnified by the crisis. As pointed out by the World Health Organisation, past pandemics escalated the number of people dealing with mental health issues, resulting in suicide or substance abuse.

A recent study published in Lancet Psychiatry about the psychiatric consequences of coronavirus infections (including SARS, MERS, and COVID-19) reveals that patients have experienced confusion, depressive moods and insomnia during acute illnesses, and insomnia, anxiety, irritability, traumatic disorders and sleep disorders in the post-illness stage. Other forms of violence have also increased rapidly, including the intensification of domestic abuse. Although there are still no comprehensive reports on intimate partner violence due to the pandemic, there are already reports from the United States, China, Canada and Turkey, among others, pointing to increased rates of domestic violence.

As some groups of people may feel neglected or excluded, this situation could potentially lead to or aggravate ongoing conflicts, whereby the possibilities of such are broader in the poorer and more vulnerable countries in the world.

It is within this context that armed groups, terrorists and organised criminals might take advantage of the pandemic to further their cause.

Another area that the impact of COVID-19 is infiltrating is the political arena. The pandemic has started to incur democracy deficits as government officials politicise the pandemic and government agencies scale down their operations.

In the US, President Donald Trump’s allies have exhibited favouritism by extending coronavirus contracts based partly on personal relationships. In India, Muslim minorities have been scapegoated during the pandemic, as  Muslims have been specifically accused of spreading the virus.

In the Philippines, press freedom has been further curtailed with more restrictive measures imposed during the pandemic such as intimidation, surveillance, red tagging, and restriction of movement for journalists.

Human security first

That being said, this ongoing pandemic has driven home the point of the pressing need to strive for integral human security. The traditional realist concept of security tends to put a premium on military security, which tries to anticipate imminent external threats posed by other states.

It stresses the conflictual and competitive context of the international system, due to an anarchic nature that pushes states to act out of their own self-interest and struggle for power.

The security threat imposed by COVID-19 departs from the orthodox notion of security that heavily locates it at the level of the state and associates it with inter-state conflict.

This pandemic has pushed states to fight a different kind of foe – a plague – whereby large-scale investments in arms and ammunitions are of no use. As weapons lie idle, this lethal pandemic has ‘attacked’  the health sector, which has proven itself to be unprepared as it suffers from shortages of hospital beds, masks and doctors.

This situation has, in turn, rapidly and violently affected economic, political, social and personal aspects of life. Over the past few months, shattering events such as deaths, hunger and economic meltdown have truly tested the state-centric notion of state security.

What started as a health risk has leaked into all other spheres of society, posing threats and disrupting the lives of numerous individuals and communities. 

This crisis has shown that human security is relevant across countries, whether from the so-called North or South, East or West, developed or developing state.

Crises such as this demonstrate that security threats are no longer isolated events cooped up solely within the borders of one country. The impact of this kind of security threat travels around the world and threatens the whole community.

In spite of the coronavirus being an equal threat for everyone, there have been unequal responses from states, highlighting the asymmetrical consequences of the virus.

With rising intra- and inter-national polarisation and power rivalry in the twenty-first century, this has impeded the much-needed close cooperation among states. It has demonstrated that the international community is unprepared to wage this kind of war.

Preparing for other kinds of security threats demands building friendly relations among countries with variegated social systems, as well as investment in the longer term in development support. Short-term and ad hoc humanitarian assistance can never substitute for the development of robust institutions across countries.

Efforts to fortify human security require states to synergise their resources in order to fight off these new threats. Collective problems need a united struggle in order to confront these cross-boundary issues.

Given the devastating impact of this disease that the whole world is grappling with, this current pandemic has drawn attention to the other security frontiers that need attention as well. The crisis has offered ample opportunities to revisit the notion of security in general by focusing on it through the lens of human security.

This pandemic has demonstrated that hinging security on state security alone will leave individual states and the global community in a precarious position if it is not tied to the security of individuals and does not incorporate inter-state cooperation. It regards how other facets of life impinge on the life of an individual person, not just locating it at the state level.

This is not to suggest that national security be brushed aside, but the concept of human security offers us the opportunity to consider all major aspects of security and thereby expand the understanding of security. COVID-19 can help us situate human security in a meaningful context by expanding the discourse on human development, which can only be done through authentic international cooperation.

The integral concept of human security provides both the language and the arena to re-evaluate mankind’s most urgent vulnerabilities and threats to its survival. COVID-19 has shown that health security is a vital area that permeates other facets in society whereby prioritising and putting the needs of people at the heart of discourses and policies serves as a game-changing paradigm.

Maria Pilar Lorenzo is a development professional and researcher based in Belgium. Her research areas focus on governance (regional governance, administration, public sector innovations) and development issues (social (in)equity, human development, higher education). She is currently a fellow of the Regional Academy on the United Nations, a Research Associate of the Philippine Society for Public Administration, and a Research Affiliate of the Asian Society for Public Administration. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in International Politics from the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven in Belgium, and she holds an Advanced Master of Science in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies from KU Leuven as a VLIR-UOS scholar, and Master of Public Administration from University of the Philippines (UP).

Will computers decide who lives and who dies? Ethics, Health, and AI in a COVID-19 world

“Brother! You doubting Thomases get in the way of more scientific advances with your stupid ethical questions! This is a brilliant idea! Hit the button, will ya?”

Calvin addressing Hobbes regarding the ‘Duplicator‘ (Waterson, 1990)

While talk about a post-COVID-19 world is ripe, reflecting more the desire for an economic relaunch than the medical reality of the moment, we are still struggling to understand the effects that the pandemic is having on our societies. Those ripple effects are likely both to outlive the pandemic, and even to make themselves visible after the pandemic has hopefully been eradicated. 

One of the conversations that has emerged most clearly is linked to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare, and concerns both its effectiveness and its ethics. This article will follow two major ethical questions that have dominated the public sphere up to now: the use of data tracking systems for forecasting viral spread, and the possible use of AI as decision support for the allocation of medical resources in emergency situations. The main question underpinning this article is: how will our approach to these challenges impact our future?

Exploring the possible answers to this question will lead us to analyse the impact of the dynamic socio-cultural environment on the predictive capacities of algorithm-based AI models. The article will emphasise the importance of integrating culturally specific dimensions in developing and deploying AIs, and discuss how to approach ethics as applied to AI in a culturally aware manner. 

COVID-19

The pandemic we are living through has generated a series of unforeseen effects on local, regional and global scales. From raising instances of racism and subsequent domestic violence in conjunction with the lockdown measures, to major disruptions in human activities that may generate the biggest economic contraction since World War II, we are experiencing a combination of phenomena that reminds us of the interconnectedness of our world. 

The SARS-COV2 virus appeared in a context of decreased trust in public institutions and in scientific expertise at a global level, against a background of the increased dominance of social media in spreading fake news and pseudo-scientific theories. This was a perfect storm, which has allowed not only the weakening of democratic institutions and the rise of authoritarian leadership, but also the rapid spread of the virus itself. 

At the global level all efforts are geared towards controlling the spread of the virus, creating a vaccine, and treating those affected. Naturally, eyes turned to Artificial Intelligence and to the possibility of using it as a tool to help in these efforts. This process has revealed, and continues to reveal, complex and rather problematic interactions between AI models and the reality in which they are deployed, as well as the conflict between competing AI ethical principles.

Ethics: principles versus practices

In a lecture at Tübingen University, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “One thing that should be clear is that the validity of universal values does not depend on their being universally obeyed or applied. Ethical codes are always the expression of an ideal and an aspiration, a standard by which moral failings can be judged, rather than a prescription for ensuring that they never occur.” 

This is a powerful statement, touching at the core of the ethical challenges of leadership. However, it may also contain a major flaw: while ethical codes can be framed as an expression of universal aspirations, the standards by which we may judge moral failings cannot equally be universal. Whether we like it or not, morality is culturally dependent – and moral failings may certainly fall into a cultural blind-spot for many of us. Yet this does not mean that we can advocate abdicating universal ethical codes in the name of ‘cultural particularities’ (although this is a current practice among authoritarian figures, particularly regarding respect for human rights). It merely means that we need to be aware of how these aspirational universal codes are expressed in daily practices, and how the transformation of these practices can (and does) generate new moral norms that in their turn shed light on those very cultural blind-spots. 

Let’s take an example: Valuing human life is a universal ethical code. But what type of human life is more ‘valued‘ than others in different societies? And how do these societies make decisions on that basis? Is a young life more valuable than an old one? How is this valuing expressed in daily practices? Is life at any cost more valuable than an individual choice to ‘not resuscitate‘, or to retain dignity in dying? Is it possible to have an ‘equally valuable‘ approach to human life even in moments of scarcity? Is collective survival more important than individual well-being – and can these even be separated? 

These types of questions have emerged forcefully during the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and scientists, ethicists, and politicians are tackling the answers – or acting as if they knew them already. 

To continue, let’s follow two major conversations that have dominated the public sphere lately: the use of data tracking systems for forecasting viral spread, and the possible use of AI as decision support for the allocation of medical resources in emergency situations. By analysing the conversations and practices around this topic, this text will advocate a bottom-up approach towards the use of AI. The main arguments are that sometimes ethical codes may compete among themselves, and that trying to codify them in universally applicable AI algorithms would probably lead to the emergence of new types of biases instead of eliminating the existing ones. Thus, both deciding on the instances of using AI, and designing & relying on AI as decision-making mechanisms need to have the practices that embody moral norms as their starting points, and not universal ethical codes and their presumed possible codification in AI algorithms. The immateriality of AI models has received a reality check, and the same is about to happen to AI ethics.

A material world

At a higher level of analysis, the pandemic is a reminder that our world is material, despite a discourse that everything has now been virtualised, from markets to life itself. All of a sudden COVID-19 has forced us to experience at least three major types of materialisations: 

Materialisation of borders. While borders have not always been easy to cross, and some frontiers have been more material than others, in the past three months the transboundary movement has come to almost a complete halt. Most countries in the world have become inaccessible to those who are not their citizens or residents, and repatriation has more often than not been the only type of existing international travel. As I write this text the lockdown is easing in the European Union, but many other countries around the world remain closed to foreigners. 

In parallel, extraordinary forms of collaboration at regional and global levels have shown that only the continuation of an open type of approach may offer long-term solutions, for example the German hospitals taking in French patients at frontier regions in order to relieve the over-stretched French hospitals. At the same time, displays of solidarity have also been received with suspicion, raising questions about the use of solidarity as a mechanism of soft power, particularly in the case of China. 

(De-)Materialisation of movement. Movement has become at once materialised and virtual. Movement has entered a controlled phase at all levels during lockdown, with much of the workforce entering a mass experiment of working from home. Many who perceived the ability to move as ‘natural‘ are now experiencing it for the first time as a privilege. And movement has been displaced onto online platforms, dematerialising itself into bits and pieces of data (more on this later).

Materialisation of our bodies. Most importantly, we have been called upon to acknowledge the full extent of the importance of our bodies. We, individually and collectively, have dramatically come to realise that our lives are very real and unequivocally linked to our material bodies. The variations of the abstract indicators of the economy show that the entire global complex system is not separated from, but is in fact heavily dependent on our human bodies, their health and their movement (see above). This will contribute to the gradual dismantling of the illusion that we may have had that we live in a virtual world in which the body is only an instrument among others, a tool to be refined in gyms and yoga sessions, or a resource to overstretch during long, caffeine-fuelled working hours. Somehow our bodies have become ourselves again.

Tracking

The data tracking systems (DTS) are not a novelty, and their use by the police is quite widespread in the US. So is their use by marketing companies that rely on ’data from individual users to push products through targeted advertising. As early as 2012 the question of data tracking while surfing the internet was brought to the public’s attention’. The generalisation of the use of smartphones has made possible the extension of tracking from virtual movement to material movement in space and time. Apps, which use the phones’ GPS system and a scantily disguised but default option for the user (‘allow the app to access your location’), track, store, and sell movement data to third parties for the purpose of marketing and targeted publicity. In some instances police forces can use the same data to track movements and ‘prevent crime’ – a contested practice that is not yet fully understood, let alone regulated. 

The European Union (EU) enacted a data protection act (the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679, implemented as of May 2018) that obliges developers to allow for security protection, pseudonymisation and/or anonymisation of users in designing their products, and to fully inform and obtain consent from the consumers regarding their use of data. This regulation impacts the use of data tracking systems (DTSs), and makes it more difficult to apply it indiscriminately or sell it to third parties (as US-based corporations tend to do). More recently the EU has adopted a series of white papers regarding the more general use of AI, to which I will return. 

DTSs combine borders, movements and bodies, and recreate them in the immaterial world of algorithms, while juxtaposing them with pre-designed models, assigning the individual user to typologies within the models. It does not matter if the models are of consumer habits, potential delinquency, or the likelihood of paying off one’s mortgage. The trouble with models in AI has largely been discussed in the literature (O’Neil, 2019; Broussard, 2018; Galison, 2019), and it emerges from a few major sources: 

  1. The models are based on previous behaviour and aggregated data, and have a probability rate of correct identification. This means that they are not 100% accurate. While this may not be a major problem in cases in which we have models of success for an athlete’s performance, it is highly problematic if they are used to decide upon the finances of or the delivery of justice to individuals. It also means that they function as long as the reality matches the conditions within which the data has been collected, and they are highly dependent on the data quality and accuracy. Under normal circumstances (read long periods of status quo), the models more or less function as designed (my emphasis). But as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, any sudden disruption causes ‘model drift’: that is, the models no longer correspond to reality, and they need to be redesigned. This was first signalledin Amazon’s use of AI, and then spotted in all the major industries that use Artificial Intelligence.
  2. The use of proxy measurements in order to decide the value attributed to a typology. For example, in order to decide if one is a good educator, a model may use the measurement of children’s performance in a specific exam. However, that in itself depends on a series of other factors that have nothing to do with the educator’s qualities and qualifications. At the same time, performance scores may be tackled if an educator feels threatened in her livelihood, giving birth to further distortions (see O’Neil).
  3. Models are designed by humans, and more often than not they embed the biases held by their designers and developers. This is also a frequently discussed topic in AI ethics. The solutions offered range from increasing the diversity in designer and product development teams to renouncing the use of the tool itself altogether. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, eyes have turned towards the possibility of using DTSs in order to predict and prevent the rapid spread of the virus by creating early warning mechanisms. The idea is relatively simple: once downloaded, the DTS apps track the user’s movements using their phones, and identify whether the user has been in the vicinity of someone who is already registered as being COVID-19 positive. The app would then alert the user, and also create an anonymous map of possible viral spread.

AI ethicists raised the first concerns, particularly having to do with the tension between two major ethical principles in AI: the autonomy of the user (including rights to privacy) and usage for the common good. First, the DTS cannot offer 100% autonomy, particularly when the GPS system is being used for tracking. When movement data becomes health data (as in this case), anonymity is all the more important. Individual health data is highly sensitive; it is stored in highly secure environments, anonymised and used exclusively by specialists in healthcare. What if movement is health? What if one’s own movement is used in the aggregated data set in order to evaluate, through approximate models, one’s health – and eventually sold to interested third parties? Can we decide based on this data who can and who cannot return to work, travel, or even visit friends? What about getting the treatment one may need?

This dilemma has generated different responses, and the solutions proposed gravitate around a twofold approach: use the device’s Bluetooth systems instead of the GPS to signal proximity only (and not location), and store all the relevant data on the device (and not on third parties’ servers). Downloading and using the app is voluntary. A diversity of apps featuring these solutions are being deployed as I write. 

The US took a fragmented approach, leaving the development and deployment of tracing apps, and the subsequent ethical decisions, to the latitude of private companies. European countries have a more centralised approach, in that the governments are more involved in financing and developing the apps, with features that must meet European privacy standards. Germany has only just started rolling out its 20-million euro app, and is reassuring its users that the data will not be made accessible to the platform provider they use (Android or Apple), but only to public healthcare specialists in the country. At the same time, Norway has decided to withdraw its own app because its reliability was questionable at the very least. Being based on voluntary download and reporting, and built on the assumption that people always carry their smartphones with them, the Norwegian government concluded that the app’s models do not necessarily correspond to human behaviour. 

To the external observer, the situation seems to be completely different in those countries that appear to have a centralised, all-powerful system of data tracking and AI use, such as China. While a European observer may readily conclude that the balance between the common good versus individual anonymity has already tilted towards the former in China’s case, and that China can already use its Social Credit System in order to track and prevent COVID-19 spread, this is not precisely the reality of the situation. The approach in China actually seems to be more fragmented than in some European countries. Some provinces have developed their own DTSs; some of the apps use GPS, while others are based on the user voluntarily inputting their location. Regional governments and cities may use different apps that may result in different ‘health scores’ assigned to the same person. As Ding (2018) observes in his analysis of China’s AI strategy, the Western perception is that AI deployment in China is top-down and monolithic, hypercentralised and controlled, with no room for ethics. But this is far from the truth, as Ding shows in his work. This perception is a common trope of the depiction of the ‘East’ in Western popular thinking. While the doctrine of social peace and its attainment does guide the actions taken in China, ethical debates are still present and are being conducted by private enterprises, such as Tencent’s Research Institute.

In conclusion, the use of DTSs poses ethical dilemmas because they reveal the opposition between individual autonomy and the common good, and they raise practical issues regarding accuracy and efficiency because of the way in which data is collected, stored, and used.

Triage 

The spread of COVID-19 has put serious strain on healthcare systems in many countries, and each of them has had to find a different way of coping with the crisis. From avoiding testing and sending home those patients who were not in a critical state, as happened in the UK in the first phase of the pandemic, to carefully planning the lockdown and the bed allocations in places like Germany, the entire range of systemic behaviour has been displayed during this crisis. Among these, uplifting shows of solidarity between countries have been displayed, for example when border hospitals from Germany accepted patients from neighbouring France in order to help ease congestion in the French system. 

The strain on hospital beds and respiratory units, and the need to allocate scarce resources to an increasing number of patients in critical states have placed a lot of pressure on medical personnel. Ideally every national health system should have guidelines for extreme situations such as pandemics. More often than not, though, these guidelines contain a set of recommendations about triaging the patients and allocating scarce resources, but they do not necessarily describe practical ways in which these recommendations can be implemented. Thus, nurses and doctors are left scrambling to devise their own procedures in this type of emergency. 

The particularity of this pandemic is putting strain on the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) rather than on Emergency Rooms (ER). ERs around the world are currently using a diversity of triage systems, where one usually decides what type of treatment a patient needs, and in what order of emergency. This is different from the pandemic situation in overstretched ICUs, where treatment may not be available for everyone who needs it, and access to it has to be selective. This is an important distinction, and this is what happens today in many ICUs around the world. ER triage procedures do not apply to this situation. So what are the healthcare providers around the world doing? They are trying to follow the recommendations and to devise their own procedures, in order not only to best serve their patients and the common good, but also to reduce their own enormous emotional stress. There are a few criteria they may use, and as Philip Rosoff, ethicist and MD at Duke University explained, we know how not to take a decision of this kind: not in a rush, not at the bedside, and not using judgment based on privilege. In his words, in healthcare, at least in the US, there are ordinary situations in which there is a distinction made between VIPs and VUPs (Very Unfortunate Persons). In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic this distinction is eliminated, and so is the question of age. Age is not a decisive factor in providing treatment in case of scarcity (contrary to what some may believe). 

The only criterion that should play a role, Rosoff explained, is the clinical chances the patient has of surviving. This can be assessed by healthcare professionals based on the healthcare records of the respective patient and on the current clinical state displayed. Here, one can see that AI-powered tools may come into play to a very significant degree. Electronic Health Records (EHR) facilitate the preservation of patients’ medical history and, combined with the data of the current chart of a patient, they could theoretically match the patient’s history and current state with a recommendation regarding a triage decision. This may provide certain relief in high-stress situations, and the decision may be supported by this type of evidence-based approach. 

However, two important factors need to be taken into consideration here: 

  1. The AI models embedded that pass a judgment on the state of health of the patients may themselves be flawed: the use of proxy measures in order to establish the state of a patient’s health (such as the money they have spent in the past x years on health-related issues) can be very misleading: for example, one such AI-powered tool kept showing that black patients’ health is much better that of white ones, and as a result they may receive less medical attention. This was in fact due to a reversed causation: blacks in the US receive less medical attention due to financial hardships and systemic racism, resulting in their spending less money on health. The AI system considered this a sign of good health. If a subsequent decision is taken based on this, it will in fact continue the spiral of inequality (Obermeyer et al., 2019). 
  2. The risk of errors induced by the way in which the humans interact with the machines. One important element in AI as a decision support tool, particularly in healthcare, is that the system should remain a tool for support, and should not be transformed into a decision-maker. However, the high emotional stress combined with the workload experienced by health workers may generate the so-called “suspension of clinical thinking”, that is, taking the AI’s recommendation as the ultimate authoritative decision. In other words, under a variety of circumstances, particularly high stress, humans may be tempted to offload the weight of the decision onto the machine. While this may be possible in a driverless car, it may prove disastrous in medical settings. Ironically, it seems easier (although it is not) to create an algorithm advising doctors (because everything happens between the screen and the health worker) than an integrated AI system that drives a car. 

In conclusion, AI may provide assistance in patient triage for resource allocation in a pandemic situation, but it should not be transformed into an automated decision-making instrument, precisely because previous biases and model dysfunctionalities may create irremediable medical errors. And of course, the question of accountability may have to be considered.

AI ethics and models

Both the instances analysed above (DTSs and the possible use of AIs in triage for medical resource allocation in the ICU) have in common concerns regarding ethics. 

We should distinguish between making an ethical decision and the method with which we arrive at that decision. The methods used to arrive at an ethical decision are the equivalent of ethical codes, or principles. The decisions we take (or which we let the AI take in an automated manner) are the result of choosing the precedence of one principle or code over another. When subsequently analysing the decision under the lenses of a different code, the decision taken may appear unethical.

In ethical decision-making theories, there are five major methods of coming to an ethical decision: the utilitarian approach (make the most good and the least harm), the rights-based approach (what best protects the moral rights of those affected), the fairness and justice approach (whether the decision is fair), the ‘common good’ approach, and the virtue approach (is the decision in accordance with the decision-maker’s values?).These methods are present and expressed as AI ethical codes in most of the approaches.

Currently a series of bodies are devising principles for creating ethical AIs, that is, the things one needs to take into consideration when designing and using AIs. The EU has put forth seven principles for trustworthy AI: Human agency and oversight, Technical robustness and safety, Privacy and data governance, Transparency, Diversity, Non-discrimination and fairness, Societal and environmental well-being, and Accountability. Under each of these principles we can find a list of recommendations meant to explain what they mean. Under privacy and data governance we may find anonymity, respect for individual rights; under Societal and environmental well-being we may find concerns for the common good, and so on. As argued above, these principles may compete in different cases. They are also highly abstract, and they may mean different things in different socio-cultural contexts.

AI models interact with institutional, social and cultural contexts, and may fail if they are not designed for the appropriate context. In fact, this happens in most cases where AIs work directly with humans: a very recent example comes from health again, when a retina scan AI diagnosis system by Google performed perfectly in lab conditions but failed consistently in Thailand. This happened simply because the workflows differed from the lab, the light conditions were variable, and the health technicians understood the deployment of machines as an authoritative measure to which they had to respond perfectly; sometimes they photoshopped the images so that the AI algorithm would accept the quality of the shot.

Ethical models do the same, and in order to avoid drift, we should develop them by starting with observing practices. The ethical codes themselves do not exist in theory, 

despite the fact that some ethicists generate them theoretically first. In fact they are initially expressed in different practices. Their very meaning is translated through practices; but practices vary in time and space. Different practices show the cracks in the models, as in the AI deployment cases. We should look at practices and their variations first in order to make our way back to judgements on values and ethics. Returning to the question of rights and valuing life: how is this expressed in various practices? How can we design decision-making mechanisms (automated or not) that correspond to the variability of practices and their dynamic transformations? 

Matter matters

The major lesson for AI and for ethics which COVID-19 has taught us is that adoption means adaptation in a world in which matter matters. Therefore we must conclude: 

  • AI is a tool: it does not need to be ethical (it’s absurd). It should be designed in accordance with ethical principles understood contextually, leading to it acting ethically within the context. Therefore, we first need to understand the context – ask an anthropologist.
  • Assume that models are always wrong. Models do not drift because people behave weirdly – they drift to begin with because they are models; their accuracy is limited over time, and the faster we change, the faster they drift. Carrying them across contexts will implicitly lead to drift. So first, one needs to study the model’s cultural context (regional, institutional, professional) and to work one’s way back from there into the design of the AI systems. 
  • The design process should start in the field, and not in labs. We need to design for the cultural context: build models starting with reality, and do not try to model reality on abstract models (including ethics) – sooner or later they will drift, and one of the domains in which they fail is ethics. 
  • And last but not least, we need to create constant evaluation feedback loops. Remember, AI is material: it has a material support and it interacts with the material world. That means it is not going to flow smoothly. Be prepared to reassess and adjust based on how the adoption process develops. 

COVID-19 is here to stay. There is no post-COVID world. Even if a vaccine becomes readily available, the virus will only be subdued by its generalised use. Just as with measles or polio, stopping vaccination would mean the return of the virus. The ripple effects of the current pandemic will be felt in economy, culture, and politics. For AI it means both a great opportunity to show where it is really helpful, and a wake-up call to demystify some of the hype around it. One major lesson is that AI not only interacts with a material world in continuous transformation, but that its functioning depends on this very materiality (and material culture). The crisis has also re-emphasised the importance of understanding socio-cultural variations (geographical or institutional) when approaching ethics, and to be more aware of the ethical implications of AI design, deployment and adoption. One major question that was overlooked till recently would be: what domains and instances need the deployment of AI? Is AI as a decision-making support a really good idea in a particular domain or not? Should we automate decision-making support in all domains? Should we optimise everything just because we can? As Rosoff observed in his dialogue with David Remnick, healthcare is a multibillion-dollar business in the US. In this particular context, optimising processes with AI may not always be in the best interest of the patient. So let’s be patient, and instead consider where AI can be useful, and where it has the potential of becoming a ‘weapon of math destruction’. 

References:

Broussard, Meredith (2018). Artificial Unintelligence. How Computers Misunderstand the World. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.

Ding, Jeffrey (2018). Deciphering China’s AI Dream The context, components, capabilities, and consequences of China’s strategy to lead the world in AI. Centre for the Governance of AI, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

Galison, Peter, ‘Algorists Dream of Objectivity’, in Brockman, John (ed.) (2019) Possible Minds. 25 Ways of Looking at AI. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 231-240

O’Neil, Cathy (2019). Weapons of Math Destruction. How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, New York: Broadway Books.

Obermeyer, Ziad, Brian Powers, Christine Vogeli, Sendhil Mullainathan (2019), ‘Dissecting racial bias in an algorithm used to manage the health of populations’, Science, Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 447-453, DOI: 10.1126/science.aax2342

Waterson, Bill (1990). ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, January 9, 10, 11, in The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Three 1990-1992, Kansas City, Sydney, London: Andrew McMeel Publishing, p. 9

This is Sparta! Insights from international relations theory into what the post-Covid world might look like

2500 years ago, in his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian historian and general Thucydides made the ravages of the plague affecting Greece a central feature of the tragic decline and fall of the Athenian Empire. The plague ravaging the many territories that Athens had dominion over, at the time of a desperate struggle against its arch-enemy Sparta, undermined its power and hastened its demise. 

Today’s great pandemic consuming the world has produced similar reactions among some commentators. The trade and security struggles between the United States, as the receding hegemon, and a resurgent China have been interpreted by scholars and commentators as a reiteration of the ancient theory of power transition that defines Thucydides’ history. However, IR theory has more to say about the world of tomorrow than the dramatic effects that, according to Thucydides’ followers, the pandemic could have on security and trade relations between the U.S. and China. This piece seeks to offer a brief but comprehensive overview of the major approaches in IR theory, what they may say about the world after the end of this pandemic, and how it will affect global politics.

IR scholars are often criticised for their engagement in what seems a purely academic exercise centred on an obsession with theory and abstract debates. And, true enough, IR theory is ill-suited to providing pre-packaged solutions to current problems, but many scholars will argue that that is not their business. IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action. Moreover, IR theory is not in fact a homogenous, coherent‘theory’, but a divergent set of theories and approaches which look at different problems and phenomena in world affairs from different ontological and epistemological positions. No one theory can provide a comprehensive interpretation or predictions of world politics. However, taken together, these theories can help decision makers and the public fill the gaps in the puzzle we call ‘International Relations’. The aim of this essay is exactly that: to suggest a way we can integrate various pieces of the puzzle in a comprehensible way that makes the most of what we know from IR theory. IR scholars produce knowledge, not ‘solutions’ˋ to policy problems; nevertheless, this knowledge can become a tool for devising fruitful solutions.

IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action.

This essay is divided into three parts. First, it discusses the current pandemic through the lenses of the ‘agency-vs-structure’ debate in International Relations. Second, it uses the three mainstream approaches in IR to interpret and predict the effects of the pandemic on the development of the international system. Finally, it discusses what insights we can gain from other, more critical approaches in IR and their importance for understanding world events.

Changing the structure of world politics

International Relations is a discipline defined by structural theorising. Each of the three major schools of thought in the discipline, neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism, are theoretically dominated by a structural understanding of world politics. What makes them different is their assumptions about these structures and state behaviour. Neorealism and neoliberalism share a materialist understanding of structures, arguing that all that matters is the distribution of capabilities under anarchy. How wealthy you are (in weapons, natural resources, GDP, technology) defines your status and behaviour in the international system, which is taken as inherently anarchical and competitive. Where they differ is in their assumption about what drives state behaviour: relative gains, as neorealists argue, or absolute gains, as neoliberals suggest.

Constructivists criticise this materialist understanding of structure and argue that we should conceive structures as inherently social, as the product of social interaction. Structures are, therefore, the product of what we do and how we do it. This means that anarchy is neither pre-given, as the other two schools assume, nor exclusively based on material capabilities, but very much on ideas which give meaning to those capabilities. When the ideas actors have change, then their behaviour changes, and that produces a change in the structure of the international system.

Why does this matter in respect to the effects of the global pandemic in world politics? It matters because change in much of IR theory translates into changes in the structure of the international system. On the one hand, if the structure of the international system is material – defined by how wealthy you are – then change can happen only when the distribution of material capabilities (i.e. wealth) changes. Therefore, according to a materialist ontology, the global pandemic will produce change in the international system if it alters the distribution of material capabilities. On the other hand, if the structure of the international system is ideational, defined by shared ideas and norms, then change can happen whenever the overreaching ideas held by states change. It is thus apparent that the global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

How does this work in practice? From a materialist perspective, actual changes in the distribution of resources must happen in order for change in world politics to take place. This could happen due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, which may destroy economic capacity in some countries, decreasing their relative material capabilities and therefore shifting the relative distribution of capabilities. If, for example, the United States and Europe are substantially more affected economically than China because of the crisis in the medium and long term, and will experience lower rates of growth with higher rates of public debt, then China becomes relatively more powerful (i.e. it gains more assets than Europe and the US). Conversely, if the pandemic forces a reconfiguration of value chains in world trade, then the United States and Europe may benefit because of what economists call on-shoring, near-shoring, and shortening of value chains.

The global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

However, from an ideational perspective, constructivists would argue that in order for shifts in material capabilities to happen, changes in ideas need to happen first. The economic ideas dominating the economic models currently operating around the world will define the level of growth, depending on how successful their growth models will prove to be. At the same time, constructivists stress that the international structure is ideational in nature and a product of social interaction. How political leaders decide to act during the pandemic and afterwards will affect how the structure evolves. If decision-makers choose a confrontational approach, then the world of tomorrow will be confrontational. If they decide to cooperate, then the future will be cooperative. In the end, the world is what states make of it.

The distinction between material and ideational structure is important not only because it emphasises different factors that affect change, but especially because it delineates the importance of actors as producers of change. For neorealists, for example, history is deterministic, and agency has almost no role in it. In the great scheme of things, neorealists believe that what matters is how material power shifts, not what people do or believe. For constructivists, human agency is at the centre of structure, defining and re-defining it constantly. Human action determines the future of the international structure, not simply how material resources are allocated. However, this structural perspective of change in world affairs is not all that IR theory has to offer.

Power, institution, and ideas in times of global pandemic

Neorealism as a structural theory of international relations is informed by the political theory of classical realism. Therefore, neorealists conceive the world as a dangerous, anarchic world inhabited by egoistic states that seek either their own survival (defensive realists) or to maximise their power (offensive realists) and use any tool at their disposal to achieve these goals. In a world where survival is the main goal and the survival of the fittest is the main mechanism of ‘natural’ selection, states can only rely on their own strength and cannot trust other states. According to this view, international organisations such as the World Health Organisation or historical phenomena such as globalisation are devised and used by great powers to further their power and enhance their control over less powerful states. This is one of the reasons why neorealists dismiss the role of international organisations as venues of cooperation, together with the assumption that all states seek relative gains, making cooperation difficult.

During the current pandemic, a neorealist will ask: how does the pandemic affects the distribution of power in the international system? As mentioned previously, power is understood here in terms of the material capabilities that states have at their disposal. Here, the economic component becomes particularly interesting for neorealists. If the pandemic affects the US economy much more than that of China, for example, then this increases the relative power of China, which over the medium to long term may build an economy which is substantially stronger than the American economy. In the short to medium term, a weak American economy may create opportunities for China to acquire US assets or push to ‘reform’ US-sponsored international institutions, increasing its global influence. The Chinese takeover of Western assets is perceived as a real danger in several Western nations, with Germany taking active measures to prevent Chinese takeovers of strategic companies. The United States may seek to do the same. At the same time, a neorealist would predict that the US will react by counterbalancing China, seeking to preempt or block Chinese takeovers of US-sponsored international organisations, and perhaps impose new economic protectionist measures and create incentives to near-shore or reshore the American manufacturing capabilities currently abroad. In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

Reversely, neoliberalism suggests that the outcome of the pandemic will be the opposite of what neorealists foresee. Neoliberals assume that states seek absolute gains, not relative gains as neorealists do, and states have a tendency towards cooperation in order to reduce transaction costs and the negative effects of unwanted events, and to enhance the benefits from deeper and denser ties. This means that when faced with a pandemic of global proportions, states have a powerful incentive to cooperate. For neoliberals, international institutions reflect the desire of selfish states to cooperate in order to reduce costs and maximise benefits. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation exist to allow coordination between national health authorities, as a channel for knowledge exchange, and as a forum for deliberation.

Therefore, the question that neoliberals ask is: how does the pandemic affect incentives for states to cooperate internationally? If the pandemic reduces the incentives for cooperation, then a more neorealist logic will dominate world politics. But if the human and economic costs of the pandemic as foreseen prove to be substantial and able to be managed more effectively through global coordination, than the pandemic may increase cooperation and may enhance the importance of international organisations such as the WHO. Signs of increased coordination and cooperation, particularly on economic matters, are already visible. The leading central banks (the FED, the BCE, the CBJ, the BoE) have already signed swap and repo agreements that will provide almost unlimited liquidity in the currency of each party, and the FED is playing its role as the lender of last resort for the world economy. In healthcare we can observe some signs of regional cooperation in Europe, among Latin American countries and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Asia.

Neoliberals would predict the emergence of cooperation frameworks for pooling expertise, sharing knowledge about the virus and how to fight it better. This is visible in the quest to develop a vaccine, even if the Trump administration has been acting in a less cooperative way than the rest of the world. At the same time, the crisis is forcing states to reassess the limits of their cooperation, and to consider why certain cooperative frameworks such as the WHO have not lived up to their expectations by pushing forward reforms. But all these are defined by what ideas are circulating in the national capitals.

Neorealism and neoliberalism presuppose that the way the world works and what interests states have as pre-givens are objective facts which can be taken for granted. Constructivists dismiss this as a lack of sophistication, and even an outright misunderstanding of how world politics works. Instead, constructivists such as Alexander Wendt argue that world politics is “what states make of it”. The beliefs and identities of political leaders define how the world is and how it will evolve. National identity, culture, political interactions play a substantial role in making sense of the world and constructing it as it is. The choice between competition or cooperation results, not from changes in the distribution of power or the incentives states have, but from their identities and beliefs. A state may exhibit bellicose or friendly behaviour in international politics depending on the ideas and identity defining its society and political elite. But these ideas and identities change over time, especially because of crises which force people to reassess their beliefs and who they are.

Therefore, a constructivist would ask: how does the pandemic change shared beliefs and identities, and what effect would these changes have on world affairs? If the pandemic produces new ideas and identities that promote competition and conflict, then international relations will be defined by conflict. Conversely, if the pandemic produces solidaristic and cooperative ideas and identities, then world affairs will be characterised by increased cooperation and harmony. The world is what we make of it; it is constructed by us according to our beliefs about what is appropriate.

A neorealist or neoliberal would find it hard to answer why states would build air bridges to transport COVID-19 patients from Italy to Germany, for example. Constructivists, instead, would say that this sign of solidarity is the result of the beliefs dominating the public debate in the societies of Italy and Germany and among the political elites of those two countries. Another example is the reappearance of policy debates about resilience, ideas about the need for strategic autonomy in the production of vital products such as medicine, or the need for European solidarity.

Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

At the same time, constructivists would caution about the impact of misinformation and information warfare on which ideas and identities become dominant. Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

Who is right? None of them and all of them. While these three major approaches to international relations are often framed in opposition to each other, they illuminate various parts of international politics. Practitioners and policy elites should use them together to make sense of the world and to build better calibrated and critically informed policy responses to global challenges such as the current pandemic.

Society, discourse, and security in the world of tomorrow

IR theory may be dominated by neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism as the three major approaches to the study of world politics, but they are not alone, and several other theories and approaches can fill other gaps in the puzzle. Among them, new liberalism and the critical approaches to IR and security studies are frequently mentioned in disciplinary debates.

New liberalism is a contemporary reformulation of interwar liberalism, and was proposed primarily by Andrew Moravcsik. New liberal theory looks at domestic dynamics to explain foreign policy. In its most common formulation, new liberalism argues that the most important actors in world politics are not the states, but the domestic groups and actors which define state policy and thus influence world politics. Adopting a bottom-up approach to foreign policy analysis, liberals assume that domestic actors have different interests and are in a constant struggle to shape state policy. Therefore, foreign policy is defined by this confrontation between various groups seeking to influence foreign policy. As a result, the question asked by new liberals is: how does the pandemic reshuffle or reinforce the configuration of power and influence between domestic groups?

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues. This may overcome the long dominance of austerity- driven fiscal hawks that have ruled the higher echelons of power in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels. If that happens, the configuration of power between these groups will change, and consequently it will shift the policies adopted at national and European level.

In other parts of the world, such as in the United States, the effects of the pandemic are harder to discern, but they seem to be producing a new wave of social unrest which may or may not unravel the current political configuration, and with it the American foreign policy. In an increasingly dangerous world, ‘America First’ could become an even more persuasive idea, and the US may seek to shore up its current unilateralist and isolationist foreign policy. In totalitarian or authoritarian regimes faced with increased death tolls, such as Russia or Belarus, the regimes may seek to enhance their power over society by increasing the levels of oppression and intrusion, as well as the elimination of political opponents.

Finally, another perspective comes from the Copenhagen School’s ‘theory of securitisation’, which argues that security is intersubjective and socially constructed. This means that there are no inherent security threats, and that all threats are defined socially through processes of persuasion by powerful actors, which seek to securitise – to take outside the sphere of normal politics and life – certain issues. The pandemic itself has been securitised in much of the world, as an existential threat to life and our societies, with leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel using a martial language, talking about a ‘state of war’ in relation to the pandemic and the imposition of exceptional measures (i.e. lockdown).

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues.

If issues related to the pandemic or its aftermath are subjected to further processes of securitisation, this may further impact world politics. If the virus continues to be an existential threat, social, economic, and political links may be distorted by the perception of danger. If travel between countries becomes impossible, as the risk of infection during transit appears too great, then trade routes will be cut and investment and tourism will be imperiled. This, in turn, could escalate into political and diplomatic tensions and conflict between countries who ban travel to certain countries and those who are thus affected.

Conclusions

IR theory cannot provide prepackaged forecasts or solutions about and for the world after the pandemic, but it can suggest further possible trends in world politics, depending on the theoretical assumptions each approach supports. Neorealism assumes conflict as the natural state of the world, and therefore predicts more conflict. Neoliberalism presupposes cooperation and foresees as much. Constructivism tells us that it is what we make of it, that nothing is predetermined, and what matters is the ideas and identities that come out of this pandemic. New liberals look inside the state and tell us that what matters is how domestic groups will be affected by the pandemic, while the Copenhagen School argues that the socially constructed understanding of threats will define much of the world after the pandemic. Who is right? Again, none and all at the same time. Every one of these theories provides a piece in the larger puzzle we know as world politics. Understanding what each of them has to offer and what its limits are can help practitioners to better understand what is happening and prepare better for tomorrow.

Relocating production from China to Central Europe? Not so fast!

Western European imports from central Europe have fallen dramatically, while imports from China fell much less, and had already recovered to pre-COVID level by April 2020. Central European governments should instigate new measures to foster the transition towards knowledge-intensive economic activities.

The COVID crisis caused a major setback to global trade and disrupted the functioning of global production networks. From the perspective of Central, Eastern and South Eastern European (CESEE) countries, this has raised the hope that Western European manufacturers will bring their suppliers from East Asia closer, potentially boosting investment in CESEE.

The volume of merchandise trade is expected to drop by almost 20% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter of the previous year, the steepest decline on record according to the World Trade Organisation. Almost half of global trade is composed of intermediate goods for production, and there were companies in Europe and elsewhere which did not receive essential intermediate inputs for production during the height of the COVID crisis. Such disruptions to global trade and global production networks, or global value chains (GVCs), can call the benefits of globalisation into question, and might prompt companies to bring their suppliers closer. For Western European producers, the CESEE region would be a natural place to relocate their suppliers due to its geographical closeness. Relocation would boost investment in CESEE, which in turn could speed up the recovery from the corona-recession and support medium-term growth and jobs.

Foreign trade facts disappoint relocation hopes

However, recent trade data paint a sobering picture of such hopes: the imports of the first fifteen European Union member countries (EU15) declined the most from the CESEE region, while imports from China had reverted back to their 2019 level by April 2020, the latest available data at the time of writing (Figure 1). Imports from CESEE declined by a shocking 35%, while within the EU15 imports (such as German import from France and French import from Germany) declined by 30% on average by April. EU15 imports from the United States and Japan declined by about a quarter. The decline of EU15 imports from China had already started in February 2020, earlier than from the rest of the world, given that COVID-19 hit China first. Yet even at the lowest point in March 2020, the EU15’s imports from China was ‘just’ 16% lower than on average in 2019, while in April 2020 it had returned to the same level as in 2019. 

Figure 1: EU15 imports from different regions, euro billions at current prices, seasonally adjusted, 2019 average = 100

Source: author’s calculation, using bilateral trade data from the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics dataset (accessed on 6 August 2020), which includes US dollar values. Average euro/US dollar exchange rates from Eurostat were used to convert USD figures to euros. The euro values were seasonally adjusted using the X12 method. 

Note: EU15: first 15 members of the European Union. CESEE13: the 13 countries that joined the EU in 2004-2013.

Among the 13 CESEE countries, Slovakia was hit the hardest by its exports to the EU15 almost halving. Romania was the second hardest hit, followed by Hungary and the Czech Republic with about 40% export losses. At the other end, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania suffered from ‘just’ about 15% trade losses. 

Relocation would boost investment in CESEE, which in turn could speed up the recovery from the corona-recession and support medium-term growth and jobs.

The composition of EU imports from China shows that some product categories saw major increases, while others declined; however, several intermediate goods categories gained or did not suffer much from April 2019 to April 2020. The highest increases in April 2020 compared with the same month last year were recorded for automatic data processing machines (+€884 million, +33%), articles of apparel of textile fabrics (+€129 million, +36%) and electronic tubes, valves and related articles (+€92 million, +12%). (Textile articles include COVID-19 related products, such as textile face masks, surgical masks, disposable face masks and single use drapes). The largest decreases in absolute terms were observed for imports of footwear (-€254 million, -52%), telecommunications equipment (-€232 million, -6%) and baby carriages, toys, games and sporting goods (-€225 million, -28%). Other intermediate production inputs such as pumps, compressors, fans, electric power machinery and parts, motor vehicle parts fell less.

What can we make of these developments?

First, the limited fall and the quick rebound of EU15 imports from China is really remarkable, given that the economic activity and total imports of the EU15 was much lower in April 2020 than on average in 2019. Perhaps imports from China in April 2020 partially replaced imports from other countries suffering from COVID-related lockdowns. The rebound of imports from China suggests that East Asian supplier problems were short-lived; and from the perspective of disrupted supply chains, there is not much justification to relocate suppliers from East Asia to Europe. The adverse public health situation due to COVID-19 was addressed quickly in China, allowing suspended production and shipments to restart – and faster than in Europe. Such rapid control of the epidemic in China might even reinforce the reliability of Chinese suppliers.

The rebound of imports from China suggests that East Asian supplier problems were short-lived; and from the perspective of disrupted supply chains, there is not much justification to relocate suppliers from East Asia to Europe.

Second, while the CESEE countries are geographically close to consumer markets in the EU, they are still very far away for the value chains of some goods that are produced in China. For instance in ICT goods, the value chain is predominantly East Asian, so moving certain intermediate inputs from China to Europe would mean getting closer to the consumer but farther away from other suppliers. Replicating whole value chains in Europe seems to be a difficult and costly task.

Third, the lower decline of EU15 imports from the United States and Japan than from CESEE suggests that distance to Western Europe is not the primary determinant of trade flows, even in times of lockdowns and trade disruptions. The product composition of trade seems to be a more important factor. This again highlights that the geographic proximity of CESEE to Western Europe should not be overrated.

Fourth, the extent of trade losses depends on the sectoral and product composition of exports to EU15, including the mix of intermediate and final products. It seems that CESEE countries which are more integrated into Western European production networks, such as Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, suffered from larger declines in exports. Since the bulk of exports includes manufacturing products, export decline should coincide with industrial production decline. Indeed, industrial production fell the most (by about one third) from May 2019 to May 2020 in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania among EU member states, according to Eurostat. This suggests that greater participation in European value chains exposes an economy to greater variation in production, with associated consequences for employment and GDP growth.

Fifth, as industrial production recovers, so does trade. Eurostat data shows that industrial production started to recover from April to May 2020 since lockdowns were eased, and is expected to recover further in subsequent months. At the time of writing, the latest bilateral foreign trade data available is for April 2020. Hence the large drop in intra-EU trade by April is expected to correct itself, at least to some extent, over the coming months. It will be interesting to analyse whether intra-EU trade will recover as fast as EU15 imports from China, or whether it does so at a slower pace.

Greater participation in European value chains exposes an economy to greater variation in production, with associated consequences for employment and GDP growth.

And sixth, GVC-related trade also suffered much more in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis than traditional trade, but it also recovered faster after 2009 (see Figure 1 here).

Thus, greater participation in GVCs exposes trade and production to greater variation, which can have adverse consequences for output, employment, government budget balances and many other indicators in times of economic shocks. Such adverse variation should certainly make CESEE policymakers think about their industrial policy strategies, although shorter-run (or cyclical risks) and longer-run structural impacts should also be jointly analysed.

Global value chain participation has longer-term benefits

Participation in GVCs has a number of longer-term benefits. As Richard Baldwin argues, emerging and developing countries with less developed industrial structures and smaller domestic markets can join the supply chains of firms from high-tech nations, instead of building such supply chains as Korea and Taiwan had to do over a long period of time, since these countries developed themselves before the GVC era. Joining GVCs since the mid-1980s has allowed less developed countries to embark on a faster-track development, specialising in certain tasks. 

A recent IMF study concludes that it is GVC-related trade, rather than conventional trade, which has a positive impact on income per capita and productivity, even though such gains appear more significant for upper-middle and high-income countries.

Such longer-term benefits have likely induced CESEE governments to attract as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as they can by offering the maximum amount of state aid which is possible in the EU, such as tax exemption for a decade, or financial support to train employees and reduce labour costs. FDI can foster participation in GVCs by local suppliers. The recent races between CESEE countries to attract prominent foreign manufacturers seem to suggests that this development strategy is set to continue. 

Most CEESEs have not moved up in the value chain

An important aspect of development is whether companies participating in GVCs gradually move up in the value chain: that is, whether the initial contributions to low-wage sectors are gradually replaced by higher value-added and higher technological-level production. The IMF study mentioned above finds unfavourable results for most CESEE countries, by analysing Germany’s auto supply chain: for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the contributions of high and low technological-level sectors remained broadly the same between 2000 and 2013, suggesting there had been no moving up on the value chain. For Romania, in contrast, there has been a shift away from low-tech to more high-tech manufacturing. As regards non-EU countries, the study finds that China’s contribution to the German auto supply chain is showing a shift towards more high-tech services, while Russia’s contribution became more intensive in low-tech manufacturing due to the mining and quarrying sector.

The region’s advantage as a low-wage supplier of western European manufacturing networks is gradually diminishing.

Related indicators suggest similarly unsatisfactory progress for most CESEE countries. The European Union’s innovation scoreboard, which is measured using 27 performance indicators distinguishing between ten innovation dimensions in four main categories, concludes that with the sole exception of Estonia, CESEE countries rank well below the EU average in 2019. Moreover, the improvement in innovation performance from 2012 to 2019 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia was below the average improvement in the EU, and there was even a setback in innovation performance in Romania and Slovenia. CESEE countries do not rank highly in the World Economic Forum’s Innovation capability component of the Global Competitiveness Index either. Slovenia (28th), the Czech Republic (29th) and Estonia (34th) have the highest rankings in the CESEE out of 155 countries, while the lowest rankings in the CESEE region belong to Latvia (54th), Romania (55th) and Croatia (73rd). 

Overall, it seems that while participation in global value chains has brought major benefits to CESEE countries in terms of growth and jobs, it has not been associated with improved technological and innovation capabilities. This is a key problem, because with continuing fast wage growth and a deteriorating demographic outlook, the region’s advantage as a low-wage supplier of western European manufacturing networks is gradually diminishing. Most CESEE countries rank disappointingly in the World Economic Forum’s Skills ranking, which considers various indicators related to the current and future workforce, suggesting that the workforce is not up to the challenge of moving away from low-wage activities.

Sustained convergence requires transition towards knowledge-intensive economic activities

Sustained convergence toward western European productivity and living standards will be possible by moving up the value chain towards more knowledge-intensive activities. This, first and foremost, requires better education and research, which in turn necessitates higher public spending. 

For example, public expenditure on tertiary education is below 1% of gross national income in most CESEE countries, but around 1.5% or more in most northern and western European countries. In a forthcoming study we find a statistically significant correlation between public spending on universities and a number of educational result indicators. Primary and secondary education are equally important. As James Heckman argues, in disadvantaged families the highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, because skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. There are many poor and disadvantaged families in CESEE. Secondary education, vocational training and lifelong learning are similarly crucial. 

Given the relatively low public debts of CESEE countries and their prospectively faster economic growth than in Western Europe (which will help their fiscal sustainability), it is surprising that these countries do not devote more resources to education and research. The COVID-19 economic shock and the associated collapse in trade should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers in CESEE countries. The existing economic model, which has fostered as much foreign direct investment as possible as well as greater participation in global value chains, has served its purpose, but it will soon run its course. Even a short-term boost cannot be expected from a hypothesised strategic reorganisation of suppliers from East Asia to CESEE. Instead, policies fostering upward movements on the values chain should be significantly stimulated.