Humankind is facing yet another crisis. The Coronavirus pandemic has stopped the world as we knew it. We are living through growing uncertainty about tomorrow, fear and anxiety about death. What is to be done about a challenge that appears larger than life? Square our shoulders and coordinate joint action. Throughout the ages, society has proven capable of dealing with challenges and this time is no different, despite the fact that international institutions have been starved and weakened in recent years.
The globalization processes of the past four decades, encouraging the movement of people, goods, capital, knowledge and services, have been intensive and unprecedented in scope. Under the auspices of the Western powers, the world has become one giant capitalist market – its borders opened, customs tariffs lowered, and free trade and competition turned into defining values. The interminable consumption culture greased the wheels of an economy based on competitiveness, the concept of endless resources and free movement.
And suddenly, Corona. The wheels have ground to a halt. Resources are insufficient, competition is of no use. Inequality strikes us all. Fear has vanquished freedom. There are those who suggest the time has come for a return to isolation, for locking the doors, for restoring borders, raising tariffs, banning foreigners, preserving existing resources for the use of the state and letting each country fend for itself.
However, despite the necessity of social distancing, what is currently required is cooperation in maintaining that distance. Competition does not help in this case. The climate change crisis, drug trafficking and transnational crime cannot be tackled alone, nor can the Coronavirus pandemic. Globalization cannot be halted. Epidemics were never stemmed by isolation. History teaches us that in ancient times pandemics wiped out significant swathes of humanity, even without intensive globalization and when the main weapon against them was isolation.
Such was the case in the 2nd century, when a plague spread through the Roman Empire and dismantled the world’s strongest army. Such was the case in the 6th century, when the Plague of Justinian spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin, killing 25 million people, annihilating half the population of Europe and signaling the end of the ancient era. Such was the case in the 14th century, when the Black Plague was consuming Asia, killing hundreds of millions and about one-third of the population of Europe. And this was also the case in the 16th century, when a series of epidemics imported by European settlers decimated the indigenous population of the Americas.
Plagues have been around since the dawn of history, but society’s ability to confront them has progressively improved. History taught successive generations that the most efficient treatment was based on cooperation and science. The eradication of smallpox virus is a telling example. After killing millions of people for over 3,000 years and bringing down kingdoms and empires, the virus was eliminated in the 20th century. Scientists had tried to find a vaccine for some 150 years. When it was finally developed, joint action by the world’s health organizations in testing, isolation, and vaccination, won the day. Science and cooperation were also successful in turning HIV that killed off 25 million people with AIDS into a manageable, less lethal chronic disease.
But not only epidemics have taught us the need for cooperation and joint mechanisms to tackle and prevent crises. For example, to deal with the religious wars that divided Europe in the 17th century, European rulers convened to sign the Peace of Westphalia. They agreed on the principles of a new political order that would end decades-long wars and prevent new ones. In 1909, the US led an international effort against drug trafficking and use amid the growing awareness of their repercussions, which culminated in the signing of the International Opium Convention. The agreement was designed to organize the cooperation between states in monitoring and controlling drug production and trafficking throughout the world.
The most telling and comprehensive example is the founding of the League of Nations and subsequently the UN. Following World War I, US President Wilson led to the founding of the League of Nations to settle conflicts through diplomacy. World War II, which broke out almost 20 years later, reflected the League’s weakness. It did not have the power and means to impose policy, and many states (chief among them the US itself) refused to join, and thus failed to prevent the looming crisis. With the end of the war, world states joined together once more, this time to establish the UN and achieve the same goals. Additional international institutions, international conventions, courts, aid organizations and more have sprouted up since then.
The world wars taught humanity a lesson, and significant measures were indeed adopted to ensure international cooperation in dealing with varied and numerous challenges. It seems, however, that many of these lessons have been forgotten.
International institutions have been scorned in recent years, undermining their capacities. “America First” was President Trump’s mantra, and he acted on it. Not only is he not leading any international efforts, he has slashed millions of dollars from US contributions to international organizations. In July 2018, UN Secretary General Guterres begged member states to pay their debts to the UN because it had run out of funds. In October 2019, only two months before the Coronavirus eruption, the Secretary General revealed that almost one-third of the UN member states had not paid their annual dues, and that the organization’s activity over the year had only been made possible by cuts in its emergency funding.
The State of Israel did not pay its membership dues, either. In January 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to cut 6 million USD from Israel’s commitment to the UN (which stood at 11 million USD) to protest UN Security Council decision 2334 which determined that settlements were illegal. In March 2017, Netanyahu ordered an additional 2 million USD cut because he did not like resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council, and in July of that same year, he cut another 1 million USD following a decision by UNESCO. Yes, in 2019 Israel is also among the states in arrears to the UN.
Faced with the Corona threat, we are seeking strong, effective global mechanisms to manage the crisis – to ensure the dissemination of trustworthy information; generate joint, synchronous research; set international rules to regulate the crisis and have sufficient power to enforce them. However, the international institutions are in a bad way. At this point in time, would the citizens of Israel and of the world not want strong, functioning international organizations, with their emergency funding intact? Of course, they would! Would we be happy to have fully empowered international institutions to enforce joint policy? Obviously! This is well worth remembering once we are back to business as usual.
Israel must not wait until the Corona crisis ends. It should adopt a foreign policy that emphasizes cooperation. It must act with its face to the world, divert resources to strengthen its Foreign Service, which, in turn, will bolster ties between Israel and the rest of the world. It should invest additional resources in foreign aid; take up positions in international organizations from which to influence actions; place knowledge and technology at the disposal of international organizations and other states; grant legitimacy and recognize the authority of international organizations and proffer aid to the needy to the extent possible.
This crisis must engender stronger, more powerful international organizations, with greater enforcement capacity, institutions that can operate effectively in order to prevent the next crisis and/or prepare for it. Rehabilitation of the world from the Coronavirus meltdown should be at the top of the agenda, along with coordinated actions to deal with the repercussions of global warming, which unfortunately presage yet another epidemic. Let us hope we succeed.