A World of Hardening Borders

By Yaroslav Trofimov (WSJ)

April 17, 2020 11:02 am ET

The pandemic has empowered the nation-state, as global institutions falter and governments assert far-reaching control

In his memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig reminisced about the freedoms that he had enjoyed as a young man before World War I. “Before 1914, the earth had belonged to all,” Zweig wrote. “It always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I traveled from Europe to India and to America without a passport and without ever having seen one.”

But the war, which was followed by an influenza pandemic, brought that world to an end. One-time empires shattered into new states, and temporary border closures became permanent, as did supposedly transient wartime restrictions on individual liberties. The 1920s brought a protectionist and nationalist wave, economic distress and, eventually, the collapse of democratic societies, from Italy to Germany, and the disappearance of Zweig’s Austria. By 1942, when he was finishing his memoir, World War II was raging, and he was a stateless refugee in faraway Brazil. Zweig mailed the manuscript to his publisher and then committed suicide.

When that war ended three years later, however, the borderless, globalized world so eloquently mourned by Zweig began to bounce back, at least in the West. The architecture of the modern international community—from financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the U.N. to NATO and the precursors of the European Union—emerged from the conflict’s rubble. Ever more people began to enjoy the freedoms that Zweig had once known.

That world, our world, had seemed until recently an irreversible certainty. Europeans took for granted their long-established right to travel across the continent without a passport. Hundreds of millions around the world went on vacation, bought property, studied and worked across national borders. The Earth belonged, if not to all, then at least to the very many with the right citizenship and a bit of disposable income. The question now is how much of that world can come back, as it did after Zweig’s tragic death.

We are still in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, but nearly everywhere on the planet, the most immediate political impact of the crisis has been the resurgence of the nation-state, claiming the kind of control that few citizens of democracies have experienced in their lifetimes. It is, after all, an environment where every person poses a potential threat. And so surveillance technologies once reserved for deterring terrorism are increasingly applied to the public at large, with countries such as South Korea and Israel leading the way.

Old-fashioned borders have suddenly reappeared, too. From the U.S. to India to the United Arab Emirates and the EU, the default reaction to the virus has been to bar entry to outsiders. Global trade and supply chains have been disrupted as well. “In terms of the economy, what has happened so far is 1914, but in a way even more radical. Almost every national border is closed now,” said Albrecht Ritschl, a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics. “I would not have thought I would see this in my lifetime.”

Meanwhile, international institutions, the supposed repositories of moral authority in the world of yesterday, have either discredited themselves or have proved mostly irrelevant. The World Health Organization is under fire for praising the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, for declaring in mid-January that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus (by then rapidly spreading in Wuhan) and for its subsequent delay in declaring a pandemic. “So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” President Donald Trump said this week as he announced curbs on U.S. funding for the organization.

As infections hit Europe and the U.S. in March, some NATO allies responded by competing against each other in pursuit of medical gear, sometimes even confiscating transit shipments—a lack of solidarity that opened the way for Russia’s military to send a relief mission to beleaguered Italy. As for the EU, its leaders acknowledge that the bloc is experiencing its worst crisis since European integration began in the early 1950s. Member states haven’t even been able to coordinate how they begin to wind down lockdowns.

Unlike over a century ago, when media censorship and postal restrictions allowed governments to suppress undesirable news (including the outbreak of the influenza pandemic in 1918), information now flows relatively freely. Modern technologies can connect individuals and companies even when they are no longer able to interact in person.

But the ability to communicate across borders doesn’t always generate greater understanding. Conspiracy theories alleging that the Chinese or U.S. government hatched the virus have spread across social media like wildfire. Just as in the aftermath of World War I, popular opinion in many places is turning to aggrieved nationalism as countries compete for resources to battle the virus—and gear up for the coming clash over how to survive in a shrinking global economy. Protectionism and restrictions on trade in “strategic” goods are in fashion again. So are complaints about unfair competition from foreigners.

Many of these trends were well under way, of course, before the coronavirus struck. Populist and nationalist forces have been contesting the established order, with a degree of success, since the pain of the 2008 financial crisis highlighted the inequalities of the international system and pushed countries like Greece into penury. Mr. Trump won in 2016 on an “America First” program that focused on asserting national sovereignty, imposing trade barriers to protect domestic industries and curbing immigration. The U.K. voted that same year to leave the EU. China has been trying to displace America’s global influence for several years. From Poland to Turkey to India, democratic checks and balances have been eroding.

“The pandemic is simply going to accelerate these existing trends,” said Heather Conley, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former senior State Department official.

These days, as usually happens in times of trouble, citizens around the world are rallying behind their national governments. Pretty much every leader, from Boris Johnson and Donald Trump to Benjamin Netanyahu and Giuseppe Conte, has seen their approval rating rise in recent weeks. Some, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have deftly used the fear of the pandemic to grab near-dictatorial powers that may not be relinquished once the emergency passes.

Meanwhile, with the body count soaring in Europe and the U.S., China has leveraged its own record in seeming to beat back the virus—and its ability to dispense badly needed medical equipment—to promote its authoritarian party-state system as an alternative to the flailing Western democracies. Feeling vulnerable in a way that they haven’t in generations, many of these democracies are in ferment themselves, with the future political consequences of the pandemic just beginning to take shape.

“What we are going through at the moment is collective shock,” said Australia’s former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. “You have to be very vigilant. There would be nothing more tragic than if, in our efforts to preserve our health, we were to lose our freedom.”

An anguished world now stands at a crossroads as it grapples with how to tackle the pandemic and its economic fallout. Will it follow the same route of national grievances and protectionism that country after country embraced in the aftermath of World War I? Or will the pandemic end up spurring a renewed quest for cooperation and shared solutions, as happened after the Allied victory of 1945? Both impulses are playing out, and the eventual balance will determine what kind of global order emerges after the virus.

“Today, there is a trend to lock yourself down at home, which includes locking yourself down in your nation, a trend toward de-globalization. But there is also a necessity, more evident than ever, to try to govern together,” said Mario Monti, Italy’s prime minister in 2011-13, who now runs the Bocconi University in Milan. “The nature of this pandemic means that the real struggle against the virus can only be carried out through strong international coordination.”

That coordination doesn’t have to mean a return to the past or ignoring the flaws of the existing global system. “There needs to be a much more honest debate about how decrepit some of the international institutions are, especially the United Nations,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington. “But the honest debate must be not just about gutting and cutting, but about trying to promote reforms that render these institutions effective.”

The gravity of the challenge now facing humanity is likely to temper the initial flourishing of nationalist egoisms. “We are still living in a globalized world, and so once you get to that realization, the need for finding effective ways of cooperation will increase,” said Ivo Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “That need is deeply practical.”

Viruses don’t recognize borders, after all, so countries have strong incentives to work closely together in the quest for a vaccine and a cure and in monitoring the disease. The effort to minimize global economic disruption also requires cooperation, including through the World Trade Organization, to make sure that trade flows resume despite new restrictions. Restarting international travel will also demand new, universally agreed norms. “Once all the dust has settled, the pendulum will be shifting to more multilateralism,” predicted Finland’s former prime minister Alexander Stubb.

For now, however, nationalist feeling is running high in much of the world. In Italy, the first European country ravaged by the pandemic, fury with Germany and other European countries is sizzling after they blocked the export of masks and other lifesaving equipment in March. Since then, this narrative of European betrayal has been reinforced by German and Dutch reluctance to share the financial burden of recovery through common debt instruments.

According to one poll, some 70% of Italians think that Germany is trying to “strangle” their country. According to another, Italian support for leaving the EU has soared from 29% late last year to 49% today. A new social-media campaign is urging a boycott of German goods and foreign retailers like Amazon.

In Germany, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas this month apologized for the abuse directed at French citizens who were assaulted or spat upon while visiting the Saarland state, a border region at the heart of France’s territorial dispute with Germany in World War I. Racist attacks on Asians, for supposedly being responsible for the virus, have proliferated in Australia and the U.K. In southern China, restaurants and hotels have stopped admitting black patrons because they are perceived as carriers of the disease, prompting denunciations by several African governments.

“Old egoisms and the categories of ‘ours’ and ‘alien’ have returned, something that we had been overcoming in recent years, with a hope that they would never format our minds again,” lamented the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in a recent essay. “The fear of the virus resurfaced the automatically easiest, most atavistic belief: that those at fault are outsiders, and that danger is always brought by them.”

All of this is happening at a time when the public health emergency is only beginning to morph into an economic calamity that may rival the Great Depression in pain—and in consequences for the democratic order and international peace. “This is a crisis like no other,” said IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva. “Never in the history of the IMF have we witnessed the world economy coming to a standstill.” In its latest forecast, the IMF predicts that the American economy will shrink by 5.9% this year and the economies of the 19 EU nations sharing the euro by 7.5%.

Amid this economic meltdown, the absence of American political leadership has been conspicuous—a shock to a world accustomed to having Washington lead in global crises. In Italy and Europe, “the United States is not even part of the debate these days,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome and a former European Commission foreign policy adviser. “It’s off the map.”

Instead, attention has turned to China, which has rushed planeloads of supplies to distressed countries and promised recovery aid. Beijing’s newfound influence won’t necessarily last. Europeans and others won’t quickly forget about the origins of the virus that has upended their nations. Yet for now, China is racking up victories. This month, it secured one of five seats on the body that makes appointments to the U.N. Human Rights Council, gaining a powerful tool to shape the global human rights discourse.

“If we don’t get our act together, by the time we return to something close to normal, it will not be the status quo ante in terms of freedom in the world,” cautioned Larry Diamond, a scholar of democracy at Stanford University. “It will be a dramatically diminished world.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com