Column by Su-Mi Lee: Global governance on COVID-19, united but divided

Students who have studied theories of international relations would propose that it is power politics that weaken global governance. My response is a resounding yes! The greatest challenge global governance is facing is none other than power politics.

This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty and staff at UH Hilo.

By Su-Mi Lee
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Su-Mi Lee
Su-Mi Lee

In the very first class session of my spring International Organizations (POLS 346) course, I show students a video presentation on a book titled Divided Nations (see video below). The author of the book, Ian Goldin, talks about how global governance is in jeopardy and what contributes to weakening global governance. During the presentation, while emphasizing on the need of functioning global governance in several issue areas, Goldin claims that the speed of the pandemic spread could be catastrophic because we are hyper connected; a pathogen in one part of the world can travel to every part of the world within two days. Really? That claim is shocking to some students. After watching the video presentation, I have students talk among themselves and have class discussion.

Global governance

The purpose of the classroom practice is simple. Before learning about global governance in different issue areas (international security, human rights, economy, trade, environmental, development, etc.), I would want students to take some time to think about 1) why we need global governance and 2) what challenges we face to maintain and improve global governance. Here are simplified answers.

  • For the first question, like it or not, we are hyper-connected. Our problem is not ours only; by the same token, their problem is not theirs only either. We share common interests and problems. Then, there must be some sort of governance (not government) above the country level that manages and oversees our common affairs in various issue areas. Yes, we need global governance.
  • The second question is tricky or too easy to answer. Some students may say that global problems are complex and difficult to solve. It is true that global issues are multifaceted and difficult to resolve. Is a refugee issue only a human rights issue? No. It concerns international security, health, social, crime, etc. as well as human rights. Yet, thanks to hyper-connectedness, we are able to get all the smartest people in the world together to devise a better solution. Other students may point out that global issues’ stakeholders are widely diverse. Sure. Finding a solution to please all the stakeholders is impossible; acceptable solutions to most stakeholders are a rare find. Yet, once the stakeholders realize a less satisfactory solution is better than no solution at all, they will gladly jump aboard.

Another answer to the second question would be ineffective institutions. They are not up for the challenges. You see we are still nowhere close to eradicating problems like inequality, poverty, conflict, hunger, global warming, pandemic, etc. However, as the second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously said in 1954, “the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” Ineffective as they may look, international institutions have accomplished lots; we would not be where we are without them. Thus, they deserve more praises and encouragements than they currently receive.

Power politics

Those students who have studied theories of international relations would propose that it is power politics that weaken global governance. My response is a resounding yes! The greatest challenge global governance is facing is none other than power politics. Without having a six-book length talk that illustrates how power politics works at the international level, I will point out two consequences/features of power politics that are relevant to dealing with COVID-19.

  • One. In general, you will see more eagerness or enthusiasm about cooperation among countries in the issue areas of economics or trade. However, when it comes down to security issues or life-or-death situations, you will notice that countries are reluctant and even resistant to cooperate with one another; they tend to retreat to nationalism and prefer taking matters into their hand (that is, if they are capable of doing so). This exacerbates power politics.
  • Two. If you have a benevolent leader (hegemon) in the world, in spite of power politics (and countries being less enthusiastic about cooperation over the security/survival issues), you will see the united front against the global problems that countries are facing together. It is when there is no clear leader that power politics gets in the way of tackling or responding to the global issues.

Power politics describes what we see in the global response to COVID-19. Unfortunately, we are living in a time of “power vacuum” —the word that Goldin uses to describe the situation where status quo powers are losing power while emerging powers are not ready to take the leadership. Something like this power transition does not happen frequently—once a half century or a century. When we are going through the power vacuum or transition period, we do not have a clear leader and thus power politics poses a serious impediment to tackling global issues.

Concerning the first feature of power politics above, you see countries retreating to nationalism rather than cooperating with one another in an effort to tackle COVID-19. The latest example is Trump ordered 3M to stop exporting face masks to Canada and Latin America last week. Nonetheless, the world leaders hoped to assure the world that everything is (will be) under control by showing the united front. G-7, an international coalition that includes the United States (holding the presidency that is on a rotation basis), the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada, called for a series of meetings on coronavirus. Following the March 16 meeting of the leaders of the countries who pledged to work together to tackle COVID-19, there were subsequent meetings at the ministerial level. The March 24 meeting among finance ministers resulted in a joint statement that all the members would collaborate with one another to respond to COVID-19.

However, the March 25 meeting among foreign ministers did not end well. After the meeting, the Secretary of State of the United States (as the president of the meeting on a rotation basis) drafted a joint statement that was rejected by the other six countries and received harsh critique as the statement labeled COVID-19 as the Wuhan virus. Whatever intention Secretary of State Pompeo had behind referring COVID-19 as the Wuhan virus in the joint statement, the other foreign ministers were adamant that they should devote all their attention to the pandemic without any distraction (power politics between the United States and China). Defeated by power politics, the foreign ministers were forced to issue their own communique individually, failing to show the united front against COVID-19.

On March 26, Saudi Arabia (holding the presidency that is on a rotation basis) hosted a videoconference meeting of G20 (another international coalition that represents 80% of global GDP). Although some critics pointed out that G20 leaders disregarded the International Monetary Fund’s request concerning poor countries’ debts in the aftermath of COVID-19, the G20 members issued a joint statement where they reaffirmed that they could tackle COVID-19 only through multilateral cooperation, strengthening the World Health Organization and collaborating on developing vaccines and medical equipment. Yet, the ongoing bickering between the United States and China was still in display when Chinese President Xi Jinping used his speech time to point out that the United States’ trade protectionism was an obstacle that slowed down global economic growth.

Beyond the coalition of 20 elite countries, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of the United Nations that represents 194 member-states issued the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan and allocated two billion dollars for the initiative. Its main goal was to protect people living in the areas where no clean water or soap is easily available and hospitals are not adequately equipped with necessary resources. Such vulnerable populations include one billion people who lives in fragile states and 70 million internally displaced people.

The most powerful organ of the United Nations has yet to issue a resolution: the Security Council that is the only UN organ whose resolutions are binding. The Security Council usually handles matters concerning international security and peace. Although at first glance COVID-19 and its consequences are an issue of global public health and economics at best, the situation concerning COVID-19 may well escalate to the point where the health crisis poses a threat to international security and peace. China, the current president of the Security Council since March 1 on a rotation basis, disagreed. It sees COVID-19 as a public health crisis only in which the Security Council has no business. Symbolic as it may sound, any Security Council resolution would send a powerful message to all the member states that we all are in this pandemic together and we will get through this together as long as we all do our part, hinting that any countries not cooperating on this effort would be met with an unfavorable consequence. Only the Security Council is able to put significant pressure on the UN member-states to cooperate with one another. Yet power politics between the United States and China, two of the permanent members with a veto power, has been preventing the Security Council from issuing any resolution or declaration.

Hyper-connection with a lack of political will

This pandemic demonstrates how hyper-connected we are and how complex global problems are. It also reminds us of the ugly truth about the world, inequality, that some will be well taken care of but others will not. Moreover, it exhibits how vulnerable we are to a recurring problem like this pandemic. Some tend to blame the international institutions such as WHO for not doing enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Such criticisms are unfair as, no matter how respected authority figure WHO is, it is not bestowed upon with any authority to compel countries to follow its recommendations or guidelines; countries are free to accept or reject WHO’s recommendations or guidelines. For example, WHO recommends that countries report any health crisis occurring in their country to WHO in a timely fashion. However, worried about negative effects on their economy, countries are reluctant to report outbreaks until it is too late to be contained within the borders of the countries. During the pandemic, WHO issues guidelines that all the member-states should follow to prevent the spread of pandemic but such recommendations and guidelines are far from being enforceable.

Thus, we cannot blame the institutions because it was the countries that designed the institutions to be weak, thus, deciding how effective institutions potentially could be, and bestowed the ultimate final say on themselves. Rather, it is lack of political will (retreating to nationalism) and leadership (power vacuum) that hamper our efforts to confront COVID-19. The first step toward tackling COVID-19 is to get the world leaders united and leading together.


Su-Mi Lee teaches international relations through courses on world politics, U.S. foreign policy, international law, international conflict management, international organizations, and international human rights. Her research interests are in international conflict management.

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