This is a guest post from Tana Johnson, an Associate Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her publications include the book Organizational Progeny: Why Governments Are Losing Control over the Proliferating Structures of Global Governance.
COVID-19, which disregards national borders and threatens all countries, is a “problem without a passport.” The usual prescription is to 1) work through international organizations (IOs), 2) collaborate on collective long-term solutions, and 3) defer to experts. Yet in 2020, countries defied each prescription, producing three patterns.
Patterns: IOs, Interests, and Experts
Pattern #1 is the tendency to blame international organizations, particularly the World Health Organization (WHO). With its drastic decision to cut off funding and intended withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the U.S. government has been an aggressive critic. But more than 100 countries also endorsed the European Union’s call for an independent investigation into the WHO’s handling of the disease.
Pattern #2 is the temptation to put short-term or narrow interests above longer-term or broader ones. During the crisis’ initial months, dozens of countries implemented export restrictions, travel bans, and unilateral vaccine development – all despite the World Health Organization’s objections.
Pattern #3 is a divided reaction to experts. Schisms have arisen at the subnational, national, and international levels. Some people have readily deferred to public health officials – but other people have challenged them, questioning the efficacy or legality of their recommendations.
Why, in the midst of a pandemic, would governments question or punish the very IO that’s supposed to guide the world’s response? Since this disease is a shared threat and can’t be defeated instantaneously, why aren’t countries concentrating on what would be useful for the larger international community, well into the future? And why, in a crisis of public health, is anyone refusing to follow public health experts? Work in International Relations (IR) dispels the mystery – and shows that although the pandemic may be extraordinary, its political patterns are quite ordinary.Continue reading