2020 should have been a wake-up call.
Instead, we see a world in which there is more competition, and less solidarity and social justice. We “raced” for the vaccine and engaged in “mask” and “vaccine diplomacy”. Social anxiety and public health concerns caused by the pandemic have thinned the fabric of our societies. Countries now find themselves in limbo, unsure of how the long “return to normal” will unfold. Meanwhile, countless businesses, jobs, and livelihoods are on the line. All the discussions on how this one sea-change event will help us “change the paradigm” (of how we approach complex problems, do business, engage with others), is still just – talk. People, states, and nations are unwilling, or simply unable to change; and would like to see things returning to how they were before.
Politicians called for more expertise only to get mad at experts for telling them the “ugly truth”. In opposing or misusing restrictive measures, populists and nationalists have found another space for polarization. Yet in the penultimate of all elections held in 2020, one prominent populist lost his ground. A giant sigh of relief was heard across capitals, of Europe in particular. Cautious optimism returns while Biden’s Administration takes steps to restore trust across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, a host of problems awaits.
The jury is out whether the pandemic allowed for more authoritarian regimes. It is however true that time and again “the West” looked confused, where “the East” embraced the chance to increase its influence. The experience gained with previous pandemics proved valuable. In the global race reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia and China showed ability and challenged other world powers by exporting vaccines even before vaccinating their own populations. There is an uneasiness in the expert community over what the countries in question, including those in Western Balkans, have promised in return.
With tools at their disposal, nation-states played a key role in responding to crisis, while multilateral formats came under increased scrutiny and criticism. In the words of a renowned journalist from Serbia, “countries behaved like the virus was exclusively theirs”, creating stocks of protective equipment and controlling exports. One dream Europe thrived on – freedom of movement across borders – seemed shattered. There is, however, still hope that with accelerated immunization programs border closures will once again be a thing of the past.
2020 was meant to be the year of consolidation for the European project, with a more ambitious green agenda, strengthened European Parliament, and Brexit complete. The EU has had shortcomings in crisis management and the effectiveness of decision-making mechanisms. On the other hand, its trade deal with China speaks of an approach that is different from the US, heralding perhaps a more autonomous foreign policy.
COVID-19 has the potential to reshape the world. Interconnectedness and interdependence are still there, but they are different. Some demands have not changed though. Use of resources that is sustainable; a development that is humane; institutions and democracies that are resilient.
From 26 to 28 October, we will meet in Belgrade once again asking the question: will humanity pass this test? The BSF will traditionally begin with the academic event titled “Resilience to Violent Extremism”.