Nationalism and Transnationalism in Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Christoph Horn, Philosophy, University of Bonn, Germany

The current Coronavirus pandemic strengthens a type of narrow-minded nationalism that the international community seemed to have already left behind. During the last decades since the end of the Cold War, some considerable progress has been made to establish transnational institutions which are capable of tackling the great challenges of our time. Now, however, national instincts return precisely at a moment when the spirit of transnational cooperation is needed more than in less demanding times. At the first peak of the crisis in March 2020, even some of the well-established international rules and agreements were on the verge of collapsing. What would be appropriate, instead, is a considerable increase of global cooperation. Furthermore, in my view, the step to be taken in this situation is to establish transnational institutions which cannot simply be ruled out when resentments of nationalism occasionally re-emerge. I think of firm and stable institutions of global crisis management.

The position I want to argue against is normally not explicitly defended. It is rather an implicit one but one that is largely shared: I call it the dogma of nationalism in politics. It is hardly disputed by anyone that the nation-state and the national community is the ultimate foundation to organize politics. But this dogma leads us into a highly ineffective and unwelcome global situation when it comes to transnational problems like the current pandemic. 

One phenomenon that makes this palpable is the shutdown of national borders at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis. Even in EU Europe, including the Schengen Area, national border controls have been widely re-established. The new inner-European border controls were extremely strict and almost insurmountable, at least for the majority of citizens, including unmarried couples living on both sides of a border. The spirit of free travel and free trade broke down within only a few days. And quite surprisingly, almost nobody protested against it. Strictly speaking, however, the line of action taken by national administrations without Brussels being involved violates EU law and neglects the sense of the contracts: the border closure was not multilaterally agreed upon but a simple unilateral decision of each single nation-state. The respective neighbouring countries were not asked for their consent, sometimes they were not even informed before the measure was taken. What is worse: concerning the fight against Covid-19, the shutdown of inner EU borders had no positive effect at all – it did not even improve the chances to control the spread of the disease. In order to limit the dissemination of the virus, one has to trace single cases under a local and regional supervision. A lockdown that reduces social contacts does not necessarily include the control of borders. It isn’t helpful to close the border between Germany and Poland to successfully reduce the number of Covid-19 cases in Görlitz and Zgorzelec. Rather, this was a symbolic measure, symbolic for a robust defence of the national interests, undertaken by the national governments to calm the fear and resentment of the broader public. It is an expression of the dogma of nationalism.

But simultaneously, it is a fatal symbolic gesture, especially for the EU, which is the only serious promising transnational project worldwide. This fatal behaviour communicates the message that, in times of crisis, what ultimately counts is the nation-state. It is the national community, so the story goes, that is the best agency (or should we say: a secure fortress) to deal with a global pandemic and to organize resistance against it. But at a closer look, this turns out to be an absurdity: as a matter of fact, each of the 193 nation-states alone, even the strongest and richest among them, is unable to adequately respond to this sort of challenge, which is a global one. Moreover, it is unnecessary to find national solutions to the problem since the pandemic concerns all countries equally: it emerges in warm and dry countries as well as in cold and rainy ones and it hits people in each country likewise. The pandemic shows no nation-relative specificity. It threatens and kills Americans as well as Asians, females as well as males, Muslims as well as atheists. What does make a difference is whether a patient is old or young, asthmatic or in a healthy condition, has access to medical care or not. But this has nothing to do with nation-states. And so the WHO guidelines formulated at the beginning of the crisis, in principle, proved themselves correct; those states that followed them are now in a much better position than those that ignored or marginalized them or believed in the bold idea of a ‘herd immunity’.

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