Coronavirus: British historian says 'new world order' can help lead recovery from Covid-19

Peter Frankopan discusses what history teaches about politics after pandemics, in conversation with Emirati diplomat Omar Ghobash

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Peter Frankopan at The Who writes the history session at the Literature Festival, Dubai Festival City.  Leslie Pableo for the National
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The coronavirus outbreak has emerged at a fragile moment for the world, Oxford historian Peter Frankopan said during an online talk with a senior Emirati diplomat.

Mr Frankopan, a professor of global history at Oxford University and author of The New Silk Roads, said the pandemic had highlighted tensions between two of the world's superpowers, China and the United States.

The discussion between Mr Frankopan and UAE diplomat Omar Ghobash was the first webinar in The Future of Diplomacy series by the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy.

The talks explore the future of a world transformed by coronavirus and will be hosted by Mr Ghobash, the Assistant Minister of Public and Cultural Diplomacy.

More than 800 viewers from 28 countries logged into the late-night address, which began with a simple question: is a return to business as usual possible, or even desirable?

“We are in a hyper-fragile phase globally and this disease, from the perspective of a historian, couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Mr Frankopan.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Anna Zacharias: Omar Ghobash as he steps into his new role at the office of cultural diplomacy. Monday, February 3rd, 2020. Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Omar Ghobash is hosting a series of web talks assessing the world's response to the challenges posed by Covid-19. Chris Whiteoak/The National

“This has come out when we are at a point when the two biggest economies of the world, the US and China, are extremely adversarial and confrontation can spill into something very dangerous.”

But there is opportunity for smaller states, new talent and ideas.

“You keep hearing this is a very difficult era or these are unprecedented times,” said Mr Frankopan. “That’s not even true in the context of the last 100 years, let alone over the course of one or two thousand years.”

“One of the big takeaways is there is no going back to normal, there is no world that once was. If you could turn the clock back, you wouldn’t want to and you can’t.”

As economic pressures grow, people will demand change from the elite.

Two narratives typically emerge after pandemics, said Mr Frankopan, one of co-operation, the other of isolation. Covid-19 came at a divisive moment in history, in a year that began with Brexit and bush fires. The historian warned that the trauma of a pandemic can be fertile ground for populist rhetoric celebrating a mythical past.

“When you turn the clock back in the past, you specifically favour men, always, and you specifically favour rich men.”

Absent at present is talk of co-operation between major powers and this presents an opportunity for ‘smaller, more nimble states’, said Mr Frankopan.

“We've got a new world order now. A lot of the movement in working towards these collaborations and co-operations are by, what would be called 20 or 30 years ago, new players to the game. That speaks of a different order.”

This applies to the Emirates, said Mr Ghobash. Early in the pandemic, public and private sector extended the UAE’s trade and diplomatic connections to provide aid to both allies and less friendly nations, like Iran.

“We saw it as a diplomatic opportunity to pursue relationships with people who weren’t particularly friendly to us because disease actually unites us all, it doesn’t respect any boundaries.”

Smaller states can take initiatives, he noted.

“I don’t think small states need to necessarily wait for global powers to say, ‘Ok, we’re going to back this initiative’. If we want to solve a particular problem, we’re not going to wait for everybody else to join in.”

Countries that experienced rapid economic growth responded well to the pandemic because of their embrace of new technologies, observed Mr Frankopan.

One of the big takeaways is there is no going back to normal, there is no world that once was

“It’s very conspicuous that in countries like South Korea, Singapore, problems have been solved not just by doctors wearing medical equipment but by AI and apps that allow contact tracing,” he said.

Western states should have sought advice early on, said Mr Frankopan.

In this regard, the UAE’s diplomatic relationship proved beneficial to its response to the pandemic, said Mr Ghobash. “I think those relationships allowed us to call up Beijing and say, what’s going on? What do we need to do to make sure this doesn’t spread?”

The pandemic could provide openings for new talent and attitudes at both local and global levels.

“It’s a real opportunity to be able to find oxygen, to have discussions that perhaps couldn’t happen a year or two ago,” said Mr Frankopan. “That’s the case in China as well, and we sort of forget that. We sort of assume these are monolithic structures that are resistant to change.”

Ultimately, history teaches us the human capacity for resilience.

“We’re highly creative, we’re good in a crisis, when we get things wrong, we re-group.”

The next talk features Iranian-American foreign policy scholar Vali Nasr and will be on Monday, May 18. Register here.