N1’s foreign affairs editor Ivana Dragicevic spoke exclusively to Paolo Magri, head of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), as part of an ongoing series of conversations, “World in Times of Corona,” which tries to provide some insight into what we are going through as a global community and where the pandemic crisis might lead us.
Even though everyone’s sole focus at the moment is the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the world has not stopped completely. Paolo Magri is the head of the Milan-based ISPI, a professor of International Relations on the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan, as well as a member of the Europe Policy Group at the World Economic Forum, and the secretary of the Italian group of the Trilateral Commission.
He hails from the city of Bergamo, the Italian epicentre of the devastating coronavirus epidemic. He maintains daily contact with his family, receiving sad news on the passing of people close to him.
Mr Magri, it’s been a tough few weeks for Italy. The situation in your hometown, Bergamo, is not good.
Things are very bad. The number of contagious cases is very high in Bergamo and Brescia, the two most-affected areas. Hospitals and public health are in a very difficult situation. People are sent to other hospitals in Italy when new cases appear. The big concern on top of everything is that, as you may know, Bergamo and Brescia are very important economic centres in Lombardy. The entire economy is shut down everywhere in Italy, and that will have long-lasting effects for one of the most vibrant parts of the country.
You personally are dealing with international relations as the head of the International Relations Institute in Milan. You’ve started publishing videos on YouTube, in a series also called World in Times of Corona. How can we talk about the geopolitics of the virus, politics and the future of Europe after this?
It’s really a challenge to bring everybody’s attention right now to something other than our health problems, our people dying, our ambulances in the streets being the only noise you hear. We decided, as an Institute of International Relations, when all this started months ago in Italy, that we have to keep the light on. We have to, of course, look at the coronavirus and what will change in the world, but also to keep the light on what is happening around us apart from the coronavirus. It is stopping all activities, but not wars. In Libya they are still fighting, in Syria they are still fighting, migrants are still moving.
We have a moral job, an ethical role in keeping the light on the world around us, the crises that will come back to us when, in two, three months’ time, we go back to business as usual.
So, we are working on two different levels. One, we are looking at and commenting on how the world changed, how we changed, because of the virus, and two, what else is going on now, and will come back to us when the crisis is over.
The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has asked for conflicts to stop because now we all have the real enemy. Coronavirus has reached the Gaza Strip. How do you see this close neighbourhood of Europe, wracked with conflict, in these times?
Only two or three months ago, we were discussing large protests all over the world, from Hong Kong, Chile, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, to many other countries. Clearly, this has been affected, in a sense there is some kind of a stabilisation of the political confrontation because people cannot, do not want to go out into the streets to march. Different governments are also taking advantage of this situation to slow down the civil society protest. This is one point.
But then there is another issue, of the wars like Syria, Libya. The infection is not very strong in these countries at this point, and the real issue is that different actors involved are trying to take advantage of our blindness to what happens around us. This is the perfect moment to take stock of what we are doing because nobody will intervene now. The point is, right now nobody is looking at Libya, Syria, Sahel, so if one wants to carry out any dirty jobs, that’s the moment.
One of the worst-affected countries, aside from Italy and China, is Iran. Before the pandemic, there were the issues of the nuclear deal, the Ukrainian airplane, the killing of General Soleimani. What will be the future of Iran after the pandemic?
Iran is a country which is economically completely lost, in an incredibly difficult situation. Many countries will experience the fall of oil prices. But, we should not forget that Iran cannot sell oil and there are very few countries which were still buying Iran oil. One of them is China, and China’s consumption of oil went down dramatically. We are talking about a country which, due to the effects of the sanctions, the collapse of oil market and the collapse of China, at least for a few months, has virtually no income. Also this is a country which is completely isolated.
Right now, we are all discussing the disruption of travel connections between countries, and Iran was already disrupted before. Most European airline companies were not flying to Iran before the coronavirus. So Iran is in a crisis within a crisis. The good news is that the confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the United States of America is frozen in a sense. All the rest is bad news. The country is collapsing and there is no way out, summing up the sanctions, the economic crisis, and the drop of oil prices.
The pandemic is escalating in the US, and this is the election year in the country. How do you see the future of politics in the US in light of the pandemic, but also the future of global relations?
The first issue, not only important to America, is the future of politics after the coronavirus. In many countries we have parliaments which are shut down, the opposition is silenced – nobody dares challenge the government in the moment of crisis. Of course, Salvini is reacting to what the government is doing in Italy, Le Pen is doing the same in France, but everything is frozen in a sense because we are in an emergency, we are at war. There is not much room for parliaments, which are shut down, not much room for the opposition, governments are deciding by decree.
This is happening at a time when the IT technology, artificial intelligence, which we were talking about as a challenge to democracy and stressing their negative implications for democracy until just three months ago, are now considered one of the best ways to address the pandemic. We are all looking at what China, South Korea, Vietnam, are doing with biometrics, with visual recognition, with apps for controlling movement, all to contain the contagion. This shift in paradigm will have an impact on the future of politics.
As far as the States are concerned, we are talking about an incredibly divided country, more than others, a country which is voting in November to elect the next president. This coronavirus is the real challenge to Donald Trump’s re-election. There was no real challenge so far, not with the impeachment procedure, not from the Democratic candidates whom Trump called the socialist and the old man.
What Trump was ready to put on the table to be re-elected, meaning the economic success, the record levels on Wall Street, low levels of unemployment, all of that will disappear, or is already disappearing. We all know that the Americans always say “it’s the economy, stupid” so we will witness in the next days and weeks the extraordinary measures adopted by Trump, who knows his place in the White House depends on his capability to address this crisis, the first real crisis he is facing in four years.
Will the relations between the US and China change, and how? Before the pandemic, we witnessed a “global fight” between Washington and Beijing.
We don’t know what these extraordinary measures in America will mean for the future of the American power and strength. These days everybody is talking about how we are at war, and at war, you use all the money you need in order to win. But, the American debt after WWII, after many years of incredible expenditure, stood at 40 percent of the GDP. Now, at the beginning of this war, it is 100 percent of their GDP. What will that mean in the future, how much debt will America have, who will repay it, what will America do to bear this incredible debt? They are not Italy. Italy is a small country with huge debt, it is not the hegemonic, or the co-hegemonic country in the world, which can make others pay for its debt. Italy cannot do that.
Now, going back to the issue of China and America. We should get out of the easy narrative which is spreading. The easy narrative is – China is winning. The Chinese regime was quick in reacting, in implementing the tough measures which such regimes can implement. And now, China is sending airplanes to Italy, to Ethiopia, Iran, to help countries in difficulties.
That’s the narrative. There is truth to it, of course. The Italians watched the plane from China carrying masks and medical equipment to Italy, and we did not receive planes from the United States or some other countries. We are receiving them from Russia and China, and 300 doctors are coming from Cuba. These images will stay in our collective memory. This is usual, Americans did this in the past too, it is part of the propaganda, even war propaganda, fine. We need equipment, we are grateful to countries which are sending it, and others will be grateful as well.
But the war is not finished yet for China. Yes, they are getting out of the worst of the health crisis, but the economic crisis, the financial crisis, continue in the world and that will have an impact on China’s growth and stability as well. So, it is too early to decide that the winner of this crisis from China, is China. We know that China is beating the pandemic, but this will be a long story, and Xi Jinping’s party knows very well that the real consequences of this are not here yet. It’s too early to celebrate and to toast.
What kind of a future do you see for multilateral organisations? We saw with Trump, everything came into question, funding was pulled from many organisations, including the WHO. Will we see the importance of multilateralism or are we looking at some national do-it-yourself future?
We are all now, my country as well, in some do-it-yourself attitude. But, you mentioned the World Health Organisation. Many people do not recall that the idea for the WHO, which was created after the Second World War, came about one century before it was established. It was the first example of international cooperation during the cholera outbreak. In that very moment, states decided to find a way to act collectively. Today we are used to sitting down together, but then it was not the case.
Why am I saying this now? Because, in a short period of time, we are seeing the “my country first” policies rise to the maximum levels. At the same time, it will become clear in everybody’s mind that such an approach is not a solution for this global challenge which is very visible in spite of being invisible. If everybody deals with the coronavirus in ways and at a different time, there will always be one country in the world which is behind us and we will be able to get infected again. So, I’m not that negative on multilateralism.
Take the 2008 financial crisis, only 12 years ago. In Europe, when the financial crisis erupted, Europe was not ready to intervene. It took a long time for the Central Bank and the European Commission to react. It was a game of “my country first” where each government was bailing out their failing banks on their own. Then we realised that each country, to save the banks, has created too much national debt – Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland… When this became clear, we all realised that we needed Europe, the Central Bank and the stability mechanisms in order to address the issue.
Let’s hope that this time it will not be the same, that we won’t all go our own way, only to realise that we are unable to deal with this and that we need Europe. I feel that this time there is more awareness in Europe to act quickly. Let’s see what the European Council will decide today and tomorrow, but let’s hope that we don’t follow the same pattern.
This year, the EU needs to finalise the multiannual financial framework, find a way to take first steps on the ambitious road to the carbon neutral EU by 2050. How will this situation reflect on other challenges Europe is facing?
Many ambitious plans in Europe, like the infrastructure, tech industry, geopolitical Europe will be put on the sidelines for a while I fear, but that doesn’t mean that Europe will not try to play a role. The role Europe must play now is to be on the frontlines of facing this incredible challenge. I feel is that it is difficult, we are divided, as usual but there is a clear sense that something must be done. In Germany and the Netherlands, there are some kind of negative positions, reactions, and concerns. But Germany is facing a tough situation as well, and the internal debate in the country has changed dramatically in the last few months. I’m not positive on the big agenda that the new Commission had in mind, but at the same time I believe that no EU leader will spend time discussing 0.1 percent of the EU budget in the moment when the budget will have to be increased by 20 percent, if not more.
Talking about the economic perspective, already last year we were talking about the possible slowdown of global economy, about recession, where will this go?
A few months ago, the big question was whether we will have a recession in 2020. Now we know we will have a recession, and the only uncertainty is how long and how deep it will be. How can you avoid a world recession if the industrialised world is shut down, and the world with no industry is facing a collapse in commodity prices such as oil.
What about the future of everyday life? How will we change after this crisis, all of us?
That’s another huge topic. When will we be able to go back to normal social life? When will we be able to convene a meeting, a conference? Go to the theatre, to the cinema?
When will we be able to go on vacation? Will we ever go back to work as before once we have realised, also positively, that what we do is considered to be non-essential. Even if we are not essential, we can work from home, all our meetings are not that necessary and we can have shorter meetings on the computer. We can avoid travelling to meet someone. We knew that already, of course. But now, for one month, two, three months, that will be the new normal.
Why would you, in a few months’ time, risk your health to travel when you realise that this is not essential, you can do it on the computer. This will have long-lasting implications on the way we live, but it will also have long-lasting implications on our economies. Entire sectors will be redesigned by this crisis. The tourism sector, the travel sector, airlines…
Now, the priority is to get out of the crisis. Then, we will have a long time to discuss that.
Before our conversation, I was on a call with directors of international institutes in Great Britain, Germany, and France, and also directors from Africa – Morocco, South Africa, and Ethiopia – to discuss a joint exercise which we launched a few months ago. We discussed all that you and I are discussing today. And then my colleague from Addis Ababa told us – let me give you a sense of what the situation is, or can be, in Africa. One of the most important suggestions by governments to people to prevent the contagion is: wash your hands. How can you wash your hands in a country where is there no water for everybody? Can you imagine?
Last year you held a Ted Talk in the Bocconi University, you talked about empathy in international relations. Can we rely on empathy in times like this?
I was stressing the importance of empathy as a tool to facilitate multilateralism and international cooperation. It would be naïve to say that is the solution, but it’s a condition. If you don’t care about the other, if you don’t put yourself in other people’s shoes, there is no way to move forward in international cooperation and jointly address global challenges. I don’t want to conclude with a sad note about hand-washing when there is no water, but I cannot hide, I cannot close my eyes to one cruel reality. And that is, in the moment in which we fear that everybody around us, from the people lining in front of the supermarket onwards, can bring contagion to us, how can we get close to them? How can I put myself in their shoes? How can I exercise empathy? And that’s one thing we have to reflect on, and it has to do with people in the streets as well as people in other countries. For some time, will look at each other as possible carriers of disease. And that is not the way to increase empathy, I fear.