Are the roles of sovereignty and ideology changing in response to COVID-19?

14 APRIL 2020

Are the roles of sovereignty and ideology changing in response to COVID-19?

Charles Sturt University’s newly-appointed Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging, Professor Stan Grant Junior (pictured), explores the political reaction – in Australia and abroad – to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, sovereignty is in, ideology is out. Well, he is half right. Sovereignty is certainly making a comeback. Ideology? Not so fast.

Let’s deal first with sovereignty. The coronavirus crisis has only hastened what was already underway. What is known as the global liberal order has endured a blowback in recent years, with a renewed emphasis on sovereignty leading to a more assertive nationalism.

Thirty years since American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, declared ‘the end of history’: the triumph of liberal democracy over communism ushering in an ascendant global capitalism, history has most definitely returned.

Brexit was a rejection of centralised European power and a desire for Britain to forge its own destiny. Donald Trump’s make America great again, put American interests first. True to his word he has challenged the shibboleths of free trade, and multilateralism. President Trump has pushed back against NATO partners demanding they pay their way. He brought on a trade war with China to correct what he saw as Beijing’s manipulation and exploitation. Simply: China was taking American jobs. He pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.

China itself is strongly nationalistic. Xi Jinping has fostered a ‘China against the world’ narrative, reminding his people never to forget the hundred years of humiliation by foreign powers. Xi has asserted China’s sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea defying a ruling from an international tribunal in The Hague.

Elsewhere nationalist leaders are popular: Vladimir Putin in Russia; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Brazil’s President Jair Bolsomaro or Duterte in the Philippines.

A blowback against immigration has fuelled a resurgent political right wing across Europe. Conservative or right wing politics has certainly benefited from the nationalism wave.

National sovereignty triggers concern about a return of a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. At its worst critics say virulent nationalism leads to war. Nazi Germany always held up as the prime example.

Yet, nationalism has its defenders too. Israeli political scientist, Yoram Hazony, says nationalism speaks to a deep human need to belong. In his book ‘The Virtue of Nationalism’, he writes: ‘each of us in fact wants and needs something else….collective self-determination: the freedom of the family tribe or nation’.

The post-Cold War cosmopolitan dream of a world without borders looks brittle right now. The coronavirus crisis has revealed the strength or weakness of nations. Besieged Italians did not look to the European Union but their own government for answers. Americans need American solutions. In Australia we have looked to our government not just to keep us safe but keep us afloat.

National sovereignty is back. But ideology is not vanquished. Despite what Prime Minister Morrison says, Australia’s response to the coronavirus is ideological. The government has junked traditional Liberal Party free market ideas for state control.

Paying the wages of laid off workers, free child care, rental support, all of this along with unprecedented intervention into the lives of Australians and erosion of freedom: police enforced lockdown; social distancing. The government has run up debt and willingly gone into economic recession because that is what it deems necessary to fight the virus.

Libertarians and free marketeers are in fits. But they are on the losing end right now. Neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the past four decades, has been in retreat, weakened by the global financial crisis: coronavirus could bury it.

The return of national sovereignty does not mean that the limits of that sovereignty are set.

The world order is being remade. It was before coronavirus, it is accelerated now.

Upheaval can breed upheaval. Changes to the global order take us into the unknown. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the 2008 global financial crash; the rise of China to now, the coronavirus crisis: old certainties have been shaken.

We are still a connected world. Globalism is not so easily unwound. Indeed, a global response is necessary in part to defeat the virus. But what will the post-coronavirus world look like? Do we take an authoritarian turn? Does government continue to play a bigger part in our lives? Does the state trump free markets?

Nations matter. Sovereignty matters. Especially now - the Prime Minister is right about that. But don’t think for a moment ideology doesn’t matter too.

This article was originally published at

Media Note:

For more information contact Charles Sturt Media's Dave Neil on 0407 332 718 or at

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