Apart from exposing an acute lack of resources and proper mobilization, the coronavirus pandemic is also unraveling old conflicts inherent in certain forms of political organization or in cases when there appears to be none. The United States, the European Union, and countries like Syria or Afghanistan are cases in point.
What these political units have in common is the absence of unitary states; their sovereignty is challenged or incomplete. These diverse formulae of rule can be composed analytically under the umbrella of “state competitors” – a syntagm made famous by Hendrik Spruyt.
Another way to look at these political units is through the concept of the compound republic, used by Peter Halden to characterize forms of organization like the Holy Roman Empire, the United States, and the EU. The compound republic, a concept first used by James Madison, is portrayed as a via media characteristic for some forms of political organization who wish to maintain both their liberty and security. As it presupposes an effort to prevent both centralization (by forming a single powerful state) and dissolution (into many sovereign states), the idea of a compound republic bears some inherent tensions. Concentration of power would translate into tyranny or oligarchy, thus members lose liberty. On the other hand, an unfirm control from the center could lead to anarchy, resulting in conflict among its members. The coronavirus pandemic brought these ongoing dilemmas to the forefront.
On March 27, the United States became the new epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in terms of the number of cases registered, surpassing China and Italy. Even prior to this, the crisis revealed a number of tensions between the executive branch of the federal government and the states. These tensions exposed how certain prerogatives at the federal level can become liabilities when the United States confronts a crisis that knows no borders, no ideologies, and no previously tested solutions.
The first example is the strategic failure to recognize the coronavirus as a threat commensurate to its proportions. Despite the number of intelligence reports from January through February warning of the likelihood of a pandemic caused by COVID-19, the Trump administration downplayed the threat and delayed any preventative measures at a federal level. The delayed response led to the initial lag in testing at the national level, given that only tests approved by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) could be run across the United States. Adding onto the delay in testing were initial shortcomings related to contaminated test kits, further hindering efforts to contain the spread. This impeded many states’ testing capacity, with states like New York and California complaining about not having sufficient testing kits or the capacity to process the tests they conducted. Moreover, states like Maine, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Wyoming lacked laboratories capable of conducting diagnostic tests, and thus were not authorized to conduct in-state testing. The lack of wide testing allowed the virus to go largely undetected in some communities and states. These two examples indicate how centralized decision making can lead to strategic mistakes that can have a heavy impact at the state level. This is one of the inherent tensions in a compound republic: tyranny, one of the three corrupt forms of government identified by republican thinkers.
States also pressured the federal government. Many governors, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, called on President Trump to use his prerogatives under the 1950 Defense Production Act to increase the manufacturing of items in urgent need like masks and ventilators. Additional state-level pressure toward federal decision-making came after the President announced plans to open the economy. This prompted experts to argue that he had little leeway in overriding state governments, as the 10th Amendment grants them “police powers,” referring to the right to establish and enforce laws meant to protect the welfare and health of the citizens.
The European Union also struggled economically in coming up with a unified approach after initial responses relied on country-specific measures. The attempt to find a common approach led to a rift between the north and the south of the EU, reminiscent of the Greek sovereign debt crisis response. The division was more apparent between countries worst affected and those who seemed to keep the situation under control. A proposal led by Italy, Spain, and France joined by other six member states, including the launch of joint borrowing by members of the eurozone, was allegedly dismissed by Germany and the Netherlands, due to their debt-aversion and fear that this would deepen monetary integration. A different risk that confronts a compound republic was exposed in the case of the EU – anarchy. If we understand the economic unification of the EU as an example of a republican security arrangement, the threat of anarchy would then translate into a further weakening of this fabric and a resurgence of the Franco-German rivalry.
In countries like Afghanistan and Syria, tossed by years of intervention and civil war, republicanism can be a middle ground between a strong centralized state and extreme fragmentation. In both cases, the state is contested by various actors who resist state-building projects aimed at centralization. Lacking a legitimate monopoly over violence, these countries can be seen as examples of state failure. In Afghanistan, the epidemic was spread via Iran, with thousands of Afghans crossing the border back into their country seeking medical help and jobs. With a parallel government declared by Abdullah Abdullah after he contested the victory of Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan could witness further dissolution of the central government–given its reduced ability to provide the resources needed to fight the coronavirus threat—and increase the likelihood of a new civil war. In Syria, where over 1 million people were displaced by the latest government offensive in Idlib, the result could be even more grim. Even though as of May 13 the Syrian government reported only 47 cases of infection, the lack of medical infrastructure and the disastrous economic situation will impede an efficient and coherent government response.
These cases expose the challenges that some political forms of organization may face in responding to a crisis that can prove hard to counter in the absence of a unified response. The chances to flatten the curve can be higher when the sovereign reigns supreme, but this can result in one of the corrupt forms of a compound republic – tyranny, a price to pay for efficiency.“ As a compound republic is explicitly of implicitly designed to prevent centralization it is caught in a conflict between internal stability and external action”, argued Peter Halden in his theoretical analysis of compound republics. The coronavirus outbreak might bring new challenges for both the state and its competitors, but what it did expose so far are old and known challenges that these compound republics face.
Oana-Cosmina Mihalache is a Fulbright researcher at Columbia University, affiliated at Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. She is a PhD candidate in Political Science in Bucharest, at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. In her research, she focuses on state sovereignty and humanitarian interventions.