The overreactions by some countries to the outbreak of Covid-19 are cases in point. Naturally, human beings are scared, anxious and panic about infectious disease epidemics. Some national governments have taken strict measures to protect their national security, the integrity of political life and socio-economic wellbeing of their citizens.
National boundaries, even social and political boundaries, have been drawn. Selfish national interests are prioritised. Strict measures are imposed within the boundary of a sovereign state. International solidarity and cooperation have been downgraded in times of heightening global uncertainty and risk.
The decisions by some countries to deny the entry of the MS Westerdam are rational from the standpoint of realist policy makers. The reactions are the testimonies to “national interest and security first” policy, based on the calculation of risks.
While closing the door might help prevent the people of one country from being infected, it does not mean that it can effectively, holistically address the problem. International fear and panic are more harmful than the Covid-19 itself. The epidemics are cross-boundary in nature. Therefore, it naturally requires cross-border collaboration.
Covid-19 has become a global public health issue, which requires more international cooperation and solidarity, not less. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged international community to work together for common cause.
He said, “this is a time for facts, not fear. This is a time for rationality, not rumours. This is a time for solidarity, not stigma.” He asked, “We have a choice. Can we come together to face a common and dangerous enemy? Or will we allow fear, suspicion and irrationality to distract and divide us?”
Cambodia, a small and poor country in Southeast Asia, surprisingly has changed the international discourse and approaches towards Covid-19. First, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a bold, brave decision to visit China early this month to show spiritual support and solidarity. Last week, the Cambodian authorities permitted the MS Westerdam cruise ship to dock at a port as a gesture of moral responsibility.
The MS Westerdam cruise ship was stranded at seas for more than 10 days because five countries denied its entry. The ship was finally permitted to dock at Sihanoukville port on Feb 13. Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed the first batch of repatriating passengers with roses on Feb 14, a day of love.
Mr Hun Sen said to the crowd in front the ship: “This is high time we join hands to address the issue that we are facing. The virus does not harm just a single country; many countries have been affected. How could we talk about respecting human rights if the right to life is not respected?”
Some questions arise. Why does Cambodia do that? Is it a rational choice?
The answer is simple. The decision is made based on “moral impulse” and “moral responsibility”. Cambodia’s move was to save human lives, not for publicity nor national pride.
“Some people or countries might have asked whether Cambodia would allow docking if the passengers onboard were infected. I would assure [them] that I would let them in as soon as we could. The reason is we would not let the infected die on the ship. This is our global responsibility, as a responsible member of the international community,” said Mr Hun Sen.
Cambodia’s latest behaviour proves that morals matter in foreign policy and international relations. Morals go beyond the boundary of the sovereign state. It is the responsibility of the international community to work together to address and resolve global issues and challenges such as Covid-19.
At home, the Cambodian government has taken a prudent approach towards Covid-19 through open information-sharing, public health education on preventive measures and strict control of the outbreak through taking thorough steps in tracking, testing and treating.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has introduced the slogan “Cambodia: Small Country, Big Heart” to showcase the importance of morals in Cambodia’s diplomacy and foreign policy.
“Small Country, Big Heart” will become one of the key pillars of Cambodia’s modern diplomacy and foreign policy, in addition to the existing slogan, “Reforming at home. Making friends abroad”.
International leaders, including the US President Donald Trump, have praised Cambodia for its sincere humanitarian effort.
“Thank you to the beautiful country of Cambodia for accepting the @CarnivalCruise ship Westerdam into your port. The United States will remember your courtesy,” Mr Trump tweeted on Feb 14.
Small and developing countries such as Cambodia are very vulnerable to external shocks and risks such as epidemics. National resources and the capacity in dealing with these epidemics is limited compared with other countries that are more developed. But it does not mean that Cambodia could not contribute to the betterment of the international community.
Within its capacity, Cambodia has actively participated in peacekeeping operations under the umbrella of the United Nations, promoted an open and inclusive multilateral system, enhanced rules-based international order and strengthened international cooperation and partnership in addressing global issues and challenges such as climate change, demining, food-water-energy security and gender equality.
For the morals and good intentions to be practical and realistic, Cambodia must have a means to achieve expected outcomes. Without sufficient resources and capacity, it cannot deliver results. International cooperation and support in capacity building is therefore vital to achieve the moral ends of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Chheang Vannarith is president of the Asian Vision Institute