History is made by moments that shaped the world and determined the global geopolitical order. Epidemics and plagues have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, often changing the course of history. Like 9/11 or the collapse of the USSR the coronavirus pandemic is a world-shattering event whose far-ranging consequences go further than our imagination.
Just as covid-19 has been shattering lives, disrupting economies and exposing the emergency preparedness of governments, the pandemic will lead to permanent shifts in the geopolitical balance of power. The decision that governments will take in the next four weeks will shape the world for the years to come.
How the world is going to look like after the coronavirus pandemic?
As the pandemic crisis unfolds, International Insider is developing forecasts and analysis to predict the dynamics of the new global order.
Old Foes, New Fences
History taught us that plagues did not put an end to major-power rivalry nor usher a new era of global cooperation. Indeed, the fundamentally conflictive nature of international affairs is not likely to change after this global crisis.
Previous pandemic crises, including the 1918-1919 pandemic influenza, did not end global conflicts nor boosted globalization. Neither will the coronavirus outbreak.
The global political system will most likely experience a further retreat from ‘hyper-globalization’, as people desperately seek protections from governments and both states and companies plan to reduce future vulnerabilities.
Coronavirus is pushing governments, companies, and societies as a whole to strengthen their capacity to cope with extended periods of self-isolation.
When the incentives to protect the shared gains produced by global integration and interconnection gradually fade, the architecture of the 20th century’s global economic governance will quickly atrophy.
As covid-19 undermines the basic tenets of global manufacturing, companies are now rethinking and shrinking the multicountry supply chains that dominate production today to reduce path dependency. Companies will now trade off efficiency for redundancy diversifying their supply lines. Governments will most likely intervene as well, forcing strategic industries to have domestic contingency plans and reserves.
In 2019 the decoupling of the US and Chinese tech sectors already disrupted bilateral flows of technology. After coronavirus, this decoupling would move beyond strategic tech sectors such as 5G and cloud into broader economic activity.
The covid-19 outbreak has forced world nations to look inward, speeding both recession and the process of deglobalization.
The pandemic will most likely strengthen nationalism as Governments around the world will implement emergency measures to contain the global crisis, and many will be loath to relinquish these new ‘special’ powers once the crisis is over.
Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life, as that is the nature of emergencies. Emergencies accelerate historical processes allowing governments to make decisions that in normal times would have taken years of deliberations. In order to stop the spread of coronavirus citizens need to comply with social distancing rules. For the first time in history, technology allows authorities to monitor everyone in real-time with ubiquitous devices and algorithms.
Governments can achieve this with the carrot or the stick. World leaders now have to choose between totalitarian surveillance vs citizen privacy and between national isolationism and global solidarity.
Governments will most likely move toward selective self-sufficiency. There will be even greater opposition to large-scale immigration and a reduced willingness to commit to tackling global crises given the perceived need to dedicate resources to deal with the consequences of the pandemic crisis.
If the European Union won’t prove itself able to provide a significant degree of targeted assistance to its member states, national governments might consider taking back more power from Brussels in the future.
The Wind Blows from the East
Coronavirus is also likely to accelerate the shift in power and hegemonic influence from the West to the East. Global powers such as the US or European countries seem to be striking a pose of denial while they observe the erosion of their global standing.
Looking forward, the pandemic implies a different trajectory for the world order as we know it.
Countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore have responded best to the pandemic crisis. The response in the West has been slow and haphazard by comparison, further clouding the aura of the Western global hegemony.
Indeed, as Washington falters to contain the outbreak, Beijing is moving quickly and effectively to filling the vacuum created by the US mistakes, positioning itself as the global leader in pandemic response. China is now working to strengthen its own system, provide critical assistance to countries around the world, and even re-organize other governments.
The US status of global super-power has been built over the past seven decades not just on economic or military power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the ability to muster and take ownership of the response to global crises. The perception of Beijing emerging as the leading hegemonic power combined with Washington’s hesitation could fundamentally alter the West’s position in global affairs in the twenty-first century.
By March, Beijing was claiming victory over coronavirus. Even though life in China has yet to return to normal, Beijing is now working to turn early signs of success into a wider narrative to broadcast to the rest of the world.
Providing global assistance to emergencies can burnish a rising power’s leadership credentials. Considering that Beijing has spent the last decade pushing China’s foreign policy apparatus to spread its ‘global governance’ narrative, and the coronavirus outbreak provides an opportunity to put that theory into action.
When Italy launched a desperate appeal for medical supplies, China was one of the first country to respond to the distress call. Beijing committed to sending 1,000 ventilators, 100,000 respirators, two million masks, 50,000 test kit, and 20,000 protective suits. China also deployed medical teams to Iran and sent supplies to Serbia, whose president called European solidarity a “fairy tale” and proclaimed that “the only country that can help us is China.”
In conclusion, the next months the world will get a better handle on the pandemic crisis, but the fractiousness of the geopolitical order, the existing international alliances, and today’s balance of power will reflect a radically different scenario than any we’ve experienced in recent decades.