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The current pandemic challenges the very global order. Rather than a history-defining moment, COVID-19 is a strong trigger in a global metamorphosis that began even before the virus locked us at home.

One of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, Zigmunt Bauman, left us a warning that seems to perfectly reflect today’s crisis: “We must be prepared for a long period that will be marked by more questions than answers, more problems than solutions, and in which we will have to advance through the edge of a very equal probability of success and failure.” Beyond the pandemic, the current situation challenges the very global order, giving us no other option than to adapt in order to evolve.

The “Scholarly Pandemic”

COVID-19 is a source of distress and anxiety not only for the individual, but also for the global political order. (Photo: via author)

As the COVID-19 crisis has continued to unfold, the international community has been debating intensively as to the potential geopolitical impact of the pandemic, offering up various kinds of judgements, ranging from cautious forecasts to hasty conclusions. Among all the theories presented so far, an in-depth look reveals the trend of a so-called “scholarly pandemic” that overemphasizes the current moment of COVID-19 as a history-defining moment and a cause of global transformation. In times of a pandemic, it is extremely difficult to make predictions and offer definitive forecasts. Indeed, COVID-19 has had, and will continue to have an impact on the global economy, international relations, societies and institutions. But the extent of this impact, together with the unfolding geopolitical trends, can be considered and analysed as political consequences that occur as a reaction to ‘the political side-effects’ of COVID-19. In this way, we can avoid falling for the “scholarly pandemic” argument and emphasize the fact that the current crisis has only served to highlight the existing weaknesses in our international system.

In this regard, the pandemic is not expected to result in a complete change in the global order, but rather act as a trigger in at least three contexts: i) it will bring to the surface developments that had previously largely gone unnoticed, ii) it will act as an accelerant of existing geopolitical trends, in particular the growing rivalry between the US and China and the shift in the economic balance of power from West to East, and iii) it has the power to be a catalyst for change in both the developed and developing world, from the future of the EU to the relationship between many developing countries and China.

A Brief History of Plagues and Geopolitics

Although far from having the same impact as events such as large-scale and decisive wars that have led to fundamental changes in the world, a brief look at history reveals that pandemics still have the capacity to trigger change and even reverse the balance of power.

In the fifth century BCE, during the Peloponnesian War, Athens fell victim to plague and was defeated by the Spartans; in the same way, the Italian Plague of 1629-31 decimated Venice; in the fourteenth century, the Black Death led to the collapse of the British feudal system, which helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the modern capitalist economic system; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Aztec Empire was destroyed by smallpox, opening the door to European colonization in the Americas; the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed as many as fifty million people, triggering significant steps in global health governance such as the creation of the League of Nations’ Health Organization which later became the World Health Organization (WHO).

Throughout history, pandemics have proved to have the power to accelerate already existing trends, a fact that we are currently witnessing in many areas, most notably in the global economy and politics. Similarly, more recent epidemics and pandemics caused by HIV (AIDS), A/H1N1 or the Ebola virus, have strengthened international cooperation and preparedness.

“Corona Diplomacy”

To begin with, the current pandemic has had a major impact on international diplomacy, while regional and global cooperation have been put to the test and have largely failed in many aspects. Unfortunately, the European Union did not honour its principles of solidarity and cooperation, thereby leaving the floor open for a dangerous return to national reflexes and bilateral cooperation in humanitarian aid. The pandemic has therefore been “exploited” as the context for power projection through medical supply assistance and support in repatriation efforts – a new kind of international relations tool or we might say, “Corona diplomacy”.

The US Louisiana National Guard activated 660 soldiers to assist with the COVID-19 response. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Apparently, in an effort to compensate for not being able to prevent the virus from spreading, China sent medical supplies to various places around the globe, including the US and European countries badly hit by the pandemic. Pictures of Xiaomi’s face mask crate shipments to Italy featured a quote from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca: “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.” China sent both medical supplies and doctors to Italy on several occasions during the peak of the first pandemic wave when the EU was overwhelmed by the mounting crisis. But much of the equipment China provided has proven to be faulty, according to EU national authorities. The Netherlands recalled hundreds of thousands of face masks it received from China, while Spain determined that 60,000 testing kits it had received were defective.

Other regional powers such as Russia and Turkey have also pursued “Corona diplomacy” and sent aid to the US and Europe. Russia sent military and medical aid to Italy on planes labelled with “From Russia with love”, at a time when most EU countries and other traditional partners have failed to provide the help requested by the Italian authorities. In the same way, Russia sent a plane full of masks and medical supplies to the US. Turkey did much the same for countries in Europe and also the US, while the numbers of cases among the Turkish population were on the rise. Many argued that these types of political manoeuvres were in fact rather dangerous at a time when medical supplies were particularly necessary for national needs.

On the other hand, the crisis has transformed the very core of diplomacy and diplomatic practices. The need to minimise physical contact has promoted digital diplomacy, including the first meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the pandemic and numerous G20 meetings taking place virtually. States developing such platforms and condensing the required skills and resources will have a significant advantage in the months to come.

Global Implications

Beyond the direct effect of the pandemic being the loss of human life, there is wide concern regarding the political and economic side-effects of COVID-19. In this regard, two main questions come to the fore: What will the post-COVID-19 world look like? And what opportunities and threats will be presented by the new international environment?

To begin with, the economic impact of the pandemic could prove to be one of the most powerful triggers for change, as many economists predict a deep recession with the world economy shrinking considerably. Based on the estimates provided by the World Bank Group, 60 million people could fall into extreme poverty, while developing economies could be severely afflicted by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Unemployment is on the rise, even in developed economies, and countries with weak welfare systems are failing to meet the expectations of their people during these difficult times. The prediction of a global recession would trigger political consequences in many countries, as it will act as a multiplier of already existing social, economic and political problems. Many argue that in the post-COVID-19 period, the world economy will require a recovery programme similar to that of the post-WWII era, while actors with the means to lead such a programme will increase their spheres of influence.

Directly related to the economic impact and prospects of recession, there is an alarming trend unfolding in the rise of nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements exploiting the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. It is likely that nativist/populist blocs worldwide will be reinforced and may play on current fears to reduce cultural understanding, increase xenophobic tendencies and aim to use these and such short-sighted attitudes to influence policies and elections that could threaten international cooperation. Therefore, economic recovery is not only the means to prevent an economic collapse in some countries, but it is also a solution to protect social harmony and political stability.

Moreover, the current pandemic has also proven that the global economic environment needs a stronger industrial globalization. The “working from home” trend imposed during COVID-19 times has highlighted the increased need for the development of digital tools that might ignite a new revolution in globalized connectivity with increased virtual commerce and exchanges. At the same time, states will need to develop their own capacities to adapt through hardware and software production. Unfortunately, many are still guided by the wrong impression that we will soon return to pre-COVID-19 times, refusing to understand and accept the reality that only a better, digitalized economy and working platform can provide a better common future.

Globally, the current multilateral order has proved its weaknesses and failed to provide the necessary decisions to counter the crisis and tackle its social, political and economic effects. In the same way, multilateral institutions have fallen short in meeting the expectations of the international community. This fact has already been used as an argument by many nationalist movements across the globe, especially in Europe, to question multilateralism and to spread nationalist, unilateralist, and in some cases isolationist agendas. While many argue for an end to multilateralism, the pandemic has actually proved the opposite: it has stressed the need for global responses to a global crisis and also for multilateral approaches. Therefore, the problems revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic are not entirely about multilateralism itself, but rather the inefficiency of existing multilateral mechanisms. In an ideal scenario, the pandemic can provide the perfect context to push for efforts to reform multilateral institutions in order to adapt them to our current needs and increase their efficiency. In practice, however, these institutions may prove to be more resistant to reform than we would expect them to be. Regionalism, conversely, is gaining traction. China, which had emerged as the icon for globalism thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative, may now focus even more on its contiguous regions. Another mega project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is a case in point; this venture links Pakistan’s shores on the Indian Ocean with the Eurasian landmass through Central Asia and Russia. Such connectivity would continue to drive regional cooperation.

The pandemic is also expected to emphasize the concept of strong, self-sufficient states. Bearing in mind the realist national security doctrines, a pandemic is a threat that demands action from the state. As a provider of healthcare services, security and welfare, the state alone comes to the forefront during global pandemics and national epidemics alike. The links between ideas of self-sufficiency and strong states will, in this particular case, become stronger. The pandemic has demonstrated that existing tools for gauging state power fall short in determining actual state power. While assessing state power, one must now take into account healthcare systems, supply chains and emergency response capabilities, in addition to population size, and military and economic power, on which the realist approach frequently concentrates.

The pandemic and the ensuing recession have placed the state of today’s geopolitics under the magnifying glass. From this angle, COVID-19 should be understood as a catalyst that has accelerated the already existing trends of international politics rather than a catalyst for change: this includes the declining American leadership and strained transatlantic relations, a stress test for the European project, decreasing global cooperation, increasing regionalism and a resurgence of nationalism and great-power politics. Ultimately, however, it is the decisions taken today which will determine whether these trends become reality or simply remain where they were.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic is generating the perfect storm of adverse social and economic impacts with unavoidable geopolitical ramifications. Public health, national and global economies, social stability and governance are individually affected by, and linked to the staggering rate of infections and deaths and competing national priorities. Competition between states inevitably creates friction that degrades their ability to cooperate in the best of times, much less act in unison during a crisis. Nowadays, states are weakened in all domains and, in case nothing is done, nationalism and populism will be reinforced. The competing races to catch up in the economic, military, science and digital spheres will only increase already existing tensions and will affect the balance of power. An American expert, Alanna Shaikh, has stated that the “coronavirus is our future.” By this, it is meant that it is our current lifestyle as a whole which, unrestrained, is ultimately responsible for increasingly severe health crises and also for increasingly frequent climate disasters. In both cases, the same lesson applies. Only a change of course, that would not only be geopolitical but also civilizational, can save humanity.

Can we do it — or will we take the easy path of ‘changing’ things so that nothing changes? Simply put, we are at a crossroads. To quote Bauman once more: “We, the human inhabitants of the Earth, find ourselves (more than ever in history) in a situation of real dilemma: we either join hands or join the funeral procession of our own burial in the same and colossal mass grave.”

Dr. Andreea Stoian Karadeli is an independent researcher based in Turkey, an Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a Visiting Researcher at the University of South Wales. Her interdisciplinary research varies from cultural and intercultural studies to conflict resolution and focusses on national security and terrorism, with a specific expertise in the Middle East.