What we would like to especially note at this point is the conjunction that is taking place before our eyes between geopolitical competition and competing political models, along the lines of lessons that emerged from Institut Montaigne's study on "neo-authoritarians". The “Chinese model” emerges in this case as a reference for the global anti-liberal current, while China shamelessly tries to capitalize on the country’s “victory against the virus” to promote its political system. The kind of undeclared Cold War that had been brewing for some time shows its true face under the harsh light of Covid-19.
However, this general observation still needs to be qualified in all sorts of ways. Let us try to identify some initial reference points. First, most, if not all, governments and regimes have to face somewhat of a stress test with Covid-19. This is the case for regimes that are already in difficulty, such as Iran, which is particularly exposed to a crisis that has come on top of ongoing ones. Tehran has for the first time asked the IMF for help. As far as Mr. Putin is concerned, will the crisis help him push through his constitutional reforms ensuring the extension of his power, or will it complicate the strange battle over oil prices that he has engaged against Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, the United States? But the same applies to democratic leaders whose credibility in the eye of the public opinion is directly at stake. Won’t Donald Trump see his chances of re-election diminished?
Secondly, Covid-19 confirms that borders are far more blurred in today’s competing models than they were in the once upon a time “real” Cold War. In terms of policies, Italy, Germany and France aren’t following such a different line from China, even if the implementation is obviously less deprived of individual freedoms than is the case in the People's Republic of China. This is somehow illustrative of the world's shift towards Asia. It is not in an America with a tragic leadership deficit that we find a counter-model to the Chinese approach to the fight against the pandemic, nor in a Europe in the grip of hesitation, but in Asia itself, where South Korea and Taiwan, as well as Japan in certain respects, are demonstrating a rigorous and effective policy without recourse to social control that destroys liberties.
Finally, as was also discussed in Institut Montaigne’s series on neo-authoritarians, personal profiles count in this world of populists and authoritarians. Bolsonaro, in Brazil, falls into ridicule in the face of Covid-19, while Modi, in India, is so far (perhaps temporarily) portraying himself in the flattering light of the “pilot of the plane”. Salvini is struggling to find his feet, exploiting the anti-Brussels wave of Italian opinion, but is limited in his ability to criticize Mr. Conte’s government because of his popularity. Boris Johnson? Up to each of us to judge.
A Western counteroffensive?
Based on these initial reflections, can we, at least preliminarily, draw a model for the future? How can we envision a geopolitical paradigm shift?
For the sake of caution, let us confine ourselves to discussing only three possible scenarios.
- Return to the past: we have overcome the crisis, at a much higher cost than during SARS (2003) but without leaving much more of a mark. A certain inertia on the part of the international community prevails, it returns to its usual quarrels, even with marginal changes to certain policies in the field of global health. Given what we already know about the crisis’ intensity, this is not the most likely scenario. In the other two, we consider a paradigm shift;
- China’s rise is confirmed: in this hypothesis, the current pandemic marks the consecration of the new power dynamics that we have seen set in motion in recent years. It may even, in the words of Dominique Moïsi, constitute an “accelerator”. Westerners are finding it much more difficult than Asians to overcome difficulties arising from the health crisis. The torch of initiative and leadership would be passed for good to China, firstly in the field of “global issues” – of which health is part, alongside development or climate change – but also, of course, economically (the “economic landing” in the post-Covid-19 era will be as important as the victory against the pandemic), technologically (5G), and even one day, militarily.
- A Western burst of action: the election of Mr. Biden to the White House is not impossible. In the Democratic camp, some fine minds consider Covid-19 as a wake-up call beyond the 2008 crisis or the Ebola crisis. The comparison that comes to mind is the 9/11 attacks which triggered a paradigm shift in American politics. From then on, all external action - and partly internal if you think of the Department of Homeland Security - was redirected towards counterterrorism. This very reorientation had led to the fatal mistake of the invasion of Iraq and to a disproportionate extension of the United States' military commitments across the world. Obama had tried to break away, in part, from the post-9/11 paradigm, at least from its dimension of “military overextension” (Afghanistan, Iraq, refusal to act in Syria). Trump tries to go even further while keeping the rhetoric of counterterrorism alive and without having been able to imagine an alternative paradigm that isn’t a form of “belligerent isolationism”.
From this perspective, the task of a future American administration would be to reinvest in international institutions, and to reconnect with America's natural position as a leader in global governance. Whereas Obama had been able to work with China on certain issues – in particular the COP21 preparations – the intention would be to counter the rise of the People's Republic, one of very few issues that enjoys bipartisan consensus among the American political class. It should be noted, however, that even if a Democratic administration comes to power, Americans’ natural inclination will be to compete with China more on commercial interests or hard power than on the global issues or the soft power front.
Hence a clear roadmap for Europe. It must be at the forefront of revitalizing global governance, as President Macron has been attempting with the efforts to revive the G7 and G20 in order to deal with economic, and other consequences, of the pandemic. It must also try to convince Americans to adopt the geostrategic “new paradigm” previously discussed. This would also offer the possibility of rebuilding the transatlantic relationship while involving countries such as South Korea or Japan, which are part of the “alliance for multilateralism” led by Germany and France.
Micro-geopolitics and meta-geopolitics
At this stage, it is impossible to decide between these scenarios. All the more so since these possibly major developments – we shall call “macro-geopolitical” – can be influenced or deflected by the much more “micro-geopolitical” effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Let us mention four of them, which may very well be combined.
- The crowding-out effect: In the coming months, it will be difficult for policymakers and public opinion to focus their attention on anything other than managing Covid-19. Already, the strikes against US bases in Iraq, still going on by the way, and Washington's intention to withdraw some of its forces there, have gone virtually unnoticed.
- The windfall effect: An opportunistic player can take advantage of this situation to carry out a “coup” that he would not have otherwise pursued under different circumstances. One goes back once again to the Iranian American confrontation in the Middle East, or even tensions in the China Sea, if not the “capture of pawns” with which Putin is quite familiar in Russia's “close abroad” strategy.
- The escalation effect: a local incident can always escalate into a more general conflict, but in the present circumstances, elements of tension (see the “narratives’ war" and American journalists’ expulsion from China) that are multiplying between Beijing and Washington can by themselves be factors of an intensification of the confrontation between the two powers.
- An opportunity effect: finally, it cannot be ruled out that the pandemic also offers an opportunity to put forward constructive proposals (a new effort on the Iranian question, for example?) insofar as the major responsible decision-makers may not be, in time of Covid-19, in the mood of opening up new conflicts.
In the same spirit, we would like to conclude by mentioning the meta-geopolitical dimension of our subject. An American expert, Alanna Shaikh, has stated that the “coronavirus is our future”. By this, it is meant that it is our current lifestyles as a whole – over-consumption, value chains, urbanization, mobility, relationship with nature, and so on – which, unrestrained, are ultimately responsible for increasingly severe health crises and also for increasingly frequent climate disasters. The two are indeed difficult to separate. Covid-19 emerged in the wake of major fires striking in Australia. In both cases, the same lesson applies. Only a change of course, that would not only be geopolitical but also civilizational, can save humanity.