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The Coronavirus, a Geopolitics of Fears

The Coronavirus, a Geopolitics of Fears
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed and heightened fears in a world that is more fractured than ever. In the face of unreason, this evil could force us to rehabilitate expertise and competence, and prevent us from giving way to national egoism and pure protectionism.

What makes emotions so special is that they seem to control us, more than we control them. And the emotion that dominates us in the time of the coronavirus is, of course, fear. It translates into the desire to be protected, reassured in the face of a world that appears more dangerous, because it is increasingly complex, unpredictable, as well as incomprehensible. It is as if we are blinded by the light of the information jostling around in our brains. How can we control, prioritize and classify this influx of data that worries us with its diversity and novelty?

To live in the grip of fear is to not only worry about the present, but to expect even more trouble from the future. Fear is the absolute opposite of hope, an emotion in which the future can only be even brighter than the present.

The pandemic that is hitting the world today is all the more destabilizing in that it adds uncertainty to uncertainty and appears to be the accelerator of an already pre-existing culture of fear as well as revealing fractures that are even deeper than we could have imagined.

China comes to Italy's rescue

Symbolically, when Italy calls for help, it is China, and not France and Germany, that comes to its rescue by providing medical experts, masks and respiratory equipment. As China opens up to Italy, America closes itself off to Europe. Donald Trump, undoubtedly to compensate for the lightness and irresponsibility of his initial treatment of the virus, overreacts in a one-sided and confused manner.

In the age of the coronavirus, the word isolationism must now be taken literally.

He has forbidden access to US soil to nationals of 26 European countries belonging to the Schengen area, with the initial - it is no longer the case today - and incomprehensible exception, apart from political reasons, of the British and Irish.

Almost three years ago, on July 14, 2017, the French and American presidents celebrated with emotion the hundredth anniversary of the entry of American troops into the First World War. In 2020, facing a new war against the coronavirus, Donald Trump celebrates in his own way the hundredth anniversary of the rejection of Wilsonian internationalism by the United States Congress. In the age of the coronavirus, the word isolationism must now be taken literally. Would George Washington have forbidden access to American soil to La Fayette and Rochambeau, when the latter had just crossed the sea to fight alongside the American independence fighters?

Decline of the West

A century from now, will historians see the coronavirus crisis as another stage in the decline of the West? Aren't Asians, from China to South Korea or Singapore, regardless of their political systems, better equipped "culturally" to deal with the pandemic? Are we not, in the face of rising peril, victims of a blindness that in fact reflects our mad individualism? Rationally, it should be obvious that we cannot save ourselves alone. Viruses know no boundaries. Emotionally, the temptation is great, if not irresistible, to privilege sacred selfishness by withdrawing totally into oneself. But what's the point of closing borders if, as polls in France show, most people still shake hands and kiss each other?

The danger of over-reacting

"Fear is a bad counsellor" says popular wisdom, because it makes us lose control of ourselves. Reality is more complex. What is dangerous is not fear, it is excessive fear. Legitimate and reasoned fear, on the other hand, is an indispensable protection against overconfidence and underestimation of danger. It is a factor of survival in a world that is naturally dangerous, and which becomes much more so in times of pandemic. The rabbit that is not afraid of the hunter will not live long. The citizen who does not take the full measure of the threat exposes himself and others. The comments made in France a few days ago in the media by some experts had undoubtedly the very commendable ambition to reassure the public.

They might, however, have gone overboard with their soothing words, in contrast to the warnings issued by our Italian friends and the opinions expressed by many experts, mostly from the Anglo-Saxon world. "We are facing the most serious pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918, even though the number of victims will be infinitely lower", said a few days ago an epidemiologist from Harvard University on British television. "50 to 70% of the German population is likely to be affected", Angela Merkel added last week. Emmanuel Macron also showed clarity and responsibility in his solemn address to the French.

The rabbit that is not afraid of the hunter will not live long. The citizen who does not take the full measure of the threat exposes himself and others.

Rehabilitating expertise

Tackling the crisis also means understanding its roots, resisting any form of ideological drift. The pandemic we are facing is global, which does not mean that it is a crisis of globalization. The re-establishment of border controls to curb the spread of the virus is one thing. The return to isolationist habits is another. The coronavirus must not lead us to radically question the free movement of people and goods. The health crisis is occurring at a time when we need to find a new balance, between the all-market and the all-state. And in this phase of transition between two worlds, the coronavirus is adding fear to fear.

This fear can however have a beneficial effect by rehabilitating the notion of competence and expertise. The pandemic can make us - as was the case with the black plague in 1348 - swing into irrational, conspiracy theories, if not the search for scapegoats. On the contrary, it can lead us to rehabilitate the "knowledgeable" and to discredit the quacks. "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully", said Samuel Johnson. The legitimate fear of the coronavirus can encourage responsible behaviour and discredit populist excesses. Would Covid-19 be bad for Trump and good for Macron?




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