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Is COVID-19 a Geopolitical Game-Changer?

Is COVID-19 a Geopolitical Game-Changer?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The huge Covid-19 storm is undoubtedly only still in its infancy. It has not yet really reached the Global South, for example, or the innumerable pockets of abject misery on the planet in Bangladesh, Yemen, South Sudan, refugee camps in Pakistan or India, Idlib, and so on. The full economic, cyclical and structural effects are not quite visible yet, but, in any case, they will be gigantic. It would therefore be risky to put forward at this time a general theory of the geopolitics of the pandemic. Ought we not however begin to think of the possible impacts the virus will have on international politics?

To this end, we propose to start from an observation that the pandemic acts as a revelation of the characteristics of our new world. Two of these characteristics stand out: the weakness of global governance - in the area of health in this case - on the one hand; and a shift in the centre of gravity of the balance of power towards China and Asia in general, on the other. However, as the thread of reflection unfurls, we return once again to the United States, fallen star of our old world, whose trajectory may be profoundly altered by the ordeal currently facing many other countries.

A crisis revealing a new world 

In the field of global governance, the Covid-19 crisis appears first of all as a crisis of anticipation capacity by the international community. To understand this, one only has to watch Bill Gates’ lecture back in 2015, available on YouTube. Drawing lessons from the fight to curb the spread of Ebola, the former CEO of Microsoft felt that “this time, we were lucky”. The epidemic had broken out in a relatively unconnected region, West Africa, outside of large urban concentrations; international teams were able to intervene quickly; and, above all, the disease was fluid-borne. Next time, Bill Gates predicted, if we're not prepared, the disease could cost millions of lives and have a huge economic impact. It could “spread through the air, reaching people who would only feel the first symptoms with delay and still be able to travel by train and plane”. Here we are today. An even older CIA report published in 2009, State of the World 2025, stated: “If a pandemic disease breaks out, it will be in a densely populated area, with close proximity between humans and animals, such as exists in some markets in China or Southeast Asia, where people live close to livestock”. The only missing element from the CIA's predictions was a more specific topographical indication: a market in Wuhan. What American intelligence analysts feared most was “a new virulent, highly contagious human respiratory disease”.

It should be added that for some years, other voices, from official ranks such as the World Bank for example, had sounded the alarm. And above all, there had been no shortage of “full-scale warnings”, identified as “international health emergencies” by the World Health Organization (WHO): H1N1 in 2009, Polio and Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016, Ebola again in 2019. Why, therefore, such a lack of coordinated response at the international level? One could argue that health risks have never prompted a significant international mobilization simply because other issues of concern were attracting political decision-makers’ scarce attention. Thus, the 2008 financial crisis was the subject of a response that was both creative - invention of the G20 - and in solidarity with all major countries. Another moment of international convergence was COP21 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. With a few years of hindsight, it is to be feared that these two episodes were exceptions rather than the norm.

The WHO is not playing the central role it should in the Covid-19 crisis.

What we observe day-by-day in the management of Covid-19 is much more in line with the reality of global governance today. The globalization of trade has continued in recent years, albeit at a slower pace, while at the same time political fragmentation and tensions have prevailed in international politics.

“Great Power competition” – dominated practically by the rivalry between the United States and China, as well as Russia – has become the dominant factor. International institutions have entered a phase of weakening, due partly to an American withdrawal, and partly to discord among major powers. It follows that the WHO is not playing the central role it should in the Covid-19 crisis. It was informed too late by China, to the detriment of other states' ability to react, and having to comply with Chinese injunctions before declaring a state of pandemic. WHO gives the sense that it is echoing a “Chinese line” on the fight against the virus. China, by the way, is reaping the benefits of the investment it has put in the UN system in recent years. This brings us to our second starting point: the increased space taken by China and Asia in world affairs.

It had been commonplace for years to observe the rise of China and Asia. Covid-19 provides a somewhat negative illustration of this, but one that is immediately clear. Beijing's initial policy of opacity, as noted above, contributed greatly to the spread of the pandemic. But the most striking element is elsewhere. On the one hand, because of value chains’ structure today, the shutdown of a large part of the Chinese economy has had, and continues to have, major effects on the world economy; unlike 2008, today’s financial crisis is second only to a crisis of supply and demand in the real economy. On the other hand, the “Great Power competition” not only puts international solidarity on the back burner, but above all translates into an astonishing “soft power”competition between China and its main rivals.

From this point of view, we have witnessed an unprecedented demonstration. The People's Republic of China was in difficulty at the beginning of the crisis, due to its initial attitude of repression of Wuhan's whistle-blowers; forced closures of its factories; and then appearing to overcome the epidemic thanks to authoritarian quarantine measures, combined with an unprecedented use of artificial intelligence. Finally, China emerged from the ordeal while Europeans, now the main area of infection, were slow to implement drastic measures, while the Trump administration demonstrated its messy incompetence. China today is reviving its economy at a time when stock markets are collapsing in the West. It is fighting against the misplaced xenophobic insinuations of Donald Trump in an absurd battle of disinformation, and above all, it is acting as a lifeline for Italy or Serbia, partly because of the clumsiness of their European partners. In the emerging world, China  is certainly appearing as the power that can assist internationally, which was once the United States’ go-to role.

China perhaps has an interest in not pushing this propaganda war too far, as it is not immune to a Covid-19 rebound, or other twists and turns. However, for now at least, the debate between authoritarianism, populism and liberalism is being revived in our democracies. It is too early to know how this debate will turn out. For some, the scale of the crisis can lead to a rehabilitation of expertise, institutions and international cooperation, and devalues the populists' more cookie-cutter approach. Others, on the other hand, inspired by sovereigntist ideas, argue that the European institutions have proved to be irrelevant and had to support and pursue measures to re-establish border controls.

The kind of undeclared Cold War that had been brewing for some time shows its true face under the harsh light of Covid-19.

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.

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