By Farid Shafiyev
As the COVID-19 pandemic puts the whole world in crisis mode, a plethora of experts predict the radical change in behavior of states and other related actors. International relations guru and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger believes that the COVID-19 will forever alter the world order as countries try to survive with their doors closed to each other. Some warn about a threat to globalization posed by border closure, while others foresee a new wave of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism. A bigger rivalry between global powers is forecasted to grow amid the economic crisis.
It is possible to draw some parallels between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918–19. While a national healthcare system was established in many countries following the Spanish flu, the system of international relations has not profoundly changed. The world saw the birth and demise of the League of Nations—the precursor to the United Nations—and the eruption of another world war between 1939 and 1945. World War I, rather than the Spanish flu, transformed international relations.
Some scholars blame globalization for the pandemic, forgetting that throughout history, humankind has suffered from other pandemics, such as the fourteenth century Black Death or the Spanish Flu. Other scholars may blame the prevalence of inaccurate news. For example, self-isolation may expose people to fake news disseminated on social media that is laden with conspiracy theories and extremist views. However, the threat of fake news was also present before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a post-coronavirus world, some countries will suffer from economic stress, which might trigger a new wave of regional conflicts. However, the world will not change drastically as long as humankind does not encounter a severe shortage of food as a result of this virus or another contagion.
In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has also deepened the polarization of countries and societies, which reflects a trend that has already been in place for the past twenty years. The income disparity between the rich and the poor has intensified. Within Western societies, conservatives and liberals have drifted further apart. On a global scale, the superiority of systems of governance—Western vs. Chinese governments, neoconservatism vs. social democratic ideologies, market vs. planned economies—will become even more fiercely debated.
There is a lot of discussion about how national governments should respond to a pandemic. Decision-makers acknowledge that countries can face another pandemic in the future and strive to understand what lessons can be drawn from COVID-19. Policymakers argue about the necessity of a large government and compare the Chinese response to the Italian or American approaches.
It appears that the crisis has worsened due to the lack of information, particularly in the initial period. For political reasons, many countries, including China and Iran, feared the dissemination of data that was necessary to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19. While centralized and closed governments are partly to blame for the delay in response, big governments are better equipped to mobilize resources and mitigate the consequences of a pandemic and economic crisis. In addition, universal health care is essential to provide better care to the public. Compared to other developed countries, the United States faces a tremendous challenge due to the lack of health care coverage for the entire population.
A few other experts have rushed to pronounce a dilemma in or even the death of, the liberal order. They argue that a mixture of economic distress and social anxiety may undermine transatlantic societies, making them vulnerable to authoritarian temptations. We are going to witness how international politics will be played out by major international actors; these actors must confront the politics of solidarity and the politics of fear.
Some countries, including liberal ones, have discussed the use of subdermal or mobile surveillance to track the movement of infected people. Historian and professor Yuval Harari highlights a threat posed by this possible response. He maintains that this level of surveillance might lead to a dystopian society. The threat to democracy from a super-surveillance state could come from both open and closed governments. Surveillance cameras, credit card transactions, and movement registration are all techniques present in almost every modern state, regardless of the mode of governance.
After the current pandemic, I believe the “return to normal” process will begin, as societies transition to a “new normal.” In most countries, political order and the current organization of international relations will remain the same. However, many countries will also strengthen their national healthcare system and emergency response, and more educators and businesses will take advantage of online platforms.
The end of the Cold War, which pronounced the victory of a liberal world order, established the advantage of open societies and market economies. However, the crises of 1997–98 and 2008–09 contributed to the rise of new skeptics of market economies. Both planned economies in collapsed countries like the Soviet Union and extreme laissez-faire economies are flawed and unsustainable. A centrist approach based on the market economy that includes a redistribution of wealth and limits corporations’ power is the only solution to prevent a future global crisis.
Similarly, international politics is better managed by a multipolar world based on international law and consensus. The United Nations and other multilateral platforms, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, are relevant in times of global stress. Global healthcare bodies like the World Health Organization, as well as national healthcare systems, should also be strengthened.
There are few other topics present in discussions about the world after COVID-19. International experts have renewed the debate about the threat of biological warfare, but this idea is not new. Biological weapons were prohibited after World War I, and the ban was reinforced in 1972 and 1993 through the criminalization of their development, stockpiling, and transfer. The global spread of COVID-19 demonstrated that a biological weapon would not spare any country; it would also eventually infect the country that issued the biological weapon. In addition, it is possible that terrorists obtain biological weapons, but this is also preventable, as similar efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear material have been effective.
COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities of the global supply chain, international travel, and close social interaction. However, few alternatives to these systems or industries exist. The biggest challenge is to reduce environmental pollution and population density, which requires the containment of demographic growth. Again, this challenge faces the dilemma between a laissez-faire approach or the widespread use of birth control. I would urge the use of a centrist policy, combining government-enforced measures and social education.
In the long-run, environment and demography will be the main challenges for humankind. In the near future, however, the world will feel the reverberating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in terms of the inevitable and impending economic crisis. However, humankind has already experienced crises like this one. It is manageable so long as all leaders prevent the spread of nationalism to the extent that it could cause another world war.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the authors are associated.