Even before the Corona virus devastated many of the countries of the world, political thinkers had started to debate whether or not the world order that had held fast for the past five or six decades was changing. Further, there was also discussion regarding the inevitability of such a change taking place. Since the USA had been the de facto world leader since the end of the Cold War, brought on by the collapse of the erstwhile USSR, its actions in the international arena always set the tone and direction for international diplomatic and politico-economic discussions and initiatives.
This was particularly applicable to the Western democracies of Europe who were allied to the USA through traditional agreements and treaties. However, such world leadership comes with a great deal of responsibility and, perhaps more importantly, with the ability of the nation to be morally correct and even ascendant in all it does. The proverbial ‘moral high-ground’ is the only position that a world leader can operate from with any authority.
In the past few years, the USA has abrogated its pre-eminent position of global supremacy by its own actions. First, the Trump administration’s rhetorical ‘America First’ policy has methodically undermined USA’s foreign policy. Throughout his presidency, Trump has conducted the nation’s foreign policy through Twitter messages, a large number of which contradict his own administration’s policy statements. The President has proven to be an unguided maverick who is incapable of accepting sane counsel and has been an unmitigated disaster in guiding the foreign policy of the nation. By alienating its traditional allies and its unwillingness to build bridges to meet the aspirations of other, smaller, nations at least at a half-way mark, the current administration of the USA has willingly given up its world leadership position that was gifted to it by a world looking for progressive growth and well-being. Currently there is a vacuum in global leadership.
The first two decades of the 21st century have seen China gradually asserting itself in the economic, political and diplomatic spheres, while assiduously building up its military capabilities. While China has kept its global ambitions formally undeclared, it has been open about its ambition to be the predominant regional power. Its actions in the South China Sea is a manifestation of this national objective. It is a telling indication of China’s ambition that it has not been shy of openly confronting the US and its allies in the region that China considers its own backwaters. While this tussle for primary control of South-East and South Asia regions was going on, the Corona virus and the COVID-19 emergency slammed into the world. The timing could not have been more fortuitous for China and disastrous for the USA.
Leadership, other than in a hierarchical organisation such as the military, is always about shaping and influencing the emerging situation with the ulterior motive of winning friends. In the case of international diplomacy, this is a fact that can never be swept aside. Add to this, the need to be functioning from the moral high-ground and the quest for world and/or regional leadership becomes one of intangible efforts that must at least seem to be altruistic. The COVID-19 pandemic brought to a head the simmering competition between the USA and China.
The response to the global pandemic demonstrated the petty and base nature of the current administration in the USA—it tightened the sanctions on Iran, Cuba and Venezuela to an extent that infected civilians in these countries could not obtain critical medicines. On the other hand, China sent medical teams and critical supplies to affected nations, to the extent possible, while the country itself was going through the process of containing the pandemic.
The USA, because of its hurtful actions, came out as a petty, vindictive and vicious bully. With this one episode, the USA had ceded the moral high-ground and neutralised any remaining claim that it had on global leadership. It did not matter that the moral correctness of actions initiated by the USA have been in gradual decline ever since the nation intervened militarily in Vietnam. This loss of global leadership has been the result of its own actions rather than a loss of capacity. While these changes cannot be attributed directly to the current pandemic, it is certain that the global medical emergency acted as a catalyst in the USA having to move out of its leadership role.
It is always difficult to predict what the future would hold, with any assurance of accuracy. However, it is possible to analyse the past and current trends and then extrapolate it to get a glimpse of what the future may look like and the direction that it would take. Such a process could also claim a certain amount of authenticity since the projected trajectory would not be seriously out of kilter, at least in the near to mid-term. So, what would the post-COVID-19 world look like and what will it not look like? There is absolute certainty that the emerging world will not be like what it is now, it is not going to be ‘business as usual’ as soon as the pandemic is brought under control, irrespective of the time that it takes. Of course, the longer it takes, the more divergent the emerging world would be to the one that has been known so far.
A Changed Global Order
Explained below are some of the changes that are highly likely to take place in the global order and would manifest in the post-pandemic world.
One: Although the USA has, by default, ceded global leadership it is also true that no other nation has claimed the position or currently has the capacity to do so. This situation effectively means that the world is entering an era of leaderless flux as far as international relations, global security and socio-economic developments are concerned. This leaderless world will become apparent as soon as the pandemic is contained and the majority of nations emerge on the ‘other side’. China, the nation that is nearest to having a claim on leadership is not acceptable to a large number of nations and perhaps also lacks the experience necessary to step up to such a global role. Further, the altruistic pursuit of a global order that provides equality to all, or at least a majority, of nations is unlikely to eventuate. The leaderless flux will continue for at least two decades before a consensus leader could emerge.
Two: The USA will react to the loss of status and leadership by trying to re-establish its lost influence. The direction, deliberateness and congeniality of this effort will depend on the next administration after the November 2020 election. Irrespective of who wins the election, the USA will be wise to adopt a conciliatory approach, since its bullying ways will no longer be tolerated, even by relatively small-power nations. The likelihood of a Trump-like administration, thrashing around and using its still potent power projection capabilities to obtain short-term gains and thus further expending an already diminished cache of good-will cannot be ruled out. The result would be an even more rapid loss of global status for the USA.
Three: There is very high potential for social unrest in the European nations, which have so far managed to contain, albeit barely, a number of societal issues that have cropped up in the past few years. The economic downturn that will accompany the end of the pandemic may prove to be the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back for these nations. Such a destabilised situation would also be stimulated by the general belief that western democracies have failed to successfully safeguard national interests. Moral bankruptcy has emerged as a common failing in the leadership of the so-called developed world. There is a high likelihood of the concept of democracy, as practised so far, being altered considerably with a demand for a greater controlling role for governments. In turn, this would entail individual freedoms being sacrificed to ensure greater national security. The liberal international order as was known earlier has failed and is unlikely to be resurrected.
Four: Even before the pandemic started to become a significant disruptor, it was clear that global values were changing. A number of disparate factors contributed to the need to change the value-chain, not the least the erratic behaviour of the USA in the past few years. These years have witnessed blatant misrepresentation of facts by the administration and the downfall of the US-centric imperium that had been propped up for almost a decade by pure hubris. The USA has almost single-handedly widened the arc of instability from North Africa to the Middle-East and Central Asia with no thought or consideration for the consequences. The values that USA represents have become increasingly unattractive to a major part of the international community. The changing world values will not anymore be aligned with the values that present day USA seems to hold dear.
Five: Global trade and unfettered legal movement of people, the two pillars on which the current concept of globalisation is built, will become far more selective rather than more open. Globalisation, as was seen in the past two decades, will become a chimera, gradually becoming more restrictive in its very concept and in application. The result of such a shrinking will be an increase in international illegal activities that in turn will force nations to enact stricter border controls. The actions and reactions will form a cycle that will become reality without a choice. Further, response to the pandemic and the associated economic travails have been initiated individually by countries; around the world there have been no joint or combined responses. As a corollary, nations will want better control of its borders to cater for any future such episodes. The pandemic has managed to stop fledgling movements for integration, such as the European Union, in its tracks with minimal effort. Open borders as has been seen in the past three decades will remain a relic of the past and will not be acceptable anymore. These restrictions will impact the commercial prospects and economy of different nations, which is an issue to be studied separately.
Six: The post-pandemic world will neither be easily attuned to being shaped by one, or a combination of, great powers and nor will it emerge with a more robust international order. On the contrary, a selfish nationalism, as has been displayed by the USA in the past few years, will be the order of the day—collective consensus will become an impossible, faraway dream under these circumstances. The current state of global order may not have been so dire if the USA had not undermined its own position, destroyed long-standing alliances and not only refused, but stood in the way to furthering the cause of international cooperation. China’s new assertiveness has been the result of USA’s resistance and refusal to work with multi-national organisations and its sulking recalcitrance to abide by long-standing international diplomatic norms. The combinations of these actions made USA’s response to the current challenge ill-conceived and churlish. While China is making all out attempts to provide expert advice and medical supplies and to be a reliable public goods guarantor, the US has made concerted attempts at blaming everybody else for the mess that they find themselves in and indicated that they will decidedly go on their own. The situation harks back to the earlier point that has been made, the emerging global order will be without doubt leaderless.
There is substance to the claim that China failed to go public with the true scale of the pandemic in the early days and that this opaqueness hampered other nations’ efforts to contain the virus. Thus there is a continuing lack of trust regarding China and its actions across the world. China does not have a large enough repository of trust among other nations and this non-reporting cover-up has further eroded its credibility. Even though China has moved from being chastised for misdeeds, to being feted for its handling of the pandemic, it is far-fetched to imagine that they would be able to don the mantle of global leadership consensually any time soon. Even so, China is not playing to the US audience, it is playing to a global audience to ensure that its credibility is gradually built up.
On the other hand, the US administration is being increasingly questioned and blamed for the pandemic debacle that is unfolding in the country. The Trump administration, in it’s by now characteristic manner, has found the WHO as a whipping boy and is laying the blame fully on the UN body for its own mistakes. The USA has all but officially withdrawn from global leadership, although the transfer of responsibilities to another nation as such has not taken place, and is unlikely to happen. The pandemic has brought into sharp relief great power competition and discord and will continue to demonstrate the waning power of the US. The world will have to move forward without an acknowledged leadership, at least for the next few decades. When the pandemic is finally contained, the world order that will emerge will still be recognisable as flowing from the one that existed before, but its future path will not be in the same trajectory as what it would have been earlier without the pandemic disruptor. A new world order will emerge sooner, rather than later.