The lethal combination of an interconnected world and a deadly virus without a cure is taking humanity into uncharted waters. Covid-19 in all likelihood will fundamentally transform the world as we know it. But what is a world order?
The will to power can be described as the basis of the world order. After the Cold War (1940s to 1991), it was expected that the only superpower and ‘leader of the free world’, the US, would maintain the world order. Thirty-one years after, the same politicians and scholars in international relations that announced the new world order under the US are now arguing for the end of the liberal world order. While the US prioritises its ‘America First’ policy, China is and Russia are both challenging the American position in the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Talk of an emerging new global economic order has been floating ever since China announced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seven years ago.
With BRI being a global development strategy involving infrastructure development and investments in nearly 70 countries to exploit cheap labour markets and to expand product markets, it was thought to be rocking the status quo. The idea of the status quo in the global political and economic order was challenged further with the emergence of strong leaders, the dominance of nationalistic fervour emerging from a xenophobic
attitude of some major nations, and the insulating tendencies of economies that were once the major proponents of free-market economies and globalisation.
Such tendencies can be witnessed in the US’ withdrawal from the TPP, the prolonged US-China trade war, Trump’s disregard of climate change, and Brexit. On the other hand, China’s BRI began obtaining momentum with nations from the EU, Asia and Latin America joining in. This marked the ride of China on its BRI horse, which was attempted to be combated by some coalitions like the “Quad” in the Indo-Pacific — a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies, Australia, India, Japan, and the US.
Covid-19 can change the game. More than 210 nations are affected by the pandemic in varying degrees. Most interesting is that the economies with the highest levels of exposure to China either through BRI or otherwise are the ones most affected by the virus. Tourism, trade and global investment can largely explain the spread of this virus.
The major themes of the last decades, such as the global war on terror, the rise of populism and the retreat of democracy in countries like Russia, have all reshaped the world. The rise of Covid-19 builds on these trends as it rapidly changes relationships between nation states. It is a black swan event that suddenly closed the previously open borders of the European Union in a way that terror threats and migration could not. While the pandemic has not transformed the region’s order in terms of borders, it has caused countries to become even more insular than they otherwise would be.
Where this pandemic will lead to is an open question. The end result will likely be a more divided and chaotic world order, with western states being more isolationist in the short term. With the wealthiest countries in the world unable to deal with the tsunami of cases from the virus, poor countries will be left to themselves and their economies will be overwhelmed.
Border closures against pandemic threats will mean an end to the mass migration that has occurred to places like Europe, or it will mean more hostility to those migrants who force their way in. This creates a growing divide between the global south and others amid the pandemic. It also creates a divide between the arc of instability that links ungoverned spaces across the
Sahel to Afghanistan where militant groups thrive. Weak states such as Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria only stand to get worse.
China, Russia and Iran will take advantage of the crises to continue their policies that together seek to challenge the United States, the west and western allies. The economic downturn in western states in the wake of the lockdowns and stimulus packages will empower other countries that weathered the storm better. China is one of those countries so far. The debt incurred by stimulus has a ripple effect of potential inflation or other hangovers.
The global pandemic of coronavirus will fundamentally re-shape the world order as it upends systems which people have come to take for granted. Internationally, it is also accelerating the breakdown of the liberal international order. It will be a major turning point with a great effect on the kind of world order that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Now, the new normal may be a world where much less global action is usual and countries focus more on national or regional approaches.