Political implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are no less significant than the economic ones. Escalating tensions between the United States and China are the clearest immediate outcome. Covid-19 may fundamentally transform the world as we know it: the world order, its balance of power, traditional conceptions of national security, and the future of globalisation. The lethal combination of an interconnected world and a deadly virus without a cure is taking humanity into uncharted waters. When we emerge from the lockdown, we must be ready to confront new political and social realities.
The first thing to know about any world order is that it is not permanent.
The second thing to know is that any world order requires a stable distribution of power and broad acceptance of the rules that govern the conduct of international relations. We have seen the rise of Athens and the consequent Peloponnesian war. We have seen the world order established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and later the world order established by America after WWI which was ordered further after WWII. The rise and fall of major powers determines the viability of the prevailing order, since changes in economic strength, political cohesion, and military power shape what states can and are willing to do beyond their borders.
USA vs China
Coming to the Covid-19 pandemic and the crumbling world order in its wake, the foremost question is whether the USA would continue to be a global hegemon or not? Will China lead the post-pandemic world? What will happen to globalisation? Will democracy succeed against authoritarianism? Will international cooperation gain new momentum or would it be reversed?
These questions are being widely debated nowadays. If you see Foreign affairs magazine, it is full of such stories.
Some argue that the post-pandemic world order will be driven by China. Trump’s America First policy is not concerned with leading the world, which gives China a space. Fareed Zakaria has earlier talked about the rise of the “rest of the world”. Since Donald Trump’s election as president, many analysts and policymakers inside and outside the United States have bemoaned his assault on the liberal international order—the norms and institutions championed by the United States since World War II to promote democracy, free trade, human rights, and the rule of law. Trump’s foreign policy poses a danger to world affairs precisely because it indulges and employs those threats that originally motivated the formation of the international order. Now, hyper-nationalism and protectionism—the two scourges that ravaged the world in the first half of the twentieth century—have returned in U.S. policies themselves. You must know that the current world order is an American creation. From the isolationist policy started by George Washington and ended by Woodrow Wilson in his speech to the US Congress in 1917 in which he said that when freedom is threatened, America cannot afford isolation. Then it was after WW II that America laid down the structure of the post-war order at the Bretton Woods conferences in 1944. It is undeniable that the liberal international order created and led by the United States after World War II achieved enormous successes. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in countries like India and China, which began integrating into the global economic order in the 1980s and 1990s. However, this American-created world order is actually a camouflage to hide American imperialism as its institutions are dominated by the US and this order has created problems like climate change, growing inequality, and the concentration of capital.
China, on the other side, is the driving force behind the creation of the New Development Bank, an alternative to the World Bank. The China-Africa Investment Forum, an annual meeting begun in 2016, is gaining momentum as a platform for deals in Africa. Then there is the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s $1trillion plan to add maritime and land links in Eurasia. Although still at an early stage, it could prompt a major shift in the pattern of global investment, spurring faster economic growth across Asia and connecting many countries that the last era of globalisation left behind. China aims to cut down America’s lead in the world. However, Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that China is not trying to replace the United States as a hegemon; rather, it is trying to check the United States globally while expelling it from a Chinese sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Covid-19 and Globalisation
Some argue that Covid-19 will end globalisation. The post-pandemic world order, according to them, will be marked by anarchy, greater nationalism, greater power tussle, nuclear proliferation, greater flow of refugees, and changes in the nature of nation-states. But globalisation is being driven by digital technology and is increasingly led by China and other emerging economies. In other words, globalisation has not given way to de-globalisation; it has simply entered a different phase. In this world, globalisation won’t disappear; it will deepen. If in the past, global integration grew as trade barriers came down, it will now rely on the connectivity of national digital and virtual systems and the related flow of ideas and services. This is the core of Globalization 4.0. Covid-19, in fact, may give rise to new international cooperation, as the pandemic cannot be fought at the national level alone.
Pandemic and Democracy
Some would suggest that a post-pandemic world order will shrink space for democratic forces and give a boost to authoritarian states, ultra-nationalism, protectionism, closing of borders, undermining of the rights of minorities. It will thus be detrimental to the Westphalian model of democracy. Yet another undesirable outcome of the pandemic could be a spike in various forms of discrimination. “Globally, societies could become more self-seeking and inward-looking leading to further pushback against liberal policies regarding migration and refugees,” writes Happymon Jacob, who teaches national security at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
However, these all are assumptions. They may prove true or untrue. But one thing is clear: the post-pandemic world will not be the same as the pre-pandemic one. Moreover, whether the current liberal American world order shall sustain itself or not, much will depend on whether China is ready to lead the world or not. Earlier China has been reluctant to lead the world. Some scholars have argued that China only wants its “sphere of influence” to be recognised by the world, especially the USA.
—The writer is a blogger and student at Govt Degree College [email protected]