As has happened many times before in history, 2020 had a surprise in store for humanity – for several months, the tightly intertwined ecosystem of the globalised world has been transformed by a new coronavirus, which escalated from a few cases in China to a global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered international political processes. Comparisons are already being drawn: the 2008 global crisis led to the formation of BRICS, the IMF was established during the Second World War, and the G7 came into being following the 1973 oil crisis, so surely this crisis will also lead to the emergence of some new configuration.
Anxious globalists are shouting that a new wave of nationalisation is starting around the world, and autocratic regimes are seizing the opportunity to consolidate their power. The US is predicting that the impending economic crisis will be even worse than the previous one and will increase the country’s unemployment rate to 20%.
In an article dated 18 March 2020, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, and director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative, Rush Doshi, noted that “while its geopolitical implications should be considered secondary to matters of health and safety, those implications may, in the long term, prove just as consequential—especially when it comes to the United States’ global position”.
They compare the current pandemic with the “Suez moment” and write that it is now testing every element of US leadership. And while China acted quickly, even helping other countries, the same cannot be said of Washington.
In early March 2020, the US only had one percent of the billions of surgical masks it needed, according to official figures. As for ventilators, the country had just 10% of the amount needed in an epidemic. At the same time, 95% of the antibiotics on the US market are of Chinese origin and most of the ingredients cannot be produced locally. A total of 80 percent of the basic components used in US drugs come from China and India.
Generally speaking, in order to get out of this situation, the US needs to resolve its problems at home, start supplying public goods and services at the global level, and coordinate (ideally head) a global campaign to combat the pandemic and mitigate the impact of the coming economic crisis. That is clearly not going to happen, however.
Nationalism is now evident not just in the solidarity of groups of citizens with doctors in a given country, but also in the effectiveness of the medical care. In terms of mortality, the US, Italy and Spain occupy the top spots in this unfortunate ranking, whereas China and Iran – the two countries where the global epidemic more or less began – have lower figures in the overall statistics.
It is telling that Italy was caught unprepared. It was also caught unprepared for the position taken by the other EU members, who left the country to fend for itself. The unprecedented assistance provided by China, Russia and Cuba showed the world the true meaning of solidarity, as opposed to Europe’s hypocritical values. Many Italian politicians, and not just the Eurosceptics, have started talking about a possible “Italexit” – Italy’s withdrawal from the EU, following in the footsteps of the UK. It is possible this will remain nothing more than talk, since Italy is far removed from the UK economically, but the EU will no longer be the same.
Yet the EU and the US are the two main poles of global geopolitics. They are joined together by a tradition of neo-Atlanticism that goes back decades. And now, the current crisis is exposing the vulnerabilities of the whole system – the politics, ideology and geopolitics of a neoliberalism and Western democracy that has degenerated into a cliquey cartel of oligarchs. The pandemic is also revealing the vulnerabilities of a military and political system like NATO, because its members have been unable to collectively address the spread of the virus. So, what would happen if, God forbid, some terrorist group used a biological or chemical weapon?
Getting back to the globalists’ opinion on the issue, there is a rather telling article on the website of the Council on Foreign Affairs that evaluates the actions of the US as the engine of globalisation. The author writes: “As policymakers around the world struggle to deal with the new coronavirus and its aftermath, they will have to confront the fact that the global economy doesn’t work as they thought it did. Globalization calls for an ever-increasing specialization of labor across countries, a model that creates extraordinary efficiencies but also extraordinary vulnerabilities. Shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic reveal these vulnerabilities. Single-source providers, or regions of the world that specialize in one particular product, can create unexpected fragility in moments of crisis, causing supply chains to break down. In the coming months, many more of these vulnerabilities will be exposed.
“The result may be a shift in global politics. With the health and safety of their citizens at stake, countries may decide to block exports or seize critical supplies, even if doing so hurts their allies and neighbors. Such a retreat from globalization would make generosity an even more powerful tool of influence for states that can afford it. So far, the United States has not been a leader in the global response to the new coronavirus, and it has ceded at least some of that role to China. This pandemic is reshaping the geopolitics of globalization, but the United States isn’t adapting. Instead, it’s sick and hiding under the covers.”
Joseph Nye Jr pessimistically agrees that the US system of power is dysfunctional: “Competition and an ‘America First’ approach is not enough to protect the United States. Close cooperation with both allies and adversaries is also essential for American security. […] We must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals, which involves power with others. […] The key to America’s future security and prosperity is learning the importance of ‘power with’ as well as ‘power over’ others. Every country puts its interests first, but the important question is how broadly or narrowly it defines those interests. […] The new threat to America’s security is not just from transnational forces like COVID-19 and climate change, but from Americans’ domestic failure to adjust their own attitudes to this new world. That is the painful lesson that COVID-19 is teaching us.”
Joseph Nye Jr is clearly alluding to the possible emergence of new centres of power, a rethinking of identity, and issues of sovereignty. He is giving the signal that the American establishment is ready to rethink the rules of the game.
Whatever happens, the virus will prove extremely challenging for the US and the West, both figuratively and literally. The remarkable fragility of the most technologically developed country will have an impact on the re-evaluation of its domestic and foreign policies. Both US citizens and the citizens of other countries will increasingly call for political stability, access to key decisions, and the removal from positions of power and punishment of those who profited from the crisis and manipulated it to serve personal or corporate interests. This will provide an additional opportunity to introduce and implement the idea of multipolarity not only by the opponents of a unipolar hegemony, but also within the West itself, since it will be a question of the West’s very survival. And for the non-West, it will open up another window of opportunity in global geopolitics. Since the supply chains that helped establish the West’s global dominance are breaking down, it will be able to shape its own future based on authentic ideas and the principles of good neighbourliness and mutually beneficial cooperation.