Pandemic fuels uncertainty over global order’s future

Pandemic fuels uncertainty over global order’s future

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U.S. President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, U.S., December 18, 2019. (Reuters)

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic will change many aspects of life, including the sociological, economic, health, environmental, and political trends and institutions that shape our world. The global political order is also being affected.

The pandemic hit at a time when the post-Second World War global order was already eroding. Trends such as digitalization, demographic changes, the diffusion of geopolitical and economic power, the rise of China, the 2008 global financial crisis, and rising authoritarian tendencies in multiple democracies have placed growing pressure on the system. 

The global response to COVID-19 further demonstrated the weakening of the postwar order. Institutions such as the G7 and G20 struggled to find a consensus, let alone take serious action. EU countries mostly chose to adopt their own measures, rather than rely on multilateral cooperation to combat the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) became a political football kicked back and forth between Washington and Beijing. 

The pandemic will play a role in reshaping the world order, though it is very early to determine in what ways. Potentially, the pandemic could drive countries to rebuild or reform institutions to better help countries work together, or it could be the final nail in the coffin of the postwar order. It is too early to predict what the outcome will be, but there are several factors to watch that will help determine the shape of the post-pandemic world order. 

COVID-19 has hurt every country, in terms of both health and economics. This somewhat flattens its effect on global power dynamics. However, when the crisis is over, it will be clear that some countries handled the pandemic better, and those countries’ economies are likely to recover more quickly. It is too early to make final judgments but, so far, countries such as South Korea, Germany, New Zealand and Uruguay appear to have effectively managed the crisis. Such countries are likely to gain soft power — cultural, diplomatic and economic influence. They might also find it easier to attract foreign investment, as companies that were rattled by the pandemic’s economic effects seek to set up supply chains or invest in places that appear to have effective governance and cohesive societies. 

Another factor might be which country or countries first develop a vaccine, and whether they offer it to the world or try to keep it to themselves. Countries that develop a safe, reliable vaccine and offer it to the world at a low price are very likely to gain significant soft power. 

The US-China rivalry had been heating up well before the pandemic, but the pandemic has further escalated tensions between the two countries. The US’ insistence on calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” undermined the ability of the G7 to produce a joint statement. Disagreements between Washington and Beijing also hampered potential action by the UN Security Council on the pandemic. The Trump administration vowed to withdraw US funding and participation in the WHO last month, saying that “China has total control” over the organization. Chinese officials have, in turn, made spurious accusations against the US. 

The pandemic threatens to seriously undermine Chinese soft power and thus China’s global role. Beijing has faced widespread criticism across the world for its initial response to the virus. In an effort to restore its reputation, it sent medical supplies abroad, but that effort encountered problems when some masks and testing kits proved defective. China has also faced criticism for its treatment of foreigners living in the country during the pandemic. The response of some Chinese diplomats has been to take a more aggressive approach, criticizing foreign countries in sometimes offensive ways, demanding praise for China in exchange for assistance, and threatening to reduce economic ties with countries that criticize Beijing. While some countries have expressed gratitude for aid from China, many have expressed impatience with its overall response.

The pandemic also accelerated the erosion of the US’ soft power, though that trend predates the virus. America’s decision to withdraw from the WHO in the middle of a historic pandemic prompted widespread criticism. Many foreigners perceive the US government response to the pandemic to be ineffective. Its travel bans on multiple countries damaged relations, even though there is a reasonable argument that the bans might help slow the pandemic. 

It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the EU. The initial European response reflected the growth of nationalism and a lack of commitment to cooperative action. However, in recent weeks, there are signs that Europe might be developing a new approach to its unity in the wake of Brexit, the pandemic, and US disengagement. 

There are several factors to watch that will help determine the shape of the post-pandemic world order.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

World orders consist of ideas, as well as powerful states and institutions. The pandemic is fueling debates about which key ideas and norms should underpin the global order, including the role of government, democracy versus authoritarian systems, the nature of social contracts, and how to address inequalities.

The future of the world order is unclear. It is likely to see growing competition between the US and China. If the postwar order is to survive, multiple countries will have to make a serious commitment to reforming and strengthening their institutions. The pandemic highlights the need for cooperation, but it also raises the stakes of competition between states. It presents an opportunity to develop more effective multilateral structures, but it could also be the final development that effectively ends the order that has governed international relations for the last 75 years. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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