Dr Ernesto Gallo, lecturer in politics, casts a critical eye over the shape of international relations, and wonders what politics will look like post-pandemic.
This article is part of our new series, Regent's Review: thoughts, research and academic discussion on the rapidly unfolding pandemic.
- Western states have become weaker at providing services and the developing states that have followed this path might risk state failure, which itself is a trigger of authoritarianism
- Yet, despite sombre economic predictions and authoritarian fears, there are also significant windows of opportunity
- South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand, among other democracies, have handled the crisis well. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Austria and Portugal have also been quite effective in tackling the pandemic.
Geopolitics after the coronavirus: a critical examination
What shape will international politics take after the pandemic? Will we live in a world dominated by new great powers – above all, China – or experience a ‘new cold war’ between west and east, Washington and Beijing? Or will change be rather modest?
Answers to such questions are extremely difficult, and after all, scholars and commentators are no prophets. International relations depend on a range of factors. The trends of the world economy, the trends’ impact on societies, and the evolution of the pandemic itself will largely influence the way international affairs will take shape. Many commentators point to the growing tensions between the west, led by the US, and the People’s Republic of China, which is increasingly accused of misinforming the rest of the world about the dangers of coronavirus, and of mismanaging the pandemic itself. China is also suspected of conducting a ‘coronavirus diplomacy’ aimed at dividing and ruling the West and especially an already divided Europe. And yet taking a stance on these contentious issues is extremely difficult and dangerous. We know little about the virus, about how China handled the crisis and even about Western reactions to the disease. While initially neglected by the European Union, Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country, has received significant aid and medical equipment from Beijing, which is increasingly tied to Rome. In Britain, France, and especially the US, by contrast, there have been anti-Chinese voices, but it is too early to figure out whether this will lead to future tensions with Beijing. Amongst other things, the US has to face all the uncertainties of its November presidential elections. In addition to all of this, we have little knowledge of the impact of the pandemic on developing countries, which so far have been less affected but might become crucial to the overall geopolitics of the planet.
Fortunately, we can say more about the pandemic’s causes, which can be traced back far beyond what happened in Wuhan. All roads lead to neoliberalism. Cuts to public healthcare and local/regional governments in the west have made our countries ill-prepared to face epidemics. As is documented by the scholar David Harvey, President Trump cut the budget of the Center for Disease Control and eliminated the working group on pandemics in the National Security Council. In addition, in most western countries there have been cuts to hospital beds. Decades of privatisation, prioritisation of corporate profits, and marginalisation of public healthcare have set the conditions for the current difficulties in managing epidemics. Western states have become weaker at providing services and the developing states that have followed this path might risk state failure, which itself is a trigger of authoritarianism. Interestingly, the late Roman empire collapsed because of a combination of recurrent plagues, subsequent political chaos and authoritarian hardening.
Yet, despite sombre economic predictions and authoritarian fears (including in states that were once considered quite consolidated democracies such as India and Brazil), there are also significant windows of opportunity. To begin with, saying that autocracies have been handling the coronavirus crisis better than democracies is simply a mistake. Several democracies have done well. In east Asia, democratic South Korea and Taiwan (the total combined population of the two countries is 76 million) have relied on massive testing and tracking, let alone their experience with previous epidemics. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for her swift, decisive action as well as for her empathetic and kind communication style. Prompt intervention has also characterised Greece’s action, while Germany has contained the virus thanks to a successful combination of rapid intervention, massive testing (up to 500,000 per week) and ample availability of intensive care beds. According to a 2012 study, Germany has 29.2 critical care beds per 100,000 people, compared with 12.5 beds per hundred thousand in Italy, 11.6 in France, 9.7 in Spain and 6.6 in Britain. In different ways, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Austria and Portugal have also been quite effective in tackling the pandemic. As far as European countries are concerned, there have been a lot of critiques about the way the EU failed to find a common response, and especially in the early stages it did not help coronavirus-fighting Italy and Spain. However, at a later stage, some signs of pan-European solidarity have emerged. The European Central Bank has announced the purchase of €750 billion worth of European corporate and government bonds for one year. The Eurozone governments have agreed on a package of half a trillion Euros to deal immediately with unemployment, companies’ problems and healthcare. No agreement, however, has been reached on the issue of the Eurobonds, the adoption of a line of EU debt to be used in emergencies. Such an issue has pitted Germany against Italy and even France in a kind of clash that calls for a rethink of the original European project.
Social distancing has nothing to do with the roots of democratic politics, which, as the ancient Greeks knew very well, started as a public debate on a public square. Yet these days also offer the opportunity to reflect on the ills of neoliberalism, which has strongly contributed to the current crisis, and the evils of authoritarianism, which is entering the EU through Hungary and is increasingly combining with nationalist populism in many Western and non-Western countries. The pandemic’s handling suggests that effective states and functioning democracies have been doing better than the others. Let us try to be optimistic.