The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the world, including the balance of power between states. There is no doubt of that, but the question is, how?
The United States has been, without any doubt, the world’s leading superpower of the last century, following the glorious victory of the Second World War and after defeating their only rival superpower, the Soviet Union, at the end of the Cold War. The presidency of Bill Clinton in the ‘90s perhaps represented the peak of their power and the establishment of a new unipolar order – with the United States as the undeniable hegemon.
The terror attacks of 9/11 signaled a turning point in world history. President Bush’s aggressive response in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the United States could no longer rely merely on soft power to maintain its hegemonic position – it had to use hard power to do so.
During this time, the inexorable rise of China as an economic and military powerhouse wasn’t being properly evaluated in Washington D.C., considering the Bush administration’s special focus on the Middle East.
When Obama came to office, his administration realised that China was a reality that could no longer be ignored. Competing against China would have had drastic economic repercussions, and for this reason this period was characterized by increased trade between the two superpowers, agreements and the prospect of prosperity for both. In practice, Obama tried to maintain the privileged position of the United States on the world stage by taking multilateral actions together with historical allies and new potential partners, instead of seeing them as a threat. It was 2009 and there was no longer a unipolar world order on the horizon.
The election of President Trump in 2016 turned this situation upside down. “America First” was on the one hand the valid recognition the United States was no longer the sole superpower, and on the other hand it constituted a rant against evidence, a child’s cry on the international stage. Trump’s aggressive use of soft power had no other effect than accelerating the prospect of a multipolar world, with the United States and China as the main superpowers, with Russia and the European Union standing a step behind.
During the past month however, an even greater international earthquake put everything under discussion, the Covid-19 pandemic. It started in China, as we all know, but it is having a devastating effect on the United States, compared to other countries. Trump’s self-praise does not disguise the fact that his administration has demonstrated inability and incompetence in understanding the problem, and in providing timely and valid solutions.
Whether Trump or his political opponent Joe Biden will be elected in 2020 won’t change the fact that the economic depression caused by the Covid-19 pandemic will shape a new role for the United States – and a new world order – at the end of all of this.
China has been hit hard by the pandemic, not only in terms of human loss, but also in terms of trade. Closed borders and limited business don’t favour the Chinese economy, which is largely based on exports. The role of China could be further damaged over the next months if the international community starts to condemn their initial response to the virus. Trump’s move to withdraw funding for the World Health Organisation, and his failed shift in discourse attempting to rebrand SARS-CoV-2 as the “China virus” suggests China may however win this battle of rhetoric against the United States.
The United States, as we are beginning to understand, will be damaged from every direction. The pandemic highlighted social divisions within the country, exacerbated pre-existing racial problems, and further underlined the incompetence of the political class and the irrelevance of the scientific community when it comes to directing national policies. While the economy is finally restarting, the pandemic is producing drastic changes for Americans, revealing a vulnerable society with many people losing their jobs at an unprecedented speed.
The international image of the main world’s superpower – and its soft power – have been deteriorating at an alarming pace. If the pandemic will expose the incompetence of populist, far right movements that have been growing in influence over the past decade, the international support for Trump’s presidency will further decrease – leaving the United States completely isolated.
This will indirectly have an impact on American hard power, with military operations that are less supported by international allies – who may increasingly prevent the use of their bases and ground for American or NATO operations. The pandemic is actually already having a direct effect on American military operations: as borders are closed and states are in lockdown, international military training has been suspended, and operations have been reduced.
All in all, this could provide China with a tremendous advantage in military terms, strengthening its position in the South China Sea at the expense of the United States. In practice China may catch up from a military, economic and logistic point of view, while growing its influence on the world stage. It is however unlikely that China will become a new hegemon on the world stage, predominantly because the United States is still a military powerhouse, and their influence may return if the Democrats find their way back to the White House.
The European Union (EU) will also play a major role in the post pandemic era. If the EU will be successful in learning from its mistakes and becoming a better connected political and economic society, it may become the world’s new moral superpower – perhaps with a joint military that will become over time less dependent on Washington D.C. This may be a historical occasion for the EU, as both the United States and Russia, who oppose the European project (as they fear Brussels might dictate their international policies), are distracted by their fight against Covid-19.
It is not yet crystal clear how Russia will manage the Covid-19 pandemic, with its growing number of cases and deaths. However, while Americans have struggled to impose their political will in Syria and Turkey, Russia is a growing power on the world stage, and has gained vast influence in the Middle Eastover the past decade.
We can therefore envision the establishment of a multipolar world order, with a weakened position occupied by the United States and a stronger one occupied by China. Russia will be there too, hoping to catch up. The EU may have its chance to take a step forward and define its own fate. In this context, international organisations may finally become more independent from the influence of individual countries, and their voices may be raised – more frequently at least – for the good of the world.
A multipolar world is more dangerous than a unipolar one – many competing players introduce more variables for states to consider, increasing the instability of the whole system. As Prof. Anthony Pahnke pointed out, the new world order may look as it did in the 1930s, and we all know how this ended. However, multipolarity also means countries may be freer to choose their own policies, and ultimately to increase the quality of life of their citizens. It may also mean that, although fragile, the equilibrium of international relations may be more durable. It is better for the world to have multiple potential threats, instead of one, as states may ultimately realise they are better off with policies of multilateral agreement and collaboration, rather than competition.