The coronavirus pandemic has locked down almost all societies around the globe, with people even frightened of standing close to one another. If we interpret the situation we are in, it would not be an exaggeration to say that fear manages the world right now. People around the world seem to have entered an awkward period of waiting, frozen in a moment of history. Everyone is the producer and consumer of this climate of alarm for their own lives and personal safety. During these days of global hysteria, what we need to consider is whether the next step awaiting us in this global environment of trepidation is pointing to the end of an era or the beginning of a new one.
The novel coronavirus or COVID-19, which appeared in China in December 2019 and has been on the global agenda for months, is set to be the pioneer of a change that will reshape the world according to many commentators. Some are more cautious and say it is too early to come to such a conclusion. Others argue that this virus was produced in a laboratory and that new power structures will be created using such methods instead of nuclear war. On a relevant note, many are saying that the United States will no longer be a global power and China will take its place. Some experts on the other hand are contending that the United States will become stronger following the end of this pandemic. It is not feasible to claim that COVID-19 will establish a new balance by shaking the geopolitical scales. However, by looking at the data currently available, we can predict the direction this tremor may take us.
First and foremost, the emergence of this virus in Wuhan and its rapid spread perceivably makes China the source of the problem. From this point of view, China’s speed in understanding, analyzing and identifying the virus as a threat factor, and the transparency Beijing showed in sharing this information with the world, will be questioned after the outbreak is eradicated. China faces accusations from several countries, including the U.S., that it was late in alerting the world to the virus situation.
According to official statements, the absence of new cases in China as of the end of March 2020 was regarded as a success that garnered the appreciation of the whole world. Undoubtedly, bringing a population of over one billion to a standstill during the Chinese New Year celebrations, is a remarkable story for any modern state, even if this procedure was carried out in limited areas.
On the other hand, the spread of the virus worldwide, and the fact that no known remedy has been developed, has globalized the problem and pushed the whole world into a panic. After the coronavirus spread to the U.S., Latin America, EU countries, Russia, Brazil, Turkey and many others at the same rapid speed that it spread in China, countries are having an extremely difficult time in dealing with the fallout.
Overwhelmed in the face of hundreds of deaths, many countries are forcing their citizens to isolate themselves as the first line of defense and trying to prevent the epidemic from flooding hospitals by restricting travel. Total deaths in many countries have now surpassed China, and cases are rapidly increasing worldwide exceeding 6.4 million on June 3, 2020. The current situation shows that the U.S. has received the biggest blow from the pandemic so far.
While countries are developing their methods to deal with the pandemic, they are also trying to act according to their health policies, the capacity of their health systems, hospitals, and economies, and the medical resources they have. However, the virus infection rate is very high, and it is not clear when the outbreak will end. This has led to an environment full of uncertainty.
The question of global leadership
The global geopolitics, balance of powers and the hierarchy of states undoubtedly do not alter by themselves, nor do they change in peaceful ways. Looking at times of major crises in history shows us this. The U.S. independence from the British Empire, the French Revolution, World War I and II are all examples that prevent us from voicing hope about change through peaceful means. However, we should not underestimate those who advocate for peaceful change.
Although it is imperative to carry out such broad cooperation to compensate for the damage caused by the coronavirus, it is just as important to remember that it is political leadership that will carry us forward. The U.S. is traditionally expected to play an immersive and constructive role from this point on. The order that has been damaged and needs to be compensated is the West-centered liberal economic system led by the U.S. Thus, naturally, the pioneering steps to be taken to compensate for the losses this system has incurred are expected, to come from the West.
The biggest factor missing at this point is leadership. If U.S. President Donald Trump is not willing to take on such a leadership role, for which he has not shown any positive signs so far, an incredible geopolitical opportunity has been opened for the European Union – the likes of which it has not seen since its foundation. Will the EU be able to take on that role?
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is preparing to bid farewell to politics very soon, is trying to keep the EU project alive, it is difficult to predict whether she will take economic geopolitical steps around the EU or even on a global scale. Even if Merkel is willing to take these steps, will rising German nationalism interfere? Or will EU member states be willing to let such a patronage role take place outside of the Union while they failed to coordinate aid among each other when it was needed the most? Looking at the latest developments, especially the plight of Italy and Spain and the battle over medical equipment, it is not possible to give positive answers to these questions.
The fact that neither the U.S. nor the EU has taken steps to find a global solution to the financial dilemma within the Western system does not mean that they are going to wait forever.
The fact that neither the U.S. nor the EU has taken steps to find a global solution to the financial dilemma within the Western system does not mean that they are going to wait forever. As most countries are currently busy dealing with their difficulties caused by the pandemic, they may have chosen to postpone this step. Failure to take such a step toward the middle of this year will certainly deepen the financial and economic problems experienced globally. This may push new actors with the potential to play the leadership role, such as China, to take on the initiative.
Those who argue that the U.S. should leave global leadership to China, claim that the coronavirus epidemic has prepared the base for such a power shift. They discuss that it is more reasonable to gradually change the global system, rather than a change through a comprehensive and destructive nuclear war. The main problem with this approach is it assumes that the U.S. is ready to leave its leadership role without a fight. Whether China’s global leadership capacity is being tested or not, it is still unclear if China and the strong economies on its side will be willing to undertake or consent to such a power shift.
Can China Take the Lead?
Can China, the uninterruptedly developing power of the last few decades, lead the world? The 1973 oil crisis was the first time that American rule was shaken in the world system. Having occupied Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. consolidated its global leadership by military means, declaring to rising economies like the EU and China that it will keep its role of being an indispensable hegemon in the global system. The worldwide financial crisis of 2008 also caused the U.S. to lose some of its economic superiority. Some even argue that the world is still feeling the effects of it today.
Nobody can say that the liberal economies are disturbed by the U.S. leadership role. Aside from its military superiority, the democratic and open society model it offers to the world, its wealth and lifestyle, its role in securing global trade networks and its effectiveness in responding to global crises are the elements that contribute to the U.S. global leadership position. To put it simply, the global leadership of the U.S. is not just due to its military superiority, but its wealth and the acceptance of its democratic model through consent– even though some U.S. administrators may no longer think so. Any harm to this consent would cause more damage to America’s global leadership role than any defeat of its military.
All that has happened in the course of this pandemic should be a warning to all countries against any possible biological terror attacks in the future.
China, however, does not offer a democratic model. A model run by a strict central authority, giving no or limited right to individual property, will have a hard time producing attractive offers for the liberal world. Also, the question remains as to what coordination mechanisms China will produce for international problems. China’s army and economic power are undoubtedly on a global level; however, it will not be so easy for China to generate consent for its global leadership. If China is willing to take on such a leadership role on a global scale, this intent should generate some willingness towards developing different ways of collaboration with other countries.
A new geopolitics is forming
The defining steps of a new geopolitical order after the coronavirus crisis seem to include some key issues. First of all, it is necessary to address the speculation on COVID-19: If the coronavirus is lab-made or an out-of-control science experiment, countries that suffer from this pandemic will demand compensation from the country or countries that caused it. Even if the coronavirus pandemic was sparked as a result of natural changes in microorganisms, then the countries affected by this virus may still seek to claim compensation from the country or countries responsible, since they have not taken necessary measures on time.
All that has happened in the course of this pandemic should be a warning to all countries against any possible biological terror attacks in the future. The urgent need to expand state capacities in case of such attacks is evident. Laboratories that conduct biological research may be asked to be more transparent and ready to be monitored by an international mechanism. The establishment of an institution like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and regular inspection of such laboratories could be a critical step.
The coronavirus outbreak will continue to have an impact on many governments’ human and financial resources as well as their administrative capabilities. Less damage from COVID-19 will amount to more power and quick recovery for the victim countries in the aftermath of the crisis.
Trying hard to overcome the crisis that has already disrupted their production and consumption mechanisms, many countries have announced that they will ease their markets by printing large sums of money. While such steps may temporarily produce solutions, there could be a risk of inflation in the medium term and even hyperinflation in some cases.
The U.S. injected $2.2 trillion into their market to rescue the coronavirus-battered economy. If Washington fails to manage the crisis and isolates itself by casting aside its global leadership role, this may invite China – an economy based on production and with plenty of cash reserves – to take necessary steps to be the leading global power. After China announced the supposed end of the coronavirus outbreak, it has taken some striking steps on public diplomacy, like sending aid packages and health teams to virus-stricken Italy. China may be taking these steps to prevent or preempt charges against how it handled the COVID-19 outbreak. It may also be doing these to prove its willingness to protect its partners in the One Belt and One Road project. In whichever case, the U.S. lack of self-sufficiency and disappearance in such a global crisis creates a big power vacuum and thus provides ample opportunity for China.
If China can live through the current mistrust it has incurred for being the source of the pandemic and creates an image of a credible workable partner, the shift of power towards Asia will accelerate. However, it is not going to be easy for China to overcome this crisis of trust. If it fails to turn the tide, it may lose its image of being the world’s primary production center, and most China-based production activities will be distributed to different regions in Asia and Europe.
After the pandemic ends, the EU will also face a stringent test. Having failed to provide support to its member countries such as Italy and Spain, which have been struck hard by the pandemic, the EU may face the question of survival. As for Germany, it might face national objections and some bigger economic storms in the future if it extends help to its corona-hit EU neighbors during and after the crisis.
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American Primacy is tested
Certainly, each nation should lead its fight against the COVID-19 crisis. However, at a time when humanity is facing such an ever-growing pandemic, global coordination needs to be ensured either by international institutions or the United States. The steps taken by the World Health Organization (WHO), its ability to reach out to the countries in need of assistance, and the procurement of equipment and materials against such global outbreaks will certainly be questioned.
The U.S. has preoccupied itself with its coronial troubles: U.S. President Donald Trump downplayed the pandemic at first and then proceeded to take drastic measures later on when the situation quickly deteriorated. The healthcare system in the country has fallen short of being ready for such a large-scale pandemic, and American citizens with no health insurance have barely been able to get treatment.
While the world’s rising powers want to assess China’s management of the pandemic, and its leadership capacity, the U.S. is facing a hard-hitting test of leadership. The coronavirus outbreak will mostly lead to the questioning of health policies in the U.S. It will also work as a litmus test to see whether the capacity and technical equipment of hospitals in the country are sufficient or not. The answer seems to be a resounding no for now.
If Donald Trump changes his traditional attitude toward health insurance and proposes an inclusive health policy, he can tip the scales in his favor. The worst-case scenario for the U.S. would be its failure to fight the coronavirus on its soil. The professed unwillingness of the Trump administration to lead global efforts to stop the pandemic will irreparably damage the U.S. position.
Perhaps, the only reasonable option for states is cooperation and finding common solutions to this global threat just as medical doctors do while struggling to find a cure to the COVID-19 through sharing their knowledge and experience.
This article has been submitted to Politics Today in April 2020.