There’s a temptation to think that we cannot go back to the status quo ante; that there will be a pre-coronavirus world order and a post-coronavirus world order, and the two will be very different. Once the crisis is over, a geopolitical post-mortem, so to speak, will demand solutions to why international cooperation vanished as quickly as it did, leaving each nation-state to go their own way. Why was the WHO, IMF and other international bodies so weak in their response? How could America simply go missing, giving up so cheaply and easily the global position it has held since 1945? How could China get away with its lies and cover-ups, and then pass the buck with orchestrating a worldwide disinformation campaign?
Because this crisis has whipped off the blanket covering up so many pre-existing problems of global cooperation, many will argue, things will have to change. So serious was this crisis, indeed, that things cannot be allowed to return to as they were. Future historians may well settle on January 2020 as yet another date when world politics changed beyond recognition, joining September 2001, December 1989 and September 1939 as chapter beginnings in our historical story.
But to think this, one must commingle optimism with cynicism. Optimism, indeed, that the international community will pull together once the crisis comes to an end, and that the most powerful nations will sit down together to hammer out solutions to global problems that have been plaguing the world order for years, if not decades. Cynicism, too, that only from crisis does something new arise.
It is only natural to think like this. History, after all, teaches us that crises do tend to lead to renewal. The post-1945 world order was, in most ways, the correction of problems that existed pre-1939 – in other words, the Second World War was the great recalibrating crisis. The eradication of Nazism and Fascism was the most obvious of these recalibrations, but important also was the mass movement of Europeans into essentially ethically-designated nations, the end of imperialism across much of the world, and the creation of a stable international order which would successfully maintain peace and stability (at least in the West) for several decades. Indeed, the world order after 1945 can only be compared to the world order before 1939 in terms of a correction, not continuation.
A better analogy to our times, instead, is the First World War. The crisis that was WW1 only exacerbated the tensions present pre-1914, meaning what happened post-1918 was an aggravated continuation of what preceded the crisis. Nationalism wasn’t cured by the First World War; it was made more extreme. Intra-Europe tensions weren’t resolved; they were heightened. Imperialism wasn’t solved; it was imported back onto European soil. The First World War was an adrenaline shot to a misguided world order, whereas the Second World War was a terrible (but necessary) tonic.
As such, the post-coronavirus world order won’t correct of the problems of the pre-coronavirus world order. Instead, this crisis only serves to exacerbate those pre-existing problems. It further sows divisions amongst the international community, chiefly between the US and China, which have been worsening for years. If, indeed, we were already in a New Cold War between Beijing and Washington last year, there’s little reason to think that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a warming of relations and détente. The opposite, in fact. Xi Jinping has now added his “Health Silk Road” to Beijing’s tentacled weltpolitik, while China’s military during this crisis has escalated its aggression in the South China Sea. It isn’t pessimistic, but realistic, to think that the likelihood of war between these two superpowers has now increased. This is something that opinion formers need to be postulating more than ever.
In Europe, the coronavirus crisis will embolden, not answer, the debate between federalism and the authority of nation-states, which was already tearing the continent apart before the crisis began. Brexit, after all, began four years ago. A new post-coronavirus migration crisis is also likely, especially if Turkey senses it can get Brussels to cough up more money for their tainted agreement, but this is because the EU and European governments only put off for another day the migration crisis that began in 2014. Also in Europe, we are now seeing even more of a breakdown of democracy in place like Poland and Hungary, the latter of which has already passed emergency decrees that will now likely provide the ruling Fidesz party with irreversible autocratic authority. But this was the trajectory those countries were moving in before the virus outbreak.
At times during this crisis, it has felt like living in limbo. Life is in stasis, us cocooned in our homes, watching ticker tapes roll by with every-increasing casualty numbers, waiting to be told when proper life can resume again. No doubt, there will be much rejoicing once the crisis comes to an end, when those who are alive and healthy can look back and reflect on what just happened. And, naturally, we will demand changes so something like this doesn’t happen again (that this was ‘a health war to end all health wars,’ so to speak), and demand solutions to the problem of international cooperation which floundered during the crisis. But it’s unlikely we’ll get new answers to old questions. Indeed, this crisis won’t resolve the pre-crisis debates of globalization or autarky; of extra-national bodies or nation-states; of a US-led world order or a China-backed one. No, it will only make those debates more pertinent and combustive. The post-coronavirus world will just be a more extreme version of the pre-coronavirus world.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain, after previously covering Asian politics from Southeast Asia for five years. He reports on Asian geopolitics and European foreign policy, especially Europe-Asia relations. He is a columnist for the Diplomat and a correspondent for Asia Times.