It goes without saying that the COVID pandemic has already shaken the world. Anyone who studies pandemics could have predicted that the impact of such an event on personal and communal life would be profound. Anticipating the effects, if any, on international affairs/international politics would have been more difficult. Yet, at this point, roughly seven months into the pandemic, a picture of surprisingly powerful effects is already coming into focus. Whether these effects will prove to be long lasting or ephemeral remains to be seen. So far, if you are an American, the picture is neither pretty nor reassuring.
The most obvious and tragic impact of the pandemic has been on human lives. As of the beginning of this week, nearly 13 million people worldwide have contracted the virus and nearly 570,000 have died — and these numbers are rising and rising fast. We are now entering territory akin to the death toll of a world war. The killing power of pandemics is well established. An outbreak of bubonic plague decimated medieval Europe killing an estimated 60 percent of the entire population. The 1918-19 “Spanish Flu” pandemic infected one-third of the entire global population and in the process killed 675,000 Americans. There are far more people living on this planet than in 1918, and the opportunities for the virus today are commensurately larger.
A second area of impact of the pandemic involves the influence and standing of the United States in international affairs. America was, by international consensus, the pre-eminent superpower of the last century. The decisive U.S. role in World War I coupled with the rapid rise of American manufacturing — and the wealth that went with it — validated the transfer of international leadership from London to Washington by the 1920s. Victories in World War II and the Cold War combined with U.S. leadership in science, technology and education further buttressed America’s standing.
However, over the last decade that premier position has faced a growing challenge from China. There is a certain eerie logic in the fact that a virus that originated in China has, in a matter of six months, created a dramatically new international perceptual landscape — one of high competence and ruthless effectiveness in China while America has become something close to an object of pity for its utter inability to control the spread of the virus — even as many countries in Europe and Asia manage to do it very effectively. If you are German or Singaporean and you are used to looking to the United States for leadership and guidance, what are you going to think when you hear an American president declare that “99 percent of the COVID cases are completely harmless” on the same day that U.S. deaths from the virus top 137,000? Imagine the view from Vietnam (which shares a border with China), a country of nearly 100 million people without a single COVID death! For foreign friends of America, and they are legion, this is a sad time. European countries, including Britain, have reopened their borders to travel from other countries deemed to be COVID-safe. The United States is not on that list.
Along with its international political effects, the virus has produced a very graphic stress test within countries of government competence — with clear winners and losers. Winners include Germany, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and several European countries. Losers include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Iran and North Korea — plus some ambiguous cases like India. There are some interesting parings: Canada succeeds, the United States fails; Scotland outperforms England; the same for Germany in comparison to France and Denmark in comparison to Sweden.
The economic effects of the pandemic are both national and international. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the global economy will contract 5 percent this year; every major state economy is expected to decline except possibly China. The American economy will be 8 percent smaller at the end of the year than it was in 2019. As economies shrink, so does global trade — by an estimated 7 percent this year.
This contraction has coincided with another virus-related development of profound potential importance. Globalization — the integration of national economies in global supply chains — has been a bedrock reality over recent decades. The internationalization of manufacturing, finance and services has been a primary driver of rising incomes around the world. But COVID has vividly exposed the downside of being dependent on pharmaceuticals and medical supplies from China, to cite a major example. This has coincided with rapidly growing concern regarding China’s neo-imperial ambitions as a new global superpower. The U.S. and Chinese economies have become deeply intertwined over the last 30 years, but suddenly all that is in question. Now there is regular talk in Washington of “decoupling” the two economies — a sentiment that would have been deemed unthinkable even five years ago. Perhaps the most single influential voice behind this push is White House advisor Peter Navarro. A few years ago, Navarro was viewed as a kind of intellectual crank — not someone to be taken seriously. No longer.
COVID has played a critical, if still murky, role in this development. The perception that China bears responsibility for unleashing COVID on the world has given huge emotional impetus to decoupling and its policy companion — “America first.” This was on full display a few days ago when the prospective Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, unveiled a $720 billion plan to return manufacturing to American shores — and away from China. Similar movements are taking shape in Japan, Australia and Europe. Beijing’s recent crackdown on Hong Kong has provided still more impetus.
The complete book on COVID is yet to be written; we are still in the early chapters. But, as of now, it looks like the world after COVID is going to look significantly different than the one we knew before.