COVID-19 is precipitating the emergence of a new world order, characterised by waning American leadership and a shift of power towards China. In this context, Western democracies will be challenged on cooperation and unity.
Nobody was expecting this decade to begin with such domestic and international disruption. Currently, three billion people wait to be released from their homes, hoping for a short-lived quarantine. Regardless, the socio-political impact will be much longer lasting. COVID-19 has uncovered deficiencies of the post-industrial world order, showing that globalisation constantly hangs by a thread. In particular, the doubtful response from some international institutions has pushed certain economies and governments towards more isolationism. As countries envision their role in the post-COVID-19 world, the international stage is readjusting.
Multilateral world order
For the past fifty years, much of the world has tended towards a Western model of multilateralism and integration. International organisations and laws have become an integral part of the governance system, limiting warfare and improving living standards in many parts of the world. The economic and military dominance of the United States has made it a suitable example to follow in the pursuit of growing trade networks, intensive farming, nuclear dissuasion, and political liberalisation.
Even before the current crisis, there were already signs of this world order dwindling. The digital revolution has challenged institutions’ legitimacy and distributed power into the hands of new actors. It has changed the way we work, trade, and learn. Such economic transformation has complemented the rise of China-centred Asia into a powerhouse of innovation and investment, which comes as the primary challenge to American leadership.
US President Donald Trump has tended towards an isolationist strategy rather than cooperation, pulling out of international alliances and institutions, most notably the Iran Nuclear Deal and Trans-Pacific Partnership, creating a vacuum for other nations to exert influence in strategic regions. Even if the upcoming American election were to turn the tide, four years of refusing multilateralism has deteriorated American leadership.
Opportunity for influence
These changes look set to be exacerbated by COVID-19. Trump’s EU travel ban and failed acquisition of vaccine patents will not be forgotten in Europe anytime soon. Political scientist Joseph Nye has been amongst those to criticise the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ position, which appears to focus more on competition with China than addressing the spread of the disease.
Alongside this, others have played a leadership-like role. In March this year, Europe emerged as the pandemic’s epicentre. In response, China sent aid and Russia deployed personnel to Italy before any EU member state. China has also made an effort to present itself as a reliable partner, increasing its involvement in international institutions and exporting masks and medical kits around the world.
China sees the pandemic as an opportunity to extend its influence and power. President Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan drew eyes to the efficiency of his state governance in fighting the virus. The CPC has found an opening to diffuse its propaganda, in the hope that its political system will come out strong. Nonetheless, China is already facing a resurgence in cases, and the resulting economic blow will be tough. Lack of certain medicines in Europe has sparked debate on Chinese overreliance. Industries are relocating closer to home or to other parts of Asia. It remains to be seen whether China can continue to dominate supply chains.
The place of Europe
In Europe, individual member state action and a sluggish initial response from Brussels prompted leaders such as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and former European Commission President Jacques Delors to warn that lack of solidarity would have profound effects on the European project after the end of the crisis.
‘Westlessness’ was the slogan at the Munich Security Conference this year, or the decades long shift of power balance away from the old continent. The EU must use the period after the COVID-19 pandemic to provide momentum for finding a new purpose on the global stage, taking leadership on matters of climate change and data regulation. This can only be done as a united bloc. Current emergency measures should be used to reduce internal fragility.
A more independent Europe should increase collaboration with countries traditionally alienated by the US. In particular, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for more alignment with Russia and Turkey, who are reemerging as neighbouring poles of influence in their own right. The UK would also be best placed aligning with European allies, given Trump increasingly views Britain, much like the rest of the old continent, as a battleground against his Chinese rival.
Barnabé Colin is a graduate student at the LSE’s Department of Government.