The global pandemic of coronavirus will deeply re-shape the world order as it upends systems which publics have come to take for granted. Internationally, it is also accelerating the breakdown of the liberal international order. Major themes of the last decades, such as the global war on terror, the rise of populism and the retreat of democracy in countries like Russia have all reshaped the world. The rise of COVID-19 builds on these trends as it rapidly changes relationships between states. It is a black swan event that suddenly closed the previously open borders of the European Union in a way terror threats and migration could not.
This global pandemic began in China in January, slowly percolating into other Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea before it grew in Europe and the Middle East in February. However, much remained unchanged into mid-March when lockdowns began and international air travel suddenly slumped or stopped in some places. France closed its borders on March 16 and the European Union closed its external Schengen borders for thirty days beginning on March 17. The UK, which is leaving the EU, began a lockdown on March 24.
In the Middle East, border closures increased when it became clear that Iran’s authorities had allowed the virus to spread among its population and done little to mitigate the crisis. Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and other neighbors shut off travel to Iran while flights were soon cancelled and some countries, like Kuwait, worked to bring their citizens back from Iran. Turkey was already checking Iranian arrivals on February 21 after receiving warnings that up to 750 Iranians had the virus. By March 29, Iran had registered 35,000 cases and 2,500 deaths officially.
The Middle East, unlike the EU, is a region of strong borders and civil conflicts. From Libya to Syria and Yemen there are conflicts that make it impossible for some countries to test their whole populations for the virus. While the pandemic has not transformed the region’s order in terms of borders, it has caused countries to become even more insular than they otherwise would be. In the Gulf, the world’s busiest airport in Dubai is closed. That is an unparalleled break on a conduit of international traffic that has seen more than 80 million passengers transit a year. Many of them fly to the UK, India, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia and China. The rest of the Middle East is grinding to a halt as well, including lockdowns in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and new measures to stop activities in Turkey. Countries that rely on tourism will see revenues vanish for the foreseeable future.
In neighboring Syria, both Turkey and Russia are casting to wrest control of oil fields that the United States has been patrolling since Washington’s October withdrawal. Turkey has told Russia it wants to use the oil to rebuild parts of Syria. The United States is concerned about Russia’s moves now. While U.S. forces can celebrate one year since the defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria, Senator Lindsey Graham has warned about Russian-backed Syrian regime aggression. While Turkey is distracted by the pandemic, with cases quickly growing to ten thousand in late March, Russia may have other plans. It has critiqued the United States for using an “accusing tone” against China over the virus origins, playing into conspiracy theories that have arisen in Iran and China that portray the United States as responsible for the pandemic.
Other areas where militants continue to exploit the world disorder to launch attacks include Libya and Yemen. Saudi Arabia intercepted Houthi ballistic missiles on March 28 fired by the Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen. Fighting has also intensified in Libya as forces from Eastern Libya led by Khalifa Haftar fight against the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli. Haftar is backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia. Notwithstanding commercial air traffic slowing, it seems arms are still flowing to these conflicts.
The global pandemic appears to only embolden authoritarian regimes. While some expressed hope it could bring a decrease in violence and peaceful gestures, North Korea chose to conduct missile tests. The regime, like others, does not seem deterred or even challenged by the virus. Similarly, terror groups across the Sahel in Africa continue to strike at and weaken a dozen states from Mauritania to Somalia.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence so far that the pandemic has led to unified global leadership. International institutions such as the United Nations seem to be slow to react, with UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres waiting until March 26 to appeal for billions to fight the virus. It remains unclear why the WHO waited until March 11 to declare the coronavirus threat a pandemic.
The end result will likely be a more divided and chaotic world order, with Western states being more isolationist in the short term. With the wealthiest countries in the world unable to deal with the tsunami of cases from the virus, poor countries will be overwhelmed. Border closures against pandemic threats will mean an end to the mass migration that has occurred to places like Europe, or it will mean more hostility to those migrants who force their way in. This creates a growing divide between the global south and others amid the pandemic. It also creates a divide between the arc of instability that links ungoverned spaces across the Sahel to Afghanistan where militant groups thrive.
Overall, any hope that a liberal international order could be salvaged in coming years against the rising tide of a multipolar world of more authoritarian regimes, appears less likely with the pandemic. The virus is a kind of black swan event that rapidly accelerates processes rather than slowing them down. It has increased borders more than populist fears over migrants or terror had in the last decades. Countries will have to focus more locally in the next year to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath. With that comes the consequential decreased focus on multilateralism. While the G20 leaders are holding video conferences during the pandemic, so far little has come out of these efforts at unified approaches. Tyrants will know that little stands in their way regarding crackdowns or even attacks of neighboring countries. Countries that are busy locking down their own societies won’t have time to do foreign policy or try to focus on places like Idlib or Tripoli.