COVID-19 is steadily making its way around the world. It seems that no economy or society is resistant. The impact it’s having on the world economy appears to be unambiguous. Meanwhile, there is a big game of great powers over the pandemic. Let’s discuss!
There’s an important and overlooked element to this insidious virus: the geopolitical dimension. With the COVID-19 situation quickly unfolding, this piece considers how it might influence international relations. If there’s such a thing as inevitability in these uncertain times, it’s that the game of great power rivalry will continue. The instability wrought by the pandemic will be exploited in some quarters.
However, there are lessons to heed from the past that shouldn’t be forgotten.
As global economies continue to shrink, it follows that international relations will be tested. Why? For a start, one has only to look back to the 1920s and 1930s to see how diminutive economic conditions paved the way for nationalism and self-interest. It follows that today, domestic politics may likewise feel the strain of unexpected economic hardship and ensuing unemployment. These are conditions in which nationalism and international troubles have previously slowly developed.
Russia’s economy will be harshly tested by plummeting oil prices, a move it hastened against Saudi and US oil businesses. China’s economy is faltering, with a shrunken manufacturing base choking off export revenues. The United States is facing difficulties as its markets crash and the pandemic takes hold. In the year of a presidential election, prolonged economic decline will almost certainly play out politically.
Surely mindful of this, Trump is taking a solid and optimistic line. After all, no great power would express weakness or vulnerability in a time of crisis. They want to maximize their relative positions and make gains against would-be competitors. This means Russia, China and the US will be watching very closely how the plague comes to impact the strategic environment.
But don’t expect any leader to discuss it. game of great powers over pandemic, The Europeans, eager to be seen as the fourth big player in the game, have their own pressing issues to deal with, which will act as a brake on any plans to realize French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a more sovereign Europe.
Perhaps I’m wrong. This may verify to be the time when the great powers act in concert to find solutions to the virus, and stem the damage it’s inflicting. Sadly, it doesn’t yet seem possible.
It’s an election year in the US, and President Trump’s mantra remains “America first”. The origin of the virus has been used as a not-so-subtle dig at China. Across the Pacific, China’s leadership is grappling to contain the virus, and to ensure they depict an image of calm. Beijing will use any means essential to maintain control.
Further west in Europe, they have their own interruptions. Turkey threatens to permit the passage of thousands of immigrants into Europe, refreshing the nightmares of 2015. It could not come at a worse time, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows that in politics, timing is everything.
History has proven, frequently, that in times of confusion and distraction, great powers seek opportunities to make relative gains, if only small ones. This observation may seem cold, yet this is the nature of international politics. It’s especially true where great power competition is concerned.
A broad number of long-festering geopolitical challenges are combining under the umbrella of a global health pandemic. Such times have surely not been seen since the early 20th century.
Alongside, national lockdowns and quarantine regimes are being enforced globally. This is a tricky for international supply chains as economies and businesses continue to be constricted by uncertainty.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has been critical that there is a serious lack of coordinated global leadership on the COVID-19 issue. World leaders are so busy endeavoring to deal with problems at home that nobody’s taking the time to look at how the bigger picture may play out. If ever there was a time for assertive international leadership, it is now. Unfortunately, it appears to be vague.
What does it all point to?
This is the big question, and the answers are impossible to predict. But history is replete with useful signposts.
Despite the nefarious nature of COVID-19, the game of great power rivalry will continue unabated. Indeed, in some cases, the chaos may provide a distraction, enabling further action and trick. Why stop cyberattacks when potential enemy states are in a vulnerable position? This is an opportune time to assess the ability of how a state absorbs, and ricochets from, an international crisis. The great powers will continue to take each other’s measure.
With markets crashing, and businesses facing unprecedented challenges globally, there’s a very real likelihood of increasing unemployment rates in job markets already under stress. And in politics, especially in an election year, jobs and job creation are always the red-hot issue. In the short term, at least, things are going to be tough.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, however long it should last, it would be well to remember that in the 1920s, fascism took root in war-ravaged European nations. After World War I, industries were struggling to get back on their feet, and populations attempted to shape new lives. The catastrophic shift in the wider economy during the Great Depression catalysed ultra-nationalism and right-wing extremism, ultimately leading to World War II.
To be clear, the real war we face today is the one against COVID-19. This pandemic will have political consequences we cannot yet see or imagine. This is why it’s vital we be aware of how the confluence of a depressed global economy, as a result of an unprecedented crisis, coupled with sharp nationalism and heated political rhetoric, can uncheck negative politics with dire outcomes – within countries, and between them.
It’s important that world leaders heed the lessons of the past. The current game of great powers over the pandemic is likely to generate new economic recession. Let us hope that this terrible pandemic brings out the very best in them, rather than the very worst.