Once the pandemic crisis is over, expect the state to return with more power and legitimacy.
Imagine the following scenario for a moment: An outbreak of a novel coronavirus transmitted from an unknown source to people eventually becomes efficiently transmissible from person to person, leading to a severe pandemic. It is more transmissible in the community setting by people with mild symptoms. The disease begins in mainland China, quietly and slowly at first, but then it starts to spread more rapidly in healthcare settings. When it starts to spread efficiently from person to person, the epidemic explodes. It is exported by air travel and other means of transport to many other countries. The disease continues to spread, and eventually no country can maintain control. The World Health Organization (WHO) declares a pandemic over the novel coronavirus which causes an illness known as Covid-19 that has spread to nearly every corner of the world. There is no possibility of a vaccine being available in the first year. Since the whole human population is vulnerable, during the initial weeks of the pandemic, the cumulative number of cases increases exponentially. And as the cases and deaths accumulate, the economic and societal consequences become increasingly severe.
Apparently, the scenario described above is real now. However, it was unthinkable just a few weeks ago yet preventable, and it is exactly because of this that it can be labeled as a white swan. The way the outbreak and its dire consequences are being widely described is “the black swan of 2020”. However, we may be using the wrong animal metaphor to describe the current global situation. Namely, the term “black swan” was created by Nassim Taleb, a finance professor, writer and former Wall Street trader. He wrote a popular book in 2007, The Black Swan, prior to the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. He described a black swan as an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation, with severe consequences. According to Taleb, the current pandemic crisis, however, is a white swan, if ever there was one, because no one could have predicted the outbreak of the novel coronavirus which dramatically alters the course of history, society and the world economy, yet, most importantly, it was preventable. Black swans (in our case white swans) often create chaos and are drivers of major change. All of which begs the question, what will the post-pandemic international system look like?
The uncharted territories
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, shook the world. So did the 2008 financial crisis. Neither compares to the coronavirus pandemic. It is important to remember that the outbreak is neither the end of the world nor the end of history. But it will significantly transform the international system as we know it. The balance of world power will change as well as the future of globalization. This deadly virus that is wreaking havoc on the world is taking all of us into uncharted territories. When we emerge from the lockdown, we must be ready to confront new realities in the new world we are entering.
The rampant spread of the respiratory disease COVID-19 is a failure of the contemporary international system and its institutions. That the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) took so long to meet and too inconclusively to discuss the pandemic is a clear testimony to its insignificance. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said: “The relationship between the biggest powers has never been as dysfunctional. COVID-19 is showing dramatically, either we join [together]... or we can be defeated.” The European Union, too, stood clueless when the novel coronavirus spread like wildfire, starting with Italy becoming a European epicenter. While states not immediately affected by the pandemic were least likely to coordinate efforts on EU level, Brussels appeared as the main loser. Moreover, one institution that can spearhead international health policy and respond to the outbreak effectively is the WHO. However, at a time when such global health leadership is urgently needed, its credibility has taken a severe beating.
The first instinct of every major economy—later followed by others—was to seal their borders and look inwards. The structural weakness of the international system and the health emergency shock will further feed protectionist tendencies of states. We are headed for a smaller world. Once the pandemic crisis is over, expect the state to return with more power and legitimacy. Expect the state to intervene more often in economic matters to avoid unpredictable supply sources and demand for emergency reserves. The world’s reaction to the crisis vindicates their Hobbesian view of the world. People will want the state to be omnipresent and omnipotent as the demand for stability will increase. As a consequence, societies could become more inward-looking. Lockdowns and travel restrictions could potentially legitimize the nationalist rhetoric around border walls, whether physical or virtual.
A moment of strategic opportunity for China
One state that is likely to come out stronger from the pandemic crisis is China. When the virus broke out in Wuhan, the mainstream opinion in the West chose to watch the crisis in ignorance. That changed when Italy found itself with more than a thousand cases and dozens dead. What started as a catastrophe for China is shaping up to be a moment of strategic opportunity. With the daily cases of virus infections in mainland China dwindling, Beijing has mounted a diplomatic offensive to send medical aid and expertise to states struggling to contain the pandemic. This is the moment for China to reposition itself on the world stage. Beijing is unlikely to cut military spending and abandon its assertive foreign policy. Instead, it will magnify the situation and make China look as a responsible global leader, showcasing how the Belt and Road Initiative is the future of globalization.
In his book Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, Bruno Maçães wrote: “Instead of integrating into the existing world order, China could be creating a separate economic bloc, with different dominant companies and technologies, and governed by rules, institutions, and trade patterns dictated by Beijing.” This passage is supported by Xi Jinping’s attendance at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, where for the first time for a Chinese President he stood to present China as a bastion of globalization, this time with Chinese characteristics. This economic vision is grounded on the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to revitalize the ancient Silk Road traversed by Marco Polo and other traders during the late medieval period. This Sinocentric plan offers an avenue for China to increase both its soft and hard power.
The number of cases and deaths provided by Beijing almost certainly misrepresent the real figures, but it succeeded in creating a semblance of normalcy in a short period of time. While the economies in the rest of the world are frozen, China allowed economic activity to quickly carry on. If the economic freeze continues for much longer, Chinese companies will be able to expand market share and perhaps even replace some of existing companies. What is worse to come, major economies could experience the kind of shock that leads to widespread political and social collapse. This would provide a perfect opportunity for China to step in and refashion these states in its authoritarian image.
The new normal
Great global shocks have a way of revealing the gap between the sort of international system we might like and the sort of international system we actually have. The ongoing public health crisis is no exception. One lesson of the pandemic crisis is that strengthened global cooperation and reforms will be critical to preventing future outbreaks.
Despite the imperfections, the international system that preceded the pandemic crisis was still the most peaceable and productive in human history, having connected humanity through communications and trade, and having drawn billions out of poverty. But the coronavirus ‘White Swan’ has just begun to change that. In Hong Kong, graffiti reads: “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.” Welcome to the new normal.