After Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, W. B. Yeats wrote: “All changed, changed utterly.” This is a common view of how the world will emerge after the curse of COVID-19 has been lifted: International politics and the global system will never be the same. But is that likely?
Shifts in global power and influence
There will be changes, no doubt. For example, China’s rush to become the world’s largest and most influential economy has hit a speed bump. Indeed, unless the U.S. private sector resists the lessons stemming from inadequate domestic sources for counter-COVID-19 health goods, supply chains in general will be reevaluated, dependence on China will be lessened, and, more broadly, pressures will grow to contain excesses of globalization.
Domestically, the United States finally needs to embrace true universal health care. That debate is over. This, too, will strengthen the U.S. economy and competitiveness abroad. The same will be true if this crisis also leads to intensified attacks on racism and poverty.
These new, popular attitudes stem from the honor due to today’s Greatest Generation: first responders and health care providers who are keeping tens of thousands of Americans alive, plus working people who are sustaining large segments of the economy. A disproportionate number of these heroes are African-Americans, Latinos, recent immigrants, and disadvantaged whites. Neither the U.S. healthcare nor service sectors could function without their sacrifice.
China’s global role is also taking a political hit. Its self-interested performance at the crisis’s outset, plus questioning about the virus’s source, has raised concerns about its political reliability: Who will trust dependence on a country unwilling to behave as a “global citizen?”
President Trump is cast in a similar mold. But abroad there remains residual trust in the United States, plus the possibility Trump will be voted out of office. China has no record of positive engagement abroad to fall back on. That will lead to chariness about its readiness to be a global leader in “non-economic” ways. The current blight on China’s reputation may be temporary, but for now it is a useful corrective.
What won’t change
Many tangible facts of global power will not change. Basic shocks to the international system usually result from great wars, as after last century’s two hot wars and a cold war. But the coronavirus pandemic is not of that magnitude; underlying structures of power and relationships will change slowly, if at all.
One benefit for the United States and for most other countries concerned with confidence and predictability is that the U.S. dollar will continue as the global currency. That fact also gives the United States major benefits and helps underpin its global role, as the only country that can reduce its national debt through inflation and pay its bills to others with paper charges on future goods and services.
The U.S. is also almost certain to continue being the world leader in producing ideas, as well as the education “safe haven” for people around the world. These factors all help produce a sense of stability in the world system.
By contrast, current power struggles and conflicts within and between countries will continue. Despite globe-spanning COVID-19, many of these activities continue on autopilot. Thus, while Russia is cooperating with others against the coronavirus, it is also actively pursuing its ambitions, notably in Europe and the Middle East.
The latter region will also continue more or less as before. Terrorism will not abate. From Syria to Afghanistan, countries and groups will contend for preeminence as though nothing has happened. Of major significance both for distribution of power and prospects for regional stability, confrontation between Iran, its neighbors, and the United States will not change, with risks of open war. Even now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is intensifying “maximum pressure” against Iran. He claimed that Iran’s request for a $5 billion IMF loan to cope with the coronavirus was a scam. The U.S. blocked it, despite the fact that limits on Iran’s ability to respond to COVID-19 have helped lead to its spreading elsewhere, even to the United States.
Other aspects of global politics will also not change. While there are hopes of major, coordinated efforts to prepare for a future pandemic, it’s too early to be confident this will be done. Useful proposals have been made, but follow-through is uncertain, especially if the U.S. again fails to lead against a critical global challenge.
Meanwhile, the European Union, potentially a positive influence in the global system, still falls short of becoming a major, independent power, playing a constructive role. Its internal struggles are unlikely to diminish, weakening its power and influence. EU cohesion is threatened not just by inadequate leadership, but by ill-considered openness to some Central European countries that were not ready for membership, immigration triggered mainly by aftereffects of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Brexit, which has taken the United Kingdom out of internal balancing within Continental Europe and reduces its role in containing Putin’s Russia.
Defense spending versus new realities
The coronavirus crisis has proved that military instruments are overrated in dealing with today’s most serious threats. But it will continue to be difficult to shift resources from the U.S. defense budget to other areas of need, notably health, education, and infrastructure – which in addition to meeting domestic needs, are critical components of national strength. The political influence of the military-industrial complex will continue to limit the U.S.’s ability to devote resources, political attention, and leadership to respond to lessons learned from the pandemic. Distortion of U.S. spending priorities for “security” in the term’s broadest sense will continue.
Most importantly, there is little reason to expect that the coronavirus crisis will lead to greater efforts in dealing with a truly existential challenge: climate change. Talk will continue, but real action will almost certainly be inadequate.
Targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement for reducing carbon emissions were already too little and too late; and they were not taken seriously by the world’s largest economies. The coronavirus crisis is in fact a dress rehearsal for the far more daunting and demanding climate change crisis. Unfortunately, today’s “fire bell in the night” has not stimulated major countries to take practical steps to deal with climate change.
The basic requirements
The most important lessons of the coronavirus crisis will impose huge demands on the United States and the world. Some changes, both domestically and in the international system, can help. But there will be no diminishing of “pre-existing conditions,” especially conflict-generating competitions for power. For its part, the U.S. must finally embrace changes at home that benefit all its people, thus also strengthening the nation abroad ,while rejecting the notion that it can again try retreating from the outside world.