World Order in the Time of Coronavirus

Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1905 that there are decades where nothing happens, and then there are weeks, where decades happen. In just the few weeks since the coronavirus pandemic has gripped the world, it already appears that the course of modern history has changed decisively. And, as if a deadly global pandemic with the potential to kill millions wasn’t enough, it comes accompanied by an unprecedented global recession, if not depression. Whatever semblance of order that was left in the world is crumbling before our eyes.

Nothing is Sacred in the New Corona World Order

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has been animated by a sense of ever-increasing globalization and interconnectivity. Political movements in recent years have brought this global system into question, but no political shock has come close to what the novel Coronavirus is doing. Nothing is sacred in the new corona world order. Entire economies are being thrown onto the pyre while governments promise infinite spending. Transport, travel, tourism: put on hold indefinitely. Even the borderless Schengen area has evaporated in a matter of days, with every single country in the area closing its borders to cope with the pandemic. Nobody can be sure what awaits us on the other end of this pandemic, but it is hard to imagine that the world is not changing permanently before our eyes.

‘Competing Versions of Equilibrium’

Henry Kissinger said in an interview with The Atlantic that “A [world] order tends towards chaos when its key challenges are to its system: then it evolves with competing versions of equilibrium.” Of all the possible shocks to the system, global pandemic was probably not on his mind when he gave this interview in 2016. Kissinger has seen his fair share of system shocks in his decades long career at the pinnacle of world diplomacy, but it is safe to say he has never seen something quite like this. In the most globalized era in human history, the world has failed remarkably to coordinate any effective international response to a deadly pandemic. Relations between states have devolved into a game of blame and insults, not coordination and solidarity.

Countries have struggled throughout history to build a safe and stable international order. However, emerging from the Second World War, a group of countries with radically different ideologies and worldviews managed to build a world order that has kept us free from direct war between major powers for 75 years. When the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, as it will, a monumental effort will be needed to reestablish a stable world order. Do our leaders look up to the task?

No Serious Attempt at Forming a Stable International Order

Granted, it is a misnomer to say the same world order has been around since the Second World War. While the trappings of that order have stuck around, it has long since disappeared along with the Soviet Union. That bipolar world order did function though — so long as leaders in Moscow and Washington were committed to maintaining stable and peaceful relations — however fraught they appeared. That order was no natural process, though. World order does not blow in from the East or set on the horizon. World order is built by the tireless work of committed and competent people with a mission.

Since the end of the Cold War, it is not clear that there has been any serious attempt at forming a stable international order at all. Instead, the United States has contently allowed forces of global capitalism and hyper-globalization to run rampant around the world, confident that history was on its side. But in Beijing and Moscow, Ankara and Tehran — and many other capitals around the world — leaders have been quietly waiting for their moment to take their place in the sun. That moment has arrived.

To be clear, this moment did not spontaneously arrive with the coronavirus. Decades do not happen in weeks, after all. But it does only take a couple of weeks for us to realize the decades that have passed and how significant they were.

Repudiating Universalism

On Lenin’s 150th birthday, Russians will go to the polls to give their constitution its most radical overhaul since 1993. It will allow Vladimir Putin to rule until 2036, while enshrining the country’s Soviet past and WWII victory as a sort of national mythology within the constitution. Most importantly, it will encode in the constitution the supremacy of Russian law over and above international law. Article by article, the Russian state is repudiating universalist Western liberalism. Russia has once again found its place in the sun, and it won’t be giving it up without a fight.

Meanwhile Xi Jinping’s China has become more assertive than any Chinese regime in decades. Determined to use China’s economic success for geopolitical gains, Xi has initiated the largest investment program in history – the Belt and Road. Through it, China is attempting to physically alter communication and interaction across the Eurasian continent, fundamentally reshaping the world order as we know it.

Beyond Russia and China, perhaps the biggest challenges to the liberal world order — as much as there ever truly was one — came from within the West itself. America’s official national security strategy from 2017 “begins with the determination to protect the American people, the American way of life, and American interests”. Hardly an internationalist line. Meanwhile the new European Commission added a Commission for Promoting the European Way of Life. This as Britain finally heads off to promote its own way of life, ending decades of political cohabitation with the continent.

Turkey too has given up on its European dream, pursuing its own nationalist path of development under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan instead. In late 2019, Turkey joined the Syrian Civil War directly, invading the northern provinces under the dubious pretext of creating a “safe zone” for refugees. Then, in early 2020, Turkey sent some 2,000 Syrian militiamen to fight in Libya with the promise of Turkish citizenship. Moreover, Turkey has been quietly expanding its reach in the Mediterranean for years now, laying claim to more and more open waters as its own.

The Pandemic is Amplifying a Global Power Shift Which Had Already Been Underway

Already before the Coronavirus revisionist powers were becoming increasingly powerful and involved beyond their borders while Western powers found themselves unable or uninterested in projecting power abroad. It may be mere coincidence that under the shadow of global pandemic and looming depression so many monumental political events are occurring, but the result will be the same. The world emerging from the coronavirus pandemic will not be characterized by globalization or multinational cooperation. Instead, it is shaping up to be exactly the multi-polar world order that has long been anticipated.

Italy has more confirmed — or at least officially recorded — cases of coronavirus than China, with over 101,700 cases and 11,591 deaths. Its European allies have banned the export of medical equipment, while Russia and China are sending medical aid. What kind of world awaits us if Russia and China are more capable and willing to project power into the heart of Europe than the United States or Great Britain? Only time will tell, but it won’t be the world order of the past.