The coronavirus is changing our world radically. It has changed the day to day lives of hundreds of millions of people but it is also changing – perhaps in a less visible manner – international relations as well, and has immediately assumed a geopolitical dimension. The challenge for the entire planet posed by Covid-19 is enormous and all governments are faced with crucial decisions, strategies and formulation of plans that nobody thought they would ever have to face. “It is like a war,” many analysts repeat. What is certain is that the effects of this virus could change the political order of the world and overturn old norms in a way that often only wars have the power to do.
How Did This All Start?
In order to understand what is really happening to our world in the present moment it is necessary to go back to the Chinese province of Hubei where everything began and where everything seems to trace back to. The epidemic began to expand from the outbreak in the Chinese heartland and spread more or less all over the planet. It is a China that finds itself having to come to terms with Donald Trump’s America, the standard bearer of the American heartland that wants to change Chinese-flavored globalization. The tariff war had almost reached a breaking point. Then the first agreement: Xi Jinping and Donald Trump reach a trade deal and – at least in appearance – an uneasy peace seemed to have returned between Beijing and Washington. There cannot be real harmony between the two powers but only a strategic peace that puts off what the experts call the Thucydides Trap: the inevitable clash.
The Clash Between China and the USA
The trap seems a little further away currently, but the world seems destined to reach breaking point. Trump knows very well that sooner or later the American empire must face a clash with China: a collision between worlds, two visions of the world, two “manifest destinies.” And the battle ground is not only the Pacific – where the Pentagon’s focus is concentrated – but the entire planet. China is coming out of its territorial shell, and the United States is struggling due to its fear of seeing its network of interests collapse. Russia is observing with interest and is placing its hopes in the axis with China, yet not forgetting the utility of its relationship with America. And Europe, at the center, becomes the great battlefield or, rather, the great booty.
The virus spreads all over this world in turmoil and breaks open a Pandora’s box that we have perhaps tried to keep closed for too long with tactical decisions but never with real strategic vision. And as it levels down all countries it also strikes at the most fragile structures. The coronavirus is not an enemy that can be defeated with arms and sanctions nor can it be turned into an ally. And this entails that in the great game of the world an actor that is truly different from all the others has taken the field. A common enemy that everybody wants to use: and in doing so perhaps committing a grave error.
The virus thus overwhelms and exasperates everything in the world. China suffers a severe blow and is silent for weeks. The West appears to have found a way out of the orbit of Beijing, and Trump – son of America First – exploits the war on the “Chinese virus.” Xi Jinping is silent because the war inside China is devastating. It was supposed to be the beginning of the Asian century, but the pandemic and the fear of the East triggered reactions that seem capable of shaking even the certainties of the Silk Road. And as the virus progresses, Beijing’s intense diplomacy also continues, doing everything it can to prevent Europe – above all – from winding back relations: Italy first and foremost.
Italy helps significantly in understanding the new Great Game that runs parallel to the devastation of coronavirus. Above all because of the way it behaved before and after the outbreaks in northern Italy. Rome, caught between the sirens of the East and the duties of the Atlantic Alliance, is one of the states that is most attentive to Chinese interests in the West and is the first G-7 country to sign the New Silk Road Memorandum. This is something that Washington has never accepted. But the virus seems to be causing certainties to falter given that the Italian government – almost out of the blue – blocked direct flights with China to avoid contagion. Beijing warned Palazzo Chigi of the consequences. But, after a while, the number of outbreaks in northern Italy increased exponentially and the great diplomatic counter-offensive started. Coronavirus became an opportunity: China, as virus spreader, can become the only power capable of saving those in danger. Because it knows, at least so it seems, how to defeat it.
In the meantime, however, the virus spread across Europe and a West that perhaps would like nothing better than this “black swan” to resolve crises that it had not had the courage to resolve. Trump accelerates and accuses the Europeans of importing the virus into America, blocks flights and entrenches himself in his continent-world. It is the emblem of America First, but above all it is yet another sign that the United States is no longer the protector of Europe. It’s a new Europe that appears dazed, almost flabbergasted by the arrival of the virus, and that sees the European Union sinking in the face of the continent’s first major crisis in decades. The (true) effect of the coronavirus in the West, from a political point of view, is in fact to have broken up all the alliances. Everyone has rediscovered borders and the need to save themselves. And in just a few days the borderless Union implodes.
In Europe, the virus claims victims. And in the meantime the EU melts like snow in the sun. The great internal war in Europe begins. Italy, the great laboratory of this world conflict, risks collapse. The number of dead increases and Europe isolates it. In the meantime, the Italian stock market collapses to the point where the secret services, even before Consob (the Italian financial markets regulator), raises the alarm about foreign takeovers and speculation on our misfortunes. The country is not only isolated from the rest of the EU but is also under attack. A dramatic situation in which the real great war begins, the one between China and the United States. But the trench is in Italy.
China knows that it can focus everything on Italy to restore its image as a beneficial power. Chinese doctors and the first loads of aid arrive. A noble and mainly symbolic but strategically useful gesture. Beijing is intervening in a moment of great weakness for the European Union and makes plain that Italy can find support outside (and not inside) Europe. A fully-fledged diplomatic counter-offensive that also involves the Balkans and Spain: an expansion of the great Silk Road in the Old Continent.
The Virus Overwhelms Brussels
At this point the European Union seems to intervene. The first voices are raised: someone has understood that what is happening in Italy could have devastating consequences throughout Europe and the West and, after the deliberate “gaffe” of Christine Lagarde, the extremely weak Ursula von der Leyen and Emmanuel Macron himself try to intervene, aware that his France can now take over European leadership by exploiting the clash between Northern and Southern Europe over whether or not to break the rules imposed by Brussels. Angela Merkel shoots her bazooka for her Germany but in the meantime imposes strict rules on Italy and Spain, forcing them into difficult choices. The shy von der Leyen tries to heal the splits but the spectacle produced by the European Union is unworthy of the supposed grand purposes of this alliance. And Italy knows it: but above all the three truly great powers that can play the game of virus war to determine the destiny of Rome know it as well.
Italy: the Trench of Europe
Russian and Chinese doctors and loads of American aid arrive in Italy while Brussels does not seem to raise a finger to offer any concrete help to Italy. It is clear that everyone has now decided to bet on the southern front of Europe as the battlezone for the virus. The United States, struck by the Chinese intervention so evident in Italy, gets the aid started and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump himself take action. Meanwhile the Russians land in Pratica di Mare and head in the direction of Bergamo with aid that is useful to Moscow for two reasons: to make it clear that it is not excluded from the war but above all in order to play a decisive role in the fight against the virus and in the post-coronavirus future of the Italy and Europe. Meanwhile Washington keeps an eye on the situation, as Germano Dottori explains in Formiche.
The ongoing situation is a huge geopolitical challenge capable of radically shifting the equilibrium of the West that is changing shape as a result of this virus. The war is being played out on several fronts: medicine, intelligence, diplomacy and economics. The coronavirus descends like a cloud and removes certainties and hypocrisies in a fragile and contradictory Europe. And now a turning point seems to have arrived in which leadership can change, everything can break up completely or Europe can try to revive itself thanks — amongst other things — to a resurgent France that knows how to take the political reins from Brussels and do what needs to be done. Italy, meanwhile, has yet to understand that it can either play a role or simply become the playing field itself.