The pandemic has created geopolitical and economic crises that intersect within an already difficult context for Western liberal democracies. Does this mean that the Asian giant will take the place of the United States in the international system?

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:02:02

It is now clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis. Even without being too pessimistic, it is likely that the (geo)political, social, and economic scope of the pandemic will be wider and will last longer than the health crisis itself.


It is easy to recognize this now, after we have experienced restrictions to our fundamental freedoms for months. After we have witnessed the collapse of oil prices—with the WTI falling below zero (although in this case the Coronavirus is not the main cause)—and read double-digit recession estimates, such as an 18% GDP reduction for Italy, 15% for Spain, 10% for France and 8% for Germany (Capital Economics data, cited by The Washington Post). Not to mention the negative forecasts of various countries’ national debt (not only for Italy), and the American unemployment data. It wasn’t this easy during the Italian so-called “phase 1,” when we were trying to make sense of the data communicated by the Department of Civil Protection in punctual daily press conferences. However, some of the most prescient observers have already suggested looking at the “moon” (the coming crises, changes at all levels) and not to at the pointed “finger” (the health crisis).


One of those suggesting this approach is the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (among other titles), who published “The World After Coronavirus” in the Financial Times.


Harari believes that decisions made during these months will determine the shape of the world for many years to come—the state of emergency declared by Israel during the 1948 war that is still in place today weighs on him. Marjorie Buchser, Executive Director of the Digital Society Initiative at Chatham House, an independent international policy institute, is of the same opinion. She pointed out that the innovations introduced in emergency times lack adequate weights and counterweights, therefore they tend to remain in force even when the curve flattens.


Here lies the nature of emergencies: they accelerate historical processes, as Richard N. Haass stated in a recent Foreign Affairs article. They shorten the time that would normally be needed to make important decisions such as, for example, whether to track citizens’ movements. Decisions that should be assessed with care especially today, Harari reminds us. In fact, today’s technology makes for a completely different model of surveillance from that of the Cold War era, when, since the spying was done by human agents, it was impossible to monitor the entire population as we can imagine to do today with cameras and apps.


The combination of this technological advancement and the present health emergency puts us at a crossroads, according to Harari: totalitarian surveillance or citizen empowerment. Health surveillance, through apps or bracelets (or even under-skin chip technology in the future, warns Harari), could drastically reduce the spread of the virus. With the same technology it will also be possible to know the frequency of our heartbeat in real time, which would prevent heart attacks and save many lives. But what is the side effect of mass surveillance of this kind, exacerbated by the emergency that made them acceptable to most of the population? This technology, says Harari, could also monitor what makes us laugh, angry or happy, giving governments and corporations the ability to sell us anything, be it a product or a politician.


If China and Israel (with Netanyahu overcoming the parliamentary committee’s opposition because of the emergency) are, according to Harari, the “champions” of this model, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore represent the opposite extreme. These countries have used technology to combat the spread of the virus but have also relied on an extensive testing campaign and, above all, on the cooperation of citizens. “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population,” says Harari. One would expect that—almost  naturally—the older liberal democracies in the West would trust their citizens. This was not the case.


Henry Kissinger (who recently turned 97) emphasized this aspect in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. After fighting this public health battle and taking steps to heal the wounds of the world economy, democracies are called upon to safeguard the principles of the liberal order, said the former US Secretary of State. In doing so, they must continue to guarantee basic goods that individuals alone cannot provide: security, order, economic well-being, and justice. Not only that; if we do not want the social contract on which our societies stand to disintegrate, democracies must continue to worry about their own legitimacy.


Regardless, the problem is that once the pandemic has passed, the public will perceive that many countries’  vital institutions have failed. No matter whether the failure is real or not, Kissinger warns, that will be the perception and that is what matters.


Hans Kundnani (Senior Research Fellow, Europe Programme – Chatham House), like Kissinger, claims that the Coronavirus has shaken the foundations of many democracies, and it has also called into question their ability to protect their citizens. But Kundnani goes a step further and specifies that it is mainly the liberal democracies in Europe that are being undermined by the Coronavirus, not the younger Asian democracies, such as Taiwan or South Korea. Kundnani envisions two causes for this: on the one hand, Asian bureaucracies are more competent, and on the other, these younger democracies may have an “authoritarian residue” that helped them in the first phase of their response to the virus. If so, Kundnani writes, “the pandemic may be a challenge not to democracy as such but to liberal democracy in particular” (our italics).


A Chinese century?


Moving on to the international level, the question that emerges from this period is whether the challenge posed by the pandemic to liberal democracy will also turn into China overtaking the United States.


Michael Green and Evan S. Medeiros reflected on this in an article published in Foreign Affairs. First and foremost, the two authors warn that forecasts made amid a global crisis often lead to hasty and wrong conclusions. Indeed, after the Hubei province’s closure it seemed natural to think the virus would pose a difficult problem for Beijing. We did not foresee that the lockdown would characterize our lives as well not long afterwards.


If Green and Medeiros suggest caution, George Friedman goes further in his recent article, “Power and the Rise and Fall of Nations.” Friedman points out that during the Cold War there were times when it seemed reasonable to assume that the Soviet Union was about to overtake the United States. An overtaking which - we know today - never actually occurred.


Nevertheless, not only Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo (who one would expect to be critical of China) raised accusations against Beijing. Many European leaders did as well, suggesting the perception of being at a significant historical watershed. Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union, stressed in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche at the beginning of March that Beijing is certainly an economic partner of the European Union, but that it is also “a systemic rival that seeks to promote an alternative model of governance.”


The United States’ ability to respond to the pandemic is largely underestimated, say Green and Medeiros, and regardless of the current administration, American resilience is based on a combination of capabilities and political legitimacy that can hardly be questioned by the pandemic.


There is no doubt of the United States’ economic potential. While it’s true that the pandemic has highlighted the dysfunctionality of the American economy, “if Athens cries, Sparta does not laugh”. The Chinese economy, which is highly dependent on exports, will be hit by import-heavy countries’ recessions, and the countries that are most affected by the coronavirus account for about 40% of Beijing’s exports.


If anything, doubts arise on the legitimacy side. If China’s attempt to build its own soft power by sending masks and sanitary material appears clumsy, the American image in the world does not shine either. And not so much because of Trump’s impulsive behavior, or due to the questionable choices that followed George Floyd’s death, but because a large part of the world’s public opinion reacted to Pompeo’s accusations (that the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan), which recall the Bush administration’s lies. At the time, Colin Powell waved the infamous bottle containing the alleged Iraqi chemical weapons before the United Nations General Assembly, a viaticum for the 2003 invasion. The problem of American credibility is certainly exacerbated by Trump’s wavering statements, but it has deeper roots. And it urges the United States allies, from Europe to the Middle East, to seek alternative ways to ensure their security, which was completely externalized to Washington until recently.


Although it seems premature to speak of a “Chinese century,” intellectuals from different orientations agree on the inescapable downsizing of the American “empire”. In a recent issue of Limes: the Italian Review of Geopolitics, an editorial titled “Il mondo virato” (a pun on the Italian word “virato,” which means a sharp change in direction, and the word “virus”, hinting a “world changed by the virus”) focuses on this point: both Graham Allison and George Friedman agree on the need for America to leave parts of the world. For Friedman, the expansion of the U.S. military apparatus, with its 150 bases scattered around the world, is more of a problem than a resource. He explains that “the great danger for an empire is permanent war,” which strains the trust of its citizens in the nation (p. 24). Whereas for Allison the future will be characterized by a return to spheres of influence, which would allow Beijing to build its own.


Therefore, what we can expect is not the rise of China as a new superpower, but rather the end of globalization as we have known it so far, namely something guaranteed through the extension of the American umbrella over all oceans and chokepoints.  We will most likely see a return to a world made up of regional contexts, albeit connected, within which order is guaranteed by local powers and not by the US. A process that will compel the United States to “reduce economic interdependence with China, especially in politically and strategically sensitive sectors” (Jacob Shapiro in the last issue of Limes).


A new, post-coronavirus world, then. But the idea isn’t really new. In fact, Barry Buzan introduced it years ago: if the United States will no longer be the hegemonic power, this doesn’t mean that another country is ready to take its place. Not even Xi Jinping’s China. On the contrary, Buzan hypothesized a move towards a world led by few great powers but without single superpowers.


Text translated from Italian "Coronavirus e democrazie. La spunterà il 'modello-Cina'?"


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation