COVID-19 Might Not Change the World

Pandemics are not always transformative events. While some worrying preexisting trends could accelerate, it’s incorrect to assume that the coronavirus will end globalization, kill liberal democracy, or enhance China’s soft power.

Paramilitary police march near the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China.
Paramilitary police march near the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China, on July 26. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

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How will the COVID-19 pandemic reshape the world order? The honest answer is that no one knows. There are many possible futures at this point. The best policymakers can do is to avoid myths that obstruct their thinking and examine alternatives that help them focus on the most important questions. Sometimes estimates are wrong, but it is useful to structure policy thinking in a way that allows leaders to learn from mistakes as well as successes.

In estimating the effects of the current pandemic, one must begin with humility about the extent of what is not known. This coronavirus is new, and scientists are still trying to understand its biology and epidemiology. No one knows how long it will persist nor when or in what forms it might recur. Nor is it clear which, if any, vaccines will be effective—or for how long—or how they will be distributed globally.

The extent and duration of the economic dislocations that the pandemic is causing are unknown, but the effects on the global economy may be prolonged. A deep depression is likely to have significant political effects, but any estimates of the timing of economic revival are complicated by the dependence of economies on our uncertain human effectiveness in controlling the virus.

History can be a useful guide, but it can also be misleading. It is a common refrain that prior pandemics have been turning points. Historians point out that Periclean Athens was so severely weakened by a plague that it lost to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War or that the 14th-century pandemic that killed at least a third of Europe’s population contributed to the end of feudalism.

But a century ago, the Great Influenza killed an estimated 50 million people (including 600,000 Americans)—more than twice the number of fatalities caused by World War I. Viral mutations of that pandemic persist to this day, but most historians attribute the important geopolitical changes of the ensuing decades—such as the rise of communism and fascism—to the war and its aftermath, rather than the pandemic.

The Great Influenza probably contributed to cultural changes such as increased nihilism in the 1920s, but soldiers fighting and dying in French trenches may have been more important. Even though the pandemic killed more people, its effects were overshadowed by the impact of the war, including governments’ wartime censorship of pandemic deaths. It is therefore essential to dispose of certain myths about the current pandemic.

The first myth to avoid is the notion that pandemics are always transformative historical turning points. Sometimes they are, sometimes not. People have a tendency to assume that big causes must have big effects. But the  example of 1918 shows that this is too simple. COVID-19 is a very big cause, but that does not reveal what the magnitude or nature of its effects will be.

And even if the pandemic has major effects domestically in the United States, not all those effects will cause geopolitical change. The coronavirus has already had a profound impact on how we live, work, and move about. It is likely to have lasting effects on employment, the location of economic activity, education, and social attitudes. It has exposed the inadequacy of health care systems and the inequality of its effects. If these social changes increase political polarization, chaos, or paralysis, they may affect U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics, but they may also lead to domestic political reforms without changing foreign policy at all.

A second myth that can obstruct careful analysis is the oft-expressed view that COVID-19 will spell the end of the era of globalization that followed World War II. Globalization—or interdependence across continents—results in part from changes in transportation and communications technology that are unlikely to cease. The types of travel and communication may alter, but they will not stop. Air travel may decline, but the world will not become virtual.

Some aspects of economic globalization such as trade may be curtailed, while others such as financial flows may be less so. And it is important to distinguish economic from ecological globalization. While economic globalization is influenced by the laws of governments, ecological aspects of globalization, such as climate change, are determined more by the laws of physics.

Walls, weapons, and tariffs do not stop transnational ecological effects, though barriers to travel and persistent economic stagnation might slow them down. The effects of the pandemic on social globalization are also unclear. Legal immigration may slow in the aftermath of the pandemic, but illegal immigration across the Mediterranean, for example, may depend more on climate change in the Sahel than on the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with stringent border controls, illegal flows of people will increase if their home countries become uninhabitable.

What seems likely at this point is that some economic supply chains related to national security will become more regionalized and security concerns may lead companies and governments to think of structuring some inventories more for “just in case” rather than “just in time.” But short of war, these security adjustments are unlikely to disrupt all global supply chains or international trade, and even if they did, they would not end global ecological interdependence or stop a surge of climate refugees in the case of a natural disaster.

A third myth is the widespread view that COVID-19 spells the end of liberal democracy and the rise to dominance of an authoritarian political model that is able to impose draconian measures related to testing, quarantine, and isolation. Sometimes this is reinforced by the example of China’s success in controlling the spread of the virus—after a disastrous beginning—compared with the United States’ failure to do so. But one should not generalize from two countries with highly idiosyncratic leaders.

Democracies such as Germany and New Zealand performed better than autocracies like Russia. And among democracies, countries with pragmatic leaders like Germany under Angela Merkel did better than countries led by politicians with authoritarian tendencies like Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro.

It is true that illiberal populists like Viktor Orban in Hungary have used the public health crisis to strengthen their authoritarian control, but if not the coronavirus, they likely would have found another pretext. Similarly, while privacy experts worry that contract tracing apps could further the rise of the surveillance state, the threats to privacy that they rightly fear existed before the pandemic and will continue after it. At most, the pandemic may accentuate an existing trend.

On the other hand, prolonged economic disruption in some emerging economies may set back their conditions for democratic governance. African countries like Ethiopia and Burundi have already used COVID-19 as an excuse to delay or distort scheduled elections. The trend toward a reduction in the number of democracies that was already underway before COVID-19 may be enhanced somewhat by the pandemic.

A fourth myth is that the pandemic has given China a long-term advantage in soft power over the United States. Some people believe that China’s competence in restoring its economy to a positive 2.5 percent growth rate for 2020—while the United States’ economic performance is likely to be negative 4 percent—and its soft power offensive of constructing a positive narrative through economic and health aid to other countries have tipped the reputational balance for the coming decade. However, in estimating the balance in 2030, one must be careful not to simply project short-term trends.

It is not surprising that global public opinion polls rank China low in soft power. It’s difficult to combine benign “face mask diplomacy” with “wolf warrior diplomacy” and repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the same time.

The incompetent U.S. response certainly hurt American soft power, which polls showed already declining under the Trump administration after 2017. The president’s inconsistent pandemic policies, both before and after becoming infected with the virus, only added to the decline. But such trends have reversed in the past. For example, the United States recovered its soft power in the decades that followed a low point in the Vietnam War. China has provided aid, manipulated statistics for political reasons, and engaged in vigorous propaganda—all in an attempt to obscure its early failures and depict its response to the pandemic as benign.

However, when it comes to soft power, China starts from a weak position. Beijing has created its own obstacles by exacerbating territorial disputes with neighboring countries and by its insistence on repressive party control, which prevents the full talents of civil society from being unleashed in the way that happens in democracies. China’s censorship of doctors early in the coronavirus outbreak is remembered both at home and abroad. It is not surprising that global public opinion polls rank China low in soft power. It is difficult to combine benign “face mask diplomacy” with a nationalistic “wolf warrior diplomacy” and repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the same time.

Clearing away these myths does not prove there is a high probability of geopolitical continuity. Wars, the collapse of democracy in certain countries, or another more serious pandemic could all have overwhelming effects. History is rife with policy miscalculations and surprises—witness August 1914, when the great powers expected a third Balkan war from which the troops would be home by Christmas but instead saw four years of horror and the collapse of four empires.

If a continuity hypothesis turns out to be wrong, that outcome seems at this point unlikely to be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic any more than the disasters of the 1930s were caused by the Great Influenza. In geopolitics, some big causes—no matter how unpleasant—may not always produce big effects.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and former chair of the National Intelligence Council and the author, most recently, of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy From FDR to Trump. Twitter: @Joe_Nye

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