The World After the Coronavirus
We asked 12 leading thinkers to predict what happens in 2021 and beyond.
One year after COVID-19 began its relentless spread across the world, the contours of a global order reshaped by the pandemic are starting to emerge. Just as the virus has shattered lives, disrupted economies, and changed election outcomes, it will lead to permanent political and economic power shifts both within and among countries. To help us make sense of these shifts as the crisis enters a new phase in 2021, Foreign Policy asked 12 leading thinkers from around the world to weigh in with their predictions for the global order after the pandemic.
A Time for Leadership
by John Allen, the president of the Brookings Institution
Few, if any, true winners will emerge from this global health crisis—not because the disease was beyond our control but because most countries failed to exert the leadership and societal self-discipline necessary to bring it under control until vaccines became available.
COVID-19 has fast become one of the ultimate stressors on our already fragile international system, exposing vulnerabilities, magnifying weaknesses, and exacerbating long-festering issues. At the most basic level, this difficult moment has highlighted just how ill-equipped our global health systems are, forcing many countries to make devastating ethical decisions to determine who among their citizenry is most deserving to receive medical care. Furthermore, rather than build a renewed global coalition to fight this awful disease, many countries have instead relied on isolationist policies. This has resulted in piecemeal, ineffectual responses as cases once again spike wildly all over the world, the United States being one of the worst examples.
In truth, COVID-19 represents a complex series of interconnected transnational problems that demand leader-driven, multilateral solutions. To address issues such as systemic racism, climate change, and the need for a global economic recovery, it is truly imperative that we seek to strengthen, not weaken, our shared international order. While science will ultimately save us, there is no hope for coordinated action against the disease—and for our ultimate recovery—without leadership.
The Seeds of Revolution
by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America
The pandemic has demonstrated conclusively that the U.S. government is not an indispensable player in global affairs. The outgoing Trump administration pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization (WHO), refused to join the 172-nation COVAX partnership to ensure equitable global access to a vaccine, and abdicated responsibility for addressing the pandemic at home to U.S. states and cities. Americans are paying the price—but the rest of the world has moved on.
It is U.S. philanthropic and civic organizations, companies, and universities that are indispensable. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped organize Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, both key partners to the European Union and WHO in pandemic-fighting efforts such as COVAX. U.S. pharmaceutical companies are critical to developing, manufacturing, and distributing a vaccine—with or without U.S. government help—even as European companies are also making fast progress. U.S. scientists, doctors, and epidemiologists play vital roles in global networks by sharing information about the virus as well as successful strategies for prevention and treatment.
The biggest surprise of the pandemic is the dramatic national and global decoupling of the economy of the rich from the economy of everyone else. COVID-19 has caused more than a million deaths worldwide and created an economic disaster for wage earners and small businesses. Yet financial markets show little damage—on the contrary, asset values are reaching ever loftier heights. Gaps like that sow the seeds of revolution.
Globalization Is Rapidly Shifting
by Laurie Garrett, a science writer and columnist at Foreign Policy
Given inevitable delays in rolling out vaccines, the coronavirus isn’t going to vanish soon. That’s why the pandemic will continue to rapidly alter the landscapes of globalization and manufacturing.
Half of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies don’t plan to restore business travel to 2019 levels. More than a quarter predict that their workforces will not regain their pre-pandemic sizes. Eight in 10 say that nationalism will become a dominant force in the countries where they operate, affecting supply chains, location decisions, and the regulatory climate. And most are convinced that a faster shift to robots and artificial intelligence will help insulate them against future workforce sickouts and epidemic shocks. Even if revenues have recovered for many companies, the mood in boardrooms remains dark.
Most companies and government purchasers still haven’t worked out the production and supply kinks in our pandemic era. They will diversify suppliers to be less dependent on one country such as China and build stockpiles against future disruptions. Companies and governments will move away from the long-term relationships and trade deals that sustained globalization toward less stable commitments that can be made—and broken—in rapid response to future outbreaks and black swan events.
There will be losers. The dire economic consequences of the pandemic have left millions of people bitter, resentful, and likely to blame foreign competitors for their plights. Global health and humanitarian institutions are being severely challenged by rising nationalism and difficulties in raising financial support. As a result, one long-term effect of this pandemic may be that it has made the world less resilient for the next one.
The Competent Asian Century
by Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute
Numbers don’t lie. The death rate from COVID-19 is lower in East and Southeast Asia. Just compare Vietnam (0.4 deaths per million people), China (3), Singapore (5), South Korea (10), and Japan (17) with Belgium (1,446), Spain (979), Britain (877), the United States (840), and Italy (944).
The numbers are the tip of the iceberg. Behind them lies the much bigger story of the shift of competence from West to East. Western societies were once known for their respect for science and rationality. Donald Trump has literally pulled the mask off that illusion. Asians gape at his maskless supporters.
The West was also known for good governance, especially the European Union. The strong second wave of the pandemic confirms that something has gone wrong. But what went wrong? One simple answer is complacency. The West just assumed that it would succeed in this battle. From their previous experience with virus epidemics such as SARS, East and Southeast Asian societies knew that they had to be tough, vigilant, and disciplined. One critical variable is respect for government. Fortunately, these societies never fell for the Reaganite delusion that “government is the problem.” Instead, they see government as the solution. Hence, both the tightly disciplined society of Vietnam and the politically troubled one of Thailand have brought COVID-19 under control. Strong government institutions, especially in the health and medical fields, have responded with competence. And the East Asian economies are also likely to bounce back faster, reflecting competence in economic management.
When future historians look for the start of the Asian Century, they may well point to COVID-19 as the moment when Asian competence resurfaced in strength.
A New Era of State Activism
by Shannon K. O’Neil, vice president, deputy director of studies, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
The next phase of globalization won’t be shaped by trade, investment, or the spread of viruses but by geopolitics and government activism. Global supply chains have largely recovered from the sharp economic shocks—which curtailed both supply and demand—as a result of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns last spring. But they now face a more lasting challenge from state action. The hardening of U.S.-Chinese political tensions and the decoupling of the two countries’ industrial sectors will continue. The weaponization of economic and financial power for geopolitical gain by means of boycotts, sanctions, and other restrictions is catching on. As the global economy struggles to recover from the pandemic, governments across the world are jumping into the economic fray with their efforts to influence and direct investments, spur industrial innovation, manage and defend national security in a digital world, and shape national economies using all manner of policy tools.
Smart industrial policies are needed to tackle problems that markets will not resolve on their own, such as climate change, and to level the playing field between countries by tearing down regulatory and other barriers with comprehensive trade and other multilateral agreements. But all this state activism threatens to increase the kind of heavy-handed protectionism that deepens divisions between countries, fragments supply chains, and suppresses global innovation and growth. The challenge facing the world’s leaders is to intervene in smart ways that maintain and encourage competition and openness.
Authoritarians Look Worse Now
by Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School
As expected, COVID-19 has accelerated the shift in power from West to East and put further limits on globalization, leading to a world less open and prosperous. But the pandemic has not ended traditional geopolitics or national rivalries, nor did it usher in a new era of global cooperation.
While China is recovering, the United States and much of Europe face further waves of infections, largely because leaders failed to respond promptly and effectively. This pattern does not vindicate authoritarian rule, as Beijing and its admirers would have us believe. Democratic Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan all performed well, while Russia, Iran, and many other dictatorships faltered.
Globalization is in reverse, and international cooperation to defeat the pandemic has been halfhearted at best. The pandemic did not prevent new clashes between India and China, and it did not bring the bloodletting in Syria or Yemen to a close. The rivalry between the United States and China continues to intensify.
The good news? Widespread worries—including my own—that authoritarians, populists, and would-be autocrats would use the emergency to consolidate power have not been borne out. Populists have lost ground in Austria, Britain, and Germany; Poland’s Law and Justice party is facing new opposition; and autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are under greater pressure after mishandling the pandemic. Most important of all: The über-populist Donald Trump is now a one-term president.
That, too, is a reason for hope. With resolution, face masks, and the rollout of vaccines, we will get through this.
No, This Was Not a Turning Point
by Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations
Surprisingly, there has been no correlation between a country’s political system and its performance in handling the pandemic. Some democracies and authoritarian systems have fared well, others miserably. What matters most is leadership and execution. Here the terrible record of the United States shocks. So much of the loss was avoidable.
The pandemic has deepened the U.S.-China rift and stimulated a rethinking of supply chains. Europe looks stronger now that Germany and France are working together and both the European Central Bank and the European Commission have carved out a larger writ. By eviscerating economic growth and forcing countries to enact fiscal stimulus on an unprecedented scale, the pandemic has led to a stunning increase in debt throughout the world.
The greatest political impact might be in the United States, where an inept federal response to the pandemic and its economic effects contributed significantly to President Donald Trump’s election defeat. Had there been no pandemic, or had it been met with only a modicum of skill, Trump might well have won—and set the country on a vastly different course at home and abroad.
More broadly and for all the pandemic’s enormous costs and consequences, little has occurred that cannot be largely reversed once responsible behaviors are followed and widespread testing, better therapeutics, and effective vaccines are introduced. Other challenges—from climate change to nuclear proliferation to great-power rivalry—are more likely to define this era. For its part, the pandemic will not fundamentally reshape international relations and is more likely to be seen in retrospect as a singular event rather than a turning point.
Free Economies Will Rebound
by Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute
The most consequential changes will be economic. Inequality will widen as those with access to health care, capital reserves, and jobs that can be done remotely are further advantaged. Supply chains will be renationalized—or at least, the experience of severe interruption will lead companies to create backup capacity and rethink location decisions. Demand for raw materials will decline as economies stall. As globalization slows, the profitability of China’s Belt and Road project will collapse. Rapidly innovating economies that can seize opportunities and shift labor will reap outsized rewards.
These changes have major consequences for international security. The costs of the pandemic are so enormous that they will greatly incentivize international cooperation to identify and manage future pandemics. Government budgets will shift spending from defense to public health as the latter becomes an integral part of national security. Tensions within states due to greater income inequality will turn attention inward; states that manage to redress inequality will broaden social cohesion and their economic base. Security alliances such as NATO are likely to take on economic objectives, such as the reliability of supplies, but the push for better burden-sharing is also set to intensify.
Rising powers are likely to stall, while free-world economies are positioned to rebound and dominate new fields. China is already the world’s biggest creditor and is aggressively seeking preferential repayment from debtor governments, which could lead many of them to appeal for protection. This could give the United States a huge opportunity to contain China and organize allies within the existing Western system of multilateral institutions.
A World Dividing Into Bubbles
by Shivshankar Menon, a distinguished fellow at Brookings India and former national security advisor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
In 2020, the world blew its chance to make an opportunity of the crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It failed to act together and revive multilateralism. Most governments failed to strengthen the bonds of trust between citizens and their state, relying instead on tighter controls, surveillance, and authoritarianism. And several of the most democratic and advanced countries spectacularly failed to protect their citizens’ health and lives.
Instead, the pandemic accelerated the attempt to fragment the global economy into self-reliant “bubbles,” an attempt that is unlikely to succeed but will likely impoverish us all by limiting growth. Relations among the great powers are more fraught than ever, including those between China and the United States and between China and India.
Judging by the poor performance of world leaders and international organizations so far, the pandemic has also left the world less able to face the future and deal with transnational issues that affect us all—such as climate change, future pandemics, cybersecurity, maritime security, and international terrorism.
China Emerges Turbocharged
by Robin Niblett, the director and chief executive of Chatham House
The Chinese Communist Party’s disciplined suppression of the coronavirus has enabled China to recover its former pace of economic growth and turbocharged its transition to become the world’s largest economy. With China’s neighbors also emerging quickly from the pandemic, East Asia has become the epicenter of global economic growth.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s undisciplined efforts to undercut China’s emergence as a technological superpower have simply accelerated its quest for technological self-sufficiency. In contrast to Trump’s failed go-it-alone approach, President-elect Joe Biden may enable the United States to rebuild its bilateral and alliance relationships to confront China’s rise. But it is now too late for the liberal democracies to set the terms for how China develops its economic power.
Japan, South Korea, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and even Australia may continue to turn to the United States to guarantee their security. But they cannot afford to join it in undermining the Chinese economy, on which they rely for their own economic futures. The United States and Europe, meanwhile, will spend the next five years focused on managing the fallout from the pandemic on their economies and societies.
Until the Chinese leadership experiences the downsides of its statist and authoritarian model and sets China on a new path, the North Atlantic and Asia-
Pacific worlds will continue to diverge.
No Government Can Cope Alone
by Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor emeritus at the Harvard Kennedy School
Globalization, or interdependence across continents, responds to changes in transportation and communication technology. COVID-19 has only transformed the shape—less travel, more virtual meetings—rather than the magnitude of globalization.Some aspects of economic globalization, such as trade, have been curtailed, but that is less true of others, such as finance. Some industrial supply chains are becoming more regionalized, and security concerns are leading companies and governments to place a higher priority on “just in case” rather than “just in time.” But unlike true disruptions such as war, these adjustments are unlikely to fundamentally change global supply chains or international trade. Even if they did, they could not unravel the world’s increasing ecological interdependence.
While economic globalization is influenced by governments, ecological aspects of globalization such as climate change and the spread of pandemics are determined by the laws of physics and biology. Walls and tariffs do not stop transnational global ecological threats, though barriers to travel and persistent economic stagnation may slow them down somewhat. No government can cope alone but must think in terms of power with others as well as power over others. I had not expected that so many countries would be so inept in their response—and so slow to learn.
A Jekyll-Hyde World
by G. John Ikenberry, a professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs
The COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on our global imaginaries—our visions of the 21st-century world. The pandemic has made us see more clearly our fraught common existence, the lurking dangers inherent in interdependence, the costs of failed international cooperation, the virtues of competent government, the fragility of democratic institutions, the precariousness of Enlightenment-era civilization, and the inescapable fact of humanity’s common fate.
A year into the pandemic, it is not the problems of the world’s underlying anarchy—nationalism, security competition, war—that appear most pressing. Rather, the world seems more overwhelmed by the problems of modernity—our stumbling incapacities to cope with the deep, worldwide transformations in our societies unleashed by the forces of science, technology, and industrialism. The pandemic offers a dramatic reminder, now playing out in every corner of the Earth, that humans have not fully mastered nature and that we cannot escape the growing interconnectedness inherent in our modern existence.
The pandemic is a reminder that modernity is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon: The modern world is continually creating capacities for great advances in human welfare but also for monumental disaster and civilizational catastrophe. The pandemic—together with the growing existential threats of climate change and nuclear proliferation—will lead us to a new era of struggle over the global order in which countries around the world look for ways to realize the gains of modernity while guarding against its dangers.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing series about the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. Other installments include:
How the Economy Will Look After the Pandemic by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Robert J. Shiller, Gita Gopinath, Carmen M. Reinhart, Adam Posen, Eswar Prasad, Adam Tooze, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and Kishore Mahbubani
How Urban Life Will Be Transformed by Richard Florida, Edward Glaeser, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Kiran Bedi, Thomas J. Campanella, Chan Heng Chee, Dan Doctoroff, Bruce Katz, Rebecca Katz, Joel Kotkin, Robert Muggah, and Janette Sadik-Khan
The Future of Government by James Crabtree, Robert D. Kaplan, Robert Muggah, Kumi Naidoo, Shannon K. O’Neil, Adam Posen, Kenneth Roth, Bruce Schneier, Stephen M. Walt, and Alexandra Wrage
The Future of Travel by James Fallows, Vivek Wadhwa, Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Elizabeth Becker, James Crabtree, and Alexandre de Juniac
The Future of Entertainment, Culture, and Sports by Audrey Azoulay, Rahul Bhatia, Rick Cordella, Mark C. Hanson, Baltasar Kormakur, Jonathan Kuntz, David Clay Large, and James S. Snyder
The Future of Schools and Universities by Arne Duncan, Andreas Schleicher, Mona Mourshed, Jennifer Nuzzo, Ludger Woessmann, Salvatore Babones, Devesh Kapur, Michael D. Smith, and Dick Startz
How the Global Order Will Be Changed Forever by John Allen, Nicholas Burns, Laurie Garrett, Richard N. Haass, G. John Ikenberry, Kishore Mahbubani, Shivshankar Menon, Robin Niblett, Joseph S. Nye Jr., Shannon K. O’Neil, Kori Schake, and Stephen M. Walt