“It is generally accepted that the world after the coronavirus pandemic will not be the same as before. And, although other voices are sometimes heard, a pandemic, in all likelihood, will only accelerate the processes that began long before it and truly lead the world to a new state.”
By Alexey Pushkov
Published in Russian on Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 12, 2020
It is already a commonplace that after the coronavirus pandemic, the world will not be the same as before. And, although other voices are sometimes heard, a pandemic, in all likelihood, will only accelerate processes that began long before it, and are actually bringing the world into a new state.
“The last global crisis — the financial meltdown of 2008 — triggered a loss of western self-confidence and a shift in political and economic power towards China. The coronavirus crisis of 2020 could force a much bigger shift in the same direction.”So writes Gideon Rachman, a columnist for the British Financial Times.
One of the most important features of this new world will be the weakening of the United States – with respect both to its former self and to relatively new centres of power. “In the next quarter century, the United States will no longer have the same influence as yesterday. America, which has dominated international politics over the past 70 years, will have to reckon with the new powers, above all China,” reads the French newspaper Le Monde.
The reasons for this are multidimensional. But the pandemic contributes to the decline of the role of the United States primarily at the image level, i.e. at the level of political psychology. Today it is no longer possible to perceive the United States as the undisputed world leader.
A strong blow has been dealt to their reputation. If before, the United States only lost wars outside its territory, now, before the eyes of the entire world, they are losing the war against the epidemic within their own country. And this is fatal for the image of “omnipotent” America. The leading country in the world should not admit to nearly one and a half million sick people, and a death toll in two to three months exceeding the number that died in the seven years of the Vietnam War. The United States itself, as represented by its political elite, is still perceived as a “world leader.” But in reality, they are no longer able to fully play this role.
Let us revisit the brave new geopolitical world of the early 1990s, as envisaged by the United States, when led by Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was rapidly heading for disaster, and American President George Bush proclaimed the establishment of a “New World Order”.
“The centre of world power is now one indisputable superpower – the United States, supported by Western allies,” – wrote the eulogist of American hegemony, the well-known publicist Charles Krauthammer, in 1990. “The world has become unipolar!” he exclaimed. And America “has the strength and the will to lead a unipolar world, without any hesitation, establishing the rules of the world order and demonstrating its readiness to impose them on everyone else.”
What American politicians covered up with fine-looking phrases about the new era of the global triumph of democracy, Krauthammer formulated openly and bluntly: to hell with the United Nations, its Charter and international law! In a unipolar world, the United States will itself set the rules and impose these rules on everyone else.
At the same time, Krauthammer understood that a unipolar world is not forever, that new major players are growing up, and a multipolar world will inevitably come. But it will be later – much later! “We are not in that world yet, and we will not be in it for several decades,” he predicted. “Now the unipolar moment has come.”
Here Krauthammer was right: the brief period of the “single pole world” really came. In the 1990s, Russia was in a state of national disaster and major geopolitical retreat, while China was still gathering strength and too weak to be able to challenge the United States. But Krauthammer and Zbigniew Brzezinski, another ideologist of American global hegemony, along with many others in the United States, were seriously mistaken in assessing the duration of this moment. It seemed to them that it would stretch for decades. But it did not last 15 years. The “Unipolar World” with the United States as its only pole turned out to be just a brief moment in history.
One of the most important reasons why this happened was the United States’ overestimate of its own strengths and capabilities. In ordinary language, the United States political elite simply “went through the roof.” “Hegemony is as old as the world,” Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his famous book “The Global Chessboard.” However, what stands out in
America’s current global superiority is the speed of its emergence, the global nature of its reach and the methods of its implementation. American elites’ heads were turned by this “new hegemony” and they set about a radical restructuring of the world in the American mould.
The victorious war in Yugoslavia, against which Boris Yeltsin’s weakened Russia could do nothing, only increased the feeling of the omnipotence of the United States and NATO led by them. After Yugoslavia, it was clear that another new war was not far off. And so it was. The war was launched by the United States in the fall of 2001 in Afghanistan – under the pretext of the need to fight al-Qaeda [a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation – Rossiskaya Gazyeta], based on Afghan territory. But that was only the beginning. According to the testimony of American General Wesley Clark, already by September 2001, the Bush administration was developing plans to capture seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finally, Iran.
Despite the outwardly irrational nature of these plans, the Bush administration took them seriously. Neo-conservatives and interventionists in Washington longed for blood: they demanded the capture and restructuring of the entire Greater Middle East and argued that the United States was capable of it. The “only global superpower”, with no antagonist on the world stage, truly broke the mould. This was greatly facilitated by the President George W. Bush’s intellectual limitations and the aggressive primitivism of his Vice President Dick Cheney, an ardent supporter of this policy.
As a result, the “unipolar moment” that began so gloriously in the early 1990s was buried in Iraq. The provisional date for the funeral can be set at May 1, 2003, when George W. Bush, dressed in military uniform, landed on the aircraft carrier “Abraham Lincoln” and proclaimed victory in the war against Saddam Hussein. The President of the United States spoke under the huge Mission Accomplished banner, not yet suspecting that a military victory would result in the United States’ biggest political defeat since Vietnam. This was when the sunset of the “unipolar moment” and the “new hegemony” of the United States began.
Soon after, this was revealed in the United States’ inability to make Vladimir Putin’s Russia fit the American world and contain the rise in China’s both economic and political weight. Soon after, the United States lost the battle for Syria, forcing the decision to leave Afghanistan after 18 years of senseless and unpromising war. This series of US political defeats began, precisely, with Iraq.
Today, it surprises no one to conclude that US hegemony is dwindling like [Balzac’s] Peau de Chagrin
The Americans try to slow their decay with sanctions, threats, and displays of military might and force. But it is impossible to halt this profound process. Though until 2010 the United States was the undisputed leader in terms of its share in world GDP, China had overtaken it by 2015 in terms of GDP by volume, reckoned in purchasing power parity terms. According to the IMF, in 2019, China accounted for 18.6 percent of global GDP, while the United States accounted for 15.2 percent. A decrease in economic weight inevitably leads to a decrease in political weight. Not to mention the fact that the United States has fewer and fewer funds for foreign policy and expensive military operations. According to political analyst Michael Mandelbaum from Johns Hopkins University, the United States no longer has the means to pursue the hyper-active foreign policy that they pursued in the second half of the 20th century. And they will inevitably intervene less in international affairs. Donald Trump’s “New Egoism” is just a reflection of this shift.
In 2013, Barack Obama, from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, insistently urged the leaders of more than 200 states in attendance that the United States was an “exceptional nation”, practically intended to rule the world from above. In the mouth of the first African American president of the United States, this sounded particularly odious: akin to declaring a kind of “political racism”, concluding that the world was divided into one “exclusive nation” and all other “non-exclusive” nations. Blinded by this commonplace American ideology, Obama did not even understand that he had rudely counterposed the United States to the rest of the world. “Yes, we are exceptional,” Obama echoed the words of his staunch opponent, Republican Dick Cheney, in his so-called “Exceptional” political manifesto published in 2015. So the two wings of American politics, seemingly locked in an eternal struggle for power, coincide in the main point: a fanatical belief in America’s exclusivity and the consequent US right to impose its will on the rest of the world.
Undoubtedly the USA, on a number of key indicators, remains a leading world country. However, the claim to “exclusivity” is confirmed not by speeches in Congress or at the UN, but by the country’s readiness to cope with both old and completely new challenges, in this case with Coronavirus. If there is no such readiness, then what kind of “exclusivity” and what kind of “global leadership” can we talk about?
The Coronavirus pandemic only brought this new weakness of the United States to light. Despite Pompeo’s statements about Washington’s readiness for a leading role in the fight against Coronavirus, neither Italy, Spain, nor any of their allies waited for the United States to help them at their most critical moments in the battle with the epidemic. Help came from China, from Russia, even Cuba. But not from the USA. The memorandum of assistance to Italy, signed by Trump in mid-April, was very late and instead of confirming the leading role of the United States, as Trump had expected, revealed its absence.
Moreover, instead of leading the world war against a pandemic, the U.S. administration began to accuse Russia and then especially China of misinformation, in an attempt to relieve itself of responsibility in the eyes of its own population for its complete unwillingness to stand up to the coronavirus. As a result, they became entangled in their own web of accusations. In an interview with ABC television on May 3, Secretary of State Pompeo said two things opposite in meaning: first, that the United States had “a ton of evidence” that the virus was created in a laboratory in Wuhan; and second, that he agrees with the conclusion of the US National Intelligence that the virus is of natural origin. Go figure.
As a result, German intelligence in its report called Pompeo’s accusations against China “a calculated manoeuvre to distract from its own mistakes.” Even the ever-loyal London said that, although it did not reject the American version of the laboratory origin of the virus, it considered it unlikely. Next, Washington officials began to admit that the United States did not know where the virus came from, preferring to forget the “mass of evidence”. This means that the US attempt to “punish” China for the coronavirus failed: China won in this information-political conflict, and the USA was defeated.
This feverish readiness to blame anyone for anything, just to ward off the blow, further undermines the US claim to be the leader of the modern world. If Iraq initiated the beginning of the end of the “unipolar world”, the coronavirus pandemic established the final point in this process. It constituted the funeral ceremony for the “new global hegemony” of the United States, or rather, what was left of it by the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century.
The fragmentation of Europe
Four factors were decisive in shaping the state of the European Union before the pandemic began: the financial crisis that led to Greece’s quasi-default; economic sanctions against Russia; the Brexit process with the UK’s final exit from the EU; and a wave of refugees that flooded Europe in 2015-16, provoking an acute crisis of traditional liberal policies. Coronavirus was a fifth factor, clearly exposing the EU’s weaknesses and the limits of its capacities.
The financial crisis, which had the most painful effect on Greece, showed that a country in a difficult situation, relying on the EU, can only expect a program of rigid “belt tightening”, such as the IMF could just as well have prescribed. EU membership does not guarantee social welfare. This, by the way, was one of the reasons influencing Britain’s choice in favour of Brexit: many were disappointed in the EU precisely because of what happened to Greece, “humiliated and subordinated to Brussels.” Illusions of solidarity within the EU, such as they were, were crushed.
The wave of refugees that swept Europe in 2015 created a split between supporters of open and closed borders within the European Union. Moreover, the second group was more numerous than might have been expected. Advocates of closed borders and opponents of a liberal approach to refugees should include Britain, Austria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, as well as Italy, which later joined them. The “clash with the future” in the face of a million-strong stream of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa led to a weakening of the positions of traditional ruling parties, primarily in Germany, where the CDU lost about a quarter of the citizens who usually vote for it, and the SPD fell for the first time in the post-war period to the level of a minor party. At the same time, right-wing conservative parties, such as the Northern League in Italy, the National Front in France and the German AfD, intensified. The credibility of the authorities has sharply decreased. These processes led to deep disturbances: in a number of countries, such as France, traditional bipartisan systems, which had ensured political stability in these states, collapsed.
And so to Brexit. However brave a face Brussels may put on it, by speaking as if Britain’s departure merely rallied the European Union, the decision of British citizens was a huge shock to the idea of a “united Europe”. Britain’s departure dealt, if not fatal, then a very powerful blow to plans to transform Europe into a single federation with a common president, foreign minister, and so on. The EU cannot recover from this shock. The loss of such a major player as Great Britain might have seemed to provide new opportunities for the smooth functioning of the Franco-German tandem, no longer hindered by London’s vagaries and special positions. But what happened was the opposite. Merkel and Macron are now endlessly figuring out relations between themselves: Merkel sees in Macron’s projects of renewal a threat to “European unity”, while Macron resents the way any proposal to modernize the EU and prepare it for growing global challenges is met with silence or even obstruction in Germany.
Finally, sanctions against Russia deprived Brussels of the opportunity to conduct a broad strategic dialogue with Moscow, which constrained the EU’s own foreign policy options. On the one hand, the EU faced the hyper-egoism of the Trump administration with its “America First” slogan, and on the other, it deprived itself of the potential to interact with Russia. As a result, the EU does not actually participate in resolving major regional crises such as Syria, Iran, or Korea, and has become a “great absence” in the Greater Middle East, where Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and, although to a lesser extent than before, the United States, play the first violins.
Of course, through the “Normandy process” the EU participates indirectly in attempts to resolve the crisis in eastern Ukraine, not in its own capacity, but through France and Germany, so the EU does not act as a self-sufficient foreign policy entity. And where it does, it is difficult for it to boast of the results. The timid attempts to hold on to Trump’s sleeve as he tore into battle with Iran led to nothing. Having declared their disagreement with Trump, EU leaders nonetheless quietly adapted to the United States.
Nor did Ukraine, whose final transition to the Western camp was so gleefully noted in Brussels and other European capitals, turn out to be a success story. From a political point of view, investment in Ukraine was very doubtful. On the one hand, the EU seems to have acquired an ally: the Euro-association zone expanded, and the Ukrainian leadership never tires of declaring its desire to join the EU and NATO. But, on the other, even if all this warms the souls of Brussels bureaucrats, Ukraine itself – with its poverty, corruption, territorial conflicts and frail prospects – is not an acquisition. And it is no accident that practically no one in the EU wants to accept such a problematic country into their ranks. Neither Berlin, nor Paris, nor Rome want to see Ukraine in NATO, no matter how it is dressed up as an alliance member.
Moreover: because of Ukraine, EU countries imposed sanctions against Russia, which for not a few turned out to be an economic curse. The trade turnover between the EU and Russia fell from $ 420 billion in 2013 to $212 billion in 2017, investments fell to nothing, large projects were frozen. Now trade is gradually recovering (it amounted to $278 billion in 2019), but this does not compensate either for the losses already suffered by the EU countries nor, especially, future ones. The “acquisition” of Ukraine could not compensate this damage. In the circumstances, Europeans fell hostage to viciously set priorities. Like the United States in the early 1990s, the European Union in the mid-2010s was let down by its overconfidence. Such self-confidence paralyzes the mind, subjecting it to ideological ecstasy, and monster-creating dreams of reason. In the case of the EU, it is difficult to imagine a more irrational policy than that chosen in relation to Russia in 2014-15. The EU has in fact exchanged the economic and political benefits that the partnership with Russia gave it for supporting a Ukrainian government gripped by nationalist fervor, which will before long be part of the stigma of the “Black Hole” of Europe.
It is no accident that this causes discomfort to all thinking Europeans. Not long ago, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia in a pandemic, since the Russian market can help restore the economy of the EU countries. The forecasts here are disappointing: the EU faces the prospect of a 5-8 percent drop in GDP and a long recession. But judging by the reaction of the European elites, they intend to persist in their conflict with Russia. Naturally, it is not they who will pay, but ordinary citizens.
At the same time, it seems that the EU’s aim is to continue pursuing a purely inertial scenario: to clash clumsily with Russia over Ukraine (without hope of success); wait for the US elections, hoping for Biden’s victory, which “will make everything as before” (which he won’t do – the train of American selfishness will continue to draw away from Europe); and expect that everything will somehow work out by itself. Not going to happen.
“Both Merkel and Macron know Trump well enough to understand: it’s time for Europe to take its policy on its own shoulders,” writes British observer Philip Stevens. “… Since the United States has moved away from Europe, the EU should develop its own foreign and defence policy.” But no signs of this are visible. And when Emmanuel Macron made his infamous declaration about the “death of NATO’s brain”, he did not mean the alliance had fallen into a coma. He just wanted to say that both NATO and the EU has stopped thinking about the future, about the place of Europe in tomorrow’s world, and just goes with the flow, doing nothing and not wanting to change anything. With such a policy, the European Union will not become a major global player.
The coronavirus pandemic will contribute to the further fragmentation of Europe and the growth of contradictions within the EU with the inertial course of its leaders. To speak of a new project of “united Europe” under these conditions – is just to hold on to what is. Citizens of Italy, Spain and several other countries are outraged that their closest EU allies not only did not come to their aid during the pandemic, but also, de facto, enunciated the principle of “everyone to himself.” Italy fought the coronavirus alone – from Brussels they simply looked on, and began to stir only when the peak of the epidemic was passed.
In this way, the pandemic will further strengthen the tendency towards the sluggish geopolitical drifting in the US fairway which has characterised the EU even in the conditions of Donald Trump’s openly anti-European line. No independence from the European Union in the Middle East, in Syria, with respect to Iran, should be expected. The area of its activity will be limited to Europe and attempts to strengthen the influence on the countries of the Eastern Partnership – Belarus, Armenia, possibly Kazakhstan. Although Europe remains the most important continent in terms of world politics, the EU’s passivity at the global level and internal fragmentation will not allow it to develop a coordinated policy that can bring the EU, despite its economic weight, into the circle of political leaders of the modern world.
The need for a strong state
In the post-coronavirus world, the role of the state will inevitably increase – and will be in demand. The very state that has been harassed and vilified by liberals thousands of times, as the source of almost all the troubles of the individual, will return to the forefront as the only factor capable of responding to the new threats – both to the individual and to humanity as a whole.
“The state is the enemy.” For years, the adherents of Reaganomics and Thatcherism have hammered this formula into the heads of gullible consumers. Their task was to destroy national borders, save transnational corporations from state control and all manner of restrictions, open the gates to total freedom of enterprise in order to create a single global market, and then globalize all spheres of human life. On a European scale, supporters of “united Europe” set the same goal. The nation-state, of course, was an obstacle to these far-reaching plans. Therefore, it had to be weakened, deprived of the economic role as much as possible, handed over to the so-called “free market” (a euphemism for the dominance of Transnational Corporations), “deregulate” all spheres of human life, and leave the state with only the functions of an overseer or supervisor of public and economic processes.
With the outbreak of the pandemic, this neoliberal mantra collapsed. It was confirmed that in many spheres no country can do without an effective and functioning state: the provision of external security, internal law and order, healthcare and education. Lenin’s definition of the state as an apparatus of violence is a primitive formula, absolutizing only one – and far from the main function of the state: violence against its citizens. This was necessary for Lenin to contrast the state with the proletariat and the peasantry, i.e. to prepare for the seizure of power. The definition given to the state by Max Weber is not far from Lenin’s: also fascinated by the function of violence, this German philosopher did not seem to see other important social functions of the state. In an epidemic, the state, on the contrary, turns from a “apparatus of violence” into a “apparatus of salvation” of citizens from a threat that, by definition, is the private sector cannot cope with, and before which so-called “Davos man”, with his cult of individualism, money and liberal values, freezes.
Coronavirus dramatically changed the balance between private and public dimensions of public life, even in such bastions of liberal ideology as the United States and Western Europe. “The content of political discourse has undoubtedly shifted in recent months in favour of the state,” said commentator Janan Ganesh on the pages of the Financial Times. “We are living a reputational revival of what … until recently had been reproached with contempt as an “administrative state.”
“We were told that the state should be abolished. That the private is better than the public. That the state is evil. That the hospitals should be closed for economic reasons …” writes the Italian philosopher Diego Fusaro. “However, one virus was enough to demonstrate the mendacity of neoliberalism.”
(By the way, in the face of COVID-19, Italy physically felt the consequences of the neo-liberal austerity policy imposed by Brussels: over the past 10 years, 70 thousand beds have been abolished in the country, and hospital spending reduced by 37 billion euros).
It is precisely the state that can guarantee the functioning of the necessary medical infrastructure and system of expert assessments, which, in conjunction with a certain number of coercive measures including quarantine, or emergency measures aimed at limiting the epidemic, can minimize the number of victims and provide the conditions for its gradual overcoming. In a pandemic, an emergency was introduced in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and ten other European countries. Only the state could do this.
The shift in public perception of the state greatly worries the proponents of a liberal world order. At first, its “second life,” seemed forever to be at the national borders of a European continent flooded by refugees and migrants. Next Donald Trump decided to build an insurmountable wall on the border of the United States and Mexico. Then coronavirus made these borders vital: those countries that were fenced off from neighbours earlier than others, for example, Montenegro, suffered the least from the epidemic.
Theorists of the “liberal world order” such as Henry Kissinger see the revival of the state as a threat to this world order. “The pandemic has once again brought about an anachronism – the rebirth of a walled city, while prosperity depends on global trade and the free movement of people,” Kissinger recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. But the pandemic, rather, reigned in an excessive fascination with globalism to the detriment of the role of the nation state. This fascination had a powerful financial basis – the interests of transnational corporations. As a result, the Western world has gone too far along the path of freedom from state borders and freedom toward human protection from the state. The results are obvious: the first five countries in terms of mortality from COVID-19 are, paradoxically, the leading countries of the West: the USA, Italy, Great Britain, Spain and France.
Of course, the fight against coronavirus and other epidemics of the future (which there will undoubtedly be – there are predictions that the world has entered the era of epidemics), involves international efforts and cooperation. But this struggle will be waged in any case by national states or under their strict control. Only the most thoughtless and irresponsible politicians will agree to entrust this task to such controversial figures as Bill Gates with their supranational corporations and supranational interests.
Another question is that under the new conditions, the state cannot afford to be a sedentary and self-sufficient bureaucratic Leviathan: citizens will be ready to give it their confidence only if it is effective. Neither democracy nor authoritarianism, but efficiency and ability to act is becoming the main criterion for the public perception of the role and importance of the state.
The Big Triangle
Much has been said about the growing role of China. After the pandemic, it is precisely China that can play, in relation to a number of regions, the role the United States played in relation to Europe after the destruction of World War II. Today, the United States does not have funds for the new Marshall plan, while China does. And its influence in the world can only grow. This is not a new trend, but it will be strengthened. As Kishori Mabubani, Singaporean political scientist and former representative of his country at the UN insists, the pandemic “will accelerate the changes that have already begun: we are talking about moving away from US-oriented globalization and moving to China-oriented globalization.”
Today neither China, nor Russia, nor Iran, nor India, nor Turkey, nor many other countries of the world recognize the moral right of the United States to lead the modern world. The concept of a “multipolar world,” on the contrary, is gaining more and more supporters. But within its framework, three countries nevertheless stand out on which international politics depends most of all: in the place of the past “unipolar world,” a “tri-polar” world is emerging before our eyes. Recently, the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post expressed the opinion that in the post-coronavirus world, the main players will be the United States, Russia and China. Note that in this non-isosceles triangle, the two peaks – Russia and China – are much closer to each other than to the USA. This will partially balance the still remaining superior power of the United States in a number of areas (for example, information or military-technological).
So, the United States, which has lost its ability for world leadership, a fragmented Europe, strengthened China, and Russia, entrenched in the “big triangle” – will be the main features of the post-coronavirus world in which nation-states will noticeably increase their role and social weight. The global world will not disappear, but will become much different. Globalism, as any excessive trend, will be limited by the objective needs of societies that are better aware of both the positive and the dangerous aspects of this doctrine. We will not say goodbye to the global world, but it will be different. And we will live differently within it.
* This is an extended version of the text published in the [printed] issue of “WG”.
Alexey Pushkov is a Senator from Perm Krai. He also serves as Chairman of the Commission on Information and Media, the Council of Federation and Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. Previously, from 2011 to 2016, he was Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs in the State of Duma. Pushkov presents Postscriptum on Russian TV and is Professor of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He has published more than 400 papers and analytical articles on foreign policy.