The coronavirus: A geopolitical earthquake

The covid-19 crisis is holding up a mirror to Western countries – making us realise that the perception we have of ourselves might be distorted.  

2020 is shaping up to be one of the most difficult years since the end of the second world war. As unexpected as it is disruptive, the global pandemic has huge social, economic, and political consequences. Today, states are fighting a threat that is growing exponentially and puts most of their citizens at risk. This is a global war against an invisible enemy.

The coronavirus crisis will undoubtedly be a defining moment in contemporary history. We will have to change our way of living as we knew it for a considerable time. We will close factories, ground planes, and empty office skyscrapers, while closing borders and enduring long waits in supermarkets, overcrowded hospitals, and many online meetings. We will suffer a significant loss of life, while social customs such as hugging or shaking hands will temporarily disappear from our habits. There is no doubt that we will eventually overcome this crisis, but its effects could be as relevant as those of a concentrated blend of 9/11, the Great Recession, and the Ebola epidemic. After we return to some form of normality, many geopolitical divisions will have grown and we will all be left with a deep sense of vertigo.

The covid-19 crisis is holding up a mirror to Western countries – making us realise that the perception we have of ourselves might be distorted. The crisis will be a huge test: our effectiveness in managing it could alternately accelerate or slow the de-Westernisation of the world. In any case, it will challenge globalisation and rearrange the world order.

Europe, currently the epicentre of the pandemic, is addressing the crisis in a state of fragility. Its usual divisions are more evident than ever and its relatively old population is at particularly high risk from covid-19. However, one should never underestimate the old continent. Europe has the tools to reaffirm and reposition itself in the world in the face of this crisis. Our states are powerful public policy machines; we have the best universal healthcare systems on the planet; and we have built the greatest framework of supranational action the world has ever known: the European Union. A global pandemic requires a capacity for resistance, coordination, and public action – all areas in which we have proven skills.

The old nation states of the continent are waking up, slowly but ruthlessly launching huge fiscal stimulus packages. For its part, the European Central Bank, after a shaky and eventful start, has decided to fulfil its role by implementing a comprehensive asset-purchase plan that will safeguard public debt and provide liquidity. Now, there is a pressing need for a stimulus at the community level and real European fiscal instruments. We risk becoming caught up in ordoliberal obsessions that will bring to light, once again, the deficiencies in the institutional design of the single currency. In this, let’s hope that we can apply the lessons of the long and painful recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

Europe, currently the epicentre of the pandemic, is addressing the crisis in a state of fragility

Transatlantic relations have also suffered a new blow in the crisis. With President Donald Trump in denial about the seriousness of the crisis until recently, and his unilateral ban on commercial flights with the EU, the United States has once more revealed its aggressive isolationism. And we must watch closely as events unfold within the superpower: the US lacks a universal healthcare system, has a highly volatile labour market, and is run by an administration that displays deep incompetence seasoned with a persistent contempt for scientists and other experts. And all this is occurring in an election year. Nonetheless, the US does have an invaluable asset: the proactive attitude of the Federal Reserve and the dollar’s global strength. We will see.

China, however, seems intent on embodying some of the values with which the West has historically identified itself: solidarity and cooperation. China’s decision to send medical staff and equipment to Europe to fight the coronavirus was not only an act of solidarity, but a geopolitical exercise: the country has extended a helping hand to a West that is facing serious problems. This is not mere altruism; it is a demonstration of China’s will to play the role of ascending hegemon and capitalise on the growing void left by the US.

The Asian powerhouse is determined to gain new centrality in a global system traditionally organised around the Atlantic alliance. This presents a huge challenge to the global order, as the Chinese model is in tension with our democratic vision of governance. Yet the crisis could open the door to a new relationship between Europe and China. Wouldn’t this demonstrate the strategic autonomy demanded from the EU?

At the same time, globalisation is under strain and whatever comes next will almost certainly adjust the global market-orientated rationale that we’ve seen to date. This crisis will redraw the borders between the state and the market in democracies, probably pushing us towards a certain level of industrial relocation to protect supply and production lines, and emphasising national initiatives to the detriment of international coordination. But could it conversely push us towards greater governance through international institutions, in the face of the obvious risks to humanity as a whole?

The coronavirus has put us on the ropes. However, we must continue advocating for a rules-based, open, and connected world, while preserving multilateralism, pursuing truly supportive and responsible globalisation, and establishing control and compensation mechanisms that create a joint response to emergencies. The way in which we escape this crisis will largely determine our ability to face the next one.

This article first appeared in Política Exterior.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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