Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

COVID-19 Might Not Change the World

| Oct. 09, 2020

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.

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“COVID-19 Might Not Change the World.” Foreign Policy, October 9, 2020.