Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

No, the Coronavirus Will Not Change the Global Order

| Apr. 16, 2020

We should be skeptical toward claims that the pandemic changes everything. China won't benefit, and the United States will remain preeminent.

How will the coronavirus pandemic reshape geopolitics? Many commentators predict the end of an era of globalization that has prospered under U.S. leadership since 1945. Some see a turning point at which China surpasses the United States as a global power. Certainly, there will be changes, but one should be wary of assuming that big causes have big effects. For example, the 1918–1919 flu pandemic killed more people than World War I, yet the lasting global changes that unfolded over the next two decades were a consequence of the war, not the disease.

Globalization—or interdependence across continents—is the result of changes in transportation and communication technology, and these are unlikely to cease. Some aspects of economic globalization such as trade will be curtailed but financial flows less so. And while economic globalization is influenced by the laws of governments, other aspects of globalization such as pandemics and climate change are determined more by the laws of biology and physics. Walls, weapons, and tariffs do not stop their transnational effects, though deep and persistent economic stagnation would slow them down.

This century has seen three crises in two decades. The 9/11 terrorist attacks did not kill very many people—but like jujitsu, terrorism is a game in which a smaller player can use the shock of horror to create a disproportionate impact on the opponent's agenda. U.S. foreign policy was profoundly distorted by choices made in a state of panic that led to long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second shock, the 2008 financial crisis, brought on the Great Recession, gave rise to populism in Western democracies, and strengthened autocratic movements in many countries. China's fast, massive, and successful stimulus package contrasted with the West's lagged response, leading many to predict that China was on course to become the world’s economic leader.

Initial responses to the century's third crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, also went down the wrong path. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump started off with denial and misinformation. Delays and obfuscation wasted crucial time for testing and containment, and the opportunity for international cooperation was squandered. Instead, after imposing costly lockdowns, the world's two largest economies engaged in propaganda battles. China has blamed the U.S. military for the presence of the virus in Wuhan, and Trump has spoken about the "Chinese virus." The European Union, with an economy roughly the size of the United States', dithered in the face of disunity. Yet a virus could not care less about borders or about the nationality of its victims....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“No, the Coronavirus Will Not Change the Global Order.” Foreign Policy, April 16, 2020.