Between confrontation and cooperation: Coronavirus and the international order


The coronavirus crisis comes at a time when the international order is already under stress, mainly driven by a new rivalry between “great powers”. Coronavirus could either exacerbate this trend, or it could breathe new life into international cooperation. Another possibility is that rivalry will remain central to the coming order, but one in which democracies come closer together to push back against autocratic bids for global power and influence. A geopolitical analysis.

Picture of Earth with the corona virus around it
Teaser Image Caption
Earth with the corona virus around it

All recent crises have been somewhat limited in dimension: the broader population, for the most part, did not experience the financial crisis or the refugee crisis at first hand, but merely felt the economic and political repercussions of these systemic shocks. The coronavirus crisis is different: it is experienced and suffered directly by societies and has massively affected everyday life, almost everywhere in the world. And there is still by no means an end in sight: until a vaccine and/or medical therapy are available the virus will presumably go on striking, in wave after wave. Across the globe, people will try to keep themselves safe through social distancing and hygiene measures, and everywhere states will try to contain the virus.

Because the effects of coronavirus reach so far and so deep, because it is changing the ways people live, work and interact, it may be more profound in its repercussions. In the coming month, two crises are likely to deepen: the immediate public health crisis and the economic crisis resulting from the interruptions to production, supply chains and consumption. These two crises may develop into a political and state crisis if societies lose trust in their leadership. 

This article discusses some potential consequences of the coronavirus crisis for the international order. It begins with a description of this order, then looks at two general trends that coronavirus might trigger, and finally assesses potential consequences for the international order. 

Starting point: Great power rivalry and globalisation

What was the configuration of the international order going into the crisis? For several years now, the paradigm of “great power rivalry” has informed strategic thinking in world capitals – in Moscow and Beijing, in Washington DC, in Paris and Tokyo. Following the Pax Americana phase of America’s undisputed dominance, together with the victory of democracy, market economy and a “liberal international order” after 1989, the world returned to a situation of competition once again, with the US, China and -- as a distant third -- Russia as the main players.

Yet while there is general consensus that competition is back, and that “great power rivalry” has replaced “globalisation” as the main paradigm, there are at least two very different concepts of what “rivalry” means today. 

The first is in line with classical “realism” -- the idea that major powers are competing for self-preservation and resources in a largely anarchic international environment. Only the strongest are truly sovereign, and these sovereign powers are turning the rest of the world into their battlefield in the eternal battle for supremacy. International rules and institutions are not binding for these sovereign powers, at best they are instruments to score points against rivals. This view is strongly held in Russia under Putin, and it seems that China under Xi is following the same path, despite all the rhetoric about multilateralism. It is also the view that U.S. president Trump apparently holds about the nature of international relations: sharks competing over resources in a shark tank.

The second, the “liberal” variant agrees that there is a rivalry between “great powers”. But what drives the competition, according to this view, is the nature of the regimes. Autocratic governments feel existentially threatened by democracy, an overthrow of their rule, which relies on coercion more than consensus. The ruling elites in Russia and China are fortifying their regimes against democratic “contagion” at home and are eager to create an international environment that does not challenge their position. They need “to make the world safe for autocracy”, by strengthening autocrats and dictators abroad and by undermining democracy in powerful democratic countries. According to this view, America is at the forefront of the struggle not only because it is a leading power, but also because it represents democracy like no other country -- even with all the problems it has currently at home. That is the view the candidate of the Democrats in the US presidential elections in November, Joe Biden, embraced in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs (Why America must lead again).

While the new paradigm of great power rivalry is taking all the attention, the reality is still very much shaped by globalisation, the paradigm that emerged after the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1989/91. Globalisation is based on the idea of open borders, driven by economies and societies that increasingly interact with each other on a global scale. Yet while globalisation has worked for many businesses, has helped to lift people out of poverty on a massive scale and has allowed people to connect with each other around the world, it has failed the political expectations that were attached to it. Instead of producing a self-sustaining process of transformation from autocracy towards liberal order and an increased will to cooperate in institutions of global governance, it has led to a situation in which the liberal order is challenged from inside the West as well as by Russia and China -- leading to the new paradigm of “great power rivalry”.

Against this backdrop of changing paradigms of the global order: how might the coronavirus crisis affect the dynamic?

Everyone for themselves, or solidarity first?

In a first scenario, coronavirus is dealt with in an “everyone for themselves” attitude. Those who argue that drastic measures are needed to protect the more vulnerable segments of society lose the argument against those who either downplay the threat or feel that the price is too high, in terms of limitations of individual liberty and economic disruption. As a consequence, the death toll is rising; states and institutions lose trust, as they are not seen as doing enough to protect citizens. Wealthy people find it much easier to protect themselves while poorer people cannot afford to self-isolate; anger about inequality is growing.

The lesson societies are learning from this experience is that when faced with an existential threat, they cannot rely on others, not on the broader society or on the state and its institutions. Dependency on others is becoming a liability; autonomy and self-sustainability are seen as desirable. This weakens coherence and leads to more tensions and conflicts in societies.

In such a scenario, public attitudes are not the only things to change. The health crisis and the deepening economic crisis are turning into a vicious cycle that is increasingly affecting the capacity of the state to perform. Domestic problems overwhelm local, regional and national governments. International issues are disappearing from the agenda because countries are so consumed with domestic troubles.

Some governments, however, especially autocracies, could be tempted to go on the offensive and seek to deflect attention from their domestic trouble by acting more aggressively abroad. China has recently started to flex its muscles on multiple fronts, from Hong Kong to the South China Sea to the conflict with India. Russia may be tempted to start another foreign policy gamble in its neighbourhood.

The second scenario starts with the same conflict inside countries, between concerns over public health and concerns about the damage the containment of coronavirus inflicts on society and the economy. Yet here solidarity wins, because solidarity with the more vulnerable groups is valued very highly, and because massive containment is also seen as the most effective way to deal with the pandemics. The overall mood in the society is: “we’re in this together”.  This helps in return to limit new outbreaks. The broader lesson societies are taking from this experience is that solidarity pays off. Trust in cooperation, institutions and political leadership are becoming stronger.

What works at home is also expected to work abroad. Societies that operate in the mode of solidarity are also much more likely to value cooperation across borders. Working with other countries on joint strategies to contain coronavirus and on the development of a vaccine is seen as a win-win strategy.

Coronavirus and the dynamics of the international system 

If one of those scenarios - “everyone for themselves” or “solidarity” - prevails, what will be the impact on the dynamic of the international order?

The first scenario, “everyone for themselves”, would most likely reinforce the view of international politics as a Darwinist fight for survival, along the lines of the “realist” version of great power rivalry: because you can’t trust anybody, you have to consider others as potential enemies and competitors for scarce resources; win-win-solutions do not exist, and if you do not fight, you wil lose everything.

Such an outcome would further weaken international cooperation and undermine trust in international rules and institutions. Big, powerful countries would feel encouraged to ignore the interests of weaker countries, consider them even more as a playground for competition with their peers. The attitude Moscow and Beijing have demonstrated in the last years, and which has been partly embraced by the US under Trump, would become the “new normal”: more nationalism, more “my country first”, less cooperation, more tensions and conflicts.

If, by contrast, the “solidarity” approach should prevail, international cooperation might see a boost. There might be a tendency to emphasise things that bind and unite people across the world, and on joint interests pursued through more “global governance”, entirely in line with the globalisation paradigm. The “systemic rivalry” would be downplayed, leaders would seek ways to cooperate, also across the boundaries of the political dividing lines. 

Yet such a picture is unlikely to emerge. There are reasons for the new rivalry; elites in China and Russia are under pressure at home and feel obliged to protect themselves against democratic change. At the same, there is now a bipartisan consensus in the US that China has abused openness and the will to cooperate, and that it is time to protect the US (Trump version) or the “free world” (Biden version) against a rising China that is undermining freedom globally and sucking out economic strength from the US. The space for cooperation has shrunk massively.

That is why a third outcome is quite possible, if not likely: a constellation in which European and Asian democracies and the US work more closely together, under the banner of the “free world”, while disconnecting themselves in part from China and working together to contain China’s and Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy. Globalisation would continue, but again, like during the Cold War, limited to a space inhibited by like-minded countries. At the same time, systemic rivalry would become stronger, with the “free world” alliance openly competing against Chinese and Russian attempts to build spheres of influence and to gain the upper hand in the struggle.

Each of these three paths ahead has its drivers in the US, in Europe and Asia. A decisive moment will be the US election in November. Trump is a proponent of the “everyone for themselves”  attitude, be it in the fight against coronavirus or in international affairs. Most Europeans meanwhile would probably prefer the second path ahead: more globalisation, more cooperation globally - the old paradigm. And with Biden, the third path would become more likely, with an US rallying allies around a democracy-first agenda that embraces systemic competition with China and Russia as the new paradigm (while still trying to find ways to cooperate on global issues such as climate change).

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