In chaos theory, the butterfly effect describes a small change that can have massive, unpredictable consequences. An insect flaps its wings and, weeks later, causes a tornado. The corona virus is more like an earthquake, with aftershocks that will permanently reshape the world. International orders seldom change in noticeable ways. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Pax Romana was not a passing phase- it persisted for centuries. The order that arose from the 1815 Congress of Vienna didn’t fully unravel until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. But at rare moments, confidence in the old order collapses and humanity is left with a vacuum. It is during these times that new orders are born—that new norms, treaties and institutions arise to define how countries interact with each other and how individuals interact with the world. As the most far-reaching global disruption since World War II, the corona virus pandemic is such a moment. The post-1945 world order has ceased to function. Under a healthy order, we would expect at least good faith attempts at international coordination to confront a virus that knows no borders. Yet the United Nations has gone missing, the World Health Organization has become a political football and borders have closed not only between countries but even within the European Union. Habits of cooperation that took decades to entrench are dissolving.
The discussion in global think tanks rages, not about cooperation, but whether the Chinese or the US will emerge as leaders of the post-corona virus world. The Harvard international relations theorist Stephen Walt thinks China may succeed. Offering a first take to Foreign Policy magazine, he suggests: “Corona virus will accelerate the shift of power and influence from west to east. South Korea and Singapore have shown the best response and China has managed well in the aftermath of its initial mistakes. The governments’ response in Europe and the US has been very skeptical and likely to weaken the power of the western brand”. The pandemic will strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism. Governments of all types will adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis, and many will be loath to relinquish these new powers when the crisis is over. The corona virus will also expedite the shift in power and influence from west to east. The result will be a world that is bereft of social justice, shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and basic freedoms. Consequently, U.S. competence will be disputed, and its global influence likely to decline sharply.
Populist politicians will exploit this pandemic as yet another opportunity to blame refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers for the outbreak. Clearly, they push for closing borders and adopting anti-globalization measures in the name of nationalism and economic protectionism.
One thing is clear; the post-corona virus world will not be dramatically different from the one that came before it. COVID-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it. The world that emerges from this crisis will be marked by waning American leadership, faltering global cooperation, great power discord—features that have come to accurately describe the U.S. declining leadership role in the world. The pandemic is certain to heighten friction between the United States and China, while also reinforcing the democratic recession that has characterized the world since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Now more than ever, the possibility of a new Cold War between the United States China looms large. There will be greater support for a larger government role in society, particularly in the form of curbing the movement of populations or providing economic aid. Under such circumstances, civil liberties and political freedoms will be significantly restricted. While most liberal democrats acknowledge that this global pandemic could widen the divisions between countries and possibly fuel anti-migrant sentiments, there is a good chance it will buttress international cooperation, support for an international organization such as UN, and a willingness to seek negotiations rather than military and economic clash.
However, the pandemic can also serve a useful purpose. There are also signs of hope and good sense. India took the initiative to convene a video conference of all South Asian leaders to craft a common regional response to the threat. If the pandemic shocks us into recognizing our real interest in cooperating multilaterally on the big global issues facing us, it will have served a useful purpose. In short, COVID-19 will create a world that is less open, less prosperous, and less free. It did not have to be this way, but the combination of a deadly virus, inadequate planning, and incompetent leadership has placed humanity on a new and worrisome path.
The author of this article is a Student of Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka