COVID-19's long-term effects on the international system remain unknown, in part because the course of the disease remains unknown. Much still depends on factors such as potential new waves of infections as the northern hemisphere winter approaches, improved treatments, and especially the development of an effective vaccine.
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At this point, some nine months into the plague, we do know that COVID-19 is not a geopolitical blip of little consequence. It has already inflicted a ghastly human toll and caused disastrous social and national dislocations. It is sharpening the key rivalry of the 21st century, the U.S.-China competition, and highlighting strains that were already disordering the world.
But it is unlikely to cause a fundamental altering of the global system on par with what happened after World War II destroyed two leading great powers, Germany and Japan, catalyzed the collapse of the European colonial empires, and propelled the United States to international primacy. And the changes that it does cause may not make the international landscape dramatically more menacing. There is even a scenario in which the pandemic weakens autocracy and populism more than democracy, underscores America's structural power even as it temporarily damages its soft power, catalyzes a more formidable balancing coalition against China, and leads to a more realistic form of globalization as well as renewed cooperation between the world's democratic states.
That depends, however, on what choices America makes in a post-COVID world. The COVID pandemic reminds us that "American leadership" is not a trite euphemism. It is arguably the single most important factor in whether the arc of history bends toward something better or something worse. America must soon recover the tradition of enlightened global leadership that it presently seems to have abandoned.
The fact that American dominance, the liberal order, and other aspects of the pre-COVID status quo continued for decades suggests that they possessed a higher degree of resilience than is often appreciated. Just as important, a closer look at some of the dynamics unleashed or highlighted by the crisis points to several opportunities for the United States and our allies. These include:
The pandemic leads not to de-globalization but to re-globalization along geopolitical lines.
The fundamental drivers of long-term globalization—technology that shrinks distances, the quest for economic growth that spurs trade, and the recognition that global problems do not recognize borders—have not been undone. If anything, they are underscored. For example, the need for growth to reduce the crushing debt burden created by the pandemic-generated recession will eventually produce a resurgence in global trade.
In some ways, the crisis may create opportunities for deeper globalization. As individual nations and leaders wrestle with the next phases of the COVID response, particularly antiviral therapies, vaccine development, contact tracing, and mass immunity, it will become clear that no one nation-state will be able to develop these alone. The resulting networks, some evolving organically and others reinforced by institutional mandates and incentives, will create a connective tissue that binds nation-states together rather than furthering their distance.
The crisis may create opportunities for deeper globalization.
The medium-term outlook could well be managed globalization along two discernible lines. First, supply chains will likely diversify, with the risk premium justifying the inefficiencies of redundancy. In most cases, the costs of entirely on-shoring production back to the United States will be prohibitive. But savvy firms should be able to generate more resilient production chains without complete on-shoring, and those firms will have a competitive edge over others chasing the unicorn of autarky.
Second, globalization will increasingly occur within rather than across geopolitical lines. The quest for diversification and modest U.S.-China decoupling will likely result in a diversion of trade and investment flows to other countries, particularly historic allies like Europe and Japan and other regions such as South and Southeast Asia, where states have their own incentives to minimize their vulnerabilities to Chinese coercion. Geopolitical logic will reinforce and accelerate this trend, since deeper trade and economic integration could strengthen the "free world" economy for competition with Beijing.
The pandemic does not result in dramatic, adverse shifts in the balance of power.
Even optimists would concede that America's geopolitical position has worsened somewhat as a result of the crisis. The fact that China seemed to gain the upper hand in its fight against the spread of COVID-19 just as the United States and its major allies were slogging through the toughest phase of the lockdown reinforced the impression of waning Western and especially American power. It also enabled the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to pursue its aims while Washington and its democratic allies were laid low; witness the tightened control over Hong Kong, increased repression in Xinjiang, and renewed belligerence toward Taiwan.
Even optimists would concede that America's geopolitical position has worsened somewhat as a result of the crisis.
If the psychological balance of power shifted rapidly, however, the material balance did not shift in a decisive or enduring way. The pandemic damaged every major economy. Almost every geopolitical unit that has been touted at one time or another as a possible emerging disrupter of U.S. primacy—the European Union, Russia, India, or Brazil—suffered a grievous economic wound. If anything, the flight of international investors toward the United States in the middle of the crisis, along with the dollar's resilience as the global reserve currency, underscored the fundamental sources of U.S. structural strength.
The pandemic has also drawn attention to China's economic and political fragility. Beijing botched its initial response to the spread of the virus and then botched its attempt to cover up that fact with crude propaganda and gifts of defective PPE. While the CCP welcomed the pandemic's undermining of global and American domestic confidence in the United States, over the medium- and long-term it is unlikely that even this will redound to China’s advantage.
While American soft power and diplomatic prestige often attach in the short-term to the successes and failures of a particular leader, they tend to reset fairly quickly after the next electoral cycle. Previous declines in American soft power were followed by sharp bounce-backs, in some cases caused by nothing more than a change in the White House. If, a year from now, the United States is seen to be acting more competently at home and abroad, the deeper sources of American soft power and prestige may reassert themselves. And if the United States leads in developing and distributing a working vaccine—a big "if," but one that the U.S. is well positioned to achieve—then the soft-power bounce-back could be substantial.
For China, by contrast, the long-term diplomatic trends seem more troubling. The fact that dozens of countries called for an international inquiry into the pandemic's origins, that international anger at China rose considerably on multiple continents, and that a number of countries that had previously accommodated China swung towards a harder line all suggest that Beijing may confront a more formidable balancing coalition in the years to come. Admittedly, forging an effective balancing coalition will require more skillful U.S. diplomacy than it has exhibited of late. But it is quite possible that this pandemic will scathe China more than the United States.
The liberal order holds and is revitalized.
As poorly as the institutions of the liberal order performed during the initial stages of the pandemic, they still command more legitimacy in the rest of the world than any plausible alternative. The more likely scenario could be reform and innovative new institutions rather than collapse.
Lamentations over the weaknesses of international institutions often go in tandem with expressions of nostalgia for a past golden era of multilateral cooperation. But such an era never existed. International institutions have always faced geopolitical challenges and criticism for their failings. Yet they adapted and endured—and that could happen again.
What may emerge is a shift to a two-tiered order, one involving the world's democracies, with a higher level of cohesion and ambition, and the second a broader order with a larger number of countries but a lower level of cohesion and ambition, reserved only for transnational issues such as pandemics and climate change.
For example, the G-7 could evolve into a D-10 that includes the leading democracies committed to developing alternatives to technological dependence on China. The United Kingdom has already proposed such a reform. The EU is considering plans to deepen fiscal integration by making additional funds available to COVID-stricken economies. U.S. military alliances are likely to prove even more relevant in the more competitive world that is now emerging. The imperative of decreasing economic dependence on autocracies could lead over time to trade and investment agreements that focus on deepening ties between America and like-minded democracies. And if the United States commits to fighting harder for influence in obscure but important institutions that China has sought to corrupt, the effectiveness of those institutions could be restored.
The pandemic proves deadlier for autocrats and populists than democrats.
Authoritarians and populists have short-term advantages in confronting a pandemic—for example, in implementing draconian public health measures and exploiting the demagoguery that accompanies suffering. But several months into the pandemic, there does not seem to be a lasting dictator's dividend. The nations that displayed the most effective responses are liberal democracies, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Denmark, New Zealand, and Germany. Singapore, a soft-authoritarian city-state, is the main example of a non-democracy that marshaled an effective response, and is almost the exception that proves the rule.
The performance of the world's foremost authoritarian regimes was somewhere between mediocre and catastrophic. China's delayed response to the COVID-19 outbreak, once galvanized, drew on the advantages that authoritarianism offers, including mass lockdowns and mass surveillance. Yet that response was necessary because the authoritarian system had prevented a more effective earlier response, and the pandemic almost certainly caused much higher numbers of infections and deaths than its government has admitted. Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, and North Korea also seem to have been hit very hard, with the damage obscured only by their lack of transparency. Of course, many democratic nations have also under-performed, especially the U.S. But the point is that neither type of political system has a monopoly on ineptitude in its initial response—and that democracies are still well positioned to win the governance challenge over the long term.
From a free press and an independent judiciary to opposition parties, decentralized governance, and elections, democracies possess an ecosystem of self-correction that provide warnings when policies aren't working, information channels for suggesting new approaches, policy laboratories for experimenting with different responses, and accountability channels for citizens to either reward or punish their elected leaders and the administrators who serve under them. Authoritarian systems, in contrast, eschew these mechanisms, any one of which could threaten the autocrat's monopoly on power. In the near-term, admittedly, such crises can provide political cover for leaders to consolidate control; they can also create the anger and resentment on which populist leaders thrive. But authoritarians cannot indefinitely hide from the convergent pressures of disaffected citizens, dysfunctional health systems, eroding control, and economic stresses accentuated by the crisis, and their political systems tend to be more brittle than democracies when confronted by such challenges. Witness the ongoing protests in Belarus as the latest example.
American policy may be the most important factor in determining which way the future breaks. If the United States commits its vast power and prestige to deepening cooperation and economic integration with the democracies, promoting a geopolitically informed globalization rather than a wholesale retreat from globalization, if it focuses on reforming and competing for influence within the institutions of the liberal order that underperformed or were corrupted by authoritarian influence, and to developing the policies—not simply the rhetoric—of responsible competition with China, then the fluidity that the crisis has created may well redound to the advantage of America and the "free world."
But if the U.S. chooses a course of narrow economic nationalism, gratuitous provocation of its closest allies, retreat from institutions in which it does not get its way, and continued downgrading of efforts to promote democracy and human rights, and if the country indefinitely flounders in discharging its responsibilities at home and abroad, then the future indeed looks grim.
Bringing about the better scenario will require better American leadership in myriad ways. These include:
- Using its power to convene other nations for common goals;
- Setting the agenda for what issues to focus on, and how;
- Providing economic, personnel, and technological resources toward international challenges;
- Leading the gathering, analysis, and sharing of information on global problems;
- Pioneering innovative and creative solutions;
- Deploying leverage to induce or persuade those otherwise reluctant to make responsible choices;
- Serving as a moral exemplar;
- Demonstrating competence in policy design and implementation; and
- Being willing to sacrifice narrow self-interest in favor of the enlightened self-interest that comes from pursuing a larger global good.
This list is an implicit indictment of all that was lacking in American statecraft as the pandemic spread, and a reminder of just how dramatically U.S. performance will have to change to tip the balance from a dark future to a brighter one.
William Inboden is Associate Professor at the LBJ School. He is also the William Powers Jr. Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security.
 This paper is a condensed and updated version of a research project undertaken for the National Intelligence Council and the chapter that I co-authored with Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, "Maybe It Won't Be So Bad: A Modestly Optimistic Take on COVID and World Order," in Hal Brands and Francis Gavin, eds., COVID-19 and World Order: The Future of Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.