Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.05.01

The post-COVID-19 international order

the japan times on April 20, 2020

Two weeks have passed since Japan belatedly declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and six other prefectures. Now the declaration has been extended to the entire nation as COVID-19 infections continue to expand. The United States, in contrast, seems to be desperately striving to "Open up America again" by May 1.

The political fate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or U.S. President Donald Trump are not of particular interest. No matter what they do or don't, they are doomed to flip-flop and fail. Rather, my apprehension these days has been how the COVID-19 pandemic, if it persists, will impact the existing international order. Will it be negative and if so, how damaging could that be?

That is the subject of discussion in a webinar this Thursday evening titled "The Post-COVID-19 International Order," which I have been invited to hold with a distinguished American scholar. It is co-organized by the Stimson Center and Canon Institute for Global Studies. If interested, readers can join us online.

Pandemics destroy everything and produce nothing. From Athens in the 2nd century B.C. to the plague in the 14th century and to the Spanish flu a century ago, pandemics have always caused massive economic, social, political and military impacts on human activities.

Diseases are as neutral to politics as new technologies in the 21st century. At times they demolish dominant players, while they can also mercilessly ruin the weaker. Pandemics are not choosy about ideologies, either. They just destroy what humans have achieved.

The following is my take on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Decline of globalization

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the West has pursued an open, free, rule-based and truly globalized international order. In retrospect, despite the setback in the 2008 financial crisis, we thought those efforts were almost successful. It is COVID-19 that is undermining the process of globalization.

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has virtually halted much of global as well as domestic economic activities. If it persists for several months, the pandemic will dramatically change conventional economic activities, causing a shift away from face-to-face interactions in the real world to more indirect activities in cyberspace.

Will the CCP fall?

COVID-19 is particularly destructive to the American economy and now U.S. fatalities are expected to reach 50,000 by the end of April. With the Trump administration's poor handling of the pandemic, the country will be one of the biggest victims among the major powers in the world.

This does not mean that China can easily survive the pandemic. First, nobody outside China will forget that COVID-19 started in Wuhan. People will remember that China, in the critical first several weeks after the outbreak, systematically tried to cover up the facts and manipulate information.

Persistent COVID-19 infections may damage, if not destroy, the Chinese Communist Party's rule in the long run. Since the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China in 1972, Beijing has enjoyed an optimal politico-economic environment for rapid economic growth. The pandemic could eventually destroy these advantageous circumstances.

Socio-political ramifications

Since COVID-19 also demolishes the weaker, it will create a few winners and many losers. Politically the pandemic would make the movements of nationalism, populism, xenophobism and racial or religious discrimination, much more hideous. Those extremists will probably be the winners in the post-COVID-19 world.

The losers are, of course, all the victims in this unhealthy state of politics. It is ominous, as The New York Times reported, that China's "success (in the battle against COVID-19) is giving rise to an increasingly strident blend of patriotism, nationalism and xenophobia, at a pitch many say has not been seen in decades."

Impact on geopolitics

Germs or viruses, which migrate from one person to another, cannot live without humans. After descending from the branches of tropical trees and moving to the temperate steppe, humans first walked, then moved on horses, then on ships , then on vehicles and finally on airplanes or rockets. The pace of human movement has risen exponentially.

So have the speed at which viruses travel. When mankind was just walking, viruses moved slowly. Now that people fly to the other side of the globe in mere hours, the pace at which pandemics spread has dramatically accelerated. In this regard, COVID-19 may change the logic and perspectives of geopolitics in the years to come.

The new normal?

What used to be right is now considered wrong. Pandemics prevent humans from making direct, physical contact with each other. The best way to avoid other people is not to see, talk with, touch and mingle with them. This will bring us back to the traditional class consciousness.

This kind of traditional discriminatory behavior would eventually further divide communities, societies and, of course entire nations. Those who have privilege or can afford medicine or equipment to recover from the disease will be the winners and the rest will be the losers. Another ugly selective process will resume.

The stride for an open, free, rule-based and truly globalized international order, which the international community has pursued and dreamed of for the past three decades must be put on hold, at least for the time being. This era's customs, ideas or rules may not return even once the pandemic is over.

As noted earlier, as mankind made progress, the threat posed by pandemics grew accordingly. That might change however, now that humans have started moving into the virtual area on the internet. Fortunately, pandemics cannot occur in cyber space and only computer viruses can destroy virtual reality.

COVID-19 itself will not produce anything because it only destroys what is already in existence. It is and must be humans and artificial intelligence-assisted machines that produce something new. It should be remembered that after the plague in the 14th century came the era of the Renaissance at the close of the Middle Ages.