The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been paying close attention to how the Ideas Industry has attempted to process the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a lot of very good work written on the fly about possible shifts in global order or second-order effects that remain beyond the horizon. Already, there are meta-analyses of how this will affect the think-tank world.
I do not necessarily disagree with much of this work. It is likely that there will be some knock-on geopolitical effects from the combination of a pandemic and the economic shock to the global economy. As an intellectual exercise, however, it is worth considering the counterintuitive claim: that after the pandemic has died down, nothing much will have changed.
This is not to say that diseases play no role in international relations. That is flatly false. We know that a plague had transformational effects on Athens during the early years of the Peloponnesian War. The Black Death had significant effects on European history. Disease was one of the most powerful engines that facilitated colonization.
There is nonetheless little discussion of how the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic affected great power politics in modern international relations discourse. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 did not deter China’s rise in the international system. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic caused barely a ripple in international relations. Neither the 2014 nor the 2019 Ebola outbreaks in Africa affected great power politics.
To be sure, all of these events had significant impacts on numerous people. After-action analyses changed aspects of global health governance for the better. Did any of the events listed in the paragraph above transform world politics? No, no, they did not.
Will the novel coronavirus accelerate the end of globalization as we know it? It is certainly true that restrictions on migration might rise — but that was always the least globalized portion of the global economy. The lack of global governance certainly suggests more unilateral restrictions and efforts to diversify away from global supply chains. Just as the U.S.-China trade war caused a modest diversion of trade rather than home-shoring, the coronavirus is unlikely to tear asunder what the profit motive makes compelling.
Analysts are focusing intently on whether this accelerates a hegemonic transition or a great power conflict between China and the United States. China has tried to seize on being seen as a provider of key global public goods. The United States has blown opportunity after opportunity to play a leadership role — a fact Spoiler Alerts will discuss later this week. A key source of soft power is the demonstration of policy competence. No one beyond President Trump thinks that the United States has been competent in its policy response.
Still, there is less here than meets the eye. The health goods that China has provided have been substandard, which reflects Chinese incompetence rather than malevolence. As for the United States, Congress just agreed to borrow $2 trillion, and interest rates remain at historic lows. If a key measure of state power is the capacity to spend in an unconstrained manner, the United States remains a unique superpower.
The truth is that in the post-Napoleonic era, significant, discrete shifts in the distribution of power have only come from war and the collapse of communism. Maybe this pandemic will have a similar effect, but the nature of the coronavirus makes that highly unlikely.
While researching “Theories of International Politics and Zombies,” I kept coming back to a scene from the 2002 film “28 Days Later” in which a British army officer describes the post-apocalyptic world:
This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection: people killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, as far back as I care to remember — people killing people. Which, to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.
A true realist would agree with that quote. If international relations represents a constant struggle for power in an anarchic world, a minor plague will have minimal system-altering effects.
Saying that the pre-virus status quo will persist is probably the wrong take. The global recession caused by the pandemic will have second- and third-order effects that no one has thought of yet. If I had to bet “the persistence of the status quo” against the field, I would take the field.
Still, if you read this in 2022, after quarantines have been completely lifted, and nothing of substance has changed, don’t say you weren’t warned.