Mahmood Monshipouri, professor of University of California, Berkeley
At the earlier stages of the struggle against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, governments across the globe are still in a reaction mode and politicians are making decisions as they go. Experts are rushing to express different views and contemplate the ramifications of the spread of this infectious disease. Meanwhile, the world faces lethal cost of containing and eventually controlling this virus in terms of economic decay and public health crisis of a magnitude unforeseen in the past.
More specifically, however, poverty-stricken countries and those still engulfed in a civil war, including refugees, migrant workers, and asylum seekers, will wind up getting the short ends of the stick. Most predictions point to the epic event of our time surpassing the great depression of the 1930s, with deadly consequences, including the rise of extremism, mass suffering, socioeconomic inequality, economic collapse, and possibly social unrest. It is not clear when the world exits from national lockdowns and “stay at home” strategy. If there is an agreement among experts, it is that going back to normal is impossible in the short term, as parts of the world await a long recovery.
What would the world be like in the post-coronavirus pandemic era?
Some experts, such as Stephen M. Walt, argue that 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. Others argue that the pandemic will strengthen the state and bolster nationalism. Different governments will adopt emergency measures to curb the crisis and many will be reluctant to give up these newfound powers when the crisis is over. The coronavirus, Walt continues, will also expedite the “shift in power and influence from west to east” (Foreign Policy, March 20, 2020). 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 sharply decline.
Similarly, Richard N. Haass, the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (2017) argues that the post-coronavirus world will not be dramatically different from the one that came before it. “COVID-19,” Haass continues, “will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it.” The world that emerges from this crisis, Haass insists, will be familiar: “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 (Foreign Affairs, April 7, 2020). Well before this virus overwhelmed the globe, Haass asserts, there had already been a drastic drop in the appeal of the US model. 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.
Still, others argue that abandoning democratic norms will come with a hefty price, underscoring the need to assess the performance of authoritarian regimes in terms of alleviating poverty, protecting rights, and tackling socioeconomic and racial disparities. The need for global coordination becomes so urgent that it would require cooperation at all levels—international, national, and local. Each country has much to learn from the experiences of the rest. An ardent defender of liberal internationalism, G. John Ikenberry posits that in the future, while we may see the increasing great power rivalry in a divided and violent world, nation-states are likely to cooperate to achieve security and prosperity for all. It is plausible that in the long term, Ikenberry writes, “democracies will come out of their shells to find a new type of pragmatic internationalism (quoted in The Guardian, March 28, 2020). 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.
Meanwhile, in the absence of global leadership and cooperation, traumatic effects of coronavirus will leave unresolved the possibility of the return of the liberal order narrative, making a critical assessment of the pandemic’s disruptive consequences all the more urgent. US Senator Bernie Sanders, along with several other Democrats, have asked the Trump administration to lift sanctions on Iran in light of the fact that the country is facing a humanitarian disaster in its campaign against coronavirus. There is evidence that the sanctions have reduced Iran’s capacity to curb the outbreak. Absent global cooperation and sustainable/coordinated efforts, the future waves of this virus will be even more threatening.