9/11 shook the world. So did the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Neither compares to the coronavirus.
When 9/11 and the great financial crisis struck, the world order was firmly established; the US quickly leapt into action both times, coordinating the global response with the rest of the world in support. This time, the US is struggling just to handle the emergency at home; international leadership is the last thing Washington is concerned with.
But the truth is that Washington was moving away from global leadership well before coronavirus; the pandemic just accelerated the move. In fact, while coronavirus is the first genuine crisis of our geopolitically leaderless, GZero world, it is accelerating many geopolitical trends that were already in motion. Three of them in particular will play outsized roles in shaping the next, post-American world order, one that will begin to emerge in earnest on the other side of this pandemic.
Deglobalization. While globalization has been tying the world closer together for the better part of the last century, the political momentum behind globalization has stalled out in recent years (see: Brexit, Donald Trump’s election). That reality had already begun to seriously complicate the operations of multinational firms utilizing “just-in-time” supply chains spread across the world to maximize cost efficiency. Not that long ago, private firms were being actively cheered by markets and governments alike for maximizing economic returns by aggressively pursuing overseas investments. Those days are now finished.
As the coronavirus forces millions out of work, multinational firms already dealing with economic disruptions to their over-exposed supply chains will also need to begin dealing with mounting political interference as they face increasing domestic political pressure to “renationalize” and reorganize their supply chains for less profit but more national interest.
A shared belief in globalization drove much cooperation in the last world order; the fractured response to our currently deglobalizing world will define the next one.
Nationalism. Alongside the recent increase in globalization criticism has come an upswing in nationalism and “my country first” politics. Notably, this upsurge in nationalism came at a time of relative economic stability and prosperity for much of the developed and developing world. Of course, that economic prosperity was best reflected in headline GDP numbers; below that, widening income inequality was busy hollowing out the middle classes of many developed economies. But now coronavirus will upend both the headline economic numbers as well as the daily lives of many people already struggling to get by. The hardest hit will be those who can least afford it – many citizens are about to experience the failings of 21st century social safety nets much more acutely. And as people are forced to recede and isolate more into social media as their primary connection to the outside world, they will fall deeper into the echo chambers of polarized news feeds. More nationalism is on the horizon, not less.
China. Finally, looming over all other trends is China’s rise into a genuine political superpower. China’s arrival as an economic and tech power was expected; the data has been pointing in this direction for years now. More surprising has been Beijing’s use of coronavirus outreach and humanitarian aid to boost its “soft power” appeal and opportunity, suddenly vaulting China into the eyes of many as a legitimate geopolitical rival to the US. While it still lacks the military muscle at the moment to truly represent an all-out, existential threat to the US the way that the Soviet Union once posed, its aggressive role in combating the coronavirus has impressed many, especially in comparison to the US. Despite the role Beijing played in covering up the initial outbreak and allowing the virus to spread globally in the first place, China’s coronavirus response is making it a more credible alternative for global leadership to the US, especially for those countries desperate to find help anywhere they can get it.
Geopolitical tensions were at worrying levels even before the pandemic set in; but rather than uniting the world against this most common of enemies, the coronavirus has instead demonstrated that our current geopolitical system is broken. Just how broken will become apparent over the coming weeks and months… laying the groundwork for the new world order to come.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” Twitter handle @ianbremmer.