What lessons has the West learned from the coronavirus pandemic?
While nations on both sides of the Atlantic and within the broader Western world continue to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of lessons and awakenings are emerging:
1. The post-9/11 era is officially over. The world we inhabit currently and the one we are moving into will be driven by a new set of economic and security priorities. There is an adage about government spending that the most expensive things are the ones we desperately need but don’t have while the second most expensive things are the ones we have but don’t need. And this is a lesson many governments just learned the hard way.
There is also a specific takeaway for the United States here: With the end of this era comes the end of the “you are with us, or with the terrorists” mentality. To beat Covid-19 and fully recover, the US must identify the diplomatic version of “we’re in this together” and build a foreign policy around it.
2. Resilience has moved to the fore after years of being neglected and underfunded. We are seeing which societies are resilient and which are not. And when it comes to resilience, we’ve learned that whole-of-society approaches work in societies with sufficient social cohesion and a competent government with a sense of urgency. Greece has proven to be a good example of this. By marshaling all societal resources and staying united, it’s been able to flatten the curve and limit its Covid-19 death toll to one of the lowest in Europe.
3. A rewriting of the social contract needs to be prioritized if liberal democracy is to survive. After a period of declining economic fortunes for the middle class in the West, the last decade’s financial crises in the United States and Europe irreparably damaged the notion that economic growth is best secured via liberal democracy. Millennials in advanced economies express a preference to be governed by a technocracy rather than a democracy. Liberal democracy cannot survive another round of Wall Street being prioritized over Main Street and austerity measures that leave millions in limbo when it comes to healthcare, employment and foreclosures.
4. The impact of the global supply chain and our reliance on China. Both NATO and EU nations are reliant on medical supplies from China – which are sometimes even delivered on Russian-made airplanes. While there are some efforts under way in member-states to inshore certain industrial capabilities in the short term, a long-term approach is needed.
5. Governance: A pandemic is a mandatory competence test for governments. Decisive leadership, well-organized government actions, and clear communications with the public make a huge difference. In this case, New Zealand, Germany, Greece and Iceland (to name a few) seem to be passing the test.
6. The Covid-19 pandemic is also highlighting the willingness of certain actors (like Russia and China) to seize the opportunity to sow division within societies though disinformation, resulting in a greater governance challenge for countries facing the worst of the pandemic. This also serves as a reminder that hybrid threats are ultimately an attack on democratic governance.
7. We’ve also seen how this pandemic has exacerbated north-south political divisions within the EU – and new economic projections from the European Commission indicate the north-south economic gap will worsen. How the EU navigates these politically dangerous waters will determine whether the bloc will grow closer or become less viable.
8. During this pandemic, we’re seeing another NATO-EU “beauty contest” but this time it’s a more constructive one with closer coordination. Instead of throwing elbows, this time it’s about doing good for those suffering from the impacts of the pandemic. Also since both organizations are facing a common stratcom challenge from China (which eclipsed them both in the early stages), this could be the impetus for an era of more convergence between the two.
9. Globalization will be redefined. Supply chain gaps and bidding wars over personal protective equipment will seem like child’s play if competition ensues over a limited supply of an eventual Covid vaccine. Unfortunately, this transition period requires leadership and the United States does not seem willing or able to provide it. Without a leader to guide this transition, we could be headed toward a international order that resembles that of before World War I. Is there anyone who could be comfortable in such a world?
Chris Kremidas Courtney is senior analyst for Strategy International and a lecturer in the Stratcom Hybrid MA program at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.