These last few months haven’t been easy. But the current pandemic may very well be the kind of crisis that the world has not only been waiting for, but actually needs.
The world is broken. The global order we’ve had in place since World War II is in tatters, and no one knows what comes next; global cooperation is at its lowest point in living memory. Capitalism isn’t working for far too many, evinced by the ever-widening rates of inequality. Representative democracy too, as political levers have been increasingly seized by special interests, governments are unable to respond to changing social shifts and demands, and social safety nets fail to catch enough people for long enough to provide an adequate sense of security.
Coronavirus is the unique kind of crisis – acute, multifaceted, constantly evolving – that touches on every single element of our broken political world. To be sure, there have been other crises in recent years that have set the world on edge: 9/11, the Great Recession, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, to name just a few.
But in retrospect, these crises ended up being far smaller and/or specific than the world needed them to be. For all the global solidarity in the wake of 9/11, launching two failed wars in the Middle East didn’t change the shape of terror… and didn’t address any real problems with the social contract. The Great Recession seriously distressed the banking industry and related fields (prompting reform in these specific sectors), but ended up being too small to make the world rethink inequality – for all the focus on the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, it petered out after only a few months. And the 2009 swine flu ended up being so overblown relative to the actual danger it ultimately posed that it actually made it more difficult for the world to take coronavirus as seriously as it should have – just look how long it took the World Health Organization (WHO) to officially label it a pandemic.
But coronavirus has the potential to be different. It’s the kind of crisis that might just be big enough to force us to examine and contemplate seriously how to reform our society and institutions, but not big enough to pose an existential threat to humanity. And yet it touches on all the critical political issues of the day – inequality, social safety nets, healthcare, global cooperation… all the things that the world has spent the last decades struggling with and failing to make much progress. Coronavirus represents a largely uniform threat to societies across the world, focusing minds on a singular issue in ways that we rarely see short of global wars.
Handled correctly, the universality of the coronavirus threat provides an opening for science-based cooperation that the world could rally around: a collaborative and sustained approach to discovering a vaccine and distributing it to everyone could be humanity’s greatest achievement yet. In the United States, the resulting economic, social and political unrest could provide the impetus necessary to finally secure radical campaign finance reform, and to push more folks to partake in the political process and make governments more responsive to the needs of society. Better metrics around GDP and quality of life could be devised that capture what it’s actually like to live in the 21st century – gig economy and all – and even give rise to policy schemes like universal basic income in a serious attempt to finally fix our fraying social contract.
Needless to say, that is not what we’ve seen in the early days of the crisis so far. In the US at least, it has been more partisan politics, to say nothing of the deepening of hostilities that could potentially lead to a US-China cold war.
But it’s not too late to change course. Coronavirus is in the sweet spot of global crises – large enough to require deep and lasting reform, but not big enough to make these reforms a distant secondary concern to mere survival. In short, it could be a Goldilocks crisis… provided that our political responses don’t compound problems, and that we don’t let it go to waste.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.