Cookies, Crystal Balls, and COVID-19

This article appeared on Ink Stick Media on April 3, 2020.
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I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve been starting to worry I might be losing touch with reality. When I turn on the news, I see that the President has suggested our national goal is to see only 100,000–240,000 deaths from coronavirus, a death toll potentially higher than the nation experienced during the Civil War, Vietnam, or World War I. Of course, he’s also tweeting that his press conferences have higher ratings than the Bachelor.

But when I pinch my arm to try and wake up, it turns out these are real things that happened. You know, in the real world. And there’s only so much stress‐​baking I can do to try to distract myself from the ongoing global pandemic.

With no other option, therefore, it’s probably time for those of us who study international politics to get back to it. The big question is simple: how will the coronavirus change global politics?

Don’t Buy The Snake Oil

It’s obviously too soon to tell. Anyone who promises to predict the future at this point is trying to sell you something. After all, we’ve never had a crisis like this one. Prior pandemics don’t necessarily offer a roadmap; even if they compare in terms of death toll, things like the Spanish flu occurred prior to the development of modern epidemiology and affected the economy in different ways. Analysts were largely remiss in predicting the potential of a pandemic of this magnitude to disrupt the global economy. But we as international relations scholars would also be remiss not to consider how it could change the world.

So what we can do is think about possibilities. How might the world look different in the aftermath of the coronavirus? How might our response to the virus reshape the way states interact or define their interests?

Here are five big picture issues that could — potentially — look different in a few years:

1. No More War on Terror?

In the last twenty years, we’ve spent $6.4 trillion and at least 7000 lives in the global war on terror, costs that look increasingly hollow in light of how little it has done to protect us from actual threats here at home. Terrorism remains a limited, controllable threat for the vast majority of Americans; the average annual chance of dying in a terror attack is only 1 in 3.2 million.

Could the coronavirus — with odds of death somewhere between 1 in 25 and 1 in 500 — finally prompt us to rethink our risk assessments of terrorism? Certainly, it seems unlikely that the coronavirus will lower our out‐​of‐​control defense budget, but it could at least redirect resources from the increasingly sclerotic War on Terror to things like global health, climate, or conventional military preparedness.

2. Bye, Bye European Union

One of the most striking things about the initial weeks of coronavirus spread in Europe was that even as northern Italy descended into crisis, its appeals for help to its European neighbors went unheeded. Though Italy reached out to the Union Civil Protection Mechanism — the European Union’s crisis hub — not a single European state provided aid. By the time other EU members eventually provided some aid weeks later, the gap had already been filled by China, which sent medical supplies and experts to help.

Obviously, this isn’t going to lead directly to the collapse of the European Union. But when you add this most recent failure to the pressures of Brexit, growing authoritarian impulses among some members, and disagreements between key member states on crucial issues, it may open the door for countries to pull back from the EU, or for others to seek an exit.

3. De‐​globalization

Much of the economic turmoil in markets today is the direct result of our attempts to mitigate the spread of the virus, shutting down non‐​essential businesses and engaging in social distancing. But some of that impact would have been mitigated were supply chains less globally integrated; manufacturing slow‐​downs in China, for example, would be less problematic for US businesses if we were less reliant on supply chains that originate in Asia.

I find such arguments unpersuasive. There are few true supply shortages today, just delays. And the comparative advantage that globalized trade offers to consumers provides a larger variety of goods to consumers at a lower cost, even if it introduces some vulnerability into the supply chain. But when you add these fears to existing anti‐​trade sentiments — the loss of manufacturing jobs, an ardently anti‐​trade administration, and the US withdrawal from key deals like the Trans‐​Pacific Partnership — the coronavirus could easily serve to de‐​couple some of our trade ties with the world.

4. A Tidal Wave of Authoritarianism

Last week, coronavirus claimed its first democracy. Though Hungary had been heading in that direction for quite some time, COVID-19 finally offered Prime Minister Viktor Orban the chance to pass wide‐​ranging constitutional changes which allow him to rule by decree for as long as he wishes. Hungary is just part of a larger global trend of retreating democracy over the last fourteen years. From Poland to Brazil, leaders are expanding their powers and undermining democratic norms and institutions.

Coronavirus has the potential to accelerate or worsen this trend; a pandemic provides an excellent excuse to increase the power of the state, crack down on dissidents, or — as in Hungary — seize emergency powers. When the dust settles from COVID-19, we may well find ourselves in a world with quite a few more dictatorships.

5. Bolstering Great Power Rivalry

The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has been abysmal. The one thing they did manage to do was attempt to shift blame to China, pointing out — correctly — that the Chinese government hid the extent of the virus early on, but embracing an impressively racist messaging campaign to rebrand the virus as the ‘Wuhan virus,’ as well as other less pleasant phrases. In response, the Chinese government lashed out at US government preparedness, and sought to bolster its image globally by providing aid to Italy and other hard‐​hit areas.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to realize that this is hardly going to improve an already‐​rocky US‐​China relationship. Coupled with the ongoing trade war — and the increasing perception of China as a competitor (or even an adversary) in Washington policy circles — it raises the possibility of a far more confrontational relationship with China as we enter the 2020s.

What Comes Next?

As Fred Halliday noted in 2001, “There are two frequent responses to any great historical event, both inappropriate if not downright mistaken: to say that everything has changed and to say that nothing has changed.”

He was right, of course. As with the 9/11 attacks, the coronavirus won’t change everything. I’d be surprised if more than one or two of the possibilities above actually come to pass. But COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate trends that were already happening, and to bring new challenges for US foreign policy to the fore.

Unfortunately, I see a lot more stress‐​baking in my future.

Emma Ashford

Emma Ashford is a Research Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, where she focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, Middle Eastern affairs, energy politics, and U.S. grand strategy.