The novel coronavirus has created pervasive uncertainty across human society and there is no doubt that it will also have paradigm-shifting geopolitical implications.
While lockdowns, supply chain disruptions and market volatility take center stage, states are being forced to reevaluate central tenets of international order. We are headed for a world where selective self-sufficiency overrides regional and global interdependence; where realism takes precedence over abstract idealism. Conceptually, states will likely address the world as it is, and not how it ought to be. Mild symptoms – such as nations hoarding medical supplies – are indicative of a broader, more far-reaching geopolitical diagnosis.
COVID-19 – a transnational threat – will strengthen the case for nationalism because its socio-economic consequences expose the vulnerabilities of global interdependence. States – like individuals in quarantine – are now forced to confront and continually navigate the potential perils of sustained isolation. Withering trust in long-distance supply chains means that states are likely to strengthen national self-sufficiency, posing severe challenges to developing countries in the process.
The intrinsic value of global supply chains is now brought into question: globalization allowed specialized companies to supply products on a just-in-time basis, attuning production capacity to subtle shifts in global demand. Efforts to maximize profitability and eliminate redundancy deemed inventory unimportant. However, the COVID-induced demand shock exposed the fragility of globalization – with greater interdependence comes greater vulnerability. Critical medical supplies sustained by single-source providers have failed to keep up with the surge in global demand, yielding lethal consequences. States will therefore place a greater emphasis on domestic supply stability, particularly as it pertains to strategic industries.
These new realities will amplify existing trends of deglobalizaiton and deregionalization. For example, the formation of the European Union (EU) was premised on ending regional conflict through economic integration, granting member states access to a single market. COVID-19 is aggressively challenging the EU’s efficacy: Italy – the epicenter COVID-19’s European outbreak – desperately called on fellow EU member-states for financial support through a “corona bonds” scheme this week, but Germany and the Netherlands bluntly refused. In fact, France and Germany implemented measures to restrict the free circulation of protective medical equipment. The EU condemned unilateral hoarding, but states did little to acknowledge regional concerns.
These realities embolden the appeal of populist movements, while eroding confidence in an already fickle European Union. Resource-centric competition coupled with an inward focus on self-sufficiency will force states to redefine multilateralism – explicit self-interest will likely play a larger role in future definitions. A more interest-driven world order will deepen cleavages between global spheres of influence, ultimately intensifying great-power competition. For instance, although COVID-19 originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Beijing is already leveraging its recovery as a soft power tool to expand geopolitical clout.
The universal longing for normalcy also entails geopolitical consequences. The revolutionary-progressive appeal set forth by the likes of Bernie Sanders will lose momentum because campaigns that promise to topple the status quo are riddled with uncertainty. COVID-19’s existential challenge created a visceral yearning for stability and normalcy far stronger than revolutionary-progressivism. In addition, support for immigration will probably lose its appeal as a mobilizing tool for the global left given the perceived priority to ensure long-term self-sufficiency.
The pandemic shed a telling light on the citizen-state relationship, particularly in the Middle East. Iran – the epicenter of the region’s outbreak – has made its priorities clear: regime preservation over Iranian lives; ideology over public health; obfuscation over transparency. The death-toll in Iran recently exceeded 2,500 – this is due to the fact that the regime suppressed the virus’s initial outbreak and systematically failed to implement precautionary measures (i.e. quarantining the religious city of Qom, halting flights to and from China). Today, Tehran is doing little to contain the virus’s spread, recently denying humanitarian assistance for radical ideological commitments, while propagating conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns attempting to link the origins of COVID-19 to the US.
In stark contrast, Saudi Arabia has taken decisive, science-based action to contain COVID-19’s spread, placing the Saudi citizen at the helm of national priorities. Before a single case of coronavirus was identified in the Kingdom, the government implemented swift precautionary measures: international flights were suspended, entry to holy sites in Mecca and Medina was put to a halt, and open channels of communication increased public awareness. Containment efforts have been equally decisive: supermarkets are consistently well-stocked, science-based quarantine and testing procedures have been implemented, and financial mitigation initiatives are helping the private sector absorb the shock. Unprecedented national unity and solidarity are unsurprising byproducts of the Kingdom’s swift response to protect and consistently support its citizens. On the other hand, Iranian citizens will be forced to dramatically reevaluate their relationship with a regime committed to corruption, obfuscation and regional destabilization.
COVID-19 is rapidly reshaping the future of geopolitics. While the outcome remains in flux, conjectures can soon turn into tangible realities. The onus is on states, citizens and international organizations to navigate the perils of this pandemic, and in the process, redefine geopolitical order. Will states aggressively retreat from globalization and economic interdependence? If so, how will that retreat manifest itself? Will states embrace new forms of protectionism? Conversely, will the transitional threat of COVID-19 weaken the case for state-centric nationalism, ushering a new era of international cooperation and multilateral dialogue? Questions like these animate a future geopolitical landscape riddled with uncertainty. As events unfold, nimble leadership and robust science-based policy interventions are imperative. It is a testing period for states, one where threat and opportunity look each other in the eye.
Sultan Althari is a Masters Candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Student-Affiliate at the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.