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The Coronavirus Power Games

It’s the End of the World As We Blog It, and we feel fine.

Yet as we join millions of observers from our monitors at home, our concern grows for the billions who will suffer the consequences unleashed by COVID-19’s rattling of the international system. This article may be about geopolitics, but it could very well serve as a warning to the powers that be; humanitarian efforts first, power games second.

In 430BC at the height of the Peloponnesian War, an invisible enemy sneaked into the port-city of Piraes — lifeblood of Athens. The great Aegean hegemon was closely linked and dependent to Piraes for its food and supplies. Though both Athens and Sparta worshipped Athena, the goddess of wisdom was going to teach Athens a costly lesson. Her wrath took the form of an epidemic which wiped out nearly 100,000 Athenians (25% of the population); the single-most deadly event in Ancient Greek history.

Just as the tide of war seemed to swing in its favour, The Plague of Athens led to the breakdown of Athenian society, wiping out much of the wealthiest citizens and strongest Hoplites. Adherence to laws and religious belief waned, violent punishments and anti-Athenian xenophobia soared. Hopeless attempts to reinstate control over the city’s 80% of non-citizens translated to a new pernicious form of institutionalised discrimination. As some of the affected came from neighbouring city-states, news of this reached Athens’ allies, contributing to the breakdown of said diplomatic relationships, previously instrumental to Athenian hegemony.

The epidemic did affect the entire region, but nowhere was struck as hard as in Athens, where overpopulation and crowding was already a real problem. A density of 100 people per square mile of land lead to the deforestation and land erosion of the forest and land around Attica (Athens).

Sparta left their siege of Athens to regroup in uninfected lands. Athens gradually lost its diplomatic influence and the trust of its allies, partially from its newer attitudes towards non-citizens but also due to the lack of sustained diplomatic contact. Athens’ trade power destroyed with a breakdown of trust in merchant vessels (thought of as carriers). Its army severely depleted by the deaths of Athenian citizens, key to highly organised Hoplite formations.

In the geopolitical academic cannon, the Peloponnesian War holds a strong place as the forefather of Great Power rivalries: from Rome vs. Carthage (200s BC) to France vs. Germany (1870s). It is thus compelling that behind this war is a landmark event which can also serve as a forewarning for future Great Power rivalries. Today’s rivalry of the United States and China is in a radically different world, between cultures and societies completely alien to Ancient Greece. However, the geopolitical effects of disease and the actions states can take to channel the impacts of said disease are comparable.

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Google trends showing a gradual decline in popular usage of the term “Pax Americana”

If the tragic events of September 11th 2001 marked the beginning of the end of Pax Americana, the events unfolding during this pandemic are a clear sign that we are well into the next geopolitical chapter.

Learning from strategic blunders in the 00s, American foreign policy in the 2010s found itself on awkward footing, and with accordingly awkward decisions to make as to its forward identity. To ditch Interventionism for strategic realism and restraint. To seek “long-termist” policy by engaging regional allies, while also dictating American national interests. To be the “first among equals”. The Obama doctrine was a brilliant assembly of the world’s greatest power’s hawkish and dove-ish leanings. It was a brilliant foreign-policy device so long as it stayed within a familiar Post-Cold War consensus. This framework depended on the United States’ dominance of the financial system (the financial aid and monetary support accompanying it), its military credibility (damaged by twenty years of military stalemates in Afghanistan and the Middle East), and institutional influence (ability to effect change at a global level).

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By the time Donald Trump entered the picture, the United States had lost ground on all three fronts. It may have achieved energy independence thanks to the discovery of huge Shale gas and oil reserves, but this only helped reduce its enthusiasm for investing abroad (this includes reducing America’s budget for multinational institutions such as the United Nations). Years of strategic counter-measures from rival powers like China, Russia and even Iran have pushed the US to retreat into its historical role: a Superpower in Isolation.

After a delayed response by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United States played a major role in containing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa back in 2014–5. It coordinated the international response and even sent 10,000 American personnel to the affected region. Today, as Yuval Noel Harari puts it, America is isolated and in-denial: “concerned by its own greatness”.

Perhaps a testament to the United States’ decentralised governance structure, its current approach to responding to the virus has been principally State and Municipality-driven. Donald Trump has been repeatedly lambasted across the USA for his denial of COVID-19 and now for his blaming of China and the World Health Organisation’s supposed “collusion”. Whereas New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has now been dubbed “America’s Governor”. Cuomo’s media presence, narrative clarity and personal links to COVID-19 (his brother caught the virus) are all great conditions for him to become an homme providentiel (man-of-the-moment). Ahead of an unpredictable 2020 presidential election, Trump may be missing his chance to take advantage of a much needed crisis. His inability to marshal both sides of the aisle and assert Federal leadership on COVID-19 present America’s biggest weakness on the global stage.

American disunity is a handicap to its ability to influence other nations and institutions. The current administration’s complicated relationship with the world-leading American scientific community, indicates an inability to reap the soft power benefits that this community attracts on the world-stage. The characteristically cool relationship between Washington DC and multinational institutions in past years have already ushered a passing of the torch to other world powers. Macron’s France has inherited the mantle of coordinating the Global Climate Emergency response, since his predecessor’s masterful COP-21 conference. Xi Jinping’s China is in the middle of a 25-year strategy of replacing Western-led international institutions with comparable Sino-led organisations: AIIB or NDB. Today, the World Health Organisation willingly chose China as its primary partner in delivering and communicating the global response against COVID-19.

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Despite a rocky start, China has found a way to assume global leadership on the question of Coronavirus. Thanks to the brave actions of a few Wuhan residents, who decried the state of local Chinese hospitals and the lack of face-masks in early February, Xi Jinping rapidly coordinated a “typically-authoritarian” response to the growing number of infected patients. China imposed a total lockdown of the Wuhan region and then confined all non-essential citizens to their homes for two months. A feat still unequaled by any country in the world, China built two field hospitals holding 2600 beds in a matter of 12 days. As the number of Wuhan cases began to slow-down, China was able to use its spare capacity to send “generous face-mask and ventilator donations” to the countries of Europe that were, in late February, becoming the new epicentre of the virus. As supplies were unloaded from a Chinese plane in Italy, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio noted that the aid demonstrated that “we are not alone, there are people in the world who want the help Italy.” This contrasted very strongly with the US-EU travel bans (minus the UK) initially called-for by Donald Trump and the lack of EU-driven solidarity at that stage of the crisis.

China not only impressed the world with its “show of generosity” but also with its ability to impose social distancing and lockdowns across a country of 1.4 billion people. I put parentheses around the word “generosity” because one cannot forget that China is in most cases the primary manufacturer of face-masks, ventilators and other essential supplies. Xi Jinping managed to nevertheless brand the export of supplies by investing in their value as diplomatic gifts for countries-in-need. This is by no means downplaying the value of such support for the countries lacking the supplies, who are only awaiting another generous donation by a global power like China or the United States to help keep people alive.

After a rocky-start and a close-to-perfect diplomatic response, the crisis is entering a new phase. Embellished, China’s credibility as a leader in the global pandemic response and as a credible source for scientific data depends on persistent exemplary behaviour. In early April, China is particularly vulnerable for two reasons:

Taiwan’s investigation into possible collusion between the WHO and China. Technically-speaking the WHO chose China because this virus most likely originated in the Chinese province of Wuhan. It chose China because of its unfortunate position on the frontline, responsible for gathering data and developing solutions aimed at stemming and then slowing the growth of the infected. This said, some outlets have described the WHO’s attitude to China as “largely deferential”, and others even pointed to potential political collusion due to a recent Zoom recording released by Hong Kong English-language outlet RTHK where a WHO official declined to recognise the existence of Taiwan.

It is crucial nonetheless to understand that if a partnership between the WHO and China should be fruitful, it is indeed an understandable move to avoid controversial questions such as Taiwan’s political status foregoing the risk of soiling the relationship. It comes to no one’s surprise therefore that Taiwan has and will continue to look for ways to discredit China and the WHO, and perhaps find new information to come to light about the beginnings of the pandemic. Taiwan found a new track yesterday evening, which if proven valid could indicate that China initially denied the existence of a virus in mid December and decided to cover-up the evidence of an outbreak until several weeks later. If this story reaches a critical mass in Western media outlets, particularly European outlets, many of Chinese recent gains could vanish and trust broken down.

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Image for postSource: Worldmeters (accessed April 11th 2020)

A second-wave of infected patients. Since mid-February, China managed to contain the spread of the virus and restrict its logarithmic growth to barely above zero. After several weeks of stagnation at around 50 new cases per day, China has begun to progressively lift its lockdown on Wuhan. There are fears however that a second-wave of infections, like the one Japan is currently experiencing will restart the exponential growth of January and February. If China gets a second wave, it will damage its example to the world: that lockdown and “social distancing” aren’t sustainable models to follow. In a world where waves of infections are almost impossible to avoid, Wuhan-style lockdowns every few months are a tough ask for decentralised individualistic countries such as those in Europe or North America. Three schools of thought have emerged in Coronavirus disaster response:

  • 1. A Wuhan-style lockdown & social distancing approach, based on centralised government action restricting the movement of people through regulation and law enforcement (China, Italy, France)
  • 2. Massive testing campaigns and intensive citizen awareness efforts, based on informing citizens of updates in their neighbourhoods and workplaces and letting them take necessary steps themselves. (Taiwan, South Korea for the testing, UK)
  • 3. “Herd Immunity” — Which relies on the idea that a person/city/country having caught the virus can develop the antibodies necessary to prevent catching the virus again. Therefore some are pushing for relaxed social distancing policies to build their country’s immunity. (Sweden, UK in Feb)

While the Wuhan-style lockdowns are the current dominant approach to fighting the virus, a second wave could change this and make Testing-first and Herd Immunity approaches more appealing. Always struggling to shrug off the “Big but cheap” stereotype, such a public humiliation could significantly damage China’s regime image abroad in more sectors than just healthcare.

The Plague of Athens saw the transformation of the Aegean geopolitical system with Athens losing its position as hegemon to Sparta’s power and its growing diplomatic influence. Athens bore the brunt of the plague and Sparta had the fortunate sense of retreating its forces from the besieged city of Athens in time to avoid significant infection.

The war on Coronavirus is far from over, with many developments ahead. Who will, for example, win the battle for a treatment method (or even a potential vaccine)? Will second waves come, what will the reaction be if the world discovers a Chinese cover-up of second-wave cases?

Today, it is unclear who will be Athens and who will inherit the new COVID-19 world. China seems to have made inroads with countries beyond its traditional sphere of influence, filling a void left by the slowly reacting EU and the disunited United States. However, China has vulnerabilities regarding its actions early in the crisis and the soundness of its pandemic response. Those vulnerabilities can damage the key ingredient of trust that it desperately needs to overcome the United States on the global stage.

The rivalry between the United States and China, just like that between Athens and Sparta, isn’t only based on economic rivalry or military competition, but on the incompatibility of two governmental models. China is currently showing to the world what a centralised authoritarian model can do. The United States (perhaps due to its model) has not had the chance to show yet.

Whoever can make a more convincing case will be the Power able to define the future international standard for dealing with global emergencies. The geopolitical arena will place pandemic preparedness and response at the top of the international agenda for decades to come. Just as 9/11 defined international action from 2001, the COVID-19 virus will provide a mandate to change the international system.

Yuji Develle

Yuji Develle

An inspired political technologist with a management consultant’s workflow, his gift lies in creating ecosystems where people and ideas can move from a whiff of inspiration to a firestorm of actionable opportunities. He is a strategist and networker, building the Wonk Bridge vision with its ever-growing community. His clear and evidence-based writing on deeply seeded social and political issues will help you unlock a new perspective.