Center for LeadershipS and Sustainability

Four prior considerations

1. Coronavirus is not a geopolitical event

Nor was the fall of Lehman Brothers, but both are disruptive events. There are events that are not related with geopolitics, but which can hook into the system and disrupt it to the point of modifying the previous established order.

Depending on the magnitude of its impact, coronavirus could quickly become a geopolitical event. Due to the economic, social and health impacts it has, an event like coronavirus can accelerate history, and it has all the potential to change the global order. In view of this, Lenin's words are particularly relevant: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” We are living through some of those weeks.

2. We are not at the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning

"The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk," Hegel said, meaning that the interpretation and understanding inherent in philosophy begin not before, but after events. Something similar occurs with geopolitical thought. However, with respect to the cascading Covid-19 crisis, we are not at the beginning of its end, but at the end of its beginning, struggling to control the peaks of infection, the number of people affected and the number of deaths. Dusk has not yet fallen.

The new geopolitical realignment has not yet begun. The tide is going out, but it still hasn't gone out completely. In fact, we will have to deal with three consecutive waves of problems: health problems, immediately followed by the devastating effects that the pandemic will have on the socio-economic order, and finally, once the tide has gone out, we will see the geopolitical effects and the resultant restructuring in the accumulation and management of power. Because, inevitably, there will be both winners and losers that emerge from this crisis, as was the case with the Great Recession of the last decade.

The three waves of the crisis: health, socio-economic and geopolitical
The three waves of the crisis: health, socio-economic and geopolitical (Source: own elaboration)

In other words, after the pandemic there will be debt, and this debt will lead to the redistribution of power.

3. The moment to influence the course of history is now

As we observed, geopolitical thought will come later, but in contrast, (geo)political action must be commenced before the tide goes out completely. However, this window of fluidity will not last long. Soon, a new order will emerge and solidify. Whoever governs in 2021 will not have the opportunity to change matters, only to manage the new situation. Therefore, the mistakes or the wise decisions that are made now will have important consequences in the years to come.

Whoever governs in 2021 will not have the opportunity to change matters

4. Each country chose to respond to the pandemic independently

Despite the efforts of the WHO to coordinate a global response, most countries did not adapt their response to the criteria of the multilateral organisations (they were either unwilling or unable to). This makes it possible to check who is performing better or worse.

Without a doubt, an assessment will be made of the performance of each country in political, institutional, economic, organisational and health terms, and this will be inseparable from an evaluation of the level of leadership. At this point, the well-known words of Warren Buffet will make perfect sense: "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked." That is to say, we will be able to see which countries have been fragile and have come off badly as a result of the crisis; which have been robust or resilient, able to absorb the shock and recover; and finally, which countries have not only responded well to the circumstances, but have also emerged stronger than before.

Classification of countries according to their response to disruptive incidents or black swan events
Classification of countries according to their response to disruptive incidents or black swan events

For example, we can be sure that the crisis will have grave consequences for emerging countries. They are beginning to look like the principal losers from this crisis. The outflow of capital from these economies in barely two months has been more than four times greater than when the global financial crisis broke out in 2008. An unprecedented number of emerging countries – more than ninety – have already asked the IMF for financial assistance.

The crisis will have grave consequences for emerging countries

This geopolitical evaluation of countries is also applied to their respective leaders. For example, a Le Monde editorial of 20 April praised the German chancellor Angela Merkel's ability to build agreement and consensus with the Länder, while it criticised the authoritarian "I give the orders" tone of centralist France employed by president Emmanuele Macron. There have also been some interesting analyses of how female leaders have handled the crisis, investigating the key factors behind their evident success.

Assessment of the present situation: acceleration and reshaping

The pandemic probably won't change the world, but it may contribute to accelerating some of the trends that were already beginning to appear in the previous period. Curiously and paradoxically, this geopolitical acceleration could lead to a greater deceleration of globalisation. The US and China, for example, had already been competing in a number of fields: trade, technology, ideology/politics, geostrategy, influence in Asia, the military field and security.

Now, we could add the scientific/medical field (to develop a vaccine) and competition for global leadership. This could precipitate what Graham T. Allison calls "Thucydides' trap" (the structural tension that occurs when a hegemonic power, but one that shows signs of decadence, feels threatened by a rising power with aspirations to take its place. This situation can create the right conditions for a war to break out). If this were to occur, it would be hard to ignore the old African proverb: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."

The geopolitical acceleration could, paradoxically, lead to a greater deceleration of globalisation

In the same way, the impact of coronavirus may contribute to reshaping the global order. I am going to put forward as many as seven possible outcomes of this reshaping.

1. There has been a lack of international leadership on the part of the US

Whereas in the immediate past the US had been a catalyst in mobilising broad international cooperation, now it is clearly refusing to exercise this role. This emphasises its relative decline and a significant loss of auctoritas. In October 2014, Ebola threatened to kill millions of people. The president at that time, Obama, deployed the US army in Western Africa, recruited dozens of countries to contribute workers and healthcare teams, brought the US public health and national security infrastructures together under one leadership, and managed to eliminate the Ebola outbreak close to its source.

In contrast, president Trump's response to the pandemic has been disappointing and confirms the process of withdrawing from international commitments which he had already begun three years ago: withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, withdrawal from the WTO, withdrawal of US troops from Syria, withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, withdrawal from the TPP (Transpacific Partnership), withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council and, in the middle of the pandemic, withdrawal or halting of funding to the WHO.

Trump coronavirus
The US is clearly refusing to exercise his previous role as a catalyst in mobilising broad international cooperation (Photo: The White House/Wikipedia)

The first criticism of this last measure came from Bill Gates on the very day it was announced (15 April 2020): "Halting funding for the WHO during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of Covid-19, and if that work is stopped no other organisation can replace them. The world needs the WHO now more than ever."

The thinker Yuval Noah Harari made the following observations: "Would you follow a leader whose motto is 'Me first'?" "In the last few years, the US has resigned its role as world leader. The current American administration offers less support to international organisations like the World Health Organisation, and has made it clear to the world that the US has no real friends, only interests. When the coronavirus crisis broke out, the US remained on the sidelines, and so far it has avoided taking a leadership role. Even if it eventually tries to do so, confidence in the current US government has eroded so much that few states would agree to follow it."

This loss of leadership was demonstrated once again at the beginning of May, when the EU led global efforts to fight coronavirus, raising a total of 8 billion dollars in funds. The US and Russia refused to take part in this summit. The Washington Post headline could not have been clearer: "The world came together for a virtual vaccine summit. The US was conspicuously absent."

The political and diplomatic leadership of the United States in the present crisis has catastrophically failed

The conclusion seems to be obvious. The political and diplomatic leadership of the United States in the present crisis has catastrophically failed, and this could cost the nation dearly in human lives and international influence. Just as the Suez Crisis in 1956 symbolised the final decline in the United Kingdom's status as a global power, Covid-19 could mark a "Suez moment" for the US. According to Nathalie Tocci, "were this to happen, the consequences would not be limited to the US-China rivalry and the global distribution of power. If China, with its political system, emerges as a global hegemon, its power of attraction on liberal democracies may be dangerously irresistible."

2. China has tried to assume the role of world leader

In the absence of the US and the multilateral groups, China has seen a window of opportunity to extend its sphere of global influence, but it has been less effective than it had hoped. If we compare the actions of the American and Chinese presidents, we will see that both have made important errors or not performed well at times, but little by little the Chinese leader was able to rectify his errors and, since the US has been absent from the global arena, he has ended up assuming an important leading role.

Comparison of how presidents Trump and Xi-Jinping have reacted to the crisis

Moreover, when no European country responded to Italy's urgent call for medical teams and protective equipment, China made a public commitment to send 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits and 50,000 test kits. China also sent medical teams and 250,000 masks to Iran and supplies to Serbia. And the co-founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, promised to send a large volume of test kits and masks to the US, in addition to 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks to each one of the 54 countries in Africa. Other countries, such as the Czech Republic, France, Greece and Spain, have also thanked China for their help.

Besides China's demonstration of "soft power," we should not forget that China is also the world's main producer of surgical masks, it manufactures half the N95 respirators that are critical to protecting health workers, and it supplies 97% of all the antibiotics consumed in the US, whereas the US National Strategic Reserve only had 1% of the masks and respirators and 10% of the ventilators it needed to face the pandemic.

Despite this, China may not be gaining more global leadership. But what appears to be clear is that the US is rapidly losing global leadership. According to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former director general of the IMF: "China is not (yet, I would add) in a situation of being able to show global leadership, but it is also not certain that the United States is capable of doing this."

The vacuum in global leadership is particularly worrying at a time when urgent matters are piling up on the list of the world's problems

3. Drifting towards a world without leadership

Indeed, it is the deficiency of one giant and the incompetence and apathy of the other that are accentuating and accelerating another trend: the drift towards a world without leadership.

As we have repeatedly observed, this trend is not a new one. Much earlier, Niall Ferguson was already predicting “the end of power" (2004), Daniel Drezner was wondering whether we were moving towards apolarity (2007), Ian Bremmer was writing a book about the imminence of a G-Zero world (2011), and more recently, Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman (2019) have made explicit reference to a G-Minus-2 world in which the G1 world dominated by the US no longer exists, and the G2 system in which the US and China shared hegemonic responsibilities is now fading from memory.

The vacuum in global leadership is particularly worrying at a time when urgent matters are piling up on the list of the world's problems.

4. The decline of multilateralism

In turn, the absence of global leaders feeds the decline of multilateralism. The role played by the United Nations has been completely marginal; the WHO has been weak and ineffective, lacking the authority to implement tangible measures; the G7 and G20 have been totally useless when it comes to driving coordinated initiatives; the members of the European Union have shown neither unity nor solidarity to each other, and the borders of the Schengen Area have been closed. In short, each country has followed its own agenda.

The absence of global leaders feeds the decline of multilateralism

The real risk is that a lengthy crisis destroys international cooperation between the Western allies and also between the US and China, resulting in a more anarchic world where everyone is against everyone. In summary, the great world powers (the US, the EU, even China) will emerge from the pandemic weakened internally, which will further undermine their capacity to provide global leadership.

5. From disengagement to deglobalisation

As we come out of the crisis, there will be an increasing number of calls from president Trump to "disengage" from China, in other words, an attempt will be made to reverse the globalisation of the last two decades as we have known it.

I propose consideration of three possible scenarios relating to the future of globalisation:

a) A slowed-down globalisation or “slowbalisation”

The current situation would more or less be maintained, characterised by a marked decrease in direct foreign investment, unresolved trade disputes, more geopolitical tensions, a reduction in bank loans and an increase in protectionist policies. The process of globalisation would be sustained, in particular, by its soft dimension, largely due to the variables of information, technology and science, although other soft variables such as the movement of people, tourism, migration, educational exchanges and international sports competitions could also be seriously affected.

The dimensions of globalisation
The dimensions of globalisation. In orange, the soft dimension of globalisation with its different variables (Source: Real Instituto Elcano, Elcano Index of Global Presence)

b) A selective globalisation

In reality, this is a euphemism for trying to disconnect China from the world economy. It would consist in moving from economic and technological interdependence to the creation of two separate systems; what we might call "One world, two systems." The aim would be to engineer a transition from the relationship of cooperation between the US and China to one of clear disengagement. But in contrast to the earlier period of the Cold War, in this case the party responsible for building the separating wall is not the rival power, but the nation that leads the world, the creator of the United Nations and the principal monetary, commercial and financial institutions agreed at Bretton Woods and inspired by a liberalising, pro-free trade policy; a nation that would end up becoming the main driver of the globalisation we know today.

It is worth remembering that before the appearance of the coronavirus, president Trump had approved a series of measures that questioned globalisation: refusal of visas to Chinese students; prohibition of American companies from establishing themselves in China; blocking or restricting the entry of Chinese companies; boycott of Chinese technological sectors (Huawei); curtailment of global trade with China; increase in tariffs and sanctions imposed on China; control of foreign investments, etc.

The impact of the pandemic has exposed the high degree of dependence on global supply chains

Now, the impact of the pandemic has exposed the importance of national strategic needs and the high degree of dependence on global supply chains. This will contribute even more to weakening the arguments in favour of free trade. According to the agency Reuters (4 May 2020), "the Trump administration is 'turbocharging' an initiative to remove global supply chains from China." This pressure will be channelled towards creating an alliance of "trusted partners" dubbed the "Economic Prosperity Network," which would include countries such as Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam, with the aim of "moving the global economy forward," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. In reality, the objective is – as we mentioned earlier – to try and disconnect China from the economy. This disengagement is focused on four areas:

  1. Disengagement from strategic technological sectors (semiconductors, cloud computing and 5G)
  2. Disengagement in economic, financial, industrial and services activity
  3. Rapid disengagement in supply chains, closure of installations, transfer of personnel
  4. Disengagement in scientific cooperation

If this scenario is confirmed, in the next few months we would swiftly witness a transition from cooperation to a greater geoeconomic rivalry; from globalisation as we had known it to bipolarisation or regionalisation; from negotiation and establishment of multilateral agreements to negotiation of preferential (or bilateral) agreements; from trade liberalisation to out-and-out protectionism; and finally, from protectionism to a no holds barred trade and technology war.

In the next few months we could swiftly witness a transition from cooperation to a greater geoeconomic rivalry

c) Full deglobalisation

In this case, both the devastating economic, political and social effects of the epidemic and the possible retreat towards national identities and the populist rhetoric of "My country first" could lead to a generalised standstill in globalisation. This scenario would be reinforced by declarations of the kind made by president Trump before the United Nations Assembly, when he said: "The future belongs to patriots, not to the globalists."

6. Rise of state sovereignty and strengthening of states

It is probable that many states will adopt a harder line to guarantee that national economies can provide basic supplies without depending on foreign suppliers. A much stronger national focus could reinforce nationalist protectionist movements (closure of borders, reduction in immigration, construction of walls, imposition of tariffs) and further weaken multilateralism.

The greater role played by public authority in managing the crisis could be reflected in different ways: the recovery of control of public health, stricter border control (security), closer monitoring of the population (health), greater intervention and participation in the market (economy), greater digital authoritarianism (surveillance, detection, repression), prolongation of states of emergency or alarm, the temptation to accumulate powers, or a certain degree of national self-isolation.

Curiously, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), an institution that conducts long-term strategic analysis in order to detect key future trends, published a report in 2017 entitled Paradox of progress, in which, to make forthcoming events credible, it presented news of events that had "occurred" in the future and their consequences. One such news item was this one: "The global pandemic of 2023 dramatically reduced global travel in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, contributing to the slowing of global trade and decreased productivity."

Three possible future scenarios: Islands, Orbits and Communities
Three possible future scenarios: Islands, Orbits and Communities (Source: National Intelligence Council - NIC, 2017)

The effects of these types of events justified the world opting for a scenario dubbed "Islands," characterised by long periods of slow or no growth, difficulties for governance, popular pushback against globalisation, reduced support for multilateralism and international cooperation, adoption of protectionist policies, and increased instability, leading to a more defensive, segmented world in which countries would become "islands" in a sea of volatility.

7. The rise of Eurasia

Finally, some of the considerations and scenarios mentioned earlier would also contribute to further accelerating the rise of Eurasia (not only China) and the progressive decline of the West. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether de-westernisation will also entail more de-Europeanisation. And, in contrast, whether rapid de-Europeanisation, should it occur, would be the final chapter in the decline of the West. At all events, while this global shift towards Eurasia is taking place, the European Union does not have a geopolitical project for a region – the largest and most important in the world – of which it forms a part.

As the tide continues to go out, four questions of a geopolitical nature remain open:

  1. Will China consolidate its position as a global player on the basis of its management of the Covid-19 crisis?
  2. Will the US have the capacity to react and reassert its global leadership role of the last few decades?
  3. Will the EU maintain an assertive vocation for geopolitical leadership?
  4. Will the emerging countries survive?

Although, for the moment, we do not have answers to these questions, we do have some urgent tasks ahead of us. We need to find a vaccine quickly; we must increase the healthcare capacity of all the countries affected; we have to prepare well for a second and third wave of infections; and there is an urgent need to begin to rebuild the economies that have collapsed. For all these tasks, global coordination and cooperation continue to be essential.

This article has its origins in the kind request I received from Esade Alumni in Madrid to give a video conference on this subject. I would like to thank this institution and its directors, Silvia Losada and Xavier Sánchez, for offering me the opportunity to do so.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.