COVID-19 will most likely become a critical factor of our age. Not only because this global crisis will certainly have political, economic, and social repercussions reverberating across the world for years to come, but because its consequences may well accelerate the change, if not tip outright the balance, for a new international order.
It is already a fact that the world has exited the unipolar moment when the United States’ hegemony dominated world affairs. It was a world embedded in a specific configuration of power sustained by a set of laws, rules, norms and institutions that together made up a liberal international society. This system started fraying with the emergence of multiple centers of power, above all China, and the growth of rivalry between them.
This is the context in which COVID-19 emerged. It explains why the global pandemic can trigger an irreversible tipping point in the change of the international system.
As for global leadership, China, originally the bête noire of the coronavirus, may end up as the victor in this global crisis, partly because it successfully coped with it at home by resorting to draconian lockdowns that Western countries, beginning with Italy, have grudgingly but invariably followed. True, European countries have closed in a manner attuned to their open political system. To limit contagion, they did not use massive physical control or manipulation of public information that we have seen in China, or extensive collection of data on citizens that could eventually be used for other purposes as well.
In any case, we have followed China’s model, even though in our European way, rather than those of South Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Moreover, China’s global role in the COVID-19 crisis has made the inadequacy of the U.S. global hegemony painfully obvious. Beijing’s display of solidarity by sending plane- and shiploads of protective masks, testing kits, ventilators, respirators and medical staff, as well as its vast global outreach with offers of knowledge transfer, stands in stark contrast to Washington’s disdain for a “foreign” virus, its unilateral ban on travel for people from its supposedly closest European allies, its inhuman tightening sanctions on coronavirus-infected Iran, and its embarrassing attempt to secure a possible German vaccine “exclusively for the United States.” So far, China has been winning the propaganda war by a wide margin.
The COVID-19 may well become the final nail in the coffin of a rules-based international order. But it may also give birth to a new phoenix rising from its ashes. Much will depend on how Europe, being at the epicenter of this epochal crisis, will confront it, both internally and internationally. Coming on the heels of the Eurozone and migration crises, COVID-19 represents yet another opportunity for the European project. The Union has always built itself on the ashes of crises, but it has also always done the bare minimum to pull through. This half-way turning of crisis into opportunity has been a leitmotif of the European project so far. This time it may be insufficient.