About declaring a new pandemic world order
Opinions Coronacrisis

About declaring a new pandemic world order

09 Apr 2020 - 11:11
Photo: A closed beach in Florida on 20 March 2020. © Florida Guidebook - Flickr
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As we are inclined to focus on the present, and not on the far future, the corona pandemic has caught us unawares. And once the dust of this crisis has settled we will, again, refocus on the nearer term. Meanwhile, we are advised to exercise caution with geopolitical interpretations of current events.

We have been reminded, this time literally, that when in the global village someone sneezes we all may be infected. The epic scale and speed of this pandemic prompts us to consider it a game-changer, although we can’t determine yet in what ways. In the midst of the storm, observers are tempted to start sketching the contours of a new world order stemming from this plague.

Many of these outlines attribute a multiplier effect to this crisis in that it accelerates ongoing developments, primarily relating to the US relinquishing its leading role in the world and China (switching from panda to pandemic diplomacy) filling this vacuum.

This is what forecasters often do: linear extrapolations of existing trends into the future. But this method doesn’t always work, maybe even less so under extraordinary circumstances. On a regular basis we are confronted with ‘strategic surprises’. One may think of the demise of the Soviet Union, 9/11 or the financial meltdown in 2008 – a series of unanticipated events that only in hindsight look inevitable. This pandemic, too, has caught us unawares.

Serial unpreparedness
Our serial unpreparedness may very well be a product of evolution. Interestingly, some scientists suggest that life on earth sprang from viruses that, with their extreme talent for reproduction, adaptation and survival, set in motion the entire evolutionary process. This process dictated that our human brains evolved to focus on the present, not the far future, and on readily perceivable movements, not slow and probabilistic developments.1

It is only natural for citizens to look first at their own authorities for protection

That’s why large, looming threats like pandemics, but also climate change, confuse the human brain and don’t impel us to brace for such distant dangers. From an evolutionary perspective that would make sense, allowing us to cope with the many challenges of the here and now. Ironically, such a life-bringing virus is now visited upon us with fatal consequences. Evolution doesn’t always come across as an unequivocal phenomenon.

Man and woman visiting each other at a drug addiction clinic druing the COVID-18 pandemic. Drug Addiction Clinic Vita - Wikicommons
Man and woman visiting each other at a drug addiction clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic. © Drug Addiction Clinic Vita / Wikicommons

Disbelief, denial and cover-ups
The reactions to this crisis seem to follow a fairly traditional pattern. Initial disbelief, denial or even cover-ups and subsequently, after the scope of this drama has dawned upon reluctant authorities, a display of (more or less successful) leadership and the announcement of stern measures. Meanwhile, critics routinely ask how it is we didn’t see this one coming and will point to pundits who have foretold this predicament (but then, there’s always someone who got it right). Another traditional feature of this response is the national perspective, even when it concerns a clearly transnational pathogen.

As long as states are predominant actors, and as long as we associate ourselves with national political systems, it is only natural for citizens to look first at their own authorities for protection, certainly in times of crisis. Health care is a national competence and voters expect their elected governments to take action, while striking a balance between various interests. One might call this an instinctive period of rational self-interest. Only in a next phase multilateral or supranational institutions will come into play, because countries understand they need international cooperation and coordination.

Europe will be forged in crises
As a rule, during (and beyond) crisis situations the EU is criticized for not getting its act together and is measured against the performance of other single states – generally speaking a rather unfair comparison. This criticism comes primarily from the member-states who together constitute this Union.

If this isn’t a truly global crisis demanding global answers, then what is?

Later on, usually after accusations, recriminations and rowdy summitry, these same critics agree that the imperfect EU is capable of doing useful things after all. Even the UK may find out that an extension of the Brexit transition period, during which it will enjoy the benefits of membership, will help the country deal with the fallout of this crisis. Experts say the coronavirus could be the final straw for the EU, but more often than once the organisation has proven more resilient than people thought. As Jean Monnet predicted, Europe will be forged in crises.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in China November 8, 2017 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
President Donald J. Trump visits China in November 2017. © Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Battle of the systems
This pandemic operates like a contrast agent, exposing weaknesses and strengths of governments and societies alike. It also brings innate tendencies to the surface, be they a propensity for suspending civil rights, a lack of international empathy or hollow bluster. The overall effects will probably be mixed: countries may want to rethink their dependencies on external suppliers of critical medications and equipment, but at the same time there will be a strong call for multilateral governance. Hyperglobalisation was already being reassessed but, like climate change, if this isn’t a truly global crisis demanding global answers, then what is?

We are advised to exercise caution with geopolitical interpretations of current events

With regard to the ‘battle of the systems’ the jury is still out. The question whether authoritarian regimes or rather more liberal polities are better equipped to deal effectively with crises of this magnitude cannot be answered yet. It is unclear whether, say, China or the US will come out of this pandemic with flying colours – probably neither will.

Besides, the next crisis will differ from this one, so being better at tackling COVID-19 (which amounts to more than enforcing lockdowns) wouldn’t necessarily grant long-lasting superiority in other fields. We are advised to exercise caution with geopolitical interpretations of current events.

It is a safe assumption, however, that once the dust has settled we will revert to our daily business. Certainly, dire lessons will be drawn from this upheaval and some of its consequences will be with us for a long time. But our brains will tell us to start refocusing on the nearer term, for the sake of our more immediate survival.

  • 1An observation by the philosopher Dale Jamieson related to climate change, as paraphrased in Jonathan Franzen’s The End of the End of the Earth (2018)


Hugo Klijn
Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute