The morning after

Hussein Haridy
Saturday 18 Apr 2020

In the wake of Covid-19, Washington in all likelihood will remain a leading superpower, but will not be the sole arbiter of world affairs

Amidst the war waged against the novel coronavirus across the world, one question looms large on people’s minds. Once the world defeats this unprecedented pathogen, what will our world look like? There are no easy answers and maybe it is too early to predict the changes that the international system could witness. If there is a consensus of sorts it is that the world will be a different place. It is true that societies, nations, great power rivalry would undergo changes, but how far and of what nature remains an open question. However, that should not keep leaders and policy and opinion makers from attempting to draw the parameters of the world of the morning after, regardless of how near or far it could be.

On 3 April, The Wall Street Journal published a commentary penned by Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and former national security advisor in the Nixon and Ford administrations. The title captured the essence of Kissinger’s main thesis, that the world would surely undergo changes. The title reads, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order.” He postulated that the “political and economic upheaval it has unleashed could last for generations”. He believes that the United States is “obliged” to undertake major efforts in three domains. The first is to lead an international effort to strengthen “global resilience” to infectious disease. The second is mainly economic and relates to economic and financial recovery efforts worldwide. The third centres around how American diplomacy should work with other like-minded nations to safeguard the principles of the “liberal world order”. He concluded his commentary by stressing the need for world leaders “to manage the crisis while building the future”.

On the other hand, former US deputy secretary of state William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the same American publication, on 27 March, that the crisis the world is confronting now is a “painful accelerant magnifying the challenge of navigating a crowded, complicated and competitive international leadership”.

Both commentaries reflect a similar strategic mindset that the new world order (and I use the term to capture their main ideas) will be an international order dominated by the United States as the leading superpower. Ambassador Burns has proved to be humbler in this respect. He addressed the American establishment, indirectly, and emphasised that the United States, “cannot resurrect the uniquely commanding positions that helped American statesmen in the administrations led by Harry Truman and George H W Bush shape similar plastic moments over the past century”. But the United States, according to Burns, in applying American power, could revive “their model of character, vision and discipline”.

One of the fundamental changes predicted in the post-corona world deals with American- Chinese relations. It goes without saying that these relations are more adversarial and competitive, in a more or less friendly context. Once the corona crisis is behind us, the true essence of US-Chinese relations would gravitate towards confrontation rather than constructive cooperation. This confrontation will play out in the Indo-Pacific region, and within international institutions where rival American and Chinese models of governance and respective world views will collide.

When Mr Kissinger speaks of the “liberal world order”, it means, implicitly, an international system where China is reduced to the rank of an outsider, whereas the growing role and weight of China in the decades to come should be factored in for the sake of international peace and security. The way the American establishment views the future role of China could prove the key to understanding better the expected changes in the world order. 

If the post-World War II international system had witnessed a Cold War that pitted the United States against the former Soviet Union, it is an almost foregone conclusion that the next decades will witness a variation of that Cold War between Washington and Beijing. In the previous Cold War years, Europe had been the main theatre of confrontation. Already the Pacific has replaced Europe as the main strategic battleground between China and the United States. Will their confrontation be contained within this geographic zone or will it pan out in other geographic areas? This remains clouded in doubt for the time being.

The international system that is in the works would be a modified extension of the present model of the world as a “global village”. However, national sentiments would be on the rise, which will ensure that the new globalisation model would be more driven by a desire to spread widely, vertically and horizontally, the financial and economic benefits of globalisation minus the risks. This new version would put stress on more equality and more fairness in the distribution of wealth among nations and within countries. To do that calls for enlightened leaders and more responsive financial and economic international institutions that will be willing to shed off, if need be, financial orthodoxy and relax the application of financial discipline on poorer nations.

The European Union should muster enough political will and formulate a strategic vision of its role in the future. Of course, Euro-Atlantic relations will remain, but the Europeans should adopt a more independent role on the world stage. In the Cold War years, American and European interests in containing and confronting the former Soviet Union had been, more or less, identical. Between the United States and China, the same does not hold true for Europe. It will be incumbent on new American leaders to work with this reality. To put it differently, the European Union should be a buffer that helps in working out differences between the United States and China. Brexit could be an added plus in this respect.

One major test in the not-so-far-distant future will revolve around the relevance of the United Nations and regional institutions. The early signs are not optimistic. The United Nations has not occupied centre stage in international efforts to manage and fight the coronavirus. Three months into the coronavirus pandemic, the UN seems paralysed amid differences among the five permanent members of the Security Council, and most particularly between the United States and China.

Nearer to home, the African Union has played a toned-down role in assisting African countries prepare and manage an effective response to the pandemic. As to the Arab League, the least we could say is that it has been silent and conspicuous by its absence. Arab trust in its effectiveness and relevance will be diminished.

The morning after calls for new leaders and new visions to reshape the international system in a way to make the world a much safer place for everyone, and more equitable. If the United States had been the leading and the uncontested power in the aftermath of World War II, and had enjoyed the status of the sole superpower in a unipolar world in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in reordering the international system in the post-corona era, Washington will still be a leading superpower but will not be the sole arbiter of world affairs. This novel situation brings to mind the Congress of Vienna of 1815.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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