WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR THE WORLD ORDER IN THE AFTERMATH OF COVID-19?
By Tugsbilguun Tumurkhuleg
What changes would COVID-19 bring about to the world order? This question has been at the center of attention of International Relations scholars around the world for the larger part of 2020. There is no doubt that the world will not be the same once the coronavirus crisis recedes. But what is less certain is the extent of these impending changes. Therefore, it is inevitable that different views are expressed as to what the future holds for the post-COVID-19 world.
At this stage, it seems that only the situation in the area of economy looks more or less clear. As COVID-19 has wrought economic disruptions of immense proportions to practically all countries affected, national economies are expected to shrink. It is estimated that the overall global GDP will fall 4.4 per cent, with emerging markets and developing economies expected decline by 3.3 per cent and advanced economies by 5.8 per cent. Under the current dire situation, no industry and businesses will be spared from the havoc brought about by the pandemic. The levels of production and consumption in all industries, with the exception of medical industry, have started to fall. Many companies and businesses are being forced to close down, which has resulted in massive unemployment. Multinational companies are also being hit hard by the pandemic, forcing them to make investment decisions to fragment and relocate production. The only industry that is likely to emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis is the digital economy, which is expected to persist beyond the pandemic, as more businesses, transactions and interactions shift to the digital realm.
Regarding the implications of COVID-19 on the world order, influential academics such as the former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Harvard University professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr. have expressed different views from each other. While Kissinger states that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring about fundamental changes to the world order, Nye suggests that the current pandemic will not change the world geopolitics in the foreseeable future. In particular, he argues that
In 2030, COVID-19 will look just as unpleasant as the Great Influenza looked from 1930, but with similar limited long-term geopolitical effects. Growing Chinese power, domestic populism and polarization in the West, and more authoritarian regimes worldwide already existed, and the pandemic may have somewhat accentuated these trends.
Thus, the present COVID-19 pandemic is not necessarily a transformative event, but rather could be seen as a reinforcement of the trends that had existed prior to its occurrence. In today’s world characterized by increasing strategic rivalry between the United States and China, it would be indeed interesting to observe which of these two powers would recover from the negative effects of the coronavirus crisis faster. Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak argues that neither the United States nor China will emerge stronger from the pandemic period. However, as he further elaborates, from the point of analysis rather than a preference, China stands a better chance of regaining its position vis-à-vis the US. According to an IMF report released this October, China is the only economy in the world with positive growth in 2020 as its GDP is predicted to expand 1.9 percent this year. In contrast, the other major players including the US, India, the European Union and Russia, as well as the rest of the world are all poised to register negative GDP growth. In this connection, it would be useful to add that the sheer size of the Chinese economy allowed it to recover faster without sole reliance on foreign markets.
The reason that China has coped better with the negative impact of coronavirus was the fact that it had managed to contain the virus thanks to swift and decisive actions taken by its government including the imposition of a strict lockdown, which has allowed re-opening of the country’s economy within a relatively short period. Former Singaporean Ambassador to the UN and academic Kishore Mahbubani attributes China’s success in battling COVID-19 to its strong administrative institutions, which have strengthened over the years, whereas the US has weakened its public service agencies.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has had its toll on China, most importantly, on its public image worldwide. Before COVID-19 broke out, the “China development model” manifested foremost by the Belt and Road Initiative has been attracting significant interest around the world. The coronavirus crisis has exposed weaknesses inherent in an authoritarian one-party system as witnessed by the case of the whistleblower Li Wenliang. This led the US and other Western countries to blame China for mismanaging the coronavirus crisis at its early stage by suppressing information, and demanded a thorough international investigation. In return, China responded by launching a propaganda war and tried to repair its damaged reputation by initiating “Mask Diplomacy” and “Health Silk Road” in other parts of the world. However, China’s assertive “wolf warrior diplomacy” designed to defend not only its initial handling of COVID-19 crisis, but also some of its actions abroad, not to mention its specific domestic issues, has cast a doubt on its “benevolent” image that had been cultivated in the course of several decades.
It could be well-observed that COVID-19 has exacerbated the US-China strategic competition for global political influence. In many ways, today’s situation is similar to the “heyday” of the Cold War, albeit this time between the US and its allies on the one side, and China, on the other. In other words, we are witnessing today the battle between the two narratives: the Chinese model of authoritarian state capitalism and the Western model of a free market economy with both of them attempting to sway the rest of the world to its side. Extensive visits undertaken by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to many capitals of the world over the past period served precisely to this purpose. In this connection, it is important to stress that although Joe Biden’s election last November signifies the abandoning of Trump’s isolationism and return of America to the world stage, which in itself is a welcome development, one should expect the continuity of the current administration’s policy on China. After all, it was the only issue in which President Trump received bipartisan support.
It remains to be seen how other countries would react to the US-China rift once the pandemic period is over. Although the strategic competition between the two powers is akin in many aspects to the Cold War era, it should be emphasized here that the present geopolitical structure of the world is not marked by a clear divide unlike the confrontation between the US and Soviet camps. As the United States and China are both important partners for the majority of countries around the world, they would not wish to take sides in the dispute between the two great powers. Therefore, the post-COVID-19 world order would likely represent the realities of today’s complex world and would not mark the complete breakaway from the current order existing among nations.
Tugsbilguun Tumurkhuleg is a Mongolian diplomat, who served as Director-General of the Department of Neighboring Countries at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later as Ambassador of his country to Thailand and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). He received his Master of Arts (International Relations) degree with honors from the Australian National University and BA in International Affairs degree from the National University of Mongolia. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of the Mongolian government.
World Economic Outlook, October 2020, International Monetary Fund, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/09/30/world-economic-outlook-october-2020#Full%20Report%20and%20Executive%20Summary
Henry Kissinger, The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order, The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2020, <https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005>
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. on the Geopolitical Impact of COVID-19, Morality and the US Presidency, and Soft Power in Foreign Policy, Harvard.edu, <https://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/mrcbg/programs/growthpolicy/joseph-s-nye-jr-geopolitical-impact-covid-19-morality-and-us>
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Geopolitical Outcomes Beyond Covid-19, Bangkok Post, May 15, 2020
China to be the only economy with positive growth in 2020, says IMF report; CGTN, <https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-13/World-GDP-to-drop-4-4-in-2020-IMF--UyNuoUIFlC/index.html>
Kishore Mahbubani: COVID-19 ‘enhanced China’s position in the world order’, Deutsche Welle, <https://www.dw.com/en/kishore-mahbubani-covid-19-enhanced-chinas-position-in-the-world-order/a-53290579
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 Henry Kissinger, The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order, The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2020, <https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005>
 Joseph S. Nye, Jr. on the Geopolitical Impact of COVID-19, Morality and the US Presidency, and Soft Power in Foreign Policy, Harvard.edu, <https://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/mrcbg/programs/growthpolicy/joseph-s-nye-jr-geopolitical-impact-covid-19-morality-and-us>
 Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Geopolitical Outcomes Beyond Covid-19, Bangkok Post, May 15, 2020
 China to be the only economy with positive growth in 2020, says IMF report; CGTN, <https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-13/World-GDP-to-drop-4-4-in-2020-IMF--UyNuoUIFlC/index.html>
 Kishore Mahbubani: COVID-19 ‘enhanced China’s position in the world order’, Deutsche Welle, <https://www.dw.com/en/kishore-mahbubani-covid-19-enhanced-chinas-position-in-the-world-order/a-53290579>