Pre­pare for the worst in post-pan­demic world

Arab News - - Opinion - LUKE COF­FEY

We are now six months into the global coro­n­avirus dis­ease (COVID-19) pan­demic. De­spite lock­down mea­sures, cases con­tinue to rise dras­ti­cally in some coun­tries. The global eco­nomic out­look is bleak. The death toll con­tin­ues to mount.

There has been a mas­sive mo­bi­liza­tion by coun­tries around the world to con­front the pan­demic. Huge sums of money and mas­sive sci­en­tific and lo­gis­ti­cal ef­forts have been made to deal with the virus.

COVID-19 has fun­da­men­tally al­tered the way of life for bil­lions of peo­ple. In the for­eign pol­icy com­mu­nity, there has also been a lot of spec­u­la­tion and de­bate about what the pan­demic means for geopol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. The truth of the mat­ter is that it is prob­a­bly too soon to tell.

It is likely that the full eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion re­sult­ing from the virus has not yet ma­te­ri­al­ized. Some of the world’s great­est desta­bi­liz­ers, such as Rus­sia, are still in the midst of their out­break — so who knows how it will end for them. Even the Chi­nese, who were the first to suf­fer from the virus, are not yet out of the woods.

Even though there are many un­cer­tain­ties per­tain­ing to the geopo­lit­i­cal im­pact of the virus, pol­i­cy­mak­ers can make as­sump­tions on which to base and de­velop pol­icy. In terms of the long-term im­pact of COVID-19 in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, there are three as­sump­tions that for­eign pol­icy prac­ti­tion­ers should base their as­sess­ments on.

The first is that many of the chal­lenges that ex­isted be­fore the pan­demic will con­tinue to be a prob­lem well into the fu­ture. Rus­sia will still be a re­vi­sion­ist power ea­ger to ex­ert its in­flu­ence on the Eurasian land­mass and beyond. China will not stop its preda­tory in­vest­ment prac­tices in places like Africa and Cen­tral Asia. In fact, it is likely to take ad­van­tage of the ter­ri­ble eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in these re­gions to do so. Iran will con­tinue to ex­port ter­ror­ism across the Mid­dle East.

These pre-ex­ist­ing chal­lenges will be made more dif­fi­cult by the fact that the world will likely face eco­nomic re­ces­sion for the fore­see­able fu­ture. The drop in the price of oil will put even more pres­sure on those coun­tries re­ly­ing on the ex­port of hy­dro­car­bons to bal­ance their bud­gets.

The sec­ond as­sump­tion is that rogue and au­to­cratic regimes will be­come even more des­per­ate as their strug­gle against COVID-19 be­comes harder. Un­for­tu­nately, au­to­cratic lead­ers know that one of the fastest, al­beit short-term, ways to re­store le­git­i­macy and faith in the rul­ing elite is to get a des­per­ate pop­u­la­tion to rally round the flag.

Too of­ten, these regimes re­sort to mil­i­tary ad­ven­tur­ism to ac­com­plish this. This is what Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin did in Ge­or­gia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

Iran does this in places like Syria or with its ag­gres­sion in the Gulf. So it’s only log­i­cal to as­sume that, as the global pan­demic makes such regimes more des­per­ate, they are likely to be­come more bel­liger­ent in re­sponse.

The third as­sump­tion is that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will have to do more with less to con­front these chal­lenges. Huge amounts of na­tional re­sources have been de­voted to con­fronting the virus. Tril­lions of dol­lars have been spent on bail­ing out and prop­ping up economies. Bil­lions of dol­lars have been al­lo­cated to fight the virus and search for a vac­cine. In some cases, mil­i­taries have been used for do­mes­tic re­sponses to the cri­sis. Put sim­ply, the eco­nomic fall­out from the pan­demic still has not been fully felt. Adding to the prob­lem is that hun­dreds of mil­lions of work­ers are without a job, peo­ple are hav­ing trou­ble pay­ing their bills, and a global re­ces­sion is loom­ing. Even though many of the same geopo­lit­i­cal chal­lenges that were around be­fore the pan­demic will re­main, there will be less money and fewer re­sources to con­front them.

The wild­card in all of this is China. A month ago, one could as­sume that China would ben­e­fit greatly in the af­ter­math of the COVID-19 pan­demic. It was able to stock­pile its strate­gic re­serves of crude oil at dirt-cheap prices. It was com­ing out of its lock­down and re­open­ing its econ­omy at a time when many across the world were just start­ing theirs. China was also gain­ing a con­sid­er­able amount of good­will by send­ing per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and ven­ti­la­tors to coun­tries strug­gling to cope with the pan­demic. And Bei­jing was run­ning a very smooth and so­phis­ti­cated dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign on the ori­gins and his­tory of COVID-19 to di­vert any cul­pa­bil­ity it might have had over the spread of the virus.

But al­ready the cracks are be­gin­ning to show. Bei­jing this month can­celed 1,200 flights and closed schools due to a sharp in­crease in cases. A lot of the PPE sup­port that was given by China to strug­gling coun­tries has now been proven to be faulty and use­less. Few are buying Chi­nese claims that the US is re­spon­si­ble for the spread of the virus. Places where China had been build­ing reser­voirs of good­will and in­flu­ence in re­cent years, like in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe, have be­come in­creas­ingly skep­ti­cal of Bei­jing’s mo­tives. Per­haps the one thing that is made cer­tain by the pan­demic is that the era of big power com­pe­ti­tion is alive and well — and that this is not go­ing to change soon. So, as pol­i­cy­mak­ers de­velop na­tional strate­gies to nav­i­gate the postCOVID-19 world, they should pre­pare for the worst and not even bother hop­ing for the best. Whether it is in day-to-day life, the global econ­omy or geopo­lit­i­cal chal­lenges and threats, the world has fun­da­men­tally changed in ways we still do not fully un­der­stand.

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