International Order After the Pandemic

As people around the world fall ill, global markets convulse, and supply chains collapse, COVID-19 may also reorder international politics as we know it. No analyst can know when this crisis will end, much less divine the world we will meet at its conclusion. But as scholars have begun to note, it is plausible that China will emerge from the wreckage as more of a global leader than it began. International orders — the rules, norms, and regimes that govern international politics, supported by state power — typically shift as a product of great-power wars. For some time, foreign policy experts have observed power to be shifting in China’s favor and hoped for modest, peaceful change within the existing system, rather than U.S.-Chinese conflict. It now seems that some form of system change may be brought about by an era-defining, exogenous shock, in the form of a highly contagious virus. If world order as we know it is upended, however, it will not be the product of this pandemic alone, but of forces that began long before COVID-19’s discovery, including an American foreign policy that has sought confrontation with China while disengaging from broader international ordering efforts. It is far too soon to say how exactly the international order will change, and whether or not China will emerge stronger. Nevertheless, it is also clear that some aspects of U.S. foreign policy must be transformed if Washington is to retain a leadership role in the system.

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