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Placing the coronavirus pandemic into a historical context involves two levels of analysis. The first task is to analyze the pandemic itself as a global health problem. The second is to assess its consequences for national, international and global governance. So far, and rightly so, the focus has been on global health, plus the pandemic’s dire economic consequences. But we are beginning to assess how the world’s geopolitical order will be affected.  

The basic question is this:  Will fighting the pandemic reinforce national governments as the core of the international system, or will new degrees of global governance develop as a natural response to a global catastrophe?

In any historical process there are always contradictory tendencies. The same will be true here.

The 1918-1919 Spanish-flu pandemic didn’t head off the nationalist movements of that era. The nationalist fanaticism that had produced World War I continued unabated and eventually led to World War II. The first war was fought on the basis of alliances, and the second war was as well.

The United Nations, founded in 1945, represented an advance compared to the weak League of Nations created in 1920. But it remains an intergovernmental treaty organization, not a world government. Its main institution, the Security Council, is based on five national governments, each with an effective veto power. The conflicting policies and priorities of the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain prevent unanimity on the most basic problems of international security.

Today’s geopolitical structure is often portrayed as a matter of rivalry between the United States and China for global leadership. This explanation has the virtue of simplicity, but simplicity is not the way geopolitics works.  

Even before the pandemic, Beijing’s Belt and Road program to build infrastructure connections with countries ranging from China’s borders all the way to Europe seemed essentially a geostrategic policy -- one channeled through economic and financial avenues. Its intent is to sway governments toward China, meaning away from the United States. One part of the strategy is to increase trade and investment, i.e. Chinese economic and political “market share,” in a given country. The other part, some people thought, was to ensnare foreign countries in a debt trap. 

If these were Beijing’s goals, they haven't been working out so well. Belt and Road projects are stalled in many places, while a number of the involved governments have turned to the United States for balance. Not least, China’s financial situation has deteriorated.

In any case, Beijing’s leaders know that global hegemony is very expensive -- they have the example of the United States to learn from. The idea that Washington and Beijing are the Athens and Sparta of our time, one power declining while the other rises, haplessly driving toward the “Thucydides trap” of inevitable war, is a simplification as attractive as it is false. Beijing has little interest in military conflict with the United States, and vice versa.

Moreover, attitudes toward Beijing are inevitably colored because the novel coronavirus began in China. A pandemic could obviously have begun elsewhere, but it started there. Governments around the world have, admirably, not stigmatized China. Nevertheless, Beijing has work to do in order to reclaim its reputation.   

In January and February as the epidemic soared in China, U.S. companies exported significant quantities of masks, ventilators and other equipment. A week ago, it was the reverse. The first of 20 Chinese aircraft delivering medical supplies landed in the United States. China now is the largest source of masks and other medical equipment, including ventilators, not only to the United States but elsewhere. Less widely reported, Russia has also sent medical equipment to the United States.

Are such developments a sign that global governance is emerging—inevitably one would say—out of governments’ response to the pandemic?  

The answer seems to be no. In fact, national calculations have been reinforced by the pandemic.

The European Union is an important case in point: When the first European institutions were created after World War II, the total catastrophe out of which they were born seemed to create favorable conditions for “moving beyond the nation-state,” as the Europeanists put it.

After seven decades, however, the European Union is not a United States of Europe, and it is clear that it will not become one. Nationalism has defeated the Europeanist impulse. If that was not obvious before, coronavirus has offered a clarifying moment. There is a French policy regarding the pandemic, as well as a German, Italian, Spanish and British one. In trying to find sources of masks and medical equipment they even compete with each other, as well as with the United States.

In addition, the historic north-south difference is re-emerging within the European Union, as it did during the 2008 financial crisis. The economically more dynamic and better managed countries of Europe’s north -- Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries -- disdain the southern Latin countries, Italy and Spain, where the epidemic has been particularly severe. France is a hybrid case, with southern-grade contagion but better management.

At the level of world governance, the U.N. globalist logic has had a bit better luck.  The U.N.’s World Health Organization just announced a decade-long plan to reduce the 1 billion cases of various flus that occur each year, with an emphasis on managing the situation in poorer countries. But the key U.N. institution, the Security Council, remains silent as national governments organize their own countries’ responses. Meanwhile, the WHO has come in for vitriolic criticism by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The issue with any global response is effectiveness and legitimacy. A powerful world government might try to impose a global, tightly run program. But such a plan would lack the legitimacy that only national governments provide, because the latter represent actual peoples and nations. This is as it should be. Who knows what sorts of conflicts could arise out of a globalist intention to do the right thing?

In conclusion...

Ronald Tiersky is Professor of Political Science emeritus at Amherst College. The views expressed are the author's own.