As in every major crisis, the psychological downward spiral of this pandemic is remarkable. Its invisible vastness and its stealth stimulate the mind’s capacity to assume the worst. And so COVID-19 has triggered an avalanche of predictions that the world as we know it is at an end.
Depending on individual taste and temperament, analysts tell us that, inevitably, China will soon reign supreme; that representative democracy and the Western model are in decline; that “neoliberal” capitalism and globalization are doomed; and that the nations of the industrialized world will be less open and free, less connected and poorer.
Past crises have indeed hastened change. And certainly, this viral storm will leave much wreckage. But lessons from past calamities don’t tell us that things always turn out worse. Even bad initial notes don’t always signal a bleak coda. It is by no means certain that the end is nigh for the Western world.
Many observers claim that nationalism will be boosted by the coronavirus, and that cosmopolitan internationalists who believe in multilateralism and cooperation across borders have lost their case. The overwhelmingly national responses to the outbreak of the pandemic seem to bolster this argument. Yet, almost from the outset, nationalist answers, even if popular, were insufficient. Nowhere in the battle against the virus is the performance sheet of nationalists and nativists particularly impressive. While the initial crisis response was indeed a low point for international cooperation, a strong, striking case for internationalism will have been made by the time the world emerges from the storm. A pandemic like COVID-19 is a textbook case for international cooperation, because it can only be beat by homo sapiens working in unison, irrespective of passport. It may even become a gigantic teaching moment such as World War II, because individuals across the globe will have been touched by the same experience.
It is similar for nationalism in the European Union. It is not surprising that the nation-state is the first responder to crisis. It is the entity that has democratic legitimacy for decisive executive action. But there will be a phase two of this crisis. And it will turn out that no other region in the world is better equipped, also institutionally, to mount a collaborative response. The crisis might not trigger deeper integration, but the error of failing to use the EU as a tool of choice early in the fight against the virus will soon be evident -- and corrected for the future.
What about the widespread argument that in executive moments such as this, autocracies and dictatorships outperform liberal systems? Autocrats, including from the Chinese Communist Party, love to claim that they have a more efficient system. But in the coronavirus crisis, democracies such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have demonstrated that they also can meet the challenge without resorting to oppressive tactics. A strong state does not have to be an illiberal one, and incompetent leadership is not a specialty of democracies -- see Iran. The jury is still out on Russia’s performance. History shows that in the long run democracies’ transparency, legitimacy, and self-correcting capacities help them master complex problems better than autocracies.
Which leads us to the claim that the coronavirus crisis is the death knell of globalization. Corrections to accelerated globalization actually predate the appearance of the virus. Measures like shortened supply chains, greater regionalization, and more room for politicians to consider national security will not, by necessity, lead to a fundamentally less integrated world. The forces that drive globalization will not be suspended by this crisis. In all likelihood, they will actually be reinforced. A few supply shortages will quickly remind us of the efficiency of a global market.
Yes, it is true that borders are back in style. And it is true that they can have a role in slowing the spread of a virus. Managing space through the separation of populations is a key characteristic of any fight against an epidemic. But borders must be managed in a bilateral, cooperative, and pragmatic fashion and must target the virus, not the foreign national. Unilateral border closures, while claiming to keep the virus out and to let goods in, have produced the opposite -- see Poland.
Finally, and perhaps most important: The coronavirus crisis will not bring about a permanent global shift in the balance of power, at least not a wholly new or vastly accelerated one. While it seems for the moment that China is emerging successfully from the storm, this is mostly a consequence of asynchrony. China was hit earlier, and it’s coming out of it earlier. But China cannot succeed economically without the rest of the globe and its markets. Global power distribution is no longer a zero-sum game. The great leap forward to Chinese world domination will not be triggered by a virus.
The great historian Ian Morris once wrote that humans, in large groups, act surprisingly similar and have surprisingly similar needs, regardless of what era in history or region of the world you look at. Humans want more than security and a full stomach. They want fundamental freedom and a say in the way they are being ruled. Expect this wisdom to survive the coronavirus fallout. But don’t expect it to be easy.
The authors are analysts at the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed are the authors' own.