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Issue Brief June 1, 2020

Executive summary: The virus and global order

By Jeffrey Cimmino, Matthew Kroenig, and Barry Pavel


The COVID-19 pandemic is having dramatic effects on everyday life, global prosperity, and international security; its geopolitical implications could be even more profound. At the end of 2019, there was little to indicate that the global order would face an imminent, potentially transformative shock. Now, five months into 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered global health security, devastated the world economy, and accelerated great-power rivalry.

Since originating in Wuhan, China, the virus has spread across the world, forcing countries into lockdowns that have disrupted daily life for billions. Hospitals are facing shortages of vital medical equipment, from protective masks to ventilators. The global health security system has failed to facilitate an effective, coordinated response to the pandemic, with countries turning to national solutions at the expense of multilateral ones. Despite calls for cooperation, the United States and China are wrestling over influence in the World Health Organization (WHO) and more broadly. Meanwhile, both countries’ economies are suffering greatly.

The pandemic is a strategic shock, and its almost immediate, deleterious effects on the global economy constitute a secondary strategic shock. Together, these shocks pose arguably the greatest threat to the global order since World War II. We also know that other secondary strategic shocks (e.g., in the developing world) are looming. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and its allies established a rules-based order predicated on norms of cooperation, liberal democratic values, and an open global economy that has served as a guarantor of freedom, peace, and prosperity for decades. Already, the damage inflicted by the virus has been significant, and if the United States and its allies do not act effectively, the pandemic could upend this order.

This issue brief, the second in the Atlantic Council’s series Shaping the Post-COVID-19 World Together, will consider the current state of the pandemic and how it has strained the global rules-based order over the past few months. First, it will consider the origins of the novel coronavirus and how it spread around the world. Next, it will examine how COVID-19 has exacerbated or created pressure points in the global order, highlight uncertainties ahead, and provide recommendations to the United States and its partners for shaping the post-COVID-19 world. The following pressure points are identified:

The global economy and developing world: With the world’s largest economies partially shut down to contain the virus, the global economy has entered a downturn that likely will prove worse than the one experienced a decade ago. Stock indices are highly volatile, unemployment is rising, and global supply chains are breaking down. Furthermore, the virus is only starting to make inroads in developing countries. These nations are already experiencing the negative effects of a global economic slump. The situation will only worsen if the virus overwhelms their health care systems.

US-China rivalry: The pandemic has intensified great-power rivalry between the United States and China. Economically, both countries are suffering from the pandemic. Abroad, the United States and China are engaged in a battle for political influence, with China attempting to fill a gap left by a perceived lack of US leadership during this crisis. While the United States’ relationship with its European allies has taken a hit, China’s missteps in the early stages of the pandemic and its faulty medical equipment have prevented it from maximizing this opportunity to expand its soft power. Militarily, the risk of conflict in the Western Pacific has increased, with sick US military personnel and a diversion of resources toward addressing the virus raising questions about US military readiness in the region.

Russia and NATO: Although China presents the greatest threat to the US-led rules-based order, Russia retains the capacity to disrupt the global order. The virus is exacerbating internal weaknesses in Russia. Despite initial indications that Russia was avoiding the worst of the pandemic, the virus is now spreading rapidly and could overwhelm the country’s fragile health care system. Furthermore, the pandemic comes at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure due to declining living standards and a weakened currency. He has been forced to delay plans to extend his rule. On the other hand, Russia is trying to improve its soft power by sending medical supplies abroad. Russia is also conducting a disinformation campaign to sow distrust and confusion in the West. Finally, NATO is facing weakened military readiness, as the Alliance has halted military exercises and has had to tend to troops in Lithuania stricken with the virus. Putin could take advantage of this situation and use a military adventure during this time of crisis to distract from his domestic challenges.

Transatlantic relationship and the European Union: Tensions in the transatlantic relationship have risen, with the United States’ European allies upset that, inter alia, Washington did not notify them in advance about travel restrictions implemented in mid-March. The United States has also irked its allies with its aggressive bidding tactics for medical supplies. In late April, the European Union (EU) had yet to agree on the structure of the economic recovery program to minimize the fallout of the pandemic. EU finance ministers did, however, agree on a short-term $590-billion rescue package to support workers, businesses, and economies impacted by the crisis. Europe is also struggling to contain China’s influence. Serbia appears to be moving closer to China, possibly threatening its eventual accession to the EU, while most Italians are skeptical of the benefits of EU membership.

Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships: US allies in Asia are an integral part of the rules-based order, particularly as counterbalances to China’s efforts to exert power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. South Korea and Taiwan have contained the COVID-19 outbreak, rendering them more resilient to the economic shocks being seen across the globe. The United States is using the crisis as an opportunity to push forward Taiwan’s quest for international recognition and legitimacy, and Taiwan scored a soft power victory with its donation of ten million masks abroad. Japan, on the other hand, is having a more difficult time controlling the outbreak, and India could face a disaster if the outbreak picks up steam in its population of more than one billion people.

Multilateral institutions and global health: International institutions play an important role in the rules-based order by providing organized forums for states to convene on matters of global concern and to enforce the order’s rules, but the WHO is under heightened scrutiny for how it has handled the pandemic. The organization did not declare the COVID-19 outbreak an emergency of international concern until the end of January, and it did not declare the virus a pandemic until March. The WHO also has shown undue deference to China, praising the country’s transparency and containment efforts, despite its gross mismanagement of the outbreak in its early stages. Moreover, the WHO’s relationship with Taiwan has grown increasingly tense as the body appears wary of alienating China. US President Donald J. Trump’s administration is now withholding funds from the organization, pending a review of its actions during the crisis.

This issue brief also outlines uncertainties facing the international community moving forward and recommends steps the United States and its allies should take to shape a post-pandemic order that is favorable for peace, prosperity, and democratic values. The Atlantic Council has already begun to address uncertainties unleashed by the pandemic. While many of the questions raised by the pandemic will be highlighted here, some are especially important and deserving of special attention in separate publications. These questions include:

  • How long will the global economic downturn last, how damaging will it be, and to what extent will it impact all regions and nations similarly?
  • Is the United States or China in a better position to more quickly recover from the pandemic and its secondary shocks? Is the future US-China relationship likely to be marked by confrontation, or is cooperation between the world’s largest economies still possible?
  • How will the pandemic affect Russia’s status as a great power and, if it facilitates accelerated decline, what does this mean for its relationship with the West and with China?
  • How does Europe avoid an economic calamity and a further reinvigoration of populism and authoritarianism that could fracture the EU?
  • How might successful pandemic-containment efforts by South Korea and Taiwan bolster democratic legitimacy and the future of the rules-based order in East Asia?
  • How can the United States and its allies reconstruct the global health care system to make it more resilient to global pandemics? To what extent will multilateral institutions such as the WHO become venues for intensified competition between the United States and China?

The first issue brief in the Shaping the Post-COVID-19 World Together series outlined key scenarios for what the world order could look like in the aftermath of the pandemic. The third feature in the series, which will take the form of an Atlantic Council Strategy Paper, will propose a comprehensive, global US and allied strategy for responding to the crisis and emerging stronger from the pandemic within a revitalized rules-based order.

Read the issue brief

Issue Brief

Jun 1, 2020

Taking stock: Where are geopolitics headed in the COVID-19 era?

By Jeffrey Cimmino, Matthew Kroenig, and Barry Pavel

The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed pressure points in the global order and threatens to unravel the rules-based international system. This paper examines the geopolitical implications of the pandemic by identifying key strategic shocks and tensions exacerbated by the virus. It also identifies uncertainties for the global order and provides policy recommendations for how the United States and its allies should address the pandemic.

China Coronavirus

Image: People visit the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington on May 25, 2020. Traditional Memorial day parade and Rolling Thunder were canceled due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Photo by Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS.COM