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Issue Brief June 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 is a strategic shock, and its almost immediate, damaging effects on the global economy constitute a secondary disruption to global order. Additional secondary strategic shocks (e.g., in the developing world) are looming. Together, these developments pose arguably the greatest threat to the global order since World War II. In the aftermath of that conflict, the United States and its allies established a rules-based international system that has guaranteed freedom, peace, and prosperity for decades. If the United States and its allies do not act effectively, the pandemic could upend this order.

Strategic shock: What is COVID-19?

On December 27, 2019, health officials in Wuhan, China, learned that a novel coronavirus was responsible for a mysterious respiratory illness that proved resistant to anti-flu drugs and which had been observed in patients several weeks prior. Over the next few weeks, Chinese officials attempted to cover up the outbreak, reprimanding doctors for publicly discussing the new virus, ordering samples of the virus destroyed, and denying it could be spread from human to human. By January 13, the virus had spread beyond China, and soon after arrived in the United States. Chinese officials eventually implemented lockdowns, but not before around five million people had left the city of Wuhan unscreened.

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the novel coronavirus, part of a family of viruses known to cause respiratory infections in humans. Other well-known coronavirus-induced diseases include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which infected thousands in China and elsewhere from 2002-03, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Like SARS, COVID-19 originated in China, in this case most likely at an animal market in Wuhan.

At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic had infected more than 4.2 million individuals worldwide, although the number of infected is almost certainly higher as testing has been limited in most countries, including the United States. Around 1.3 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the United States, with New York and New Jersey affected the worst. The virus’s estimated mortality rate is 1 percent, with older individuals, as well as those with preexisting conditions, at a greater risk of death. At the time of writing, there were more than 280,000 global deaths, including around 80,000 in the United States.

The pandemic is unlikely to end anytime soon, even as at least 70 different vaccines are in development around the world. It could take more than a year before a vaccine and other treatments are ready for distribution. In the meantime, many countries have enacted measures to require social distancing in order to slow the virus’s spread and prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed. A March study by researchers at Imperial College London warned that the time when the measures are implemented, as well as strict enforcement, are critical for effective social distancing.

Countries such as Italy and Spain have seen their health care systems overrun by COVID-19 patients. In the United States, while the initial response to the virus was slow, social distancing measures appear to have slowed the spread of the virus in some parts of the country, although new hotspots continue to emerge.

Pressure points: How COVID-19 has affected the global order

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many analysts suspected that the crisis would alter the global order. After all, we have seen throughout history that plagues have contributed to the rise and fall of great powers. And, indeed, we are seeing that COVID-19 is already having important geopolitical consequences.

A Brief History of Plagues and Geopolitics

A brief consideration of history reveals pandemics have the capacity to shape the rise and fall of great powers. In the fifth century BCE, Athens was a vibrant commercial state and naval power, but it fell victim to a plague during the Peloponnesian War with its rival Sparta. Its population ravaged by disease, Athens was defeated by the Spartans and lost its position as the premier power in Greece.

Similarly, early modern Venice was a commercial center and naval power, a dominant force in the Mediterranean. The Italian Plague of 1629-31 decimated Venice, however, and Northern European states such as England and the Dutch Republic filled the gap left by the declining Venetian Republic. The word “quarantine” comes from the Venetian dialect’s word for “40 days.”

In the fourteenth century CE, the Black Death led to the collapse of the British feudal system, which helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the modern capitalist economic system. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Aztec Empire was destroyed by smallpox, opening the door to European colonization in the Americas. More recently, the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed fifty million people, adding to the tens of millions who died during World War I.

As these examples illustrate, pandemics have the capacity to alter geopolitics and to accelerate already present trends. We are currently seeing such effects in many areas, most notably in the global economy.

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<h3>Trouble for the global economy and developing world</h3>

The open, interconnected global economy is being battered by the pandemic. Some of the world’s largest economies, including the United States, China, the EU, and Japan, have put forth massive stimulus and relief plans to limit the economic damage. Nevertheless, the current and anticipated economic downturn has already spurred a small cottage industry of speculation about the end of globalization.

<h3>US-China Rivalry Intensifies: Economy</h3>

Since Xi Jinping became president of China in 2013, the US-China relationship has grown more confrontational. Xi adopted a more assertive foreign policy and reinforced domestic authoritarianism. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America declared the return of great-power rivalry with Russia and China to be the foremost threat to US security and economic well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic thus comes at a time when a rising power (China) has been using its newfound strength to rattle the international order, and the reigning global power (the United States) is perceived by many as losing influence. In just a few months, the virus has shaken the economies of both of these economic giants, turned into a battle for political influence abroad, and likely raised the prospect of military conflict.

China’s economy, which is suffering due to the coronavirus, contracted for the first time in almost half a century, shrinking by 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020. The world’s second-largest economy saw retail sales and industrial output decline significantly in the first two months of 2020, according to data published in March. China’s unemployment rate also grew. Chinese officials have tried to paint the downturn as temporary, but the country’s economic outlook for the year is likely to remain poor, especially as global supply chains and demand are negatively impacted by the disease. Manufacturers are leaving China, and this early trend could continue even after the pandemic wanes.

<h3>US-China Rivalry Intensifies: Political Influence</h3>

The pandemic also sharpens the United States and China’s battle for global political influence. Notable is the return of a battle over domestic political and economic systems: China’s model of authoritarian state capitalism stands against the US model of open-market democracy. The US model faces skepticism entering the post-COVID-19 era, both as a result of the global financial crisis of 2008 and concerns about a US withdrawal from the world stage. The Chinese model, on the other hand, appears to some to offer political stability and steady growth. The current crisis gives both countries a chance to show their respective systems’ resilience and capacity to lead a global recovery.

<h3>US-China Rivalry Intensifies: Military</h3>

The United States and China are diverting military resources to address the crisis at home and facilitate humanitarian relief. This could prove more costly to the United States as it tries to maintain the ability to project military power worldwide.

The United States also has struggled with a military distraction at home after the now-former Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly called the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier, naïve and stupid. The captain had sent a memo to superiors highlighting a crisis aboard the ship due to crew members being diagnosed with COVID-19. The memo was quickly obtained by the press and published. Modly fired the captain and then called him naïve in a speech to the carrier’s crew. The subsequent uproar prompted Modly to resign.

<h3>Russia Faces Internal Pressure, But NATO Preparedness Is Weakened</h3>

While China is the United States’ primary geopolitical adversary, Russia remains a key player in the global landscape, and in recent years has acted to disrupt the rules-based order. It has intervened militarily in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. Russia has also interfered in Western elections and conducted influence operations to divide NATO. Unlike China, however, Russia is not a rising power and its economy is smaller than that of Brazil, Italy, and India. Still, disorder caused by a global pandemic serves Russia’s interest in undermining the legitimacy of the US-led world order. But Russia’s fragile health care system also leaves it highly vulnerable should the virus continue to make inroads in the country.

<h3>Transatlantic Relationship Weakens, While China’s Influence Creeps Into EU</h3>

While military readiness among the United States and its European allies vis-à-vis Russia has weakened, so has the transatlantic relationship, more broadly. When Trump announced travel restrictions on Europeans visiting the United States in mid-March, he also criticized the EU, saying it “failed to take the same precautions” as the United States to contain the virus. Trump’s announcement surprised the United States’ European allies who were upset the president did not coordinate with them before announcing the restrictions. US allies have also complained about the United States’ tactics to obtain medical supplies, which include paying far above market price and blocking shipments to buyers who have already signed purchase agreements. In late March, foreign ministers from the G7 countries (which include France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom) could not agree on a joint statement on the pandemic after Pompeo insisted on using the term “Wuhan virus.”

<h3>Across the Pacific, an Opportunity in Taiwan</h3>

US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region have shown themselves to be quite adept at containing the spread of the virus, thereby serving as examples of successful democratic responses to the current crisis. Through quick action, testing, and contact tracing, South Korea mostly quashed the outbreak in the first half of March. Taiwan, similarly, has very effectively avoided a massive outbreak despite its proximity to China.

<h3> WHO Faces Criticism </h3>

International institutions, such as those related to health security, are a vital part of the postwar rules-based order, but the WHO’s slow response to the pandemic and its deference to China have brought it under scrutiny. On January 22, the WHO denied it was necessary to declare a “public health emergency of international concern,” a declaration it finally made just over one week later. By that time, the outbreak had spread to more than a dozen countries and infected around 8,000 people. The organization also praised China’s leadership for being transparent, and in February a WHO report praised China’s “ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort.” The WHO finally declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.

Policy Recommendations

Despite these uncertainties, there are some obvious next steps for US and allied policy. Most importantly, the United States and its allies and partners need to develop a comprehensive joint strategy to address COVID-19 and shape the post-pandemic global order. The United States and its allies should orient their strategy toward revitalizing and adapting the rules-based order in light of the weaknesses made plain by the pandemic.

Public Health: Reduce the Threat of Coronavirus and Bolster Global Public Health Resilience

The United States should lead a “Counter-Coronavirus Coalition” made up of allies and partners to implement strong joint measures to curb the virus’s spread, as well as unleash its economic might to produce materials (e.g., masks, ventilators) necessary to ensure those afflicted with the illness receive care. Abroad, the United States needs to resist temptations of nationalism and going-it-alone: the United States should work closely with its allies and partners, supporting them with medical resources and acting as a more reliable partner than China. The United States should act as the global leader in this crisis, stemming China’s efforts to seize the crisis as an opportunity to expand its influence abroad. Once the virus has been brought under control, the key factor in gauging global leadership will not have been who was responsible for the start of the pandemic, but who finished it. The United States’ vast resources, partnerships, and capacity for innovation puts it in a prime position to take up the mantle of leadership, produce medical supplies and vaccines, and quash the pandemic.

Moreover, while the United States should be tough on the WHO for its deference to China, it should also seek to strengthen global public health institutions, erect new ones where necessary, and reassert its influence in them. Whereas China has increased its influence in international organizations such as the WHO, the United States has retreated from multilateralism in recent years. The Chinese government, despite its culpability in allowing the virus to spiral into a pandemic, is also pushing for a new multilateral public health apparatus in the form of the Health Silk Road. The United States should not cede global leadership in refashioning and constructing multilateral institutions. In leading a global response to the pandemic, it should also lead the revitalization of international health institutions to ensure they have the capacity to address outbreaks, facilitate cooperation, and avoid the baser influences of authoritarian states. In the end, transparency is a major attribute in stemming fast-breaking global health crises, and democratic countries led by the United States, therefore, have an advantage over authoritarians who suppress and destroy important health data.

Economics: Facilitate a Global Economic Recovery

The virus will likely cause a global recession and possibly a depression. Protectionism will prove tempting, especially as populists in the West use the pandemic to attack globalism as fragile and dangerous. But this temptation should be rebuffed—protectionism failed to stem the Great Depression in the 1930s and only worsened an inward, nationalistic turn among global powers that fed into World War II. Instead, the United States and its partners should immediately work together to rebuild the global economy. China will look for Western divisions and lasting economic weakness as an opportunity to carve out a larger role for itself in the global order; however, resolute actions by the United States and its partners will both facilitate a quicker economic recovery and place them in a stronger position to approach China on shaping the post-pandemic global economy. The United States’ $2 trillion stimulus is a positive step in the direction of economic recovery, as are the recent steps taken by the EU. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve is working in conjunction with other nations’ central banks to ease the pressure on the global economy. Moreover, whereas China has limited experience with booms and busts due to an extended period of economic growth, the United States and its partners are used to market cycles, and this should give them added resilience to the current shock.

Diplomacy: Strengthen Alliances

The United States should reach out to its allies to strengthen coordination for a global response to the pandemic. When working together, the United States and its allies can amass an impressive degree of economic, diplomatic, and military clout, as well as scientific knowledge, all of which is integral to a comprehensive response to the pandemic. Where relationships have been frayed in previous months, the United States should work to repair them and be willing to take the lead of a coalition of states dedicated to countering the coronavirus. To revitalize the rules-based order requires determined US and allied leadership, and a willingness to forge new institutions to address the challenges of the post-pandemic world, as when the G20 was elevated in importance during the 2008 financial crisis.

National Security and Defense: Reorder National Security Priorities and Deter Chinese and Russian Aggression

The United States and its allies must lead the reordering of national security priorities in the post-pandemic era as well as demonstrate the resolve to defend the rules-based order against aggressive acts on the part of China and Russia. Western publics are rightly going to demand that the concept of national security be broadened to include security against pandemics. How this new concept is integrated into US national security as well as US alliances and security partnerships should be a top priority for planners during the rest of 2020. This must be done in a way that effectively balances pandemic prevention and mitigation with other national security threats and challenges.

Moreover, revisionist powers have already launched disinformation campaigns to muddy the origins of the virus and sow confusion in the West. The United States and its allies should take steps to ensure this disinformation is countered and that democratic systems of government can withstand its effects. While the United States’ and its allies’ military readiness has been weakened by the virus, they are still able to exercise a great degree of military power. High-level statements and shows of force can be used by US and allied forces to demonstrate their commitment to deterring and defeating aggression.


In just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended global health security, sent the world economy into a tailspin, and intensified great-power rivalry. Precisely how long it will take for governments to contain the virus and for scientists to develop effective therapies and a vaccine remains unclear. This analysis of the coronavirus’s impact on the global order has shown there are many geopolitical uncertainties that should be monitored in the coming months. The next paper in this series on shaping the post-pandemic world, an Atlantic Council Strategy Paper, will consider how these uncertainties might be resolved and what the world could look like in the coming months and years.

Related Experts: Barry Pavel, Matthew Kroenig, and Jeffrey Cimmino

Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque