While the coronavirus has put our lives, as individuals and families, on hold, it is acting as an accelerant in global politics. Trends that would have taken decades to play out will now take months, as the virus courses through the veins of the world system searching out morbidities to latch onto and amplify. Like no crisis before it, the coronavirus is highlighting the weaknesses of the world we have come to accept, willingly or not, as normal.
The primary casualty will be the beating heart of globalisation, the dysfunctional and co-dependent relationship by which, protected by the Pax Americana, China has become the workshop of the world. As revealed by the Coronavirus, this relationship has now become so unbalanced that the richest economies of the Western world, not least the United States, have made themselves unable to cope with any serious crisis. Begging China and outbidding each other for ventilators they can no longer make themselves, and plastic facemasks worth mere pennies, Western states have shown themselves to be at the mercy of supply lines they do not control. Unable to protect the lives of their own citizens, the most basic function of any state, Western nations have dramatically weakened themselves and their governing ideology of liberalism, both in the face of challenges from hostile rivals and in their internal legitimacy to their own voters.
Now American politicians of all stripes blame China for the loss of their manufacturing capacity, but this was purely a self-inflicted wound. For decades, Western voters were assured that, according to the calculations of the economists, our nation should deindustrialise and create a free-floating knowledge economy, while China handled the rough business of industry in our stead. The idea that countries unilaterally surrendering their manufacturing capacity to a rival, a growing challenger holding entirely different political beliefs, would have any other outcome than this was always absurd, but this was nevertheless the ideology that shaped all our lives for the past thirty years.
Following a strategy adopted in the early years of the Clinton administration, continued by every successor, US governments pursued a model of imperial expansion, in which the twin strands of liberalism, economic and cultural, were intertwined like a double helix in its DNA. Through a combination of hard and soft power, America exported its economic and political model abroad; simultaneously, its liberal culture, expressed in the output of Hollywood and then of social media, washed over the world, applying a veneer of Americanisation to every society on earth.
Since the fall of Communism, American elites of both parties had come to believe that their dominance of the world’s affairs was a fait accompli. A few stubborn hold-outs, like Asterix’s Gaulish village, refused to accept the new order, but could be coerced or persuaded in time. Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia: all could be co-opted or defeated through a combination of seductive soft power, gruelling sanctions and threats of military confrontation, finally ushering in the end state of history. But attempts at converting the hostile states of Iraq and Libya to the American model through military intervention faltered as the liberal dream met harsh reality.
Distracted by the bloodshed of the Middle East, American policymakers neglected the coming challenge from China, wasting trillions of dollars to no effect, destroying the industrial base that is now so sorely needed, and burning through their reserves of moral and political capital. Now that the politics of the US are convulsed by growing political disorder of unknown gravity, and troops deployed to spread liberal democracy in the Middle East are quelling protests on the streets of the imperial capital itself, the primary casualty will be the position of the US as the world hegemon.
In the international system, we have entered the long-feared Thucydides Trap, named by international relations scholars after the Greek historian who chronicled the destructive conflict between Athens and Sparta. By this model, when a hegemonic power is challenged by a rising rival, conflict becomes almost inevitable. During the first wave of globalisation, Britain faced the same challenge from a rising Germany, whose growing naval power and colonial expansion threatened to unseat the British empire from global dominance, setting in train the First World War.
Now the rising power is China, whose ambitious Belt and Road plan aims to link all of Eurasia, from European capitals and ports to the resources of the Middle East and Central Asia, in a road and rail freight network terminating in the factories of the resurgent Middle Kingdom. In Africa, Chinese infrastructure is linking the continent together in a tarmac spider’s web of roads to bring the continent’s bountiful resources to the heart of China’s new empire, and all without the emphasis on human rights and democracy that accompanies Western development, to the annoyance of African leaders.
To China flow the resources of the world: from China flows in return the finished goods, from plastic tat to high-tech electronics. Like the textiles of India and crafts of Africa displaced by the manufactured goods of Birmingham and Manchester in an earlier era, our own production has faltered as we have become economic subjects of a new industrial empire. From the Horn of Africa to the Indian Ocean, from Piraeus to Haifa, new Chinese ports and naval bases are springing up to protect the sea lanes vital to Chinese commerce, as the centre of geopolitical gravity shifts eastwards, and the centre becomes the periphery.
To be torn between two great rivals struggling for dominance is not a comfortable position. An open military confrontation, should it take place, between the United States and China, would probably focus on the Pacific, with the independence of Taiwan or status of the disputed islands and seaways of the South China Sea as potential triggers. Neither side is capable of a total military victory in anything other than the most limited confrontation, and the risks of open war, and of potential damage to both nuclear powers, are so great, that we must hope the confrontation is unlikely to develop further than sabre-rattling and isolated skirmishes.
For Europe, whose status in the world has diminished to something between a museum and a producer of high-end luxury goods for the growing middle class of the new empire, the challenge is how to balance our relationship with the two rivals.
Strategically, we are subordinate to the United States, whose military reach still vastly outstrips that of any other challenger, even if its recent record of success in war is far from impressive. Economically, European leaders seem to have accepted a subordinate role to China, accepting wildly unequal access to each other’s markets as the price of a sliver of China’s economic miracle. When the two great rivals begin to divide the world between them through, hopefully, economic pressure alone, European leaders will have to make hard choices: choose one great power, and bear the reprisals of the other, or declare neutrality, and try to wall themselves away from the tumult of history.
It is difficult to think that Europe will remain united in an economic conflict that nevertheless will carry tones of a greater ideological struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism. Perhaps Europe can play the two powers against each other; yet to be caught between two great rivals struggling for dominance will not be an enviable position, and it is likely to destabilise the domestic politics of all the weaker nations it draws in.
For Britain, the global shift precipitated but not caused by the pandemic has come at the worst possible time. With no trade agreement settled with either our European neighbours nor our increasingly unstable American patron, and with the Chinese state increasingly embedded in even the most strategic elements of our national infrastructure, we will be buffeted by stormy seas we have no power to control, with no guaranteed safe haven but our own resources. The Blitz spirit of the pandemic’s early days, then, was perhaps a harbinger of a deeper period of crisis. Instead of the Global Britain dream of liberal Brexiteers, dependent on access to Asian markets secured by an American-led order now in freefall, we may find ourselves, like Low’s 1940 cartoon, saying “Very well, alone.”
Aris Roussinos is a war reporter and International Relations PhD student