Prepare for the worst in post-pandemic world

Perhaps the one thing that is made certain by the pandemic is that the era of big power competition is alive and well

A worker in protective suit sprays disinfectant at a testing site, during a government-organised visit, following a new outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China June 24, 2020.

A worker in protective suit sprays disinfectant at a testing site, during a government-organised visit, following a new outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China June 24, 2020.

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

We are now six months into the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Despite lockdown measures, cases continue to rise drastically in some countries. The global economic outlook is bleak. The death toll continues to mount.

There has been a massive mobilization by countries around the world to confront the pandemic. Huge sums of money and massive scientific and logistical efforts have been made to deal with the virus.

COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the way of life for billions of people. In the foreign policy community, there has also been a lot of speculation and debate about what the pandemic means for geopolitics and international affairs. The truth of the matter is that it is probably too soon to tell.

It is likely that the full economic situation resulting from the virus has not yet materialized. Some of the world’s greatest destabilizers, such as Russia, are still in the midst of their outbreak — so who knows how it will end for them. Even the Chinese, who were the first to suffer from the virus, are not yet out of the woods.

Even though there are many uncertainties pertaining to the geopolitical impact of the virus, policymakers can make assumptions on which to base and develop policy. In terms of the long-term impact of COVID-19 in international affairs, there are three assumptions that foreign policy practitioners should base their assessments on.

The first is that many of the challenges that existed before the pandemic will continue to be a problem well into the future. Russia will still be a revisionist power eager to exert its influence on the Eurasian landmass and beyond. China will not stop its predatory investment practices in places like Africa and Central Asia. In fact, it is likely to take advantage of the terrible economic situation in these regions to do so. Iran will continue to export terrorism across the Middle East.

These pre-existing challenges will be made more difficult by the fact that the world will likely face economic recession for the foreseeable future. The drop in the price of oil will put even more pressure on those countries relying on the export of hydrocarbons to balance their budgets.

The second assumption is that rogue and autocratic regimes will become even more desperate as their struggle against COVID-19 becomes harder. Unfortunately, autocratic leaders know that one of the fastest, albeit short-term, ways to restore legitimacy and faith in the ruling elite is to get a desperate population to rally round the flag.

Too often, these regimes resort to military adventurism to accomplish this. This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin did in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Iran does this in places like Syria or with its aggression in the Gulf. So it’s only logical to assume that, as the global pandemic makes such regimes more desperate, they are likely to become more belligerent in response.

The third assumption is that the international community will have to do more with less to confront these challenges. Huge amounts of national resources have been devoted to confronting the virus. Trillions of dollars have been spent on bailing out and propping up economies. Billions of dollars have been allocated to fight the virus and search for a vaccine. In some cases, militaries have been used for domestic responses to the crisis. Put simply, the economic fallout from the pandemic still has not been fully felt. Adding to the problem is that hundreds of millions of workers are without a job, people are having trouble paying their bills, and a global recession is looming. Even though many of the same geopolitical challenges that were around before the pandemic will remain, there will be less money and fewer resources to confront them.

The wildcard in all of this is China. A month ago, one could assume that China would benefit greatly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was able to stockpile its strategic reserves of crude oil at dirt-cheap prices. It was coming out of its lockdown and reopening its economy at a time when many across the world were just starting theirs. China was also gaining a considerable amount of goodwill by sending personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to countries struggling to cope with the pandemic. And Beijing was running a very smooth and sophisticated disinformation campaign on the origins and history of COVID-19 to divert any culpability it might have had over the spread of the virus.

But already the cracks are beginning to show. Beijing this month canceled 1,200 flights and closed schools due to a sharp increase in cases. A lot of the PPE support that was given by China to struggling countries has now been proven to be faulty and useless. Few are buying Chinese claims that the US is responsible for the spread of the virus. Places where China had been building reservoirs of goodwill and influence in recent years, like in Central and Eastern Europe, have become increasingly skeptical of Beijing’s motives.

Perhaps the one thing that is made certain by the pandemic is that the era of big power competition is alive and well — and that this is not going to change soon. So, as policymakers develop national strategies to navigate the post-COVID-19 world, they should prepare for the worst and not even bother hoping for the best.

Whether it is in day-to-day life, the global economy or geopolitical challenges and threats, the world has fundamentally changed in ways we still do not fully understand.

• Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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