- July 14, 2020
It’s tempting to draw sweeping conclusions about what geopolitics will look like after the pandemic. Some argue that we’re witnessing the last gasp of American primacy, the equivalent of Britain’s 1956 “Suez moment.” Others argue that America, the main driver of the post–Cold War international order, is temporarily incapacitated, with a president drunk at the wheel. Tomorrow, a more sober operator can swiftly restore U.S. leadership.
There is a lot we don’t know yet about the virus, or how it will reshape the international landscape. What we do know, however, is that we have drifted into one of those rare periods of transition, with American dominance in the rearview mirror, and a more anarchical order looming dimly beyond. The moment resembles—in both its fragility and its geopolitical and technological dynamism—the era before World War I, which triggered two global military convulsions before statecraft finally caught up with the magnitude of the challenges. To navigate today’s complicated transition, the United States will need to move beyond the debate between retrenchment and restoration, and imagine a more fundamental reinvention of America’s role in the world.
The wreckage of the pandemic surrounds us—with more than half a million people around the world dead, the ranks of the global hungry doubling, and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression raging. Well before the coronavirus hit, however, the liberal international order built and led by the United States was becoming less liberal, less ordered, and less American. The pandemic has accelerated that trend and aggravated preexisting conditions.
With the United States and its allies reeling, distracted, and divided by the pandemic, China’s ambition to become the dominant player in Asia has grown, as has its desire to reshape international institutions and rules to suit its power and preferences. The pandemic has also magnified the insecurities of Chinese leadership, amplifying their worries about economic sluggishness and social discontent. The result is greater domestic repression and an even more pugnacious brand of “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
Always attuned to the weakness of others, Vladimir Putin is losing sight of Russia’s own weakness. The collapse of the oil market and Putin’s mismanagement of the pandemic have made Russia’s one-dimensional economy and stagnant political system even more brittle. A potent counterpuncher, Putin still sees plenty of opportunities to disrupt and subvert rival countries, the kind of tactics that can help a declining power sustain its status. His margin for error, however, is shrinking.