Two new books assess geopolitical lessons from covid-19
Replicas. By Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright. Saint-Martin press; 464 pages; $ 29.99 and £ 23.99
Geopolitics of the end of time. By Bruno Maçães. Hurst; 240 pages; £ 18.99
THERE IS some monuments to the tens of millions of victims of the Spanish flu, eclipsed as it was by the death and destruction of the First World War. “It is difficult to attribute great historical significance to a pandemic, which is perhaps why they tend to be forgotten,” notes Bruno Maçães. Nevertheless, a disaster like covid-19 needs to be interpreted. It is too early to discern all the ways this pandemic has changed the course of history. But has it revealed anything about the structure of international politics today?
Two new books attempt an ambitious and early answer to this question. Colin Kahl, now Deputy Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, and Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, a think tank, rely on a detailed chronicle of the pandemic in “Aftershocks.” Mr. Maçães, former secretary for Europe in the Portuguese government, gives a more philosophical overview in “Geopolitics for the end of time”. Both books seek a glimpse into the future of events of the past 18 months. “The conflict between the great powers is making a comeback,” says Mr. Maçães. MM. Kahl and Wright agree. Their collective conclusions do not bode well for future crises.
The pandemic may have become a moment of global cooperation. He does not have. Instead, borders were closed and states rushed to develop their own vaccines. Little has been done to protect poorer countries from the economic damage of lockdowns or to equitably distribute vaccines. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere raged; calls for a ceasefire of the UN has gone largely unnoticed.
Mr Kahl and Mr Wright show how, even before the pandemic, tensions between America and China had hampered cooperation on public health. When the virus arrived, they argue, a more even distribution of geopolitical power than in recent decades, along with growing nationalism, hampered both meaningful international partnership and effective American leadership. they quote COVAX, the vaccine-sharing program in which neither China nor America originally participated, and which has struggled to compete with national procurement programs. In part, perhaps, because central bankers are relatively isolated from domestic politics, the financial system — quickly stabilized through collective efforts — was an exception to the general dog-eating dog response.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has opened up new opportunities for competition. The supply chains that underpin the global movement of goods became a point of contention, as Americans and Europeans quickly discovered how dependent they were on exports from China, including those from fans and others. vital medical kits. Mr. Maçães observes that China viewed the pandemic as a threat to national security, rather than just a public health emergency, and acted accordingly. He tried to get political concessions in exchange for masks and vaccines, using the crisis to expand his influence. Mr. Kahl and Mr. Wright suggest that President Donald Trump, in turn, has formulated US policy in reaction to China.
Even supposedly neutral institutions have become geopolitical battlegrounds. One of the most interesting ideas of Mr. Kahl and Mr. Wright is how the World Health Organization (WHO) was the victim of political pressure. Its boss, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, initially adopted a conciliatory approach towards China, resisting American pressure to be more confrontational. Dr Tedros only lost patience when Chinese authorities laughed at a WHO investigation in Wuhan, denying scientists access to the data and pushing them to dismiss the idea that the virus originated in a laboratory.
The devil takes the last
The two books differ in their interpretation of this renewed competition. Mr. Maçães believes geopolitical conflicts are the new normal. Responses to the virus by governments around the world have become a measure of their performance; their management of future crises will be judged and compared according to the same model. States are now competing indirectly, he says, using technology to harness threats that, like disease, emerge from the environment rather than from their rivals.
For their part, Mr. Kahl and Mr. Wright detect a vicious circle in which “the rivalry of the great powers has made the pandemic both more likely and more difficult to contain”. Now, they believe, America must be prepared to face transnational threats without expecting to collaborate with China and Russia. Both books note, as others have done, that technology will increasingly be a key measure of power. Mr. Kahl and Mr. Wright dwell on the dark temptations of new technologies for authoritarian rulers.
Above these analyzes looms the climatic calamity. Both books see the pandemic experience as a grim omen for climate change cooperation. Mr Maçães speculates that in the future competition could focus on access to resources, such as cobalt, which are essential for green technologies. Countries that excel in decarbonization will share their knowledge, but at a price.
Mr. Kahl and Mr. Wright have little confidence that America and China will find a way to reform the global public health system, let alone unite to fight climate change. Instead, they hope America can get the world’s democracies to meet such challenges and push back on a more assertive Chinese foreign policy. It is doubtful whether the effects of global warming can or will be mitigated by virtuous competition or an alliance of democracies. None of these insightful books offer much reason to be optimistic. ■
All of our pandemic and vaccine related stories can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus across Europe.
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of print publishing under the title “The World of Tomorrow”