Editors’ picks for 2020: ‘Geopolitics in the time of corona’
8 Jan 2021|

Originally published 1 April 2020.

In a world filled with think tanks, shrewd minds and an internet, interesting assessments of the geopolitical ramifications of Covid-19 appear almost daily. From Michel Duclos’s observation that the pandemic is ‘a crisis revealing a new world’, to Sven Biscop’s judgement that less will change, and less radically, than pundits now anticipate, to Allan Gyngell’s insistence that ‘the world before coronavirus is not returning’, analysts are clearly not of one mind.

That’s no surprise. On the traditional strategic agenda, pandemics and other health emergencies are generally listed in the same category as climate change and bushfires—that is, they pose security threats rather than change strategic orders.

The classic case usually involves a comparison of World War I with the Spanish flu (1918–1919). The latter likely killed more people—statistics vary widely—but it’s the former that history and international relations students study at school and university. Why? Because strategy and war are about politically motivated violence, not sickness and death. It was the war, and its subsequent settlement at Versailles—not the flu—that set in place the geopolitical order of the 1920s and 1930s.

But perhaps pandemics are geopolitical chameleons, and their effects are masked by the environments in which they arise. That would mean the geopolitical consequences of the Spanish flu were comparatively minimal precisely because the outbreak occurred at a time when a major shaping event—World War I—was drawing to a close, leaving largely status quo powers victorious. Similarly, perhaps the geopolitical consequences of more recent pandemics were diluted by unipolarity, or by the rigid bipolarity of the Cold War.

If that’s true, we could reasonably expect Covid-19 to accelerate changes that were already unfolding in 2019. And that was a time when the world was becoming more strategically competitive, when US global leadership was weakening and the US itself was in relative strategic decline, and when multilateral institutions were—metaphorically speaking—struggling for breath.

Even before Covid-19 came along, Western alliances were roiled by insularity and transactionalism. Even before it came along, China and Russia were both flexing their muscles in their grey-zone activities in the South China Sea and Ukraine.

Those changes were already undoing Australia’s vision of the ideal future, because they pulled against our long-term aspirations: for a world where great-power frictions are managed and contained, where US leadership and strategic clout remain purposeful and strong, and where multilateral institutions effectively dilute the importance of hierarchy in international relations.

If Covid-19 is accelerating those changes—magnifying their intensity and compressing the time taken for them to work through the system—we will emerge from this pandemic to a sharper, more competitive world, where our main ally is less influential and where multilateral institutions are increasingly under the sway of other great powers that believe in hierarchy, and not in equality.

Thus far, revisionist powers haven’t attempted a more serious rebalancing of the international order by exploiting the pandemic’s greater disruption of European and US economies and societies than of their own. Of course, we’re still in the early days of what might prove an 18-month battering of the international order. It’s possible that future opportunities—to create a sudden fait accompli in the Baltic states or Taiwan, for example—may look more tempting.

True, the degree of temptation depends on something we don’t currently know: are China and Russia really more capable of managing this virus than we are? If they aren’t, the opportunities will seem less enticing. But if they are, or perhaps more ominously if they believe they are, we have a problem.

The simple solution, of course, would be to keep Western militaries relatively free of both infection and virus-related commitments, but that’s probably not an option. If we can’t do that, we need to accept that, for the next 18 months or so, Western conventional military forces are not going to be at their peak in their ability to deter international adventurism.

That might mean the West needs to increase its reliance on nuclear deterrence during that window as a deliberate policy choice. Nuclear deterrence adds a strong dose of ‘ugly stability’ to the upper rungs of the existing order. It doesn’t stop change further down the international ladder, unfortunately, because the threats to use nuclear weapons are only really credible in relation to vital interests.

And, by itself, nuclear deterrence can’t prop up an anaemic international order.

Further still down the ladder, countries that depend on the presence of UN peacekeeping forces will be looking at how willing UN member states are to maintain and rotate such forces during a global pandemic. The UN may find it harder than usual to persuade countries to sustain their peacekeeping commitments abroad when their militaries are suddenly burdened with new challenges at home. That’s an issue that Australia confronts given the ADF deployments in South Sudan and the Middle East.

The issue is not just one for contributor nations. It’s possible some nations hosting those missions will push back more vigorously against them, or use Covid-19 as a justification for deciding which countries’ militaries to accept on their territory.

If that’s so, we’ll run into a set of problems centred on issues of state fragility, and there will likely be opportunities for revisionist powers to meddle down on those lower rungs of the ladder too.

Where does that leave us? Putting it briefly, in the short to medium term, we’re likely to be living in a world of greater strategic opportunism. That’s a worry—but a worry essentially about peripheral strategic interests. Over the longer term, Australia faces a larger concern: a strategically more challenging world. A world in which we probably need to power up, to lower our expectations that the US will be there to save us, to find partners where we can, and to reduce our reliance on ‘rules’. That’s not entirely the fault of Covid-19. It was coming anyway—go back and look at 2019.