Coronavirus and the horizons of a multipolar world: the geopolitical possibilities of epidemic


The global coronavirus pandemic has enormous geopolitical implications. The world will never be the same again. However, it is premature to speak of what kind of world it will end up being. The outbreak has not passed: we have not even reached the peak. The main unknown points remain:

- what kind of losses will humanity ultimately suffer - how many deaths?

- Who will be able to stop the virus from spreading, and how?

- What are the real consequences for those who have been sick and those who have survived?

No one can yet answer these questions even approximately, and therefore we cannot even remotely imagine the real damage. In the worst case scenario, the pandemic will lead to a serious decline in the world's population. At best, the panic will turn out to be premature and groundless. 

But even after the first months of the pandemic, some global geopolitical changes are already quite obvious and largely irreversible. No matter how the subsequent events unfold, something in the world order has changed once and for all.

The thaw of unipolarity

The outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic has been a decisive moment in the destruction of the unipolar world and the collapse of globalization. The crisis of unipolarity and the slippage of globalization has been noticeable since the very beginning of the 2000s - the 9/11 catastrophe, the sharp growth of China's economy, the return to global politics of Putin's Russia as an increasingly sovereign entity, the sharp activation of the Islamic factor, the growing crisis of migrants and the rise of populism in Europe and even the United States that resulted in the election of Trump and many other parallel phenomena have made it clear that the world formed in the 90s around the dominance of the West, the US and global capitalism has entered a crisis phase. The multipolar world order is beginning to form with new central actors, civilizations, as anticipated by Samuel Huntington. While there were signs of emerging multipolarity, a trend is one thing, and objective reality another. It is like cracked ice in spring - it is clear that it will not last long, but at the same time, it is undeniably here - you can even move across it, albeit with risk. No one can be certain when the cracked ice will actually give way. 

We can now begin the countdown to a multipolar world order - the starting point is the coronavirus epidemic. The pandemic has buried globalization, open society and the global capitalist system. The virus has forced us onto the ice and individual enclaves of humanity have begun to take their isolated historical trajectories.

The coronavirus has buried all the major myths of globalization: 

- the effectiveness of open borders and the interdependence of the world's countries,

- the ability of supranational institutions to cope with an extraordinary situation,

- the sustainability of the global financial system and the world economy as a whole when faced with serious challenges,

- the uselessness of centralized states, socialist regimes and disciplinary methods in solving acute problems and the complete superiority of liberal strategies over them,

- the total triumph of liberalism as a panacea for all problem situations.

Their solutions have not worked in Italy, or other EU countries, nor in the United States. The only thing that has proven effective is the sharp closure of society, reliance on domestic resources, strong state power and isolation of the sick from the healthy, citizens from foreigners, etc.

At the same time, even the countries of the West reacted to the pandemic quite differently: the Italians introduced full quarantine, Macron introduced a regime of state dictatorship (in the spirit of Jacobins), Merkel gave €500 billion to support the population, and Boris Johnson, following the spirit of Anglo-Saxon individualism, suggested that the disease be considered a private matter for every Englishman and refused to carry out testing, sympathizing in advance with those who will lose loved ones. Trump established a state of emergency in the United States, closing communications with Europe and the rest of the world. If the West acts so disparately and contradictorily, then what about the rest of the countries? Everyone seems to be saving themselves as they can. This has been best accomplished by China, which, as a result of the Communist Party's hands-on policies, has established tough disciplinary methods to fight the infection and accused the United States of spreading it. The same accusation was made by Iran, which has been hit hard by the virus - including among the country's top leadership.

Thus the virus has ripped apart the open society at the seams and thrust mankind forward on its voyage toward a multipolar world.

Whatever ended with the fight against the coronavirus, it is clear that globalization has collapsed. This could almost certainly spell the end of liberalism and its total ideological dominance. It is hardly possible to foresee the final version of the future world order - especially in its details. Multipolarity is a system that historically has not existed, and if we look for some distant analogue of it, we should turn not to the era of more or less equivalent European states after the Westphalian world, but to the time preceding the era of the Great Geographical Discovery, when, along with Europe (divided into Western and Eastern Christian countries), the Islamic world, India, China and Russia existed as independent civilizations. The same civilizations existed in the pre-colonial period in America (the Incas, Aztecs, etc.) and Africa. There were links and contacts between these civilizations, but there was no single binding type with universal values, institutions and systems.

The post-coronavirus world is likely to involve individual world regions, civilizations, continents gradually forming into independent players. At the same time, the universal model of liberal capitalism will likely collapse. This model currently serves as the common denominator of the whole structure of unipolarity: from the absolutization of the market to parliamentary democracy and human rights ideology, including notions of progress and the law of technological development which have become a dogma in New Age Europe and spread to all human societies through colonization (directly or indirectly in the form of westernization).

Much will depend on who will defeat the epidemic and how: where disciplinary measures prove effective, they will enter the political and economic order of the future as an essential component. The same conclusion can be reached by those who, on the other hand, will not be able to cope with the threat of a pandemic through openness and by avoiding harsh measures. Temporary alienation dictated by the direct threat of contagion from another country and another region, the severance of economic ties and the necessary alienation from a single financial system will force states in the epidemic to look for self-reliance, because the priority will be food security, a minimum autonomy and economic autarchy to meet the vital needs of the population on the other side of any economic dogma, which, before the coronavirus crisis, was considered the only possibility. Even where liberalism and capitalism are preserved, they will be placed in the national framework in the spirit of mercantilist theories insisting on maintaining a monopoly on foreign trade in the hands of the state. Those who are less connected to the liberal tradition may well move in the inventories of the most optimal organization of "big space" in other directions - taking into account civilizational and cultural peculiarities.

One cannot say in advance what the multipolar model as a whole will eventually become, but the very fact of breaking the generally binding dogma of liberal globalization will open up completely new opportunities and ways for each civilization.

After the coronavirus: multipolar safety

The multipolar world will create an entirely new security architecture. It may not be more sustainable or adaptable to conflict resolution, but it will be different. In this new model, the West, the US and NATO, if NATO still exists, will be just one factor alongside others. The US itself will clearly not be able (and probably will not want to, if the Trump line finally prevails in Washington) to play the role of the sole global arbitrator, and therefore, the US will acquire a different status after quarantine and state of emergency. It can be compared to Israel's role in the Middle East. Israel is undoubtedly a powerful country, actively influencing the balance of power in the region, but it does not export its ideology and values to the surrounding Arab countries. On the contrary, it preserves its Jewish identity for itself, trying rather to free itself from the holders of other values than to include them in its composition. Building a wall with Mexico and Trump's call for Americans to focus on their own internal problems is similar to Israel’s path: the United States will be a powerful power, but its liberal-capitalist ideology will only remain for itself, rather than by attracting outsiders. The same will apply to Europe. Consequently, the most important factor of the unipolar world will radically change its status.

This, of course, will lead to a redistribution of forces and functions among other civilizations. Europe, if it keeps its unity to any degree, is likely to create its own military bloc independent of the United States, which was already discussed after the collapse of the Soviet Union (the Eurocorps project) and has been repeatedly hinted at by Macron and Merkel. Not being directly hostile to the United States, such a bloc will in many cases follow European interests proper, which may sometimes differ sharply from those of the United States. First and foremost, it will affect relations with Russia, Iran, China and the Islamic world.

China will have to transform itself from a beneficiary of globalization and adapt to pursue its national interests as a regional power. This is exactly what all the processes in China have been heading towards lately - strengthening Xi Jianping's power, the "One belt – One road" project, etc. It will no longer be about globalization with Chinese characteristics, but an explicit Far Eastern project with special Confucian and partly socialist characteristics. Conflicts in the Pacific Ocean with the United States will clearly at some point become more acute.

The Islamic world will face a difficult problem of the new paradigm of self-organization, as in the conditions of formation of large spaces - Europe, China, USA, Russia, etc., individual Islamic countries will not be able to be fully commensurate with the rest and effectively defend their interests. There will be a need for several poles of Islamic integration – Shia (with the center in Iran) and Sunni, where, along with Indonesia and Pakistan in the East, a Western Sunni block around Turkey and some Arab countries of Egypt or the Gulf states is likely to be constructed.

And finally, in the multipolar world order, Russia has a historical chance to strengthen itself as an independent civilization which will see an increase in power as a result of the sharp decline of the West and its internal geopolitical fragmentation. Yet, at the same time, it will also be a challenge: before fully asserting itself as one of the most influential and powerful poles in the multipolar world, Russia will have to pass the maturity test, preserving its unity and reasserting its zones of influence in the Eurasian space. It is not yet clear where the southern and western borders of Russia-Eurasia will be post-coronavirus. This will largely depend on what regime, what methods and efforts Russia will use to cope with the pandemic and what political consequences this has. In addition, it is impossible to knowingly predict the state of other "large spaces" - the poles of the multipolar world. The constitution of the Russian perimeter will depend on many factors, some of which may prove to be quite acute and conflictual.

Gradually, a system of multipolar settlement will be formed - either on the basis of the UN reformed under the conditions of multipolarity, or in the form of some new organization. Again, everything here will depend on how the fight against the coronavirus unfolds.

The virus as a mission

One should not be deceived: the world coronavirus pandemic is a turning point in world history. Not only are stock indices and oil prices collapsing, the world order itself is falling. We are living in the period of the end of liberalism and its "obviousness" as global meta-narrative, the end of its measures and standards. Human societies will soon become free floating: no more dogmas, no more dollar-imperialism, no more free market spells, no more Fed dictatorship or global stock exchanges, no more subservience to the world media elite. Each pole will build its future on its own civilizational foundations. It is obviously impossible to say what this will look like or what it will lead to. However, it is already clear that the old world order is becoming a thing of the past, and quite distinct contours of a new reality are emerging before us. 

What neither ideologies, nor wars, nor fierce economic battles, nor terror, nor religious movements have been able to do, has been accomplished by an invisible, yet deadly virus. It brought with it death, pain, horror, panic, sorrow... but also the future.