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The story about Henry Kissinger’s private negotiation with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai that lead to the conference between President Nixon and President Deng Xiaoping is well known. During those conversations, Kissinger asked Zhou Enlai about his thoughts on the French revolution. Primer Minister answered it was too early to have an opinion. According to Zhou Enlai it was not possible to have a historical perspective yet. Thus, there is little to say about the impact of Covid-19 on geopolitics now; Zhou Enlai might consider it reckless or better even foolhardy. Unfortunately, these are not the 70s and we live in an era of immediacy. It is necessary to debate or speculate about some possible consequences of the pandemic in the international arena and do it bearing in mind we are still under the uncertainty of the moment, and so, any view or position will have to be provisional.
It is a general view among scholars and experts on international relations and geopolitics that nothing will be as it was after Covid-19. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, as many say, that this pandemic will accelerate the existing global trends we had started to envisage. So Covid-19 will accelerate the contradictory trends we were facing and will do this with severity.
Photo: Pawel Czerwinski, Unsplash
So Covid-19 will accelerate the contradictory trends we were facing and will do this with severity.
Privacy versus Security
Post-September 11 had a severe impact on freedom and liberties. There were enormous limitations on the right to privacy, as well as on other fundamental rights. However, as the security measures were targeting just certain parts of society, the broad public accepted those restrictions on rights. Under such an external threat, everything was acceptable in this new war on terror. In the name of security, societies were ready to accept those constrictions on liberties. The Patriot Act was presented as an exceptional law and became an example for others to follow. Unfortunately, many restrictions that were passed under that exceptional situation are here to stay. Restrictions not only on the fundamental rights and freedoms of detainees or tried, but also in the sphere of communications surveillance or the right to privacy. Today, under Covid-19, we face the same threat. How many of the extraordinary measures taken to fight the pandemic under the state of emergency are here to stay? How many measures affecting privacy like data usage or mobile tracking applications are here to stay? Those measures, unlike the ones taken after September 11, are targeting every citizen. We even hear the same rhetoric. Spanish President Mr. Sanchez and French President Mr. Macron addressed their nations talking about the war on Covid. As after September 11, governments refer to the pandemic as if it was a war.
But we know once we let the genie, in the name of security, out of the bottle, it is very difficult to stuff him back in. All this is strengthening global trends that we were observing before in Europe as much as in other places. Mostly in those States with an inclination to dismiss individual human rights, like President Orban’s Hungary or President Duterte’s Philippines. It is even more disturbing to see those trends spreading without opposition in countries based on the rule of law, human rights, and liberties. As we have said, it is usual to have restrictions on human rights under states of emergency. The risk is the exceptional becoming ordinary.
In the words of Thomas Hobbes, when people feel in danger they go back to the sovereign asking for protection, rendering rights, as well as freedoms unto him. Is this enforcement of Leviathan one of the consequences of the pandemic? It seems this is a real issue in the field of digital technologies. There has not been any relevant opposition to the use of apps to combat the pandemic in countries like China, Singapore, or South Korea, but the use of these technologies has brought on the debate in Europe and the US. Nowadays, it is a fact that they are being used in Spain, Italy, Belgium, or Norway. The balance between using these new technologies, with health purposes, and the need to guarantee the privacy of citizens is not going to be easy, as Vicent Keunen, founder of Andaman, recognizes1. The debate had begun before the pandemic but is rocketing now. This debate will have a clear impact on geopolitics and will increase the ideological confrontation among authoritarian and democratic regimes.
Nowadays, it is a fact that they are being used in Spain, Italy, Belgium, or Norway. The balance between using these new technologies, with health purposes, and the need to guarantee the privacy of citizens is not going to be easy, as Vicent Keunen, founder of Andaman, recognizes.
In short, is the answer of States to the request of citizens for more protection, going to come from the easiest and most advantageous field for them? From the area of security and state control? Will one of the consequences of this the reinforcement of Big Brother? Will, the uncontrolled use of new technologies, have unmeasured consequences? Will the defence of the right to privacy, become the battle-field of the XXI century?
And bringing this debate to our country, what are the consequences of all this for stateless nations like our own? Before the pandemic there were mentions of a digital coup concerning some measures adopted by the Central Government in the digital field. Do we have any sovereignty in this field? Do we have anything to say? Which is the model to which we aspire for our country? Do we have one? And if not, which are the consequences of not having one?
But we know once we let the genie, in the name of security, out of the bottle, it is very difficult to stuff him back in.
Photo: Charles Deluvio, Unsplash
The state is back
One of the outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis might be the reinforcement of the State; something that was already taking place before the pandemic. Several voices were arguing that, in the third wave of globalization2, State power was weakening as consequence of the rise of sub-state entities, supranational public entities, private entities, multinationals, corporations, NGOs, the democratic development of the internet, etc. But a variety of reasons have been pushing this idea back during recent years.
The neoliberal order started during the Reagan/Thatcher era -with the sovereignty of the market, the opening of borders, the supremacy of western values under the democratic liberal order, and the US as a superpower- was showing signals of exhaustion. Trump/Johnson’s populist binomial was the best example of the change of an era. A few years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the Fukuyama’s comment on the victory of the liberal order and the end of history, the crisis was obvious. We could see this end of an era during the 2003 Irak invasion and the violation of the multilateral order established after WWII, as well as the rise of emergent powers like China, India, or Turkey and their defence of sovereignty. This increased with Russia’s international reinforcement, after NATO endangered what Russia considers its vital space3. And it worsened with the crisis of the Eurozone, after 2008. The old global architecture established after WWII was not able to respond to this new scenario. The current deep crisis of the UN and its lack of capacity to answer to the multiple conflicts in the world is a good example. Consequently, the forces demanding the strengthening of the State are rising.
One of the consequences of Covid-19 seems to be the increasing of the previous crisis, and the reinforcement of States. As an example of this, hard borders are back.
Under the current scenario, one of the consequences of Covid-19 seems to be the increasing of the previous crisis, and the reinforcement of States. As an example of this, hard borders are back. During this pandemic, we have seen states closing their borders. The US has closed its borders to Europeans and, for the first time in history, American countries have closed their gates to Europeans. In Europe, Schengen has fallen apart, and borders have been re-established. Won’t this go to reinforce previous trends? Are we not going to see an increase in previous measures taken by the US or Europe on immigration? Even in the Basque Country, we have seen the hardening of the border that divides our country. The control of borders is, together with the use of force, the best example of State power, and we have seen it being reactivated. Will all those measures be rolled back, or will they remain in place? Will this pandemic lead to new check and control systems? In some countries, authorities have started referring to a sanitary passport. Will we see a new control system, like the yellow fever sanitary card, being requested? What will the consequences of all this be for international trade, on for production chains, and the transit of people? And what will the consequence of this be in the Basque Country?
Covid-19 and the subsequent collapse of supply chains, has highlighted the consequences of neoliberal globalization, such as relocations, the internationalization of the work chain, the financing of the economy, the abandonment of production in strategic sectors, the lack of State intervention, etc. What will the consequence of this be? Some will argue for greater state intervention in strategic sectors, and the conception of “strategic” will extend. It is also possible to consider a deeper intervention of the state in the recovery process, as many experts, both social-democrats and liberals, are demanding. Many are talking about FDR’s New Deal or Keynes’ recipe, which have already been placed on the table to respond to the climate emergency4. The collision of models will probably exacerbate between those who, despite the circumstances, want to continue as if nothing happened and those who propose structural changes. Tensions at the supra-state level, as well as between states and sub-state entities, will increase as a consequence of the reinforcement of the state.
The collision of models will probably exacerbate between those who, despite the circumstances, want to continue as if nothing happened and those who propose structural changes. Tensions at the supra-state level, as well as between states and sub-state entities, will increase as a consequence of the reinforcement of the state.
This is palpable in the Spanish State, in the centralizing tendency developed from Madrid in recent years, not only in the political-legal field but also in the economy, media, or less tangible fields like knowledge. And the way to deal with Covid19 runs the risk of accelerating this trend of intervention. The implementation of the state of alert, as well as subsequent decisions, have shown that the the sovereignty of sub-state entities is non-existent. But these tensions are already happening in many other places and will increase. Cities and states have confronted the federal government on climate change, migration, etc. in the US. Now, the same clash is taking place because of the measures taken around Covid19 in California, Florida, or Texas. The Economist itself has stated that federalism, the multilevel political system in the United States, is facing its toughest stress test since the civil war5.
Trends in the recovery of power are likely to contribute to these tensions. The Madrid government has also added to this general trend a plan to strengthen its national project, to boost Spanish nationalism. This is the reason for the King’s statements, the militarization of the Madrid Government’s press conferences, the Army’s use of advertising, the patriotic messages that are disseminated in the media, and the proposal for a new Moncloa pact. The State trying to sell us a pup.
As for the supranational bodies, this crisis has once again highlighted the lack of leadership of the UN, and Antonio Guterres’ initiatives in some areas have not succeeded in preventing this feeling. Both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council long ago lost their strength in the face of the G7, or G20, summits, but it is not the only supra-state entity that has felt its seams torn. The EU is also a clear example.
The Madrid government has also added to this general trend a plan to strengthen its national project, to boost Spanish nationalism.
Photo: Sara Kurfeß, Unsplash
The European Union adrift
Covid-19 highlights once again the crisis in the European Union. The limitations of its current organizational model are evident in the geopolitical model arising in the world. Europe moves neither forward nor backward. The first European countries to face the pandemic -Italy, Spain…- have felt abandoned by the lack of support they have received from the EU until now, with a feeling of evident social abandon. Europe must decide what role it wants to play in this global world that is being established: whether it wants to be a player or not. Its lack of definition has turned Europe into a playing field for other powers, especially the US, China, and Russia. And as the African saying goes, when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. Europe must decide whether it wants to be an elephant or the grass.
However, the European Union does not seem to have the capacity to do so, as the crises of the last decade indicate. The euro crisis called into question the foundations of the single currency and proved the need for monetary reform; the refugee crises, called into question freedom movement, the Schengen Area, and so-called European values. Brexit accentuated all this, and more so Covid-19, by stressing the limits, questioning the very concept of the single market, preventing some states from exporting some products to other European states and endangering the very basic concepts of solidarity and cooperation.6
Covid-19 highlights once again the crisis in the European Union. The limitations of its current organizational model are evident in the geopolitical model arising in the world.
Europe’s image has been badly affected at the international level. If it was already reeling after the 2008 crisis and the Brexit, the lack of capacity to provide a rapid and coordinated response to Covid19 has increased this perception. China, Russia, and Cuba have also been quick to make a splash in both Italy and Eastern Europe with rapid media initiatives for medical, technological, and military cooperation. Despite the response of both NATO and some European states, the dramatic effect will increase the sense of de-Westernisation that is spreading around the world.
The epidemic will have a major impact on the elements that underpin the European Union (open societies, free-market economy, and security and defence). The European Union will, probably, only move forward under sweeping reform. But the response given to Covid-19 once again highlights its difficulties. In the framework of an interdependent and hyperconnected globalized world, the different approaches of cooperation versus confrontation among states that we can see in the world are also happening at the European level.7
In this new scenario, we in the Basque Country will have to make a deep contemplation. And now, more than ever. It is not enough to say that we are in favour of Europe, or that we are Europeans. The trend towards a two speed Europe is accelerating, and therefore we in the Basque Country will have to decide if we want to travel near the engine or in the last wagons.
Photo: Tedward Quinn, Unplash
The enhancement of China and the geopolitics of the future
Finally, Covid-19 reinforces a pre-existing trend. The 21st century will be the century of China; the century of a millennial culture and a one-party, centralized state, with more than a billion inhabitants. It would be better to bear this in mind. The Basque Country is located at one end of the European peninsula of the Eurasian continent. Not, as we have seen so far, in the middle of the world map.8 It would be good to get that image into our heads so that we can understand the coming future. Maps have always been very important for understanding the world and the geopolitics, and in this interconnected 21st century they will continue to be very important.
The Basque Country is located at one end of the European peninsula of the Eurasian continent. Not, as we have seen so far, in the middle of the world map.
China versus US competition will be at the centre of the new global order being implemented, and this will be reflected in trade, but above all in new technologies, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence; but also at the ideological level. China is not only technology. It is also a vision of the world and its governance.
Illustration: Dmthoth / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
The management of Covid-19 can strengthen or weaken China’s image worldwide, especially in Africa and Asia, but also in some areas of Europe and South America. China will strive to do so. In the coming months we will see the battle of narratives on the Chinese management of the epidemic in the Western media, but many states in the world are turning to China and Russia for help, which will intensify upon the absence of others.
The lack of American leadership has also been evident throughout this crisis, but the decline of the United States is probably farther away than many might believe. The United States is and will remain the world’s leading power. And not just the leading military power. Let us not forget that the world’s leading investment funds take refuge in the dollar, and in US treasury bonds, which have enormous financial and economic capacity. The US is also a leading force on industrial agriculture, and it has full capacity for energy self-supply. As Rush Doshi of the Brookings Institution says, this will be the first global crisis without clear U.S. leadership and with a level of leadership from China.9 The evolution of the epidemic in the United States and its consequences for the coming Autumn elections are yet to be seen. These elections will be more important than ever, as very different visions of international relations and geopolitics are at stake.
History changes course at the beginning of the 21st century and the era of Western domination ends. A small country like ours cannot influence the direction the world is taking, but this direction will influence us, of course. The best we can do is to prepare our country and the new generations for the challenges of this new reality. Is that what we are doing?
The 21st century will be ruled by the relations between China and the United States, whatever those relations may be. The centre of the world has moved to the Pacific Ocean, and Europe does not know whether it will be a subject or an object in this new world order that is arising. History changes course at the beginning of the 21st century and the era of Western domination ends.10 A small country like ours cannot influence the direction the world is taking, but this direction will influence us, of course. The best we can do is to prepare our country and the new generations for the challenges of this new reality. Is that what we are doing?
- Tracking coronavirus: big data and the challenge to privacy | Free to read
- Ontiveros Emilio. Exceso ( 2019, Madrid).
- Gomart Thomas L,affolement du monde. (2019, Paris)
- Jeremy Rifkin, New Green Deal (2019, New York)
- The United States Are Coming Apart eta Gavin Newsom Declares California a ‘Nation-State’
- Morillas Paul, Lecciones de una crisis global: coronavirus, orden internacional y el futuro de la UE CIDOB.
- Bruno Macaes, The Dawn of Eurasia ( 2018, London)
- Doshik Rush, The coronavrus could reshape the global order
- Mahbubani Kishore, Has the West lost it? (2019, London)