On the 23rd of April 2020, there are 2,684,183 COVID-19 cases in the world. The virus has caused 187,398 deaths, and it has put tremendous pressure on rich, powerful countries, their health systems and their economies, in the West as well as in Asia. It already appears that the impact of COVID-19 will be a milestone for the beginning of the 21st century. We already know the negative effect it will have on the economy, as in many countries now, a recession is a given.
What does it mean from a geopolitical point of view? Many analysts dream of a humanist awakening after this terrible pandemic: the international community would understand that for us to fight future pandemics, even to fight this one, and against other real common threats against human life on Earth, we all need to come together, cooperate, put aside petty conflicts, and work together for sustainable development. But if the history between states and the way countries have reacted to the climate change issue are any indication, such optimistic approach is naïve. Conflicts and the traditional zero-sum game between powers are not going to disappear any time soon
But what does it mean from a geopolitical point of view? Many analysts dream of a humanist awakening after this terrible pandemic: the international community would understand that for us to fight future pandemics, even to fight this one, and against other real common threats against human life on Earth, we all need to come together, cooperate, put aside petty conflicts, and work together for sustainable development. But if the history between states and the way countries have reacted to the climate change issue are any indication, such optimistic approach is naïve. Conflicts and the traditional zero-sum game between powers are not going to disappear any time soon.
Hence, there is a need for any country eager to be ready to understand what the post-pandemic world might look like, in order to see how to define a grand strategy, able to defend one’s interests in the years to come.
What it Means for the U.S. and China
The international shock caused by the virus is such that many analysts imagine important geopolitical changes as a consequence: the fall of the U.S. as the most important great power, the rise of China, or on the contrary the fall of China, and, of course, the end of globalization. It goes without saying that the impact on economics, on local and regional politics, and then on geopolitics, will be significant. But not every significant event provokes radical changes or even means that the international relations are at a crossroads. What we are witnessing here is rather an acceleration of historical trends that were already visible before the crisis.
It does not necessarily mean the end of globalization. Trade and tourism will most probably suffer for some time, but it will not necessarily be the case for its financial side. Besides, the very impact of the pandemic will remind all that as one world, we will be confronted with dangers that one country alone cannot deal with, even when it is a great power. Like for the fight against climate change, the struggle against the pandemic will be an international one.
For the U.S., what we see is a definitive confirmation that the unilateral moment is over. Even if there are important differences between the Obama and Trump administrations, even if the Trump administration appears eager, first and foremost, to destroy his predecessor’s legacy, they have something in common from a
foreign policy perspective: the desire to restrain the so-called defense of liberal internationalism, associated – in the mind of American policymakers – with the defense of U.S. primacy in the international system (which is different than merely defending American national interests). Those two presidents have been determined to defend American primacy, of course, but not through uncertain military adventures. After all, such policy has been extremely expensive: the security budget represents 15% of the whole federal budget, and around 50% of the discretionary spending. It finances the 800 bases the U.S. has in over 70 countries. And one might say, looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, that such an investment has not been particularly successful. And now with the COVID-19, healthcare professionals have complained that some “Third World countries” have better health equipment than New York or San Francisco, proving that an evolution in America’s priorities would be opportune. After the pandemic, the next American president will not be able to just offer lip service to the desire to put “America first” and to do some “nation-building” at home. It will have to happen for the sake of the American people. After 884,004 Americans infected by the Coronavirus, the lack of proper equipment in the hospital of the American superpower sounds Kafkaesque. And it becomes outrageous when one understands that just before this crisis, in the fiscal year 2019, the American taxpayers saw more of its money used to finance the Afghan Air Force than to support research and prevention of infectious diseases in the U.S.
However, it does not mean that at any moment the U.S. will stop being the most important power in the world. After COVID-19, the American policymakers might have to do what is necessary to better protect their countrymen before the next pandemic. The Obama and Trump administrations have continued to spend tremendously on the military, and the next president will not truly negate such policy. But more funds will clearly have to be allocated to “nation-building” at home. If it is not done this time, a “second wave” of infections or the next pandemic will force the American leadership to do so.
For China too, it appears that the pandemic will mostly accelerate historical trends that was already clear before those last few months. Before 2020, the difficult relationship between the U.S. and China had degenerated into a clear geopolitical and economic competition. It will be even more the case after the pandemic. The Americans have seen Beijing able to turn, for a while, the health disaster that is COVID-19 into a tale of Chinese resilience. It has also given the possibility for China to strengthen its soft power by helping other countries in need during this pandemic. In comparison to President Trump’s denial of the health risks at the beginning of the pandemic, and the lack of a collective reaction and of solidarity inside the European Union, China appeared, for a little while, as the power ready to take on the mantle of the world’s leadership to fight this threat. But the narrative has quickly changed, especially in the West, with multiple analyses trying to blame China for the pandemic. Clearly, after this crisis, the two powers will continue to be mired in mutual accusations and distrust stopping the two most important countries in the world to truly cooperate together to fight the virus. We might go as far as to say that we are coming close to a new Cold War, based on a classical situation (the competition between the most important great power and a rising star) made even more relevant by the impact of the COVID-19.
A Radical Change of the Global Order? Unlikely
But it does not necessarily mean the end of globalization. Trade and tourism will most probably suffer for some time, but it will not necessarily be the case for its financial side. Besides, the very impact of the pandemic will remind all that as one world, we will be confronted with dangers that one country alone cannot deal with, even when it is a great power. Like for the fight against climate change, the struggle against the pandemic will be an international one.
Something that might appear like a sudden change is that this pandemic means most probably the end of the “War On Terror”. After 9/11, the said war was supposed to be the most important issue at the beginning of the 21st century. The pandemic will not make this issue disappear, but what happens now makes it less relevant. After all, on the 24th of April, 49,963 Americans died from the COVID-19. Many more Americans have died because of the virus than because of terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda and Daesh combined. The fight against extremism will continue to be a part of American counterterrorism efforts. But it might be seen as a less prominent threat in the future in comparison to great powers politics and pandemics. Here too we do not see a real sudden change, but rather a natural evolution that was already clear in the last few years.
In Pakistan national unity has appeared concretely during the crisis. In cities like Karachi, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs worked side by side with their Muslim countrymen as volunteers for different relief agencies in order to help low-income neighborhoods. This is the kind of mentality political parties and leadership in Pakistan need to nurture and support.
There are still some analysts in the West who try to show this crisis through an ideological light: democracies would be more efficient to deal with the pandemic because of their inherent “transparency”. Others, on the contrary, insist that authoritarian regimes have at least the possibility to impose faster what is needed to protect their populations. But from what we can see already now, such arguments will most probably be brushed away by future historians. Indeed, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, have been presented as success stories, while their political situations are widely different, as well as their size. But what they have in common is what has been lacking in the West: the experience of past outbreaks of Coronaviruses (SARS, and MERS), as well as a culture with a stronger respect for the authorities, for the need of discipline. Besides, some countries have been suffering less than others not because they do things better, but because they are less serious about testing their population, or because for external effects that have nothing to do with their governments. For example, until the last end of March 2020, Russia was left nearly untouched by the pandemic. But it was because like India, it stays a destination less attractive, for professional and touristic reasons, than Western Europe, East Asia, or North America. The virus came after all to the country through its own citizens coming back from Europe. Once it happened, Russia has not done worse than other countries, but it has not been doing better either. The reality is that all regimes, no matter its leaders, no matter its ideology, are equally taken by surprise by the pandemic. Despite what some might try to make us believe, ideology has nothing to do with it.
Last, but not least, the idea that a country can escape it is ludicrous: as such a virus is not only a health issue. A country at an extreme level of lockdown from the rest of the world would not necessarily avoid the infection, and would suffer, like elsewhere, the economic impact of the crisis. By the end of the year 2020 it should be clearer what it will mean for the world. Already the GDPs of developed countries could shrink by 30%. One can only imagine what it will mean for the developing world: at the very least, more massive poverty, and more internal instability. Unfortunately, here too, the pandemic has done nothing more than to reveal weaknesses in the economy and in some countries, that were already there before the crisis.
The Core of Pakistan’s National Interests Unchanged
With or without a pandemic, the basics in Pakistan’s geopolitics stay the same: the biggest risk for Islamabad stays the risk of being caught between two radical competitors, that are nearly negating Pakistan’s right to exist as a functioning state with the potential to become a regional power.
Of course, one thinks first of India, a state with which it has had historical tensions since its creation; but there is also Afghanistan if controlled by forces making anti-Pakistan/pro- “Pashtunistan” rhetoric the ideological glue keeping the country together. In the long term, the two states have had strong objections against Pakistan’s right to exist within its current borders. After 1947, both Indian and Afghan elites expected Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s experiment to fail. And most importantly, New Delhi considers Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan as “occupied” territories that should be given to India: it is clearly expressed by the Indian foreign ministry. And right-wing groups would not mind another India-Pakistan war to make that happen, and to gain a territory directly joining India to Afghanistan. As for Kabul, its government still does not recognize the Durand Line. And some Pashtun nationalist circles inside Afghanistan go as far as to claim nearly 60% of the Pakistani territory. Both neighbors have also shown a regular interest for separatist groups opposing Pakistan’s legal government, for example in Balochistan. For Islamabad, like for any other state, there is nothing more important than to keep internal stability, and to avoid the loss of territory. It will stay the same in the foreseeable future, no matter the impact of the pandemic in the months to come.
Actually, such impact might make the need to focus on this core geopolitical issue even more important: even in the name of its good relationship with the Arab Gulf states or with the U.S., Islamabad cannot lose focus on its main interests in order to fight their wars, especially with Iran. Here again, this is just a confirmation of geopolitical trends that were already clear before 2020: the American administrations and the Gulf states have shown that they would not jeopardize their good relationships with the important market and possible great power that is India in the name of their friendship with Pakistan. As for the Pakistani leadership, it has wisely avoided being embroiled in wars or international tensions that do not have a direct impact on its national interests (Yemen, Qatar). The fact that hawkish American positions against Tehran have stayed vocal despite the international impact of the COVID-19 proves that a war or a “regime change” helped from the outside (with the chaos it could generate) stays a possibility in the years to come. During the pandemic, Imran Khan’s government has naturally supported the idea to lift the sanctions on Iran. Because of the inability to fight a virus outbreak at least partly because of the sanctions, or of political instability linked to a possibility of military action against Tehran, it is clear that whatever happens in Iran can have a negative impact on Pakistan. Islamabad will not have to choose a side, as keeping friendly relations with the White House, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is still important. But Pakistani leadership will most probably have to be the voice of reason and peace on this subject, and oppose any destabilization from a relatively friendly neighbor.
Some might decide to forget the terrible lessons of the virus, if it disappears as quickly as it appeared, or if we are lucky enough to have an efficient vaccine in the coming months. Such countries would be taken by surprise with the next virus, that could much more murderous than the COVID-19.
On another impact subject, the pandemic will most probably strengthen a pre-COVID-19 reality again: the China-Pakistan friendship. As reminded earlier, tensions between Americans and Chinese will rise, and Chinese diplomacy will not escape the last few months unscarred. Especially now and in the years to come, Beijing will see the difference between states that they can truly count as allies and the ones showing a friendly face only in order to receive Chinese funds. It will be in Pakistan’s interests to keep its relationship with China as strong as before, without falling in a “New Cold War” mentality that would mean choosing between the China and the West. And now more than ever, Islamabad needs Beijing to balance Modi’s India.
After COVID-19: The Need to Preserve National Unity and to Work for Peace in Afghanistan
For Pakistan, the impact of the pandemic could mean some useful changes, and not only continuity. First, after COVID-19, it should be clear for all the leaders in South Asia that it will not be the only pandemic. If they want to protect their populations, they cannot only focus on weaponry: a stronger health system will be necessary to deal with the future threats. Besides the economic issues that will appear after the COVID-19, it will demand from those leaders the need to focus more on internal affairs: religious or jingoistic ideologies cannot efficiently fight a recession. There is a need for national unity, regional appeasement and pragmatic policies. The political forces supporting Prime Minister Modi are also dividing India between Hindus and Muslims, and are showing the contrary that must be done for South Asia’s sake. In Pakistan national unity has appeared concretely during the crisis. In cities like Karachi, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs worked side by side with their Muslim countrymen as volunteers for different relief agencies in order to help low-income neighborhoods. This is the kind of mentality political parties and leadership in Pakistan need to nurture and support.
After COVID-19, the enemy of the country is not only another state or a terrorist group, but also any political forces that plant the seeds of division, when unity is so important to rebuild. This positive mindset is already the one that has been promoted by Pakistan’s diplomacy in its support for the Afghan peace process. Supporting such a process is more important than ever, and will be of critical importance to help appease the relations between the two states over time.
As a conclusion, we should focus on three mistakes that could be made in many countries all over the world, depending on how deadly and how long this pandemic is. Some might decide to forget the terrible lessons of the virus, if it disappears as quickly as it appeared, or if we are lucky enough to have an efficient vaccine in the coming months. Such countries would be taken by surprise with the next virus, that could be much more murderous than COVID-19.
The scars left by the virus might push some in the arms of the “religious right”, no matter the religion, which would be disastrous: more than ever after the pandemic, cooler hands must prevail, in particular at the highest level of responsibility. As discussed in this article, the world in the near future will most probably be harsher, with less pity for the weak at a geopolitical level. States, to better defend their interest, do not need a new Savonarola, they would be with new Machiavellis in charge.
But maybe the most common mistake might be for states to not accept how hard the post-pandemic world will be. Great powers will lick their wounds, and then defend their national interests with a renewed aggressiveness. In order to defend themselves in front of any temptation of neo-imperialism by those powers, states that are not great powers themselves need to learn from this present time, and understand that defense of the state does not concern territory alone: the health and education systems are nowadays as important as an army. Weapons cannot be the only focus: in a future where we might see other pandemics, and where recession will be a painful reality, true national independence is dependent not only on the soldier, but also on the nurse, the teacher, and on the forces that can make economic development possible.
The writer is the Editing Director of CAPE (Center for the Analysis of Foreign Policy). He is also a non-resident Scholar for IPRI (Islamabad Policy Research Institute). He is a specialist of geopolitical/security-related issues in Central Asia and South-West Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan).
E-mail: [email protected]
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