The world is quite topsy-turvy these days. Had a very knowledgeable political observer with a good understanding of world affairs gone into a coma some three to four months ago and come round lately, how would his peers and colleagues have explained to him/her the current disarray the US and its European allies have dragged themselves into? Within weeks, if not days, the mighty West, particularly the US crumbled: the latter in total disarray in that it looks devastated and unable to grapple with the deteriorating situation while the former displays little, if any, leadership and unity to belch off the ‘attack’.
The trouble is that it is not a conventional and/or nuclear attack that they are confronted with. As President Trump put it on more than one occasion, it is an ‘invisible enemy’ that is behind the onslaught. The coronavirus or COVID-19 as scientists refer to it in their jargon, having gone through a major mutation caused a cataclysmic pandemic, and it is perhaps the most dangerous and most insidious because in terms of its infectiousness it is the worst the world has ever seen. It can survive outside human body especially on hard surfaces for hours or even days and still infect people. On the face of it, most experts and scientists initially appeared bemused and utterly knocked out as the outbreak of the epidemic was first reported in China by the end of 2019 and early 2020. They nevertheless came around and put up a courageous resistance to the virus despite the policy-makers, many of whom in the West downplayed it at the onset, as the invisible Corona Army was getting ready for a full-scale invasion of the US and Europe.
Scientists and experts have invaded indeed intruded all channels, with their ubiquitously expressed advise, trying to explain to perplexed audiences across the world as to what to do and how to keep clean of the virus. Yet the death toll has been on the increase in the US, now the epicenter of the pandemic, while the outlook in Europe, particularly in Italy, Spain and France does not look any better.
While the pandemic is taking its toll in terms of loss of lives, it has caused a major economic downturn, something much worse than the great depression of 1929-1933. What the Corona Army has done to the US in days and weeks, no army could have done in years: it has turned the US upside down. Bewildered Trump, whose first priority is to jump-start the business and give a strong boom to the economy, was on record before cameras as saying, indeed suggesting to his chief scientific advisor that medical personnel consider applying ultra-violet rays onto the body of the infected and that they administer disinfectant into the lungs of corona-infected sick people. Moreover, Trump and some of the Democrat governors are embroiled into a bitter argument as the former incites people in Democrat-ruled states to disobey the lockdown rules. The chaos the virus has caused in the US is so extensive that it has led some to jump at the conclusion that China is maneuvering to the world leadership at the expense of the US.
In Britain the situation is almost out of control with Prime Minister, Boris Johnson himself infected soon after he boasted before cameras that he had shaken hands with all those people perhaps infected with COVID-19 and then hospitalized and even placed on intensive care unit (ICU). In the absence of the prime minister cabinet ministers have had a hard time in their tv appearances answering questions why the RAF plane sent off to Turkey to take back home private protective equipment had not returned home loaded.
Italy and Spain looked devastated for weeks and months, and the dim light at the very end of the tunnel is not clear: whether it is the end of the tunnel or the lights of the incoming train. The EU appears almost paralyzed as it does not show any tinge of leadership, let alone act in solidarity. Public mood in worst-hit countries of the south is very critical of the EU handling of the pandemic, leading to the speculation that the EU may be cracking up into pieces.
What effect, if any, is the present pandemic likely to make on the world?
This is not, of course, the first time that the world is going through the outbreak of an infectious disease: The Black Death of the medieval ages decimated European population while it caused a havoc across Eurasia and North America, and the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 killed approximately 50 to 100 million people in Europe and the US but the latter had a very little effect, if any, on world politics, balance of powers etc., while the former impacted the world enormously. And the present pandemic is likely to influence world politics and economics to a great extent as it came at a time when the world is going through a fundamental change in terms of balance of power: from a single-polar world to a multi-polar one.
It is not, therefore, for nothing that the influential pro-establishment US journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, the National Interest to mention few, keep coming out with leading articles lamenting the situation the US has been drifted into, and questioning whether or not the invaluable US world leadership has actually slipped out of their hands into those of China. Almost everyone appears to be of the opinion that the post-corona world will be different with some ready to call for the coronation ceremony for the new world leader, China. Others indicate that the present pandemic might as well be the last nail in EU’s coffin.
Towards a multi-polar world
How realistic are these conclusions? What if Japan and the West withdraw their investments, backbone of Chinese dazzling economic development over the last many decades. Indeed, when the Japanese prime minister floated the idea of taking back home some of the vital Japanese manufacturing investment it apparently led to shock waves in Beijing as the Chinese leader Xi instructed his kitchen cabinet to look into such an eventuality. There are also those around Trump voicing similar concerns that Western investment in China not only contributed to the miraculous economic growth in that country but it also led to major Chinese high-tech development and innovations. Indeed, many in the US including Trump himself keep floating the idea of resuscitating the US manufacturing sector back at home.
Is an exodus of Western capital out of China plausible? Theoretically speaking yes but practically it would turn out to be as difficult, if not more, as moving mountains for such an endeavour would entail enormous spending, presumably involving public funds, and in the end it would almost certainly lead to protectionism across the globe, something that would likely harm the US’ financial superiority.
One other problem regarding China could well be the rising public enmity in the West. The US administration as well as numerous opinion leaders seem to be blaming China for the pandemic: China did not let WHO in good time (World Health Organization), withheld some vital facts for days. Some even went as far as to suggest that the virus is not natural but a lab-invented killer that either escaped the Wuhan lab or, as some cynics seem to be saying, the Chinese consciously used this lab-invented monster to harm the West. Moreover, some law firms in the US are collecting signatures from people, who lost their loved ones in the pandemic, with the objective of suing China for its wrong doing. They are demanding of China to the tune of 6.5 trillion dollars, some forty percent of Chinese GDP.
What one could infer from the utterances of the US leadership is that it is endeavouring to duck behind the lab-invention theories in order to cover up its negligence. Obviously, China gave the West at least two valuable months to get ready to put up a strong resistance against the Corona Army of invasion but the US, Britain and others either downplayed the warnings with Trump saying that the virus would die out as the sunny season was fast approaching and with Boris Johnson of Britain toying with the idea of herd immunity. Yet the anti-Chinese public mood in the US, Britain and Europe, which the Western decision-makers and the media are likely to do everything in their power to contribute might clamour for compensation from China for their losses. Whether all this would lead to boycotting Chinese goods remains to be seen though it would be more likely than not such an action would be counter-productive.
What about the EU?
All in all, one would point out that the US world leadership has been dealt a big blow and the corona effect could very well accelerate the process of multi-polarity. The troubles the EU are bereft are not easy either. Clearly, the EU has not acted in solidarity as the virus began to strike member states. Italy’s call for help went unheeded as that country became almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of outbreak edged down by negligence and indecisiveness.
To make matters worse, national interest once again prevailed over that of the EU as individual states became grossly engulfed into their own problems. Strangely enough, it was China, Russia and even Cuba, suffering gravely from US sanctions for about six decades, which offered a helping hand to all those worst-hit countries of Europe such as Italy and Spain. Turkey sent in PPE (personal protective equipment) and other desperately needed medical material to those countries as part of NATO solidarity though those NATO partners are always quick to blame Turkey in their EU platforms to placate Greece.
Public outbursts against the EU are all over in Italy and Spain and some of their political leaders give vent to their frustration with the EU but to suggest that the EU is actually crumbling might turn out to be premature given the fact that symbiosis between these members and the EU is still strong. To suggest that nothing will happen and the EU will
return to status quo ante when a vaccine is made, and that what has happened in these difficult days would be forgotten would be equally faulty because this pandemic coming as it did on top of a severe financial and economic crisis that broke out in 2008 and 2009 tearing apart the EU is likely to impact the EU in a big way. It would be safe to suggest that the EU’s ambition to become a political union, Unites States of Europe, is a dead letter now, and that even the monetary union might come under strong criticism but to expect those countries like Italy, Spain and others, whose economic and financial outlook is not terribly good, and whose public borrowing requirements are quite risky, to exit the EU might not be a realistic proposition.