COVID-19: A profound shock with few lasting effects on international relations

The pandemic is over, Biden claimed, to the relief and scepticism of many. With many debating the probability of this definitive end, I think it an ideal moment to reflect upon the state of international relations post-pandemic. In spite of popular opinion, this argument will explore the counterintuitive view that the pandemic did not indeed have a transformative effect on the world stage, drawing from  “The Song Remains the Same: International Relations After COVID-19″.  It neither caused a discontinuous shift nor accelerated pre-existing trends. Much like the previous pandemic of Spanish flu in 1918, I would suggest that the pandemic was nothing but a temporary shock rather than an inspiration for change in international relations.

Let us first start with a central theme: the waning effect of pandemics on the course of world politics. Centuries ago, it was easy to shift geopolitical power by blaming diseases, take the example of European colonisation where the unintentional force of foreign germs caused far greater consequences than the force of arms. In fact, up until World War II, more American soldiers died from disease, in this case, the flu than from enemy action in the wars fought. However, in the current era, disease’s ability to disrupt geopolitical functions has been severely reduced due to our dramatic improvements in urban sanitisation and living standards, layered with a revolution in medicine.

This dynamic played out well with COVID-19 —due both to the nature of the coronavirus (which disproportionately affected the old) and the technological breakthrough of mRNA vaccines. Even as the virus mutated into multiple strains, the rapid development of vaccines and treatment courses developed in the last two years allowed people to return to a semblance of normalcy in much of the globe. Credit is also due to a series of common but uncoordinated macroeconomic policies that forestalled worst-case scenarios of economic collapse far better than that of the 2008 collapse.

Perhaps the biggest impact that the pandemic had in terms of international relations could be the revelation of both China and the United States’ respective sources as superpowers. In spite of this, it has to be emphasised that the strength of the spheres of influence did not actually change for China remains the world’s manufacturer and the United States remains the world centre of innovation. Both countries produced vaccines for the coronavirus and while the Americans’ seemed to work better at first, newer strains made it harder for their efficacy to remain as high, rendering them a useless diplomatic tool by the end.

If we were to take the argument to an extreme, it may actually be argued that not just China but the United States have emerged with a bruised reputation from the pandemic due to their handling of the situation; the United States’ liberal stance on restrictions against the draconian restrictions of China were examples that many others refused to replicate – it instead functioned as a warning of extremities and helped with moderation.

Another alternative approach would be to view it as a means to worsen the hostility between the two contrasting superpowers, but then again, it could not be definitively argued to be so. Tensions between Beijing and Washington have been worsening for years and the Trump administration’s trade war with China was quite a hard blow to be dealt. Furthermore, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine occurred before the end of the pandemic was even declared, so who is to say that the pandemic was the main cause for the worsened animus – there are many contributing factors to the fact.

So if not a change-maker for international relations, did the pandemic make a difference at all?

Yes, in other respects, particularly that of economics with a dramatic reprioritisation of economic interests. From a widely accepted system of maximising profits to a diversification of objectives such as building up strategic reserves of vital resources or employing industrial policies, the fragility of global supply chains became critical as economies struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels. Before the current energy crisis even began, supply chains for example in the automobile industry were already suffering and it has now been amplified. With that said, the pandemic’s legacy can be said to be less in shifting the distribution of power than in shifting how political leaders think about economics. The role economics plays in the dynamic of the pandemic perhaps is the only way international relations can be brought into play, but it is a consequence rather than a cause of change stemming from the pandemic.


Featured Image: Brett Sayles through Pexels with license


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