Covid-19 as a meta crisis and our post-pandemic order


Wadah Khanfar

Jun, 2020

Order-destroying and order-instituting moments in world history are usually unleashed by the same events. Of them, war is a consequential phenomenon. Another similarly formidable one is pandemic: plague or disease of global reach and consequences. From the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) to the Black Death (1346-1351AD), plagues and pandemic have played history-altering roles in world affairs and changed the landscape of entire cities. It is highly likely that future historians will count the COVID-19 disease as such a watershed moment in history.

The health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be controlled over time, and mankind will overcome it as it did in previous epidemics, plagues and wars. However, its social, political and economic impact will remain for years and perhaps decades to come, setting the scene for a reconfigured global society.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a meta crisis. It is not a health crisis. It is not a political, economic, social, security or world crisis alone; it is all of these combined. As a meta crisis, it will bear consequences for all aspects of human life throughout the world. Global crises have shaped our political and economic systems throughout time, because they accelerate the movement of history in three directions. First, necessity drives people to embrace exceptional solutions in order to deal with imminent danger, providing societies and individuals with the energy needed to move away from the usual habits to the unfamiliar, not only at a behavioral level, but also in terms of thought and belief. Second, crises overthrow social, political and economic hierarchical systems, allowing for the implementation of alternative, promising systems. Third, crises accelerate a change in the balance of power: they can reinforce strategic directions, even if they are inherently weak, or likewise weaken others, even if they are strong and visible.

At this turning point, there is the possibility of going beyond a mere reshuffling of the balance of power. Obviously, this time, instead of the past, we are writing the history of the future. Instead of archives, our imaginations will be our reference point. As exceptional phenomena, these global crises accelerate the course of history, accentuate the already existing trends and produce exceptional outcomes. It is on the latter that we will focus: while our imagination will be historically conscious, taking stock of similar historical processes into account, it is best served to orient towards the future.

Photo_ ResoluteSupportMedia_ Refugees in Kabul_ CC BY 4.0

Historical context for a meta crisis

The world order being shaken today by the burden of the COVID-19 virus pandemic was born out of World War II, which resulted in the collapse of the British Empire, its withdrawal from its colonies and its unseating by the «American Empire.» Prior to World War II, the United States preferred international isolation, remaining geographically removed from the conflict in Europe; in fact, before the war, their army ranked fourteenth in the world. However, after five years of war, the number of American soldiers grew to eleven million fighters. The United States boasted the largest military machine known to mankind, enabling it to play a critical role in the war. Its hegemony culminated in the invention of nuclear weapons, used against civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima without mercy. 

American military superiority was accompanied by diplomatic and economic dominance: post-war spoils were all in America’s interest: the United Nations was founded with its headquarters established in New York, the gold-backed dollar became a world currency as a result of the Bretton Woods Agreement, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were also headquartered in Washington, D.C.

As Europe plunged into an overwhelming economic crisis, the United States intervened, through the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Western Europe. The money that the United States provided to Europe was not pure charity; the United States gained the upper hand, while Europe lost its historical leadership, relegated to living in the shadow of American leadership.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of World War II, the «Western» versus socialist ideology led to a frenzied nuclear arms race, capable of destroying the earth multiple times over. The Cold War expanded the circle of polarization between the two camps to include the whole world. In this way, a mutually assured destruction doctrine was born, founded in the reciprocal nuclear threat of the two great powers. The revolutions of the Third World, which aspired to the promised socialist paradise, broke out. In turn, America pledged its support to despotic regimes, and the two parties fought proxy wars, the collateral damage of which included the whole world. The U.S. military machine, and the country’s tightening control of the world economy, have led to an American culture of superiority based on two main pillars: military tyranny and economic greed.

Causalities of a dominant market and cultural regime

This economic greed also has an important history. Values and ideology played the elegant mediator in a very dirty game. Both liberalism, born in the 17th century, and socialism, born in the 18th century, were based on respectable human principles, but crises moved them from the field of human values to the field of strategic deployment.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, and with it alternatives to a market regime, it seemed that Western liberalism had achieved ultimate victory. Most of the developing world, including Eastern European countries, rushed in the early nineties to organize democratic elections, with exaggerated claims to victory. Supposed global liberalism seemed to have crowned America the indisputable global hegemon. America worked to fashion this new order in its own image, employing its military superiority to become the world’s policing force. Its dissemination of economic globalization led to the accumulation of the largest wealth known to mankind. This evidently created great disparities between rich and poor. The World Trade Organization was established in 1995 to foster economic globalization, promising the world a continuous supply of raw materials and commodities. All the while, the American economy was the first beneficiary, especially during the 1990s: it experienced high growth rates, low inflation, unemployment rates of less than 5%, and prosperous financial markets driven by a boom in digital investment.

Following the September 11th attacks, American strategy faltered as it conducted long, costly and absurd wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, losing its economic advantage along the way. While the superpower was busy chasing ghosts in caves and deserts, China and Russia continued building their own economic and international influence. The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were arguably the greatest strategic mistake ever committed by the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a meta crisis. It is not a health crisis. It is not a political, economic, social, security or world crisis alone; it is all of these combined. As a meta crisis, it will bear consequences for all aspects of human life throughout the world.

Then came the global economic crisis in 2008, affecting the markets of the United States, Europe and the rest of the world. The crisis continued in reshaping the global economy, resulting in a gradual decline of American influence, and the rise of China as a young, agile competitor, bringing about a new Cold War of economics.

In order to limit the rise of China and extend the life of American supremacy as long as possible, the Trump Administration has rushed with unprecedented steps to impose customs duties on Chinese goods, encouraging companies to keep their manufacturing within the United States. America has launched a ban on Chinese technical companies, including Huawei, in order to prevent them from building the fifth generation of the Internet globally. Simultaneously, the United States has pressured its allies to follow suit. In this new race, China might consolidate its leadership in key areas such as telecommunication, energy, mobility, quantum computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

In achieving global economic might on the world stage, however, China is limited in building its own form of globalization. The United States established itself as a global hegemon not only through its military might and the machinations of Wall Street, but also through soft power: Hollywood, media and art platforms, the English language, its prestigious universities, the absorption of skilled migrants from around the world and the traction of democracy and media freedom. The dynamic and open nature of American society, a highly diverse immigrant community celebrating success and innovation, ultimately assisted the United States in making quick strategic leaps. Meanwhile, China’s cultural isolation, the large gap between China’s developed coast and its impoverished interior, the one-party dictatorship, the policy of centralized control, and media censorship did not serve in building a global system with China at its center.

Economic globalization takes on a political consciousness as the world economy recognizes its limits and dependence on China for production and manufacturing. In light of the crisis, companies may look to undergoing a process of partial re-nationalization in their economic activities. As this process will create losers, it will also create winners. Emerging markets with a better industrial base, skilled work force and proximity to major economic centers will be well-positioned to benefit. In economic terms, one can argue that in the balance between globalization or regionalization of the production chains, the tide will favor the latter. More concretely, in relation to the European markets, Turkey, as well as Central and Eastern European countries such as Poland, will be beneficiaries of this process. In relation to the North American market, Mexico might enjoy similar advantages. Old economic hierarchies, faced with energy and material changes, can give way to innovative approaches to sustainable consumption.

The trajectory of geopolitics before the pandemic

In keeping with these observations, it is clear that the grip and history of the market regime in the past century has worked hand in hand with geopolitics. And from the start, U.S. political culture sought to declare war on something. It began with Jimmy Carter’s war on energy, and the long-lasting ramifications of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cuts in oil production in 1973. It continued with Reagan’s war on evil forces or empire (in reference to the Soviet Union). Then, successive United States presidents’ «war on terrorism» have transitioned to Trump’s current war on «the Chinese virus.» U.S. foreign policy has continuously declared war on something; even developing theoretical justifications for it, such as the Manifest Destiny doctrine. That theory, based on United States messianic providentialism, and on the supposed universality of American values, served as a pretext for all kinds of military interventions and preventive attacks.

Of these wars, the U.S. «war on terror» has been the most consequential. It has sapped U.S. political energy and skewed its strategic orientation and geopolitical imagination. This war, to a large extent, found its premise in a political and strategic rendering of the Islamic world as the constitutive-other of U.S. foreign policy and its purported value system. Though this war gained global prominence with the September 11th attacks, the intellectual foundation of this war had been established long before.

Scholars including Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis argued that clashes were inevitable between the West, the definition of which was nebulous and arbitrary, and the Islamic world, which was grounded in civilizational differences and aspirations. In this narrative, Islam essentially replaces Communism or the Soviet Union as the constitutive-other of the West, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. This intellectual and political orientation has blurred the U.S. strategic vision and squandered an immense amount of U.S. resources. It also has created space and opportunity for China and Russia.

In a discussion of the West, Europe of course plays a significant role. In the modern history overviewed here, the European Union was established as the deserving Western victor over the Soviet Union. Similarly, as the 1990s brought prosperity to America, the European continent engaged in a comfortable retirement. The European Union promised its citizens collective security and economic prosperity. During the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) managed to secure the continent against a tired Russia. It provided support to countries that emerged from the mantle of the Soviet Union, to the point where it provoked the most Western-friendly Russian politicians. This prompted a Putin-led Russia that was moving towards a more defensive and strategic position. Nevertheless, when Russian forces invaded northern Georgia in 2008, NATO appeared shocked and paralyzed. Moreover, once again, when Russian forces later invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, the European Union enacted an ensuing series of restrictive measures that could have been stricter.

European Union economic prosperity reached its climax in the nineties and beginning of the century, coming to a halt with the euro crisis of 2009. This exposed the multiple tensions within the European economic system: the dispute between the Northern countries, with Germany as protagonist and the most important influence on the European Central Bank, versus the relatively poor southern European countries, hampered by Greece’s debt crisis. This two-speed Europe shook the concept of European solidarity at its core, and remains a key challenge today. While post-2008 measures created divisions, the European Commission has recently committed to a sustainability approach meant to address widespread inequalities throughout Europe. However, national splintering has still increased with the refugee crisis, and European Union institutions seemed unable to achieve a unified policy. Moreover, the COVID-19 virus crisis has led to action subverting European ideals: borders were closed, and collective coordination faltered; this was accompanied by an escalation in national self-centeredness and an increase in mutual accusations over piracy and the seizure of medical necessities. The impact felt by South Europe during the European debt crisis, as well as their lesser economic strength in comparison to the North and Eastern Europe (the latter of which has been experiencing substantial gains), has continued to be a source of contention, with disagreements as to the causes of the disparity. Both systemic problems or policy differences are cited as causal factors, and the differing perceptions as to responsibility for these issues are contested.

The current health crisis, exacerbated by an aging population, is also compounded by the economic hardship facing the European Union, which requires collective coordination. The success or failure of the European Union hinges on this coordination, but it does not bode well. The European Union needs rehabilitation now more than ever. A country capable of taking the lead in this rehabilitation is Germany, but this country, like so many right now, is also facing political crises caused by the rise of the far right.

Potential in the pandemic aftermath

With this backdrop, the rise of China and Russia in the realm of geopolitics signals an end to self-righteous liberal victory. In past decades, China pursued a policy of avoiding involvement in international crises and ceded to America and others in questions of geopolitical wars and crises, except for issues that were considered relevant to Chinese national security: mainly Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea. However, this policy is changing as China has begun developing its military structure. The military, involved in regional alliances, will be positioned to intervene more frequently in global conflicts: to protect the sources of raw materials in Africa and Latin America, to protect Chinese markets in Asia and to ensure unencumbered lines of transportation in the Belt and Road projects. China may not be drawn into military confrontation with the US, but it will adopt a strategy of exhausting the wounded lion, all the while enhancing its international presence and economic expansion.

These geopolitical shifts emphasize the limits of former systems and institutions in dealing with today’s global challenges. The current pandemic is a clear demonstration of the limits of geography. From various types of viruses to climate change, from water scarcity and air pollution to cyber security, these institutions demonstrate themselves less and less legitimate and capable. This requires a global response to issues of global consequences. Therefore, while the rising geopolitics represent the fragmentation of the world into different zones of influence, we must all the more urgently treat the world as a single unit in dealing with the aforementioned crises. At the same time, this begets several questions, with the most relevant ones including:

Can a transnational order or framework be established without shared principles or value systems? In the end, the previous architecture of the international system did not only reflect the value systems and principles of the hegemon, but clearly also served its own interests. There are intimate links between the hegemon’s declared values and principles, and its thinly concealed interests. The League of the Nations was essentially a structural representation of the British vision of the international order, whereas the United Nations and Bretton Woods system served the same purpose for a U.S.-dominated global system. Pax Britannica or Pax Americana have had internationalist dispositions. The old institutions have steadily debilitated the global capacity for dealing with borderless challenges and multidimensional threats.

Regressing to nationalisms and advancing towards transnationally connected localism

The COVID-19 pandemic, for a potentially prolonged period, may be haunted by fear of poverty, accompanied by escalating racist tendencies. This is a recipe for both civil and cross-border wars, so we need to address the state’s function and the concept of security. We have recently witnessed how an atmosphere of fear and tension drives people to voluntarily give up their freedoms for the sake of security. And while the exceptional measures enacted by most countries are justified in the context of the pandemic, their far-reaching consequences will not remain benign, as governments do not easily relinquish the powers granted to them through states of exception, even when the necessity for it has disappeared. We are at a time where even the use of smart technology to violate the remaining privacy has been justified, in order to contain the spread of the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic, for a potentially prolonged period, may be haunted by fear of poverty, accompanied by escalating racist tendencies. This is a recipe for both civil and cross-border wars, so we need to address the state’s function and the concept of security.

These faults of the nation-state direct attention to the problem of nationalisms: instead of openness, the world is witnessing a rise in isolationist trends, and of course this retreat will not be limited to economic sphere. Nationalist and racist tendencies are being reinforced, both of which are trends that have been steadily growing. The COVID-19 virus has been weaponized to increase pre-existing fear of the «other,» an «other» perceived as a source of infection. The closing of borders and the rise of nationalistic self-centeredness will drive efforts towards isolated autonomies, thus escalating xenophobia, the rejection of minorities and difference, and the targeting of refugees.

Since the United States became the center of the pandemic, largely as a result of Trump’s indolent nationalism, the situation of underprivileged minorities and the black community became even more evident. The death rate among these populations have been proportionally much higher in comparison with the entire U.S population. The murder of George Floyd was one of the most recent events in a number of incidents that have triggered today’s massive protests advocating that «black lives matter». The social costs of these internal fractures are incalculable.

Just as we understand fear and tension can bring citizens to forfeit their freedoms, we too can interpret solidarity and the will for a common good as key drivers for change. In a re-ordering of our current reality, the local and its potential to reflect community and engender solidarity must be recognized as the root of transnational cooperation and efforts. In envisioning a new structure that provides participatory parity for all, certain communities and global cities already point to solutions. Throughout the world, human individuals can participate in their respective communities in a horizontal fashion. Building a culture of openness to difference can already be witnessed in the efforts made to provide community support in world cities or global metropolitan centers.

This concept is not new, as historically, city-states have allowed for face-to-face sociopolitical interaction, void of any vertical stratification and the complications this entails. Some of our unprecedentedly diverse, modern cities now reflect this possibility: spaces have been created, ones that shed hierarchy and unequal power relations, instead embracing diversity and more equal participation for the common good. The re-municipalization of public services allows for individual actors and communities to assert their voices on a leveled playing field. Such interactions and cooperation can set the bar for the transnational order.

The U.S.-centric international order has been unraveling for a while now, an unraveling accelerated and deepened in this pandemic. In its place, rather than passively allowing the emergence of an international order or status quo in which the United States and China will be the two dueling superpowers, a transnational order presents itself on the horizon. The relative weights of various G-2 countries can increase as the current order unravels. As multiple interests and powers are simultaneously affected by the same issues, in everything from air pollution to cyber security, borderless challenges and threats can offer strategy and response in more diffuse terms. This transnational order would be less structured, increasingly horizontal, and more fluid. Relative influence of regional powers and units could increase, as leadership no longer resembles a hierarchical system.

In closing: the future and the post-pandemic order

This work first outlined historical trajectories of societal change, especially through the lens of crises beginning with World War II. It then observed the current context and how the market regime, western culture, modern institutions and nationalist configurations have brought us to this point. Finally, it proposed that this pandemic provides a space-time in which a new era can emerge: a new world order, underpinned with the potent, constitutive potential of interconnected societal organization. This opportunity for transition does not call for a moment of rebalancing, but rather reimagined institutions and societies, as the power of ideas enables new global history.

The western-centric, liberal and ethnocentric order has fashioned itself as the product of the natural course of history and supposedly advancing progress. However, this reflects the intellectual and cultural hegemony of the West. The COVID-19 pandemic is a peculiar moment and an exceptional period in human history: the pandemic is accelerating the process of the deterioration of the current order, and is simultaneously calling into question what was previously accepted as the norm.

Photo_ gawen947_ Private property_ CC BY 4.0

Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the arrogance of humanity in the face of nature. Our planet and its inhabitants, from humans to the wider ecosystem, have all suffered from a world order driven by economic greed and power plays. The countries of the world have spent trillions of dollars on building an arsenal of death and have rushed to exhaust the earth without limit.

As overviewed here, former institutions and the global system that are now reeling were neither merciful to the earth, nor working towards the common values. The growing cracks in this antiquated system, however, provide an opportunity for humanity to build a more just order. There is an urgent need for a new structure and organization that can truly be transnational.

This highly anticipated new world order calls for a new value system. Western liberalism, which promised people freedom, equality and the rule of law, has failed to provide this, and will not be able to rebuild itself. It has been in decline for a long time. It has failed to adhere to its moral, human universality, and has become a tool of hegemony in the hands of an influential few. The instrumentalization of the world by the centers of power produces rigid categories that acquire an exclusionary character, justifying violence against opponents.

The new value system should be based on a global human foundation, triumphing for good wherever it exists, and restoring respect to nature and human dignity. Although we foresee the escalation of exclusionary nationalisms and rightwing extremism, there is no doubt that extremism will fail to create security, stability or economic prosperity. It will not provide concrete solutions to the crises of the era. It is born in a moment of fear and despair, so it will only prevail for a temporary period, after which much will fail. Still, people will start seeking a more rational human system.

These nationalisms, instead, can be combated by looking towards the increasingly diverse cities throughout the world, the urban settings where coexistence is rooted in true community and membership, united in that all share in a non-hierarchical participatory parity that will keep being global. The post-pandemic world may not be fair or safe, but it will eventually push humanity to build a more just alternative.