When the dust clears and global isolation restrictions are eventually rolled back, we will emerge into a post-pandemic world that will likely be very different to the one we left behind. But beyond the immediate social and economic fallout, what will be the global political consequences of COVID-19? UQ student and Contact magazine contributor Zoe McDonald interviewed experts from the School of Political Science and International Studies to analyse the situation.
As history has shown us, true political turning points can only become turning points once we are able to look back and see the ways they have changed us.
For those Berliners who tore down the wall (and for those who watched on), it was impossible to grasp the huge implications such events would have for the global distribution of power in the coming decades. From the ideological rubble of soviet socialism, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously announced the "end of history", or the ultimate triumph of liberalism as the only remaining globally legitimate form of government. The US – as the sole remaining superpower, or the ‘hegemon’ – was its natural head.
Yet, with the emergence of China as a ‘rising power’ and the winding back of US leadership on the world stage, it is becoming clear that US political hegemony is in decline, and the authority of the international liberal order is showing its cracks.
More than 120,000 Americans are dead, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Countless more are saddled with colossal healthcare debts that are inconceivable to many of the world’s other liberal democracies. At the country’s helm is President Donald Trump, a man whom none can predict, leading a haphazard and uncoordinated response that is causing damaging divisions within the US and with the rest of the world. And among the COVID-19 panic, decades of festering race relations have erupted in protests and civil unrest across the country.
COVID-19 has shown us that ‘American Dream’ is becoming more unattainable than ever before. At such a historical junction where our political systems are tested, the poster child of liberal democracy is failing to shine.
But failing to shine and falling from grace are two very different things.
Despite its lacklustre leadership during the pandemic, the US remains the world’s dominant economic and military force; a complete overhaul of the international order is therefore unlikely.
But the question remains: as the US turns inwards, will China use this as a springboard for greater global influence? If so, will the US try to rise and meet this ambition? And what does it all mean for Australia, both a major trading partner of China and a long-time US ally perched distantly in the Asia–Pacific?
According to the UQ experts, it’s still early days – and as we have seen with the speed of this pandemic, it can take very little time for a lot to change.
America first: the US response
The US’ response to the pandemic so far says a lot about its evolving role within the shifting international order, according to Professor Roland Bleiker from UQ’s School of Political Science and International Studies.
Unlike previous global crises, the US has not assumed its usual leadership role in building alliances or shaping common policy; and while Bleiker warns of ‘crystal ball gazing’ – or trying to make sense of a future that is yet to happen – he said this offered important insights about the global power dynamic.
“I think as scholars we have to be very careful about making [statements about the future course of events], because it assumes we have some magic knowledge of the future, and it also assumes that the future is predetermined,” Professor Bleiker said.
“But, we can say certain things about what has happened so far: the US has lost a lot of legitimacy in the international realm.
“[The US] has abrogated its leadership role, it’s become much more inward-looking, it’s had a very erratic policy, and it definitely has not taken on the leadership role that the US often has in the past in such crises – that’s definitely something we can observe."
“You can extrapolate from this that China might be trying to move in and use that vacuum to gain more power, but whether that’s happening or not, I don’t know – it’s not something we can predict."
The ‘vacuum’ Bleiker points to is the principle in international relations that argues a shift in the global power distribution leaves a power vacuum that other states will rush to fill.
We saw it with the decline of European great powers after World War II, where the US became the global flag-bearer of liberal democracy, in part to counterweight growing Soviet influence. As leader of the emerging international liberal order, the US actively advocated and organised the order around its ideals: free trade, democracy, alliances, and security cooperation. We saw increased multilateralism through NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the G20, and the WHO.
Professor Roland Bleiker
However, in recent years – and particularly under President Trump – it appears the US has wound back its multilateral engagements and returned home to serve the growing number of Americans left feeling disenfranchised by globalisation. The US has become distant in the multilateral organisations it once pioneered. Trump has capitalised on the comfort nationalism can offer, with phrases like “Make America Great Again”.
But unlike the US nationalism of the past, which championed a strong global American presence in the face of crisis, this is a nationalism built on the concept of ‘America first’, and – as this crisis has shown – ‘America only’.
So far during the COVID-19 pandemic, the US’ absence from the world stage is obvious. Rather than confidently leading the world from the fray as the resident superpower, the US has struggled even to maintain domestic cohesion, as infection rates soar while curves in the rest of the world flatten. Instead of guiding the global push for a vaccine, it has been hoarding efforts at home. Mass street protests and headline-grabbing leadership paint the picture of a state unhinged.
The recent murder of George Floyd in police custody has further fuelled the political fire.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Donald Trump tweeted, referring to the race riots sweeping across the country. This was followed by a bizarre visit to a Washington D.C. church for a photo opportunity with the Bible that saw police use tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades to part the sea of protestors. Trump has always been polarising, but the ideological cleft between the people he governs is wider than ever.
The world is growing less and less enamoured by the historic ‘Free World’ rhetoric of the US. The countless stories of discrimination against people of colour shared in the Black Lives Matter movement highlight the racialised nature of this freedom, and are further damaging the US’ weakening hold on global ideological authority.
In the images that are emerging from the protests, a sea of face masks reminds us the threat of COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared, but has taken a backseat.
However, the US still retains robust military and economic authority over the world. If China directly challenged the US’ position as the global superpower now, it would likely be violent and catastrophic.
China waking but dollar still almighty
Napoleon was supposed to have once referred to China as “a sleeping giant. Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakens, it will astonish the world.”
Now, for the past few decades, China has been waking. Rapid economic growth from market liberalisation in the 1970s saw China rise to become the second largest economy in terms of GDP, with Chinese military spending likely to meet or exceed that of the US by 2035, according to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.
With the US–China trade war and increasing Chinese geopolitical activity in the Asia–Pacific, tensions are already high between the US and China: in April, the US introduced a bill to Congress seeking $6 billion for a military Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which would increase military presence in the Asia–Pacific to counterbalance against Chinese activity – the first time China has been directly named as a target of defence spending. Should things deteriorate further because of COVID-19, this will be particularly difficult for Australia as a Western liberal democracy within the Asia–Pacific, according to Associate Professor Sarah Percy, from UQ’s School of Political Science and International Studies.
“In terms of the ideology and the rhetoric and ramping things up, I think it’s going to be a bad period for US–China relations, and that always puts Australia in a very difficult position,” Associate Professor Percy said.
“For at least the past 20 years, a lot of Australian foreign policy has been about balancing between a regionally adjacent great power with which we don't have a lot in common politically and an external great power with which we’ve had more in common with politically.
“That becomes even more complex if relations between China and the US really go downhill.”
But even if US–China relations deteriorate, is there really an opportunity for China to eclipse the US as the global hegemon?
Associate Professor Shahar Hameiri, from UQ’s School of Political Science and International Studies, argues that despite the US’ political fumbles, the dollar remains the heavyweight in global economics, which plays a huge role in deciding where power sits in the international system.
“In terms of finance, things have not actually moved all that much, because the entire global financial system remains dependent on the injection of liquidity denominated in US dollars by the US Federal Reserve,” Associate Professor Hameiri said.
“There’s nothing currently emerging that suggests that it’s been undermined or is in the process of being replaced by something else.
“Ultimately when there’s a crisis, everyone goes to the dollar: and that includes the Chinese government.
“Now all that could change, but all I can say is this is where we’re at today,” he said.
Above image and headline image: mammuth/Getty Images
Above image and headline image: mammuth/Getty Images
The global fallout
Beyond the US and China, the COVID-19 pandemic has lessons for us all: it has laid bare the vulnerability of an interconnected world, and at least initially, will likely spook governments from an overreliance on cross-border supply chains.
“COVID-19 has actually shown very clearly that there are significant limitations to how much you can rely on supply chains across borders: we’ve found ourselves in the situation where really basic stuff like PPE for nurses and doctors is impossible to access,” Associate Professor Hameiri said.
Associate Professor Shahar Hameiri
“There are already a lot of calls to bring more and more production home, so sort of unwind globalisation as we’ve known it.
“Now, I don’t think that global value chains are going to completely die at the end of this crisis, but increasingly through this intensifying geoeconomic competition between the US and China, they’re likely to become a little more mercantilist.”
“[They’ll be] driven not just by the strategies and interest of firms, but potentially more by the direction of governments, who will shape these global value chains to also support some kind of national interest."
For Associate Professor Sarah Percy, it is a reflection on the duality of globalisation – while it has improved and hastened our ability to access different parts and products of the world, we are also more reliant on each other, which can create problems when crises like this arise.
“Pandemics have always been spread by trade, so that’s not abnormal… but I think the speed is new, and I think that where it’s going to have an impact is more on how reliant you can be on certain things,” she said.
“The fear of any sort of global connectedness is always that the same pathways you use to bring good things and to do good things can bring bad things or be used to do bad things, and the pandemic is a classic example of this.”
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WORDS Zoe McDonald
EDITING AND DESIGN Michael Jones
ARTWORK James North