What will the world look like after the coronavirus? The discussion concerning the pandemic’s consequences has already started. Three main hypotheses are expressed: globalisation’s overthrow, the dynamic return of the nation-state and the emergence of global institutions and networks; i.e. a form of the old idea of "global governance". During the transition period after the end of the global health crisis, those ideas will confront each other. Their clash, whatever form it might take, will develop in the context of contradictions already existing:
- Environmental protection versus economic growth
- USA/China decoupling
- Value confrontation between democratic and authoritarian regimes
How will the political map evolve during the post-pandemic period? The nation-state may strengthen, although it cannot cover all of our societies’ needs any more. Globalisation is under pressure. It is not however possible to overturn the unification of the world achieved during the last decades. Could the way out be sought in an intermediary scale, in the form of parallel unified systems, constituted according to geographical and historical rationales? What would be the consequences of such an evolution? To understand this situation we need to turn to the past; on the one hand the historical and political framework in which the present crisis is unfolding and, on the other, the pandemics’ role as catalysts in political history.
The post-war historical cycles
From 1976 onwards, throughout the 1980s, the great break matured. Mao's death in 1976; the Iranian revolution in 1979; the Soviet Union's involvement in Afghanistan in 1979; Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979; Roland Reagan's election in 1981; Chernobyl's nuclear explosion in 1986. One after the other, all these events challenged the elements on which the world's ideological and material order had relied during the previous decades, such as the welfare state, Soviet soft-power, and the supremacy of the ideological over the religious factor. Thus, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the political events that followed constituted the catalysts rather than the causes of the transition to a new era.
The flagship date of 1989 set in motion geopolitical transformations and crises, thus introducing a period of fluidity, which eventually consolidated the new world order. The preponderance of the United States coincided with the dominance, material and spiritual, of globalisation and neoliberalism. Borders for capital and goods opened, state sovereignty was challenged, markets imposed their logic on national economies, people began to move everywhere. Hubert Védrine defined this new model of life as "insouciant, hédoniste, individualiste et festif" - carefree, hedonistic, individualistic and festive1. These new values have led, among other things, to the proliferation of peoples’ movement.
The dominant image emerging from these developments is primarily geographical. In the past, during the Cold War, geography was characterised by fragmentation. Globally, the bipolar organisation divided the universe into two blocks, between which an often impenetrable barrier was raised, the iron curtain. The nation-states organised their economy and society behind strong borders. Protectionism was often combined with authoritarian regimes which monitored cross-border movement, not only of individuals but also of ideas. In many democracies, the public sector controlled the national economy, excluding foreign economic activity from national territory and guiding domestic private initiative.
This geographical mosaic had already started transforming itself before 1989. Europe has been a pioneer in the search and endeavour for greater geographical unity, through the EEC institutions. The fall of the Berlin Wall accelerated the dismantling of the fragmentation and freed every form of movement. As a result, the world proceeded with a growing unification of its geographical space.
Movement is a factor of wealth, freedom and progress. The post-Cold War development of movement showed immediate positive results. The global economy grew exponentially. Many poor countries developed rapidly. Large populations managed to escape poverty. These changes are spectacular. As Johan Norberg of the Cato Institute points out, "If someone had told you in 1990 that over the next twenty-five years world hunger would decline by 40 per cent, child mortality would halve, and extreme poverty would fall by three quarters, you’d have told them they were a naïve fool. But the fools were right. This is truly what happened."2
However, at a second time, negative aspects appeared. The movement of capital without barriers created a huge global financial system. Advances in communication technologies have given this system a dynamism, unthinkable in the past. The space and time of the economy have been transformed, rendering the financial system practically uncontrollable. Economic shocks, even if they concern only a part of this system, turn into global economic storms, with devastating consequences, as the 2008 crisis has shown.
The dominance of economic logic over social and political approaches has led to serious setbacks. The search for the lowest possible cost of production, combined with the unification of global economic space, has encouraged the geographical dispersal of industrial production. The products are manufactured per component, separately, in different parts of the world. They are produced according to "comparative advantages", either in terms of labor costs or environmental conditions. This situation offers the possibility to bypass environmental discipline and to circumvent the social conquests of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Along the negative economic, social and environmental consequences of globalisation one has also to consider the political. Although increased as a whole, world wealth has been unevenly distributed. The benefit went basically to the poor in the poor countries and to the rich in the rich countries. However, the other social categories feel economically degraded, in absolute terms or relatively. Economic and social tensions affect political behaviour; therefore, they strengthen the political forces which proclaim the spatial isolation and the restoration of borders. The United States, protagonist of globalisation, has started to realise that other countries, and first of all China, benefit much more, their products being more competitive. Americans were painfully awakened to the change in global balance. The USA concentrated a fourth of world's GDP in 1991; nowadays their share is only one-seventh. The Chinese economy represented 6% of the American economy in 1990; nowadays, according to the most moderate estimates, it represents over 60%.
After a period of euphoria following the instability of the first post-Cold War years, serious questioning began. The ideology of open borders, expressed by Francis Fukuyama in his pioneering article on the "End of History"3, was challenged in Europe because of immigration flows. The rise of European populist movements was fuelled by fear of "invasion" by immigrants. The United States began slowly to evolve toward greater protectionism; Trump's rise to power consolidated this reorientation. England showed similar revisionist tendencies when voting for Brexit.
Various political and social movements have expressed the distancing of populations from the dominant model. The environmental mobilisation raised the issue of the control of economic growth. The gilets jaunes, the movement that rocked Emmanuel Macron's reform policy, relied heavily on indignation at the reduced presence of the state and its services in remote areas.
These reactions and controversies, though often violent, do not share a unifying ideological framework. In addition, the dominant ideology has managed to absorb some of these themes, such as climate change. Three decades have passed since the great turning point of 1989. The end of the Cold War also happened about three decades since its beginning. The rhythms of history indicate the possibility of a new great overturn. A spectacular event, predictable or unpredictable, could act again as a catalyst for the transition to a new historical phase; for the transformation of quantity into quality.
Pandemics as Catalysts
Pandemics constitute a fundamental element of human history. They are conditioned by two geographical phenomena. The first concerns the relationship between human groups and the natural environment. The transition from food-gathering to agriculture created the conditions for the emergence of pathogens and their circulation among the various species. Today again, the huge environmental transformation taking place under the influence of the geographical spread of the western economic model facilitates the appearance of pathogens. It speeds up pathogen exchanges between species forced to adapt to the new conditions of the ecosystem. For example, the destruction of tropical forests pushes many wild animals to approach residential areas and come in contact with the domesticated.
Pandemics also depend on human travel. The arrival of Europeans in America in the 15th century introduced pathogens for which the natives’ immune system was unprepared. Epidemics weakened their resistance to the foreign invasion. In a few decades, the legacy of a millennia of history on a large space of the American continent almost disappeared.
The epidemics have repeatedly changed the political and geopolitical situation in Europe. "Since a thousand years, every major epidemic has led to a substantial change in the political organisation... the great plague epidemic of the 14th century...has participated to the radical challenging, on the old continent, of the political position of the religious factor and the establishment of policing as the only effective form to protect human life. The modern state, as well as the scientific spirit, are then born as a consequence...of this huge health tragedy", according to Jacques Attali4.
Closer to our era, the major cholera epidemics which broke out in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, contributed decisively to its political and ideological transformation. Οnce more, the geographical factor was proven fundamental. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most of the production was situated outside city limits. Geographical separation protected the privileged strata, the bourgeoisie, from the sufferings of the working poor. The industrial revolution and the sharp increase in the population of cities, created favourable conditions for the outbreak of epidemics. The miserable living conditions of the proletariat facilitated the emergence of diseases which afterwards spread to the wealthy areas. The coexistence of bourgeois and proletarians in the same urban space and the sense of common danger favoured an unprecedented climate of social solidarity. At another scale, today globalisation repeats the same schema: the spatial separation of the privileged North and the under-privileged South is practically impossible.
Public health policies, including drastic initiatives to ensure decent living conditions for the proletariat, began in the third decade of the 19th century in France and England. Modern urban planning has its roots in the public health policy. But apart from the form of cities, the public health crises of industrial Europe affected the entire ideological environment of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the founding works of Marxism is dedicated to the working class conditions in England. The author, Friedrich Engels, drew most of his information from reports made by physicians taking care of the proletarian populations5.
Three decades after the end of the Cold War, humanity is looking for a new model of organisation in order to overcome the contradictions created by the "real" globalisation. Covid 19 pandemic may play a catalytic role, as it reveals the characteristics, vacuums and weaknesses of the dominant model. The menacing appearance of the new virus confirms the warnings about the rapid change in the environment and the reversal of ecosystem equilibria. The spread of the virus is a consequence of the explosive growth in human movement. The inability of states to respond to the public health crisis is related to a geography of production, determined by reducing production costs and minimising stocks. There exists, therefore, a connection between the major controversies developed over the past decade and the problems causing the health crisis.
It is difficult to predict how the pandemic will develop, as well as whether and what kind of other crises it will cause. Humankind will enter a difficult period, during which the existing institutions will be shaken and geopolitical tensions will worsen. In addition to the epidemiological, other risks may emerge, which Humanity has chosen to ignore, despite warnings from experts, such as the nuclear and the cyber threats.
One more "New World"
The debate about the prospect of a radical change in the global organisation opened up, with various ideas competing about possible reforms and changes. The first thesis challenges globalisation, suggesting the return of borders, reduction of flows, policies of isolation and self-sufficiency. This view focuses on the negative aspects of globalisation, brought to the fore by the global health crisis. It under-estimates however its positive aspects. For a large part of humanity de-globalisation would mean a drastic deceleration of development. In addition to the geopolitical tensions, it would lead to strong migratory pressures between demographically dynamic regions of the developing world and developed countries. If, for example, Africa is excluded from the world's economic networks, what can stop its rapidly growing population from moving to Europe?
The second idea revolves around the return of the nation state, the protective role of which was demonstrated during the pandemic. At the same time, the crisis showed the problems arising from the state weakening during the past decades. In the anarchy of the global space, the nation-state mobilised the populations psychologically and politically. The state, however, is relevant in crisis situations, but insufficient in a larger context. How can European countries cope separately in the competition with powers such as the United States or China? How can smaller states defend themselves against global networks, whether multinationals, globalised crime or terrorism?
The third idea argues that "real" globalisation is incomplete, covering only the economic and financial sectors and not extending to politics. Therefore, instead of de-globalisation, super-globalisation should be chosen. The creation of global political institutions and networks would allow control of the existing global economic and other networks, creating conditions for a dynamic but at the same time balanced unification of Humanity. The old idea of global governance re-emerges. Is a modernised version of Pax Romana the solution?
Regardless of whether and to what extent such an evolution is desirable, under the current circumstances it seems unrealistic. Political processes of unification require a strong power to guide and enforce them. American hegemony has been largely wasted by the insufficient spiritual preparation of the American political leadership. So, what kind of hope is there for such a titanic project in today's international environment?
During the transition period following the end of the global health crisis, these views will clash with each other. Political forces may emerge, seeking to expand their influence by promoting simplistic proposals. Sooner or later, however, the dominant contradictions will become obvious. This impasse will either be met with compromise solutions or lead to disasters. There are at least three:
- Environmental protection versus economic growth. Until the current pandemic, the question of the environment remained largely academic. Substantial progress in its protection has been limited, with setbacks and reversals. The health crisis brings the issue back and, certainly, it advocates loudly for a change in human behaviour towards nature. However, in many developing countries, growth is based precisely on the drastic transformation of nature - for example, the destruction of forests. Although global management of the environmental issue is required, mobilisation on this scale seems highly improbable at present. An intermediate compromise solution must therefore be sought.
- The divergent course of the United States and China. In the previous phase, the US-led globalisation was adopted enthusiastically by China. This development led to a drastic transformation of the balance between the two economies. Mutual economic dependence has long obscured geopolitical competition. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the change in the balance of power and China's hegemonic ambitions. The ongoing decoupling of the two economies will probably be accelerated. It points to the dangerous possibility of a new Cold War. It can not be stopped at the nation-state scale. On the contrary, states might be forced to align themselves with one camp or another, thus reinforcing polarization.
- The confrontation of political values. The efficiency of authoritarian regimes is showcased, in comparison to Western-style democratic societies. At the same time, democracy is threatened by technological progress. As electronic surveillance allows to control the spread of the epidemic, health and sanitary control measures constitute a means to legitimise population controls. It is argued that, in any case, pure democracy is doomed because of technology. Centralised, authoritarian regimes have, at the very least, the power to protect societies from the instrumentalisation of technology by illegitimate networks. If isolated, democratic states can hardly stand to this challenge. Of course, a world divided in two adversarial camps is not an answer; such a competition will strengthen political and geopolitical cynicism, as it happened during the Cold War.
How can these contradictions and controversies lead to the reorganisation of the world political map? At what geographic scales can economic and political life be organised in the coming decades?
The national scale will remain the infrastructure of the world system; in some ways it will be reinforced. The introduction of managerial logic in the functioning of the state will decline, as its negative consequences have appeared clearly during the crisis. Upgrading the prestige of public servants, such as health workers, teachers, and other officials, can contribute to value transformations away from the neo-liberal rhetoric. However, the nation-state can hardly return to the function it had during the Cold War. Under the influence of technology, the scale of the world has been altered.
At the same time, "real" globalisation, without disappearing completely, will be forced to retreat. Such a broad interconnected system is not controllable. This was successively demonstrated by the economic crisis of 2008 and the global health crisis of 2020.
What stands out, therefore, as a possible development is the emergence of an intermediate scale, between the national, too limited for the economic conditions, and the global, too large for the political conditions. The world could be organised into a number of Mega-Regions, each including both developed and developing areas. A series of large unified systems could be formed, defined according to a combination of geographical and cultural criteria. Instead of a unique globalisation or the puzzle of national fragmentation, a multiple globalisation could arise.
In this case, the European model can be both an example and a pioneer. Without American protection or domination, Europe could move at last towards greater political unification. The European Mega-Region will need to project its influence in Africa, helping its populations to get rid of poverty and instability.
Russia is a Mega-Region by itself. Similar observations apply to China, India, the United States. Other major powers, such as Japan, Brazil, and Indonesia, will be called upon to decide whether to form their own Mega-Regions, or to join one of the others. Each Mega-Region will develop its proper values, depending on the traditions of its populations. Zones of influence of Mega-Regions will necessarily be formed6. Important security and peace problems will most probably appear at their contact areas, the Middle East certainly becoming one of them.
There is a constant friction between territories and networks. Organising the world by Mega-Regions can prevent the domination of networks, facilitated by rapid technological development. Mega-Regions do not offer absolute guarantees for the defence of freedoms. The European Mega-Region, however, could, perhaps, remain an area of experimentation for the survival of democratic institutions.
The organisation of the world in Mega-Regions offers some answers to today's deadlocks. But without coordination between leaders, the risk of conflict will linger. The Orwellian world of 1984 is divided into three Mega-Regions, in continuous war with each other, constantly changing their alliances. Along with the prophetic invention of Big Brother, the realisation of which is made possible by today's technology, the author’s geopolitical warning should not be forgotten.
After the bipolar organisation of the Cold War and the monopolar post-Cold War world, are we led to the multipolar world of the Mega-Regions? This is the key question for tomorrow. As it happened with the Cold War system and the globalised world order, the new geopolitical organisation will involve risks and problems. These will prepare the ground for another change, perhaps after three to four decades. Artificial intelligence and robotics will probably play a key role in this new change. There is still a long way to go.
As far as Greece and Hellenism are concerned, the forthcoming transformation is not a negative development per se. Situated geographically and culturally in the crossroads of Mega-Regions, Greeks will find an extensive field to exercise the mediating role between different civilisations, in which they have distinguished themselves in all phases of their history7.
*George Prevelakis is Emeritus Professor of Geopolitics, Sorbonne University (Paris 1) and Permanent Representative of Greece to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
1. Interview of Hubert Védrine , Figaro, 22-3-2020
2. Kishore Mahbubani, Has the West Lost It? A Provocation, Allen Lane, 2018, p. 10
3. Francis Fukuyama, "The end of History?", The National Interest, 16/1989, p. 3-18.
4. Jacques Attali, "Que naitra-t-il ?", 19-3-2020, http://www.attali.com/
5. Friedrich Engels Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England, Otto Wigand, Leipzig, 1845.
6. Graham Allison, "The New Spheres of Influence. Sharing the Globe with other great partners", Foreign Affairs, March-April 2020.
7. George Prevelakis, Who are we? The Geopolitics of Greek identity, Economia Publishing, Athens, 2017. See also: Γεώργιος-Στυλιανός Πρεβελάκης, Τα ξύλινα τείχη. Γεωπολιτική των ελληνικών δικτύων, Economia Publishing, Athens, 2020 to appear soon in English translation : George Prevelakis, The wooden walls. Geopolitics of the Greek networks.