Turns Out COVID-19 Didn’t Reshape Geopolitics

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

In the summer of 2020, the editors of International Organization, the premier scholarly journal of international relations, had an intriguing idea. They commissioned a collection of essays asking scholars to consider what effect COVID-19 would have on their particular area of study. The result was a special issue released in December 2020 featuring some of the brightest minds in my field—and also me.

My contribution was intended to be counterintuitive. In “The Song Remains the Same: International Relations After COVID-19,” I argued that the pandemic would not have a transformative effect on world politics. It would neither cause a discontinuous shift in the fabric of international relations nor accelerate preexisting trends. Like the 1918 influenza pandemic, I suggested, COVID-19 would be a profound but temporary shock without much of a lasting effect. To use the language of social science, I was betting on the null hypothesis.

I drafted that argument more than two years ago, barely six months into the pandemic and back when COVID-19 was truly a novel coronavirus. At the time, COVID-19 had killed half a million people worldwide; by the fall of 2022, that number is closer to 6.5 million. Now that U.S. President Joe Biden has declared the pandemic is overForeign Policy’s editors thought it would be an ideal moment for me to revisit and reassess this argument. If I could go back in time two years, would I tell Past Dan to revise it?

It should shock no one that Present Dan largely agrees with Past Dan; rare is the academic who changes their mind after putting something in print. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will arguably have more long-lasting effects on the international system than COVID-19. The pandemic’s legacy matters less in shifting the material distribution of power than in shifting how political leaders think about economics. One of its undeniable legacies has been a rise in mercantilism, industrial policy, and homeshoring of production.

Let’s start with what the article got right. Its central thesis was that over the past two centuries, pandemics have had a waning effect on world politics. In the far past, it was fair to blame disease for cataclysmic events, such as the fall of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Europe colonized Africa, Asia, and the Americas not just through the force of their arms, but through the unintentional force of their germs. In the 1800s, disease twice felled Napoleon’s grandiose ambitions: Immunity to yellow fever enabled Haitians to defeat French efforts to retake their former colony, while typhus and dysentery were as responsible as the tsar’s army in forcing Napoleon to retreat from Moscow. Until World War II, more American soldiers died from disease than from enemy action in every war the country had fought.

More recently, however, disease’s ability to disrupt world politics has been reduced. As I wrote in 2020, “Dramatic improvements in urban sanitation, food preparation, and living standards … constricted multiple disease vectors.” The 1968 flu pandemic, for instance, killed a million people worldwide—a fraction of its predecessors’ tolls. Layered on top was the microbiological revolution in medicine. The development of antibiotics, vaccines, and therapeutics for history’s most virulent diseases has been a godsend to humanity. Little wonder that the last century’s worth of pandemics killed far fewer people than smallpox or the plague.

This dynamic played out with COVID-19 as well—due both to the nature of this coronavirus, which disproportionately affected the old, and the technological breakthrough of mRNA vaccines. Even as the coronavirus has mutated into multiple strains, the vaccines and therapeutics developed in the last two years have 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. Indeed, the United States recovered the massive number of jobs lost from the 2020 recession far more quickly than it did after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

I also argued in the paper that the pandemic did not affect China’s and the United States’ respective sources of power, but rather revealed them. This is still true. China remains the world’s manufacturing hub, and the United States remains the world’s focal point for innovation and finance. Both countries developed vaccines to prevent COVID-19 at approximately the same time, although the American vaccines seem to work better. (New strains of COVID-19 weakened the efficacy of all vaccines, however, rendering them less useful as a tool of diplomacy.) And both saw their reputations bruised but not broken—or, as I said in my 2020 article, they were “powerful but unliked.” The strong anti-vaccine movement in the United States made it difficult for the country to eradicate the virus. China’s zero-COVID policy, however, has proved to be so draconian and counterproductive that almost no other country adheres to the practice.

COVID-19 undoubtedly worsened the animus between the world’s two most powerful countries, but so has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, tensions between Beijing and Washington have been building for years. Chinese President Xi Jinping was already chafing against U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific well before the pandemic began. And one of the few areas where the Trump administration garnered bipartisan support was for its trade war with China. As Hal Brands and Michael Beckley note in their just-released book Danger Zone, “Trump had irreversibly broken the mold of U.S.-China relations—and most of Washington applauded him for it. COVID-19 finished the work Trump had started.”

If there was an area where I underestimated the pandemic’s effect, it was on the world of ideas. I speculated in my conclusion that “a prioritization of resiliency might reorient national economic interests away from maximizing income to a more diverse set of objectives,” such as building up strategic reserves of vital resources or employing industrial policies to ensure a degree of economic autarky. That turned out to be an understatement. While concerns about economic interdependence predated the pandemic, the fragility of global supply chains became even more apparent as economies struggled to return to the pre-pandemic normal. Multinational corporations and central banks found themselves surprised by dramatic shifts in the composition of demand, which produced periodic shortages and surges of inflation.

As a result, all great powers have tried to boost their domestic economic capacity and reduce their reliance on international trade and exchange. Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to sanction-proof his economy well before he invaded Ukraine in February. Xi’s concept of “dual circulation,” first advanced in the spring of 2020, prioritized domestic economic growth over relying on foreign markets. The Biden administration has been no slouch in this department, either, from its “Buy American” policies, to its executive order reviewing the vulnerability of supply chains, to its support of the CHIPS bill passed in August.

The pandemic’s ideational effects on economics may be more lasting than its actual economic shocks. There is little to no evidence that the homeshoring of production increases economic resiliency, and it definitely doesn’t increase economic efficiency. But the idea that systemic shocks like COVID-19 or the war in Ukraine can disrupt global supply chains has taken root among policymakers in capitals around the world.

In the end, the pandemic had a minimal material impact on the international system; COVID-19 is one of many factors over the past decade that have heightened great-power competition. But its impact on economic ideologies cannot be dismissed. The difficulties created by the pandemic—and the recovery from it—have upended the neoliberal economic policy consensus that dominated corridors of power since the Cold War. The coming age of industrial policy and mercantilism will claim many fathers. COVID-19 has a valid claim to its parentage.

This piece is republished from Foreign Policy.

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