Geopolitical Analysis of Coronavirus

Luca Steinmann, journalist and analyst at Limes magazine, lecturer at Rome Business School

The coronavirus will not revolutionise the world. Nor will it return it to us exactly as it was before it spread. The initial shock brought by Covid 19 led many to believe that a global revolution was underway. Then the momentary drop in infection spread another perspective coined by Christian eschatology, which consists of waiting for a day x when the introduction of the vaccine will save us to return to pre-epidemic peace. Both of these early sentences will be denied. First of all because this is not a war, which if it were so it would be resolved by overwhelming the victors over the defeated. Instead, the epidemic can be resolved with mutual help between communities and states, with mutual solidarity and credible and prompt information. So the exact opposite of war. But we will not return to the pre-Covid world because it was not a balance of perpetual Kantian peace but a context in which there was a race for geopolitical rearmament by the major global powers. In the perspective of a very tense period on an international level. The coronavirus is accelerating this process.

The process of return to geopolitics has been going on for about 30 years, since the Soviet threat that hibernated the globe in a forced balance of peace ceased to exist. With bipolarism, the need for states to shelter themselves under an umbrella of protection – American or Soviet – which prevented them from developing independent geopolitical strategies has also ended. The end of the Cold War did not lead to the end of the historical conflict as Francis Fukuyama had postulated, but to an increase in the ability of some states to pursue their interests in a more insistent and aggressive manner. This marks a process of transformation in the system of international relations, characterised today by a much higher level of conflict than before. This is manifested in the aggressiveness of non-Western geopolitical subjects (China, Russia, Turkey, Iran) but also within the West, understood as an American-led economic-commercial area and defended by NATO: starting from France, which claims world power as godmother of its former colonies and of the whole French-speaking area and which, through the mouth of Macron, defines the Atlantic Alliance as experiencing “brain death”; but above all from Germany, whose economic locomotive is massively fed by its exports to China and by its role as broker of Russian hydrocarbons in Europe through Nord Stream. The Eastern countries within NATO are also growing in importance (especially Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) in light of the growing competition between Washington and Beijing. The great challenge is therefore to combine the needs of those who belong to the American area of influence with those of the rest of the world, which in most cases does not want to be Western.

In this context, the outbreak of the epidemic accelerated the clash between the United States and China. Trump pointed the finger at the WHO and Beijing, sometimes together as the international organization initially accepted the Chinese government’s statements and thus contributed to a lack of understanding of the danger. The willingness to blame China clearly reflects the White House’s political agenda, also to lighten its responsibilities in the internal management of the epidemic and the ensuing economic crisis. Which in turn have enlarged existing American problems. Starting with the division between the two Americas, between a middle-high professional class that continues to receive salaries and a poorer and more precarious working class that suffers from the flexibility of the globalised labour market. This is a division between the beneficiaries and victims of globalisation that only partially corresponds to an ethnic division. But it has certainly played a role, at least psychologically, in the explosion of protests against another pre-existing American problem: racism against black people which, with the killing of George Floyd, has shocked American society and generated effects in almost the whole West.

The geopolitical effects of the virus have also reached Russia. Lukashenko’s eccentric approach to managing the epidemic was one of the reasons for the street protests that opened a new geopolitical game for Moscow. Russia continues to want to keep post-Soviet space under its orbit to the detriment of the advance of the West. However, it does not seem to have so far clearly identified which is its own Belarusian fifth column. Moreover, the economic crisis linked to the virus is affecting the state budget, which risks becoming even worse if the Nord Stream II project is blocked following the poisoning of Navalny. Moscow can no longer afford to sustain long and expensive wars and is therefore trying to avoid intervention in Nagorno Karabakh as well as taking a more pragmatic approach to the Syrian conflict in order to make Russian interests on the ground profitable as soon as possible.

Finally, the epidemic has accelerated Germany’s rise as a leader in Europe. Angela Merkel managed to impose an important economic-financial aid package on Italy affected by Covid, which prompted many commentators to speak of a presumed new united and solidary course of the European Union. In reality, this is nothing new. Even before the crisis many other German exponents had already recognised the German need to return to being a geopolitical subject in the full sense of the word because of the increasingly multicentric conformation of the globe, which no longer guarantees American coverage in the same way as in the past. Moreover, the approval of the Recovery Fund towards Italy responds to a specific German national interest. Northern Italy, the area most affected by the virus in Europe, is an integral part of the German industrial and commercial chain. Germany cannot therefore afford to neglect this value chain and must consider the rescue of Italy as a matter of its own trade policy. Solidarity has not arrived, the national interest has re-emerged.

Covid 19 points to a clash already taking place between different approaches to managing globalisation. On the one hand, the western one is the bearer of a universal and democratic vision, of a model in the process of expansion towards its affirmation on the whole globe. On the other hand, the willingness of most of the other relevant international actors to claim an alienation from the American leadership. They thus contradict the world that the United States had envisaged after the fall of the Berlin Wall: a world that would gradually adapt to its own political, economic and social standards in which the so-called end of history would translate into the Americanization of the globe. Called “globalization”. However, today’s international chessboard increases the potential areas of confrontation. And these are exacerbated by the virus.