25 March 2020

Coronavirus and what is left of the international power relations

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Crises can also be opportunities, a Chinese saying says. But not for everyone and not equally. Some societies have better reactions, others don’t. Some have more competent authorities, others are just drifting along. Some crises stay functional, others are falling apart. Crises create unexpected solidarities, but they do not stop international conflicts or disputes, but only for breaks or second looks. The current coronavirus crisis also follows this logic of creating a framework of international relations. Globalization is something often invocated in this pandemic context. But it is not the only one. The fight for influence, for the economic and political primacy is a different argument. Is it the US, China or Russia? Which of these states takes this crisis’ advantage?

Image source: Hepta

Can epidemics influence the international and force relations? What are the conclusions of a recent study made in the US?

Definitely. Crises produce uneven loses which, if exploited, can create advantage to one part or another. Sometimes, these loses are directly economically or financially quantified, but it can also be just a perception that the world is changing.

Exercises on major epidemics management are held periodically, but it was only the end of last year that there was a direct connection between a medical crisis and a geostrategic order. It was an exercise dedicated to high American officials, organized by experts within the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Global Health Security program and researchers from Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security.

Although its main aim was the medical crisis management, some of its lessons can be applied for a larger framework as well, such as the international relations:

  • globalization has an unexpected effect in epidemics’ management. It is easier to start and spread an epidemic, but it is harder to stop it;
  • current epidemics belong to coronavirus family (SARS, MERS), therefore the scenario was based on such type of virus (an exact choice), on an accidental leak from the laboratory (unfortunately, it was different, thus the measures were postponed), on a 3, 125% mortality rate (a close prognosis to the one recorded now) and on a great transmissibility rate;
  • it was (correctly) supposed that the first measures the states will take will be to limit the virus’s spread, through travel restrictions and borders’ closure;
  • it was proved, during the exercise, that these will be belated, as the virus can spread through open air corridors or through direct social contact (which actually happened);
  • it was also correctly supposed that infrastructure blockages will affect the international cooperation and trade. These measures should be taken gradually, but are difficult to be implemented and maintained, they create disputes between states, having further consequences;
  • among states’ retaliation answers, there have been proposed and stimulated fiscal and monetary incentive decisions to calm the financial transactions and maintain the banking system functioning. Decreasing the interests was one of the proposals, which is actually happening now with the crisis;
  • it was assumed that the crisis will end in three months and in the meantime someone will get a vaccine and will create the necessary treatments. Considering what is really happening, the conclusion would be that the period will be extended up to a year, due to the need for tests and implementation. The period was realistically assumed by the US health officials;
  • comparing exercise’s conclusions and the first learned lessons of the developing crisis, here are the following results:

1. early and preventive measures are critical. Also is the internal and international cooperation between citizens, companies, states and governments. Health should be a priority with no political borders, not inside, nor outside the states;

2. public communication is extremely important. But equally important is the trust in communicators, in states, executives. It increases the public order and measures’ observance. It can be weakened by disinformation, foreign interferences, and incomplete, politized, clumsy messages from the authorities. The disinformation campaigns, such as promoting anti-vaccination, can do a lot of harm. Crisis’ developments, along with electoral periods, can lead to suggesting contradictory political messages which are blocking its management.

3. international cooperation is essential. The virus does not factor in borders and cannot be blocked at custom borders. But the current developing measures are trying to do so. And the results affect the relations between the states and are increasing the international distrust. States are accusing each other, are threatening each other. In all this process, the international organizations are trapped in their attempt to reach neutrality. Just like the World Health Organization. And no one listens to them. Other organizations, such as the European Union, are starting to be accused of favouring some members. National sensitiveness starts to grow. Allegations are extending in the cooperation field on information exchange.

And everyone has something to lose. And the political scene is resettling order.

The final conclusions of the exercise were:

  • internally, in the US – the political leaders of both parties, but mostly the current Administration, have not considered health issues a national security priority, and, gradually, field’s experts an officials lost their representation positions in the counselling structures within the security and defence committee;
  • externally – although international structures in the field do exist, although there are common economic and security structures, states tend to take national decision in cases of crises, and cooperation becomes the last option, when they face blockages;

Then, exercises’ organizers have come to the conclusions that, after the first crisis weeks in Europe and US, paradoxically, the fact that it emerged in China was a great advantage for its following management. Beijing had the scientific, technological and human tools to face it, even if it experienced some blockages at the beginning, but it gave clues for how the crisis should be handled by other states as well. The harsh intervention limited also virus’s extension in this phase.

What happened then, however, proves that some of these lessons were simply ignored. Europeans acted following their own rules, in the US the crisis was regarded as being brought by “foreigners”, Trump did not inform the EU and the Schengen space states that US will get to isolation and will block the air traffic from Europe, the COVID-19 became the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”.

And Russia and China remembered that they have something to share with US and NATO and that this current situation offers some opportunities.

Who are the protagonists and opportunists of this crisis?

The epidemic is already changing some of the international power relations. The inability of major national financial institutions in the US and Europe to calm markets has led to the largest stock market decline since 1987.

Basically, the US was the engine that provided energy to the Western world to overcome these kinds of periodic trials. However, the current administration's approach was an isolationist one, even compared to the European partners. Still, the virus does not respect natural boundaries or barriers, and specialists believe that even the answers to solve the crisis should not stay inside individual states.

Blaming others, as politicians do in their speeches, including Westerners, does not help either. Ignoring the partnerships during this crisis could have consequences for further crises.

The crisis is ongoing, but it is not at all clear what the world will look like after the pandemic will be defeated. Almost certainly, it will not be the same. The changes will be deep, even if many will be only in terms of perceptions. But, as the crisis management shows, where the perception of danger is infinitely greater than the danger itself, it is enough to change the physical, economic, political, even military balances. The trenches of classic wars were replaced with the competition for pharmaceutical remedies, the ability to operate online, maintaining financial balances, maintaining the common tone, encouraging social innovation. As we are currently witnessing, the Chinese government seems to be aware that the saying about the seed of opportunity in a crisis comes has Chinese origins.

China is already one step forward, in terms of crisis management. This gives it the opportunity to take advantage of any wrong measures made by states still struggling with coronavirus. For President Xi Jinping, the crisis may be an opportunity. It is an opportunity to strengthen its domestic power, where, theoretically, in 2022, the power transition should have taken place, to strengthen China's influence internationally. A book published in late February, in several languages, shows how China defeated the "people's war" against the epidemic, "under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and comrade Xi Jinping." The Chinese President's visit to Wuhan marks the beginning of the opportunities created by the crisis.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin seemed determined to use the crisis to gain a better national position in the oil market, or to strengthen the option of staying in power after the current term. The two levels of action were united in "Black Monday", the day when OPEC could not convince Russia about measures to limit oil sales, but also the day that Putin announced that he may keep the power even after 2024. Way, way after this date, until 2036.

The reasons for the lack of an agreement with OPEC lie not only in Russia's need for foreign currency, but also in the additional financial pressure on the US, whose oil exports are discouraged due to the high operating price. The low energy resources price is also a gift to the Chinese ally.

As for the constitutional changes in Russia, they initially seemed to provide a platform for a greater power balance in the state, with a strengthened parliament, with a president with somewhat lower powers, with a State Council president seeking authority space.

The current crisis seems to have offered the opportunity to give up the previous scruples, however the scenario was planned for leadership that has a strong leader, so there is no need for another one when one has the original.

And in Russia, the crisis does not seem to even exist. The infections’ number is very low, considering the ethnic and social diversity, the borders’ porosity. Even if these numbers were not to be true, the reality they work with is that of is a state that manages the situation very well and does not take to the measures the European states and the US took, with such hard financial or economic effects.

This approach puts Russia in a different phase comparing to what is happening in the rest of the world when it comes to managing the epidemic. It is offering them chances to speculate on the opportunities created by the situation.

It is already being discussed that a member of G7, Italy, will be weakened after this crisis and will find it more difficult to stay in this club where, anyway, it was at the level "pardon me, the last one on the list". Moscow, excluded from the G8 a few years ago, after annexing Crimea, has never concealed that its place is among the great and will demand the return. Maybe even with Italy’s vote, which supported it also in the pre-crisis period.

The coronavirus crisis is, first and foremost, about millions of people who see their family and individual balance disturbed and threatened. But it is also about geopolitical resettlement, about national interests, about influence areas. The first need medicines and vaccines, the others need opportunities. The hope is that the losses in the first category will not be used to enhance the second.

 Are there any effects for the security structures?

So far, we can hardly speculate upon this situation. But it is quite clear that money will be needed, a lot of money. We are talking about money that only the state/s can offer in the required quantities. And for the proper use. In times of crisis, needs are multiplied and priorities are extremely important.

The economy will have to work, which is why other sectors could be registered under the "victims" chapter. One of these could be national military budgets or security structures. Depending on the geostrategic positioning, closer or far from the potential threats, a number of states may decide to transfer money from this area to more pressing needs.

The economic recovery will take months, maybe even years. Then, we may see how unity works within the international security alliances. We will see if whether the states that are going through the crisis in better conditions, having from financial reserves for economy’s reconstruction, will be willing to support the others. We are referring even to joint military budgets or bilateral security commitments.

Let’s just hope this will actually happen.

English version by Andreea Soare