Geopolitics’ turn again: Covid-19 edition

By Mary Karnachoritou

Henry Kissinger the well awarded American diplomat spoke of the “Post corona-virus world order” However prejudicial Covid-19 has been, not all countries came through as losers. In fact, the pandemic constituted a unique chance for international players and coalitions to re-negotiate their status. Crises- from the Greek word “Krisis” meaning “the decisive moment”- like this have the potential to change geopolitical trends and priorities exposing the international system to rearrangement. In this article I aim to explore the impact that the pandemic had in the geopolitical puzzle and especially in the European Union. What are Brussels’ next steps in these shifting times? Are we heading towards a reversed status quo in international relations with the East dominating the West?

China appears to be the big winner of this pandemic. Although China was the first country affected by the virus when it emerged, China was also the first to overcome it by applying strict lockdown measures. In this way, China had the chance to manage the crisis and even work as a role model and assistant to other nations. The choice of the Chinese government was not a coincidence as it adopted the well tested “superpower” attitude that superpowers have used in previous crises. To be more specific, China was also favored because of its widely developed and cheap technological production chains which experienced extreme demand during this period. The world and especially emerging economies are highly dependent on Chinese value chains for their economy to function and to prosper. This realization is indicative of China’s growing power over the last decades. Europe’s own characterization of China as “cooperation partner” and “systemic rival” proves its importance in the international system. Moreover, the pandemic placed China in a disadvantageous position of global criticism, hate speech and prejudice. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping used the international stance in his favor by changing China’s usual diplomatic behavior abroad into a more aggressive one that now was legitimately based. In other words, the pandemic could be considered as the start of the Sino-American rivalry in practice as China reveals its true capabilities in this international chess game.

The United States of America on the other hand faced for the first time a palpable shock of their rules-based system. As the adviser of Joseph Borell, Nathalie Tocci highlighted, the coronavirus crisis has been a “Suez moment for the US” meaning that this pandemic encroached the deep foundations of US dominance in the modern world. The biggest geopolitical loss it had to suffer is the shift to the East. Trump’s administration and its ineffective response towards coronavirus has made the country fold back on the interior matters while foreign policy remained antagonistic, or even in the margins of enigmatic. The US democratic model seemed incompetent to confront the spread of the virus something that did not prove difficult for more authoritarian governance models. Although this phenomenally effective response may stem from the transparency deficiency that exists in those countries providing distorted reality facts.The current  Biden administration is expected to turn towards the Atlantic alliance and to fortify its allies in the West implying the EU.

 The European Union, on its part, has proven to be on the losing side of this health crisis. In particular, European states once again showed their incapacity to work together and create a united front against the invisible enemy that this time knew no borders or North-South, East-West axes. National interests provoked an unprecedented isolation since the Single European Act, instead of a Union solidarity. The goals that have been set by the new Geopolitical Commission under Ursula Von der Leyen were one by one fading in front of the current health situation. Even Union’s core values such as democracy, freedom and rule of law were severely restricted causing social turbulences and introduced some degree of contestation in the European Strategic Compass. Health does not fall within EU’s competences, but as previous crises have indicated, further integration in the affected spheres becomes unavoidable. The introduction of the Recovery Fund is the collective response that Europeans choose to support. Furthermore, the enhancement of the Banking Union is attached to the general European efforts for a strategic autonomy in the financial and technological area. Although strategic autonomy does not apply in the foreign policy, it constitutes a step forward for more coherent and concrete European policies. With the covid-19 crisis the EU entered an era of redefinition and as happens in these periods of time, re-evaluation of pre established authorities takes place. In European Union’s case it seems that the pandemic highlighted the role of the European Parliament which is expected to strengthen in power in the following years if the context of a more integrationist agenda, prevails.All in all, it is an indisputable fact that the times we are facing are highly transitional in terms of high politics. New game rules have been introduced this time stemming from the East. While emerging eastern states seem to shape the world of alliances coloring it with more authoritarian traits, the west is moving towards strengthening its preexisting structures. NATO and more specifically EU-US relations are drawn closer so as a counterbalance to what it appears to be a Sino-Russian “confluence” of interests and values. Although Europe’s perception of China is that of the “Icy Friend”, the continent’s future points toward the Western alliances. The EU’s ambition to play an active role in the Sino-American antagonism, underlines the need for a strong democratic institutional set up, and what is better than the European Parliament whose role has been signified steadily over the past years. States ‘geopolitics remain at a crossover and only the unfreezing of  time  of the Covid-19 era will point to the next direction.

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