Covid-19, accelerator of global tensions

A doctor prepares to perform a Covid-19 test behind protection in Buenos Aires on September 18.

Obviously, there will be a post-Covid-19, but will it be very different? “My fear is that the world afterwards will look furiously like the one before, only worse,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview with World in April. Somewhat pessimistic, even if probably prescient, the formula flourished. This pandemic is a surge of the unthinkable. Admittedly, there had already been alerts, starting with SARS, in 2003. All forward-looking documents worthy of the name from intelligence services such as think tanks, in Washington as well as in London, Berlin or Paris – notably the Defense White Paper of 2008 and that of 2013 – evoked the scenario of an epidemic with a new mutant virus leaving China. All were taken aback, however, because no one had really imagined the extent of the disease or that of a world at a standstill.

“For the first time in history, human beings were afraid of the same thing at the same time and all over the world”, underlines Hubert Védrine, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs. The challenge is unprecedented. For some, such as Henry Kissinger in the columns of the Wall Street Journal April 3, “The pandemic will forever change the world order.” And former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was quick to compare the pandemic to an asteroid that struck Earth.

“No world after”

But once the great astonishment of a world has stopped, it seems more and more evident that this shock, undoubtedly turning point, will be “Less transformative than a catalyst confirming and exacerbating pre-existing trends”, notes in July Jean-Baptiste Jeangène-Vilmer, director of the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (Irsem), in an article by International politics with the provocative title: “There will be no world after”.

The pandemic can only amplify the fractures that have been undermining for years an increasingly chaotic international order, marked by the return of rivalries between powers against the backdrop of a crisis of a certain idea of ​​multilateralism and international order as it was formed after the Second World War.

The UN system is shaken by the very country that was its pillar, the United States. “The crisis triggered by Covid-19 can be read as the first of a post-American world, the complete absence of American leadership is unprecedented. At no time has Donald Trump tried to bring about global coordination, and he is following his unilateralist logic to the end “, explains Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

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Since the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House, the United States has withdrawn from a number of treaties, including the Paris agreement on the climate, that on Iranian nuclear power or that on the limitation of nuclear weapons at intermediate range concluded with Russia at the end of the Cold War. In April, Washington also announced the suspension of the US contribution to the World Health Organization, accused of complacency towards Beijing and mismanagement of the health crisis.

The return of borders

In the name of“America First”, the Trump administration is accelerating a decline already initiated by Barack Obama. “The feeling of an American withdrawal is more important than the Covid-19 to explain the rise of tensions in Asia, the Middle East or the Eastern Mediterranean”, analysis Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).

The health crisis has everywhere reinforced the withdrawal into the national precinct and the return of borders. “The speed with which the virus has spread around the world shows the need for a comprehensive response. But, while multilateralism would be more necessary than ever, it is deteriorating both at the international level, as evidenced by the crisis in the UN system, and at the regional level with the European Union which reacted, at least initially, in dispersed order “, notes Bertrand Badie, professor emeritus at Sciences Po.

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The exceptional measures imposed in the fight against the virus represent an indisputable godsend for authoritarian regimes. But populist leaders who have denied the severity of the disease, refusing any containment measures, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have gained popularity despite the health fiasco. Even Donald Trump, although left behind by Joe Biden in the polls, preserves his electoral base despite his mistakes.

The geopolitical consequences of the crisis are real. “The pandemic is the continuation by other means of the struggle between powers”, noted Jean-Yves Le Drian in his interview with World. The US-China polarization, which had already started fifteen years ago, has become even stronger. In addition, the two superpowers have also widened the gap militarily and economically vis-à-vis Europe and Russia. The virus has further fueled tensions and, in Beijing as in Washington, we no longer hesitate to talk about “New cold war”.

Hardening of strong states

The United States remains the world’s largest power by far, even though it is no longer the hyperpower of the unipolar world that followed the fall of the Wall. Unlike during the Cold War era with the Soviet Union, the United States and China, despite their conflicting relations, remain economically interdependent.

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“If China has been acting for the past six months and the outbreak of the virus more aggressively, is it because it feels stronger or, on the contrary, because it feels weaker? “, asks Bruno Tertrais. It was the first focus of the epidemic and, out of imperity, allowed it to spread before reacting effectively. A democracy like Taiwan has done much better.

“This pandemic appeared for reasons linked to the very nature of the Chinese communist system and it revealed the internal limits of the regime incompatible with its status as the second world power”, explains Valérie Niquet, head of the Asia division at the Foundation for Strategic Research. “If the pandemic continues, or even worsens, the risk is on the one hand that of a hardening of strong States, which such as Russia, China, Turkey and Iran could be tempted by external adventures,” while their populations are suffering from the economic crisis, and on the other hand that of a weakening of weak states – in Africa, in Latin America – with the rise of internal conflicts ”, forecasts Bruno Tertrais.

So many challenges for Europe. It was able to react economically with an unprecedented joint recovery plan. But, despite the French President’s calls for European sovereignty and awareness, the EU, “Herbivorous power in a carnivorous world”, In the words of Hubert Védrine, still hesitates to implement a common security policy despite the evidence of increasing perils at its borders to the south and east.

“The temptation of a withdrawal that would accompany a contraction of the defense effort risks being all the more attractive for public opinion and Western elites as it would reinforce the growing perception of the vanity of military interventions all the more. presented – wrongly – as endless wars ”, worries Corentin Brustlein, in the 2021 edition of Ramses, the annual geopolitical report of IFRI (Dunod).

This article is part of a dossier produced in the framework of a partnership with the Normandy World Peace Forum which takes place on 1er and October 2 in Caen. Find out more here.

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