Five Realist Lessons from the Coronavirus

By Jan Gerber

Crises force us to adjust our narratives to come to terms with reality. They expose flaws in our thinking and vulnerabilities in our systems. The new coronavirus has shown how easily individuals give up their freedoms for security and how vehemently states hold on to power and compete for more with other states. In an age of globalization, the virus has revealed a world divided by borders and institutions subject to national interests. 

Instead of providing a window into the future, the crisis has provided a mirror into the present. We need to take a long hard look through it first, to see the world as it really is today, before we think about where it is going tomorrow

Here are the five geopolitical lessons we have learned or relearned from the coronavirus.  

Lesson 1: Security is king

Security trumps every other consideration of states, including individual rights. States are a legal fiction, they don’t make decisions any more than corporations do. When we say “states,” we mean statesmen, individuals who hold power and the wellbeing of their constituents in trust. 

In the recent months, millions have put not just their wellbeing but their livelihoods into the hands of a few government officials. Although the scale of this global empowerment of the state is without precedent, the logic behind it is as old as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

To understand the picture presented by the coronavirus correctly, we must look at the foundumanetals. If we take the view that states exist primarily to protect rights, then the current situation makes no sense. If, on the other hand, we recognize that a state’s raison d’etre is to provide security, we should not be surprised to see both autocratic and democratic regimes suspend civil liberties, even such basic freedoms as locomotion and work, in the name of security. 

China led the world in the severity of lockdowns, closing the city of Wuhan for months and keeping the citizens there under close watch. With rare exceptions such as Sweden, governments have taken the liberty to distinguish “essential” from “nonessential businesses,” shutting down entire sections of the economy. 

Echoing the fallout from 9/11, states introduced high-end surveillance technology to improve their contact tracing capabilities and help enforce quarantine. In Russia, Moscow authorities released a compulsory tracking app which taps into the user’s location, calls, and other data and automatically fines them for failing to send a selfie on a random request. South Korea introduced tracking bracelets when individuals ordered to self-quarantine avoided detection by leaving their smartphones at home. Spain and the U.K. have used drones to monitor social distancing behavior and disperse crowds.  

The pandemic has strengthened social control in authoritarian countries and reminded democratic societies just how much coercion they are willing to tolerate given the alternative––an overrun healthcare system, empty shelves at grocery stores, and power outages. Faced with this 21st century state of nature, they opted for the Leviathan. 

Lesson 2: States are the primary actors on the world stage

It is states, not individuals, supranational organizations or corporations who deal in power and security, the hard currencies to which world events must always default. All these non-state actors have their place in the grand scheme of things and it would be reductionist to discount their role in the events of these last few months. However, if we map the global efforts against the pandemic, we will see that they fall along state borders. 

The spectacular failure of the World Health Organization to live up to its name has only confirmed states in their self-help approach to the pandemic. In mid-January, after the first cases of covid-19 were already being reported outside of Wuhan, the WHO was spreading Chinese government’s misinformation that there was no human-to-human transmission. Historically distrustful of China, Taiwanese authorities conducted their own investigation and informed the WHO of an upcoming global pandemic, but to no effect. Accusing the organization of being “China-centric” and citing its failure to take the Taiwanese warnings seriously, U.S. President Donald Trump terminated the U.S. relationship with the WHO, dealing a mortal blow to the discredited organization. 

The European Union is another example of an institution incapable of reconciling the underlying friction between states’ interests. Here the battle lines run along the twin levers of monetary and fiscal policy, separating the rich conservative north from the southern economies who have also been hit the hardest by the pandemic. 

On May 5, Germany’s constitutional court challenged the ruling of the European Court of Justice, E.U. ‘s highest judicial authority, saying that the existing asset purchasing program of the European Central Bank was exceeding the mandate of the institution and disadvantaging the German economy. 

This unprecedented assertion of national sovereignty by a member state will not only undermine legal cohesion of the E.U. in the long term but it may also tie the hands of the European Central Bank, which is tasked with managing monetary policy in the eurozone, at a time when bold monetary action is most needed. 

The ECB is now also facing opposition from the “frugal four,” Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, who insist that economic aid to the most afflicted countries come in the form of loans instead of grants from jointly issued debt.  

Against the “frugal four,” the French President Emanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel have emerged as the biggest champions of the move to issue 500 billion in eurobonds and distribute the money in grants. The decision to expand the E.U budget will require unanimous consent of all 27 member states. 

As long as the impasse lasts, the funds will not flow to where they are needed and the integrity of the E.U., which purports to be a community of interests, will remain tarnished, perhaps irrevocably. 

Lesson 3: States never suspend competition 

States, always hungry for more power, have jumped at the opportunity caused by the crisis to get ahead of the competition.   

Russia and Saudi Arabia started the oil price war in March which exhausted the world’s storage capacity and chastened the rise of U.S. shale oil producers who operate at much higher profit margins than either of the two players. Although the war quieted down after U.S-brokered negotiations, a second devastating round of cuts, like a second wave of the coronavirus, hangs in the air. 

In response to an attack on the U.S. base in Iraq, the U.S. has expanded sanctions on Iran despite the country’s reported struggle to buy medical supplies due to the secondary sanctions already in existence. Now each accuses the other of unprovoked acts of terrorism.

The coronavirus did not just accelerate old rivalries. It also provoked NATO allies to hoard medical supplies to avoid shortages and even poach each others’ companies to get ahead on medical research. 

German officials accused the Trump administration of trying to relocate the scientific team working for CureVac AG, a German biotech firm working on the vaccine for covid-19, and securing exclusive rights to the vaccine for the U.S. government. However, CureVac’s acting CEO Franz-Werner Haas then dismissed the accusations in a conference call with investors. Then, the Berlin Interior Minister Andreas Geisel accused the United States of “modern piracy” when a shipment of 200,000 masks made by a U.S. manufacturer in China bound for Berlin was reportedly confiscated at a Bangkok airport and sent to the U.S. instead. 3M Co., the company in question, denied that any such order was ever made. 

Lesson 4: Perceptions matter more than the facts of the matter. 

What happened to the masks? We may not know for a long time. Facts take long to determine, especially when it is more convenient to hide them. Perceptions matter more for international affairs because states, who are actors on the world stage, want to be perceived in a favorable light.

In the war of words between the U.S. and China, each side is playing fast and loose with the truth. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” the “Chinese virus” came from a lab in Wuhan, without providing any evidence. China’s diplomats fired back with a conspiracy theory that the virus was first spread in Wuhan by the American military. It is in the interest of both parties to keep up the false narratives, at least in the short-term. China can cover up whatever responsibility it has for the severity of the pandemic claiming American sinophobia. Trump can detract from his own criticism at home that he mismanaged the pandemic by shifting the entire blame onto China.  

In a press briefing at the annual Two Sessions congress in China, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said that the U.S. has a “political virus” which is to blame China for its own mistakes. The truth is that this “political virus” is not exclusive to the U.S. nor to its Chinese rival. Distrust among nations is not a bug but a feature of the international system and it is only one of the many tools that statesmen use to make themselves look better in the eyes of other states and in the eyes of their constituents’ at home. 

Lesson 5: No Multilateralism Without a Leader 

In the same two sessions interview, the Chinese foreign minister said that China does not harbor hegemonic ambitions and that those who give it this label are the ones who seek dominance themselves. He further claimed that there is no political dimension at all to China’s aid to countries like Italy and Pakistan and that China does not want to be seen as a savior but only an ally to countries in need. However, he also attributed China’s provision of medical supplies and energy abroad to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, the centerpiece of Beijing’s strategy to outbid the U.S. and other rivals for an economic and political stake in Eurasia. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, President Macron echoed the sentiments of the Chinese top diplomat expressing hopes for a new multilateral framework of action “not subject to hegemony.” He appealed to World War II as the classic example of a crisis that ushered in unprecedented multilateralism through the U.N. and other global institutions. But the French President missed one key piece of the 1940s puzzle––the global dominance of the United States. The irony is that the French President could well make the World War II analogy work for Europe recovering from the coronavirus but only if he succeeds at what seems to be the long-term goal of his presidency––the creation of a unified Europe with France as the leader.

The main reason there has been no global multilateral action to fight the pandemic is that there is no longer a global leader with the power and will to enforce it. 

Instead, what we see today are ambitious statesmen building regional multilateral frameworks, such as the Franco-German E.U. and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Whether they will be successful will depend, as the U.S. example teaches, on their ability to make other states play by the rules they create.

Jan Gerber is a senior at The King’s College in New York City, majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PP&E). He is the founder and president of the John Quincy Adams Society Chapter at King’s. Originally from Poland, he moved to the U.S. for higher education and the experience of living abroad. He is also a languages enthusiast and American history wonk.






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