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Post-Pandemic Geopolitics

Estimating the long-term effect of the current pandemic is not an exact prediction of the future, but an exercise in weighing probabilities and adjusting current policies. When envisioning the international order in 2030, five scenarios stand out.

CAMBRIDGE – There is no single future until it happens, and any effort to envision geopolitics in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic must include a range of possible futures. I suggest five plausible futures in 2030, but obviously others can be imagined.

The end of the globalized liberal order. The world order established by the United States after World War II created a framework of institutions that led to a remarkable liberalization of international trade and finance. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this order was being challenged by the rise of China and the growth of populism in Western democracies. China benefited from the order, but as its strategic weight grows, it increasingly insists on setting standards and rules. The US resists, institutions atrophy, and appeals to sovereignty increase. The US remains outside the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement. COVID-19 contributes to the probability of this scenario by weakening the US “system manager.”

A 1930s-like authoritarian challenge. Mass unemployment, increased inequality, and community disruption from pandemic-related economic changes create hospitable conditions for authoritarian politics. There is no shortage of political entrepreneurs willing to use nationalist populism to gain power. Nativism and protectionism increase. Tariffs and quotas on goods and people increase, and immigrants and refugees become scapegoats. Authoritarian states seek to consolidate regional spheres of interest, and various types of interventions increase the risk of violent conflict. Some of these trends were visible before 2020, but weak prospects for economic recovery, owing to the failure to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, increase the probability of this scenario.