The Resurgence of Great Power Politics in a Post-Pandemic World

“Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one.”
― A.J.P Taylor

The debilitating blow inflicted by the global COVID pandemic was supposed to unite the Great powers against common enemy of humanity. Ironically, the schism between global North and global South is burgeoning concomitant with vaccination drive which disproportionately benefits haves over haves not. The Pollyannaish vision of hyper-globalized interconnected world is fading from memory while specter of fragmented ‘durable anarchy’ seems to be writing on the wall.  The ensuing vaccine nationalism has already pitted China, US, Russia, UK and Israel into bitter competition while Machiavellian vaccine diplomacy to win strategic partners depicts that far from tempering geopolitical rivalries, the pandemic is exacerbating the existing geopolitical fault-lines. Core states are fast accelerating towards herd immunity while peripheral states are battling the worst waves of infection. Since, vaccines and aids are already shaping contours of post-pandemic world order, its blatantly evident that Great Powers now wield astronomical power to coerce and cajole vulnerable states of global periphery. Sardonically, globalized economic landscape was envisioned to foster cooperation and mutual reinforcement during taxing times but new world economic order is already witnessing the cold clash of titans over meager resources. The pandemic induced global financial recession has already engulfed colossal conglomerates and mighty business ventures. Against the backdrop of global economic meltdown, Great Power competition is rearing its ugly head again. Hence, Pandemic and prospects of medical holocaust have drastically changed everything, except our way of thinking.

Prior to pandemic sword of Damocles, the world was witnessing bitter mutually destructive trade war between global goliaths. The trade and investment was take back seat while populism and protectionism was rule of the day. All prophecies of inextricable integration were obsolete as de-coupling was the new normal. Before outbreak of Covid-19, climate change was the substantial existential threats to humanity which required robust Great Power cooperation to mitigate the looming disaster. Despite myriad warnings from climate activists and environmentalists, narrow politico-economic interests were accorded primacy over survival of humanity. Instead of combating climate change by pooling resources, Great Powers were embroiled in murky blame game to inflict maximum reputational damage to their competitor. Thereafter, Covid-19 induced health catastrophe witnessed the bleak blame again whereby there were systematic efforts to single out one state and divert all condemnation against it. The contemporary vaccine centric world order depicts cruel Great Power Machiavellian tactics whereby instead of lending unconditional support to severely hit countries, the dictates of realpolitik are deciding factor. The Global heavyweights are striving to entice countries from their rival`s sphere of influence through vaccines. Furthermore, vaccine diplomacy is practical manifestation of power politics as ambitious global actors are lending this critical support only to win geopolitical concessions and partners against strategic competitors.

Where there is great power, there is great responsibility.”
― Sir Winston Churchill

Biden administration`s goldilocks foreign policy is fluctuating between ‘America First’ and ‘Make the World Safe for Democracy’. The fresh imposition of sanctions upon Russia concomitant with accusing China of genocide exhibit the changing tide of international politics post-pandemic. The idealist foreign policy approach outlined by Biden during election campaign is no more relevant in his realist foreign policy calculations. Thus, US not only expelled Russian diplomats but imposed bevy of fresh sanctions upon Russia to avenge its alleged role in meddling 2016 US elections. This murky game of sanctions and tariffs might trigger further escalation, leading states towards full blown conflict. Graham Allison in his magnum opus “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides` Trap?” candidly propounded that;

“Readers who wonder whether a trade conflict could escalate into nuclear war should pay careful attention to the curious path that led Japan and the United States to Pearl Harbor. If the thought of a nation provoking its adversary into war to advance its own domestic agenda seems implausible, remember Bismarck. For insights into the ways in which naval rivalries can propel national governments to bloody war, the interplay between England and the Dutch Republic is instructive”.

The blazing flashpoints in post-pandemic world are Ukraine and Taiwan. Revanchist power Russia is assembling substantial number of troops on its border with Ukraine, proportional to number of troops during 2014 annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile the revisionist economic goliath China is persistently increasing its military jets in Taiwan`s Air Identification Zones. American Secretary of State Blinken and Joe Biden have repeatedly employed incendiary rhetoric vis-à-vis other Great Powers. Calling Russian strongman Putin a “killer” while Chinese “re-education program” in Xinjiang as “genocide” is tantamount to deliberate brinkmanship. Furthermore, US is persistently lifting restrictions on Americans meeting Taiwanese officials.  Though both these flashpoints are thousands of miles away from eachother with different actors involved but there is one connecting dot and that is resurgence of Great Power Politics. The American grand strategy regarding Taiwan and Ukraine is not explicitly outlined without any concrete promise of help in case of foreign invasion but this “strategic ambiguity” is simultaneously dangerous because it presents the chance of American intervention if US found it inevitable to “contain” a resurgent power. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, argues that: “Moscow and Beijing will look closely at how we react in one situation to set the stage for the other.” Daalder suggests that “we need greater strategic clarity on what we would do if Russia moved militarily against Ukraine, or China on Taiwan”.

It is an open secret that Pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing tensions among Great Powers. Now the question arises that why global protagonists are choosing confrontation over cooperation at extremely fatal moment? It`s the Economy Stupid! (quoting Bill Clinton`s strategist James Carville). The breakdown of supply chains and transport networks amid strict lockdowns has wrecked global economy. Economic troubles often translate into disruption of domestic orders. In order to divert attention from mishandling of pandemic, politicians need scapegoat to divert attention of their gullible public. The concoction of existential external threat concomitant with military muscle-flexing would serve as useful tool to salvage crumbling domestic standing. Furthermore, as global economy is resuming business as usual, states are trying to maximize their dividends and this brutally self-interested propensity reduces room for peaceful co-existence. Adding insult to injury, the pandemic has bequeathed unprecedented powers to state in order to protect their citizens. Now, the democracies even resemble techno-authoritarian governance models whereby state has aggrandized monopoly over entire decision-making apparatus. These dynamics exhibit greater proclivity of sleepwalking towards confrontation because democratic deliberation is now obsolete and state is substantially powerful enough to impose its decisions.

Outlining American Grand Strategy in post-pandemic world, Biden roared in Munich Security Conference, held in February 2021; “America is back. We are not looking backward,” Biden pledged. “We are looking forward, together.” Still, one aspect of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is shaping the contours of present administration`s foreign policy and that is ironically great power competition. “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition,” Biden told conference attendees, adding that “competition with China is going to be stiff.” This explains that why great power competition is still buzzword in international political spheres. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis argued in June 2017 that a “return to great-power competition places the international order under assault,” while the US National Security Strategy released later that year enshrined that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.” Pandemic has already mercilessly assaulted the liberal international world order by engulfing multilateralism, economic inter-dependence and integration. The exponential rise in zero-sum geopolitical is final straw in camel`s back while demonstrating that post-pandemic world order will be brutally competitive.

In anarchic world system of self-interested states, apparently Great-Power maneuvering is normal feature of international politics. For instance, the 2017 National Security Strategy of US portrays the world order as an “arena of continuous competition”. Retrospectively speaking, global giants have always manoeuvred to aggrandize more power and resources, be it 16th-century rivalries among empires, the imperialist jostle for Africa, or the Cold War bloc politics between the capitalist and communist protagonists, actors have persistently scrambled for supremacy and influence. As the Georgetown University professor Daniel Nexon candidly describes it “competition among great powers cannot return, because it never really went away.”

The resurgence of Great Power shenanigans during health emergency illustrates that world stands at brink of social and economic catastrophe. Another significant factor exacerbating pre-existing fault-lines is the ongoing battle of perceptions. The perceived better handling of pandemic by East Asian countries such as China, Singapore, and Taiwan etc is raising serious questions about viability of western model of governance. There is burgeoning discourse over emulation of Chinese-style techno-autocracy to better deal with contemporary challenges. Chinese model of governance has proved to be most resilient system which not only emerged victorious against lethal blow of Covid-19 but also propaganda warfare whereby there were cruelly orchestrated attempts by western democracies to single out China for spread of virus. Thus, the notion that Great Power completion is back exhibits that international political analysts are reluctantly admitting US is now declining power because other powers have grown more rebellious and belligerent. The era of American exceptional is over now and US has already squandered its uni-polar moment. Pandemic has unraveled the vulnerabilities of super-power while testing the resolve of revisionist powers. Those emerging victorious from health cataclysm are now vowing to balance against the ‘indispensible leader of free world’.

The acclaimed political scientist Robert Kagan argued recently that the biggest question of the coming decades may be whether countries can “confine the global competition to the economic and political realms and thus spare themselves and the world from the horrors of the next Great War or even the still frightening confrontations of another cold war.”

The central concern for global community must not be the debate on whether Great Power competition is returning again or not because it never vanished from global political panorama. The military primacy of US was already declining concomitant with aggressive persistent pushbacks from revisionist actors. The economic footprint was also substantially balanced after rise of China as economic giant. Ironically, the “seismic effects” of pandemic are further jolting the post-cold war world order. Still, there exists palpable exuberance among some intelligentsia who believe that states grow and prosper after crushing crises and contemporary compendium of ominous medical threat illustrated that world order is resilient. CNN`s prestigious journalist Fareed Zakaria in his book ‘Ten Lessons for Post-Pandemic World’ notes that; “This ugly pandemic has opened up a path to a new world.”

The foreign policy of any state is guided by interests, not ideology. The ideological principles would have coerced Great Powers to unconditionally cooperate with eachother to mitigate the medical disaster jointly. Narrow interests propel states to turn blind eye to shared objectives and pursue self-centric perilous bargain. Thus, ‘era of convergence’ has long been over and Fukuyama`s ‘End of History’ has died tragic death. The post-pandemic world order is more vulnerable than ever to totalitarian tactics, economic coercion and political meddling. The burgeoning technology assisted state control has trapped the humanity in ‘iron cage’. Instead of securing bipartisan global consensus to treat pandemics like Weapons of Mass Destruction, world`s big guns are gearing up to take the seat of emperor. Though, US still enjoys leadership of world by virtue of its military superiority and control of global economic statecraft, so it possesses the ability to inflict crippling sanctions upon its adversaries. The increasingly bellicose revisionist global actors would strike back with retaliatory tariffs and sanctions, further eroding the buoyancy of post-Covid global economic order. The consequent inflation would trickle down to ordinary citizens while disproportionately breaking the backbone of peripheries. If past is a prologues, economic pains often jolt entire government machinery and disruption of social orders will not only foment unrest locally but also proliferate globally. The harrowing saga of European refugee crisis is stark reminder that local crises could wreck social orders of entire continent. Thus, the trending buzzword ‘Return of Great Power Competition’ dangerously conceals ugly realities of scramble for influence and power.

The Francis Fukuyama`s ‘End of History’ thesis asserted that world could never envision any idea as powerful as globalization and consequent ‘capitalist world order’. Though, he prophesized that more ideas will continue to pose challenge to existing order but post-pandemic world order is illustrating that era of convergence was nothing more than phantasmagorical delusion.  In a 2002 book titled The Ideas That Conquered the World, Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University anticipated that the world was dominated by three major ideas: “peace as the preferred basis for relations among countries; democracy as the optimal way to organize political life within them; and the free market as the indispensable vehicle for producing wealth.” These ideas provided the basis for a “market centered international order” that “commanded almost universal allegiance not only because every country saw potential benefit in it but also because there was no viable alternative.”The hyper-globalized convergence was envisioned to garner bipartisan support in order to collectively tackle common challenges. The tyranny of global pandemic fell short of securing Great Power cooperation and strongmen round the world strived to convert the pandemic challenge to advance personalized cult and narrow geopolitical designs. The global goliaths must pay heed to Henry Kissinger who argued, “An equilibrium can never be permanent but must be adjusted in constant struggles”.

Thomas Wright in his work “All Measures Short of War; The Contest for 21st Century” rightly propounded that; “As the United States competes with Russia and China, and as it works to impose stability in the Middle East, it cannot lose sight of the many areas in which the United States must cooperate with its rivals out of a shared interest. Volatility in the global economy, climate change, counterterrorism, and nuclear proliferation are challenges for all major powers regardless of their geopolitical ambitions—and they are problems for which progress is extremely unlikely without sustained cooperation. The issue is whether it is possible to cooperate on these problems while competing on others”. According to these assertions, paradigm shift in post-pandemic international political architecture is imperative to secure Great Power cooperation on challenges posing existential threats to humanity. The ‘competitive co-existence’ is possible to promote constructive engagement and healthy competition. This concept is practically feasible as well because there are plenty of states which are cooperating in various spheres despite outstanding differences. The example of US-India engagement despite propensity of later towards illiberal saffron jingoism is striking in this regard.

This approach resembles the idea of “managed strategic competition” promulgated by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. While acknowledging the realist dictates of international politics, Rudd propounds those realist propensities of self-interested states could never be completely diminished but could be effectively managed by prudence and shrewd policy-making. Thus the cold battle for supremacy in post-pandemic world could never be completely circumvented but management is possible to keep this rivalry within limits. This nationalist posturing of world leaders and demonization of ‘others’ is hampering the prospects of global economic recovery while propagating resentment epidemic. This self-righteous indignation is sapping the potential of states to offer their contribution in mitigating global challenges. Furthermore, ambitious states are persistently diverting their resources to avenge the grey-zone aggression, diplomatic expulsions and cyber-espionage tactics instead of pooling their resources to save humanity from tyranny of pandemic. This greater disengagement is translating into burgeoning problems while the world is already crumbling under weight of pandemic. The global heavyweights must reach a ‘concert of nations’ to acknowledge that era of brinkmanship and military muscular-flexing is over because novel threats are posing collective threats to existence of humanity. The insatiable strategic rivalries have brought the world at brink of medical holocaust. Thus, in order to fight collective challenges, a new ‘Marshall Plan’ is required to secure existential deterrence against novel challenges.

Richard Fontaine analyzed the resurgence of Great Power Politics from realist perspective in his foreign policy article citing ; “To be sure, the wider international response has not exactly been a model of cooperation. Governments have made decisions on borders, entry protocols, export bans, and population control measures largely on their own and with little consultation. The G-7 leaders convened a virtual, emergency summit on pandemic response that produced a statement filled with abstract pledges of coordination but bereft of any specific commitments. The G-20 leaders have not met at all. The coronavirus crisis may be worldwide, but the responses have so far been almost exclusively national”.

With Great Powers and colossal military-economic might comes great responsibility. The world`s big guns possess the capacity and material resources to shape the post-pandemic world order in accordance with ideological principles and values. This privilege is not enjoyed by marginalized and weak states of world that is even if a disintegrating failed state desires to bolster peace and stability in global ambiance, it wouldn`t be able to do so owing to lack of soft and hard power. It takes decades for a country to become ‘leader of free world’ or ‘indispensable nation’ for global governance. Sardonically, the narrow definitions of national interests and domestic political designs compel even the intellectually sound global leaders to advance mutually destructive foreign policy agendas. Adding insult to injury, the lucrative profits being generated by war economies serve the interests of cold-blooded corporatocracy which in turn cajoles policy-makers to pursue destructive policies. The Pentagon, for instance, is concocting ‘China threat’ to aggrandize massive defense budget. The time is ripe to change this Manichean worldview of zero-sum competition and embrace responsible “competitive co-existence’ to best combat the collective challenges. The ‘imperial lurch’ of Great Powers is triggering begger-thy-neighbour policies instead of negotiating areas of mutual adjustment. Consequently, the global economic recovery, after pandemic peak subsided in major countries, is painfully slow.

“With great abilities come great responsibilities; great power comes with great assignments. With great age comes great reasoning; great actions come great experience. With great battles come great victories; great trees come with great tap roots”.  Israelmore Ayivor

Newsletter SignUp