World Order after Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping geopolitics. Escalating tensions between the United States and China are the clearest immediate-term outcome. But what about the long-term impact?

CSIS Risk and Foresight Group Director Sam Brannen asked four of his International Security Program colleagues to take the long view on how Covid-19 could affect geopolitics out to 2025-2030 and beyond.

Summary

  • Covid-19 has accelerated the transition to a more fragmented world order in which the future organizing principles of the international system are unclear.
  • Neither China nor the United States is positioned to emerge from Covid-19 as a “winner” in a way that would dramatically shift the balance of world power in its favor.
  • The economic effects of Covid-19 will increase downward pressure on U.S. and likely others’ defense budgets, which could affect the pace of force modernization.
  • The “Great Power Competition” paradigm in the most recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy inaccurately describes this new geopolitical environment.
  • In the new geopolitical environment, it is increasingly difficult for any single country to exercise its will, and multiple poles compete and cooperate.
  • U.S. alliances hold in this world, though allies more selectively choose where to align with the United States versus choosing their own paths.

Kathleen Hicks

Senior Vice President
Henry A. Kissinger Chair
Director, International Security Program

Current U.S. debates over “great power competition” obscure the true state of international affairs that is evolving. Military and economic rivalry among the United States, China, and Russia is important to geopolitics, but so is the degree to which other “great powers,” some with nuclear weapons, seek alternative paths, potentially together. France, Germany, India, and Japan are powers in their own right, for example. This is why alliances and economic partnerships are so important in a world of increasing multipolarity.

Moreover, the United States and China will likely emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic having taken significant damage to their prestige and soft power. Neither country has distinguished itself or aided the international community significantly in responding.

Seth Jones

Harold Brown Chair
Director, Transnational Threats Project
Senior Adviser, International Security Program

By 2025-2030, there will be multipolarity between different parties, with the United States, China, Russia, and the European Union representing different poles. But at the macro level, these poles may align around regime type, with the democratic United States and Europe aligned against Russia and China. 

Regarding the United States, its alliance system may remain robust by 2025-2030 based on two assumptions. First, multipolarity increases incentives to cleave to parties with shared interests. Several rising poles in the new global order are authoritarian, with skeptical views of democracy, free press, and open markets. As global competition increases, there are structural and institutional incentives for democratic U.S. allies to band together to advance shared views and push back on regimes attempting to revise the international order.

The second assumption is that the United States could experience a change in political leadership. Future U.S. administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, are likely to favor a stronger alliance framework. While there are increasing domestic pressures for a foreign policy of restraint today, the United States will likely be cautious in actually implementing a more restrained foreign policy. A U.S. withdrawal from global affairs is complicated by existing, entangling relationships, including in institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While some in the United States might wish to play less of a global leadership role and pull back, other actors, such as Iran, Russia, China, and the Islamic State, also get a “vote.”

Rebecca Hersman

Director, Project on Nuclear Issues
Senior Adviser, International Security Program

U.S. alliances, and with them the United States’ global leadership position, will likely weaken in this time frame as Europeans seek less dependence on the United States and hedge against unpredictable U.S. leadership. There is uncertainty in Asia as well. It is possible that the United States can recover its diminished position in the region, but the failure to negotiate basing agreements with the Republic of Korea and Japan and the extortionist approach taken by the current administration in these negotiations will be difficult to overcome. All of these factors are exacerbated by the competitive, zero-sum dynamics unleashed in this pandemic. 

The outcome of the geopolitical competition will hinge to a large degree on the relative economic recovery of the United States and China from Covid-19 and the ability of other states, especially in Europe and Asia, to recover and coalesce around shared values and interests. Their ability to create counterweights rather than perpetuate a steady fragmentation of power will determine to a large degree how future U.S. influence looks particularly in Northeast and Southeast Asia relative to China.

An important note: The conditions of great power competition coupled with the economic pressures of Covid-19 can create opportunities for arms control based solely on strategic state interests. Arms control presents opportunities to reduce arms racing, stabilize competition, and manage conflict, which can further incentivize nonproliferation. These factors may be more galvanizing to states as incentivizes to encourage arms control than would Post-Cold War cooperation. It is plausible, perhaps even likely, that the United States, China, and Russia resort to arms control tools to manage great power competition.

Todd Harrison

Director, Defense Budget Analysis
Director, Aerospace Security Project
Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Russia is declining in relative power due to economics and demographics. It is a poor, crumbling state with limited capacity that happens to have a large nuclear arsenal. China’s economic trajectory is unlikely to continue as in the past, and though it continues to develop significant power, its domestic political stability presents an ongoing challenge for the Chinese Communist Party. 

Any great power conflict in this decade would likely first manifest itself in space. Such a conflict could be non-kinetic and not publicly visible, relying on jamming, lazing, and cyber-based weaponry, and would be aimed at signaling seriousness and intent to adversaries. Space-based conflict provides an avenue to deter adversary involvement by preemptively denying space-based capabilities, making terrestrial action more expensive or difficult for an adversary that needs to operate globally over long distances. For example, prior to an invasion of the Baltic States, Russia could signal its will and the cost of intervention to the United States and NATO by launching reversible attacks against space-based assets that NATO forces rely on, slowing operations and raising the potential cost of intervention.

Sam Brannen leads the Risk and Foresight Group and is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Seth G. Jones
Senior Vice President; Harold Brown Chair; and Director, International Security Program
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Todd Harrison

Todd Harrison

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis

Rebecca Hersman

Kathleen H. Hicks

Samuel Brannen