How COVID changed geopolitics in 2020

Supporters of the Islamic political party Jamat-e-Islami shout slogans during a demonstration against French President Macron, in Karachi, Pakistan, 1 November 2020. [Shahzaib Akber/EPA/EFE]

Before winter holidays put an end to a very unusual year, EURACTIV takes a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the bigger picture of international relations.

War and geopolitics are complementary terms. Pandemics can be compared to a world war, because of their brutality and consequences in terms of loss of human lives but also because of a more specific reason.

The virus, which is most probably of natural origin, resembles biological weapons (weapons of mass destruction) which have been developed by world powers through history and which, despite their prohibition, most probably continue to be developed in secret laboratories.

Powerless powers

Major countries consider as strategic assets their military forces specialised in countering the threat of biological and bacteriological warfare.

But in the current crisis, it became obvious that no country, not even the United States or Russia, the two world powers with the largest mass destruction arsenals, are equipped to face the challenge. In an unsuccessful PR-stunt Russia sent its specialised troops to Italy, only to reveal how inadequate, almost comic, its preparedness was.

COVID-19 pandemic raises questions on preparedness for biological threats

As Europe is grappling to find a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has criticised Europe’s lack of preparedness against biological threats.

Speaking at a press briefing on Saturday (28 March), Borissov criticised, amongst others, NATO for …

Politicians and the public have come to realise that no matter how big and costly our armies may be, they were fairly useless in a pandemic situation similar to an attack with biological weapons. This conclusion was even more disturbing for the world’s biggest powers.

The psychology mechanism of denial may explain why both Russia and the US underestimated the pandemic.

COVID did not hit all parts of Europe at the same time. In the early period, Russia behaved as if its population had some sort of mysterious natural advantage over the pampered West. But Russia too paid a heavy price in terms of the human toll.

Once the current crisis is over, pundits warn, our civilisation will need to be better prepared not only for the next naturally occurring pandemic but also for the possibility of human-engineered biological agents designed to cause mayhem on a massive scale.

Undoubtedly, the current crisis will inspire terrorists – state or non-state agents. A famous phrase says that biological warfare is “the poor man’s nuclear bomb”. A small rogue country (North Korea comes to mind) could thus create more nuisance than the biggest powers.

In parallel, it became obvious that healthcare is neither a social service nor a business activity. Leaders who were used to consulting their generals in previous crises, this time spent sleepless nights picking the brains of their medical experts. Let’s hope they now know that the underfunded healthcare is at least as important as military defence.

Raison d’État

In desperate search of solutions at the national scale, democratic states sometimes behave like predators, pirates or smugglers.

The Trump administration tried to poach CureVac, a European vaccine company, the Czech Republic diverted masks destined to Italy, and in Poland, a shady arms dealer was put in charge of securing ventilators.

On a more positive note, the EU Commission undertook a joint purchase of masks and vaccines, which helped preserve the unity of the bloc, in addition to the post-COVID economic stimulus. On the negative side, the EU “forgot” its closest family, the Western Balkans, throwing the door wide open to Russia and China for further PR stunts.

The perfect enemy

Presumably, COVID19 originated in a wet market in Wuhan, in China, the world’s most populated country with a high economic growth rate and a Communist regime nourishing disturbing ambitions to subjugate the Western world. The perfect enemy.

On the other side, there is Donald Trump, notorious for his unproven allegations, plus the backlog of bilateral issues, ranging from trade wars, China Sea tensions, or military buildup in Taiwan. Trump’s “China flu” narrative added fuel to fire, to say the least.

Arguably, one of the (big) consequences of the COVID crisis is that Trump was not re-elected. This was due not only to his foreign policy standings but to his poor handling of the sanitary crisis at home.

Now that he has lost the elections, Trump may be regretting not having been tougher in accusing China, instigating hate, pushing the conflict to the limit, demanding retribution or else. China’s success in curbing the pandemic could have served as proof of conspiracy.

Had China been a smaller power, the risk of full-fledged war would be much bigger. The US attacked Vietnam in 1964 for a much smaller offence (actually, a piece of fake news).

Weakening of international institutions

For Trump, who dislikes international institutions anyway, COVID-19 provided the opportunity to caricature the work of the World Health Organisation by essentially accusing it of being manipulated by China.

This prompted UN Secretary-General António Guterres to warn that the world was “moving in a very dangerous direction” with US-China tensions and call for efforts to avoid a new Cold War.

These statements marked a peak in the stand-off. As early as March, Guterres called for a global ceasefire in times of pandemics.

Initially, he did not mention any conflict by name, but one month later he specifically flagged four hotbeds of tension – Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan – where there was no de-escalation.

In the meantime, one frozen conflict became an outright war (Nagorno-Karabakh), while in Ethiopia, the country’s leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, decided to send the army to drown an ethnic conflict in blood.

Astanisation… and Satanisation

Overall, while the attention of the public focused on the pandemic, jingoists felt encouraged to wage their dirty little wars, assuming that nobody will be watching. Never have journalists travelled so little. Never has international news been so absent from TV screens.

This situation led to an erosion of public and international oversight. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell used the term ‘astanisation’, in reference to the Astana process on Syria.

Syria, just like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is escaping established formats of Western oversight (United Nations, OSCE), to the profit of Russia-Turkey bilateral agreements.

In the context of the COVID crisis, Borrell denounced the rise of authoritarian regimes, naming three countries in particular: Russia, China and Turkey, the latter an ally of most EU countries in NATO and still officially a candidate for EU accession.

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, despite its internal problems, including a heavy COVID record, Turkey became dangerously aggressive notably vis-à-vis France, to the extent of spearheading a civilisational war in the Muslim world against the EU’s most powerful militarily by satanising its president, Emmanuel Macron.

The new year is not the end of the story. 2020 was a very special year, for every individual, and for the whole world and this article was only an essay to make sense of it.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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