Read: Our democracy will survive this pandemic
History, as Barack Obama said of American progress, zigs and zags. Great changes set off chain reactions: The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ushered in the New Deal era; Allied victory in 1945 created the conditions for the Cold War. Each event creates political aftershocks and trends that we can see clearly only afterward. The decade that followed the 2008 financial crisis saw the euro zone teeter on the brink of collapse, Britain vote to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump elected president. Today, the global economy has suffered another sudden seizure, shifting geopolitics as U.S.-China tensions have risen, trade has slowed markedly, and structural divisions between northern and southern Europe have widened. The question, then, is what might happen in the decade after this crisis?
“Historians love chapter breaks,” said Robert Kaplan, an American foreign-policy expert and former member of the U.S. Defense Policy Board, who this month briefed officials at 10 Downing Street on the potential second-order effects of the coronavirus crisis. “COVID-19 will come to be seen as a chapter break.”
Among Kaplan’s concerns is how Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, will act, a fear echoed by some of the most influential voices in British foreign policy, who worry that the geopolitical second wave of COVID-19 will hit Europe the hardest. Michael Clarke, a defense-studies professor at King’s College London and former special adviser to Britain’s national committee on security strategy, who remains plugged in to the country’s foreign-policy establishment, told me that an economically weakened Russia, hit by the recent collapse in oil prices, poses a greater danger to Western security interests. “Putin’s aggressive opportunism will probably get worse,” Clarke said. “The nature of Putin’s leadership is that he can’t stand still; he has to keep pushing forward. This makes him more volatile.” What happens if the Russian leader, spooked by the country’s collapsing economy, eyes an opportunity to test NATO’s resolve? Others, such as Bruno Maçães, Portugal’s former Europe minister, told me that the crisis might not embolden Russia, but cripple it, leaving it more dependent on China and bringing Beijing’s sphere of influence to the borders of continental Europe. “Crises,” Kaplan noted, “put history on fast-forward.”
The array of possible second-wave consequences is dizzying: the prospect of the disease taking hold in a developing G20 country—think India—which could see the virus quickly doubling back to Europe and the U.S.; the uncertain impact of technological advances in fields such as artificial intelligence as they are used to help combat the disease’s spread; a recession pulling at the ties between the European Union’s poor south and wealthy north. Clarke is particularly concerned about an arc of instability from West Africa through the Middle East to Asia, where conflict and instability have in recent years forced people to flee. Karin von Hippel, the director general of the Royal United Services Institute, an influential British defense and international-affairs think tank, told me that “some kind of reckoning with China” is likely as well. “Some countries will emerge from this trying to cling to China … but most others are likely to try to decouple,” she said. For Britain, Germany, France, and other major European economies reliant on the American security umbrella but wanting to maintain strong economic ties with China, the difficulty of managing the fallout from the Trump administration’s anti-China rhetoric may now only increase.