Nobody yet knows how long the coronavirus shutdown will last. We cannot know the eventual extent of infection, nor the total number of people who will die. Neither will we know for some time the total cost of the economic devastation. But one thing is already clear: coronavirus will change the world.
The shock to the economy will be immense. Governments will fall. Careers will end. International institutions will come under severe pressure. Globalisation will be questioned like never before. To survive the crisis, liberal democracies will rely on the power of the state to a greater extent than at any time since the Second World War. And when the time comes to learn the lessons from this experience, we will see demands for an increased role for the state in our politics.
There will be a drive, across the world, for increased resilience on every front: local, national, continental and global. Populations will expect improved public health policies, tougher border controls, and state agencies with the power and resources to protect the public.
We will also see demands that the habits and patterns of modern life change. We will debate the ways in which we manage our coexistence with nature. We will demand better animal welfare standards. And we will question the aspects of life we used to consider normal and unavoidable: the way we commute to work on crowded trains and clogged roads, the routines and structures of commercial life, and the extent of non-essential international travel.
Together, these demands will create a pressure for a world that is likely to become more local and communal, more self-reliant and resilient, and more national and less global. Yet at the same time, the world will not suddenly cease to be interconnected, and the coronavirus experience will leave us with a clearer understanding of the need for international cooperation, in scientific research, information sharing, and the coordination of national policies.
The changes that are likely to happen, therefore, will come from different directions. First, states will seek more control. Second, businesses are likely to apply new, and probably more regional, operating models. And third, we will need to find new ways of delivering the kind of international cooperation necessary to meet the challenges of our time.
This mission is complicated by the fact that coronavirus will hasten ongoing changes in global politics. The pandemic might have started in China, and its spread might have begun because of failures in the Chinese state. But the scale of China’s response to the crisis – compared to the hesitancy and lethargy of Western governments, the lack of leadership by the United States, and a visible lack of state capacity among the liberal democracies – has not gone unnoticed in the wider world.
Despite the origins of the crisis, China looks likely to emerge from the pandemic stronger in the world than before – particularly vis-à-vis the United States and the wider West.
This does not mark a sudden change of direction in world affairs. Coronavirus will hasten a trend that has been evident for some years. Thanks to enormous economic and geopolitical changes – from the rise of China to the relative decline of the West, the emergence of new technologies to the conduct of rogue states – the rules-based system of global governance is breaking down. Destabilising international competition and rivalry has returned. The world as we have known it was coming apart before the pandemic began.
Thirty years ago, it all felt very different. The Cold War had ended, and President George HW Bush proclaimed a “new world order”. Fascism had been defeated, communism had collapsed and Islamism was not yet understood. Few even thought about China. Liberal democracy reigned supreme.
This ideological hubris might have appeared absurd, but it coincided, from a Western point of view, with a period of unusual peace and calm, and a sustained economic expansion. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the West felt secure, and its military action was limited to elective wars of liberation or humanitarian intervention. In Britain, Tony Blair promised a foreign policy based on liberal interventionism and the installation of democracies around the world.
Meanwhile, the long economic boom that lasted through the 1990s and early 2000s led many to speculate that the business cycle had been abolished. Gordon Brown boasted that he had ended “boom and bust”. It was not just liberal democracy but also liberal economics that had triumphed.
Neither Blair nor Brown – nor US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, nor European leaders such as Gerhard Schröder, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – realised that the basis of Western stability during this period would become one of the causes of its current crisis. The globalising forces that kept Western inflation low and stock prices high during the 1990s were the same forces that internationalised production networks and later squeezed the incomes of Western workers. Blair’s liberal interventionism, allied with US neoconservatism, caused a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that weakened the West’s geopolitical strength. Clinton’s assumption that free trade would liberalise China’s society and government proved hopelessly misplaced.
Liberal democracy did not, for very long at least, reign supreme. Since long before coronavirus, the international system built by the liberal democracies has been under attack. A unipolar world has given way to a multipolar world, in which American leadership is challenged by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and even the European Union. Making the case for a “real European army”, the French president Emmanuel Macron once argued, “we have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America”.
The conflict between different global values and interests is on open display. China and the US under Donald Trump are engaged in a trade war. China is asserting its security rights in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean. Russia has annexed Crimea – sovereign territory in Ukraine, which borders the European Union. North Korea continues to flaunt its defiance of international law. India has tense relationships with Pakistan to its west and China to its east. The conflict in Syria became a proxy sectarian war between Middle Eastern powers, and an opportunity for Russia to flex its muscles. Iran seeks nuclear weapons and threatens Israel. Saudi Arabia may be seeking nuclear weapons of its own.
While these rivalries play out, new technologies and methods of warfare mean weaker states – and non-state actors such as terrorists – can attack the interests of others from distance and with impunity. Hybrid warfare – which can include terrorism, criminality, misinformation through social media, and interference in another country’s diplomacy, media and politics – is common. Weapons and equipment that were once the exclusive property of powerful states, such as drones and guided missiles, are now in the hands of smaller states and terrorist groups. Cyber attacks, from terrorists, states and state-sponsored organisations, are also a new threat.
Trade and economic relations are driving and reinforcing security and military tensions. China’s Belt and Road infrastructure and trade initiative spans 65 countries, covers more than 60 per cent of the world’s population, and involves investment plans reportedly worth $900bn. Many analysts agree that it is about extending China’s military and political reach as much as its trading relationships. True or not, Belt and Road is causing other countries, such as India and Japan, to form new alliances in response to the perceived threat. Meanwhile, as the EU refuses to countenance fiscal transfers from richer to poorer member states – despite being a policy dictated by the logic of its single currency – China is investing heavily in eastern Europe and the Balkans and gaining diplomatic influence. When Brussels advocated that EU countries restrict exports of medical equipment in response to coronavirus, it was China who came to the aid of EU accession countries such as Serbia. Even in the US, China owns more than $1trn of US public debt.
Climate change and mass migration are also causing changes in geopolitical relations. Europe is still struggling to deal with the migration crisis that began in 2015. In that single year, more than 1.8 million illegal border crossings were made throughout Europe. Germany received 1.1 million asylum applications alone. Thousands of migrants are still reaching Europe’s southern borders every week, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently opened his country’s border with Greece. Throughout the worst of the migration crisis, thousands of European Muslims travelled across the continent’s porous borders to Syria to fight for Islamic State or live in the so-called caliphate, only for some of them to return to Europe later, further radicalised, unimpeded and unprosecuted.
As the balance of global power changes, the world’s institutions are not changing with it, and many are in decline. As China initially covered up the truth about coronavirus, the World Health Organisation was unable to coordinate an international response. The United Nations was powerless to prevent the war in Syria or Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Nato faces an uncertain future and constant criticism from the United States. The World Trade Organisation has been paralysed, deliberately, by Trump as he pursues his trade wars. In 2015 the Chinese established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in a bid to rival the World Bank. And the EU seems incapable of resolving the contradictions and tensions caused by its single currency and imperial ambitions.
Western leaders have so far failed to respond to this changing world. They cling to their belief in open borders. They refuse to question free trade even with countries such as China that openly abuse international markets. They have failed to invest sufficiently in their defence and security capabilities. They carry on attending summits hosted by international institutions oblivious of the need to reform them. They mock populist leaders who disagree with them – and blame these leaders’ election victories on their unscrupulous methods, the abuse of Facebook data, and foreign interference – but rarely do they question their own assumptions, beliefs and policies.
The Leviathan: in his 1651 work the philosopher Thomas Hobbes “proposed a state so strong that few would consider him a liberal at all”
Many of the changes happening in the world are unavoidable, and some are welcome. The reintegration of China into the world economy is an irreversible fact. The convergence of Eastern and Western economies, and of living standards in both hemispheres, is likely to continue. New technologies cannot be uninvented. The 2008 financial crash happened, and the policy remedies concocted in its wake cannot be undone. We will live with the consequences of coronavirus – social, economic and political – for many years.
But this does not mean we have no control. Policies matter. Many of the problems we face today are the direct consequence of political decisions. International trade and transnational production networks are shaped by trade agreements and domestic and international regulatory frameworks. International institutions can be made, unmade and reformed by national governments working together. The ability to control borders – for countries outside the EU – still lies with national governments. The power to regulate technology firms resides with governments and parliaments. And Western countries have no need to involve themselves in unwinnable Middle Eastern wars. The threats of today and tomorrow will, like those of years gone by, be met by economic might and sheer hard power, investment in security capabilities, ingenuity and innovation, strong international institutions, and alliances with countries with shared interests.
Policies always reflect choices. And the choices made by our leaders always reflect political – and philosophical – beliefs. Just as with domestic policy, our foreign policies are shaped by the liberal world-view of our politicians. The trouble is that there are fundamental flaws in that world-view.
From the start, liberalism was built on the premise that there are not only universal values but also natural and universal rights. Early liberals made this argument by imagining a “state of nature”: life without any kind of government at all. Life in the state of nature, according to the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, and to escape this hellish existence, humans agreed a “social contract” to form a government.
In Leviathan (1651) Hobbes proposed a state so strong that few would consider him a liberal at all, but for John Locke, writing in his Two Treatises of Government (1689), the contract guaranteed personal safety and property rights. “No one can be… subjected to the political power of another without his own consent,” Locke wrote, which is done by “agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living, one among another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties.”
From its earliest days, liberalism had several features hard-wired into it. Citizens are considered autonomous and rational individuals and their consent to liberal government is assumed. And rights are natural and universal. For this reason, many liberals fall into the trap of believing that the historical, cultural and institutional context of government is irrelevant. Institutions and traditions that impose obligations on us can simply be cast off. All that matters, as far as government is concerned, is the freedom of the individual and the preservation of their property. The relational essence of humanity – our dependence on others, our reliance on the institutions and norms of community life – is ignored. From the start, liberalism took both community and nation for granted.
Just like other traditions of thought, liberalism also had a tendency towards teleology. Liberal thinkers including John Stuart Mill often made the case for pluralism and tolerance on the basis that the trial and error they make possible leads to truth and an increasingly perfect society. This teleological fallacy is what can lead liberalism towards illiberalism: its intolerance of supposedly backward traditional opinions, norms and institutions can easily turn to intolerance of the people who remain loyal to those traditional ways of life.
Taken together, these are some of the core ideas that explain why the West so often misunderstands the world. That we are all rational, even selfish, individuals, driven by our desire to be free and autonomous. That we are all the same, regardless of the contexts of time, place or culture: in the pursuit of freedom, we will shed with enthusiasm our customs, institutions and traditions as absurd and irrational hindrances. And this is not just a punt: liberalism tells us that this is destined to happen, all across the world.
It is not hard to see how these flaws have influenced the West’s approach to international relations. We were told, for example, that we had no reason to worry when China was permitted into the international trading system, because its communist state would observe international laws and trade agreements. As China agreed to trade more with the West, it was – in Bill Clinton’s words – also “agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom”. And as China’s economy became more market-based, liberals supposed, so its state would accede to the demands of its people for freedom.
Of course, no such thing happened. China has abused the international trading system by overproducing goods and dumping them on other markets. It has engaged in mass industrial espionage. It has set debt traps for other countries to win leverage over them. Its state has not become more liberal or democratic, but even more oppressive. It has used the technologies made possible by international trade to control its people. And it has used the openness of other economies to undercut rival businesses and blackmail governments.
But the mistakes are not limited to China. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the West behaved as though Russia would in time become another liberal democracy with a functioning market economy and welfare state. Britain and the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan because, our leaders assumed, Iraqis and Afghans wanted to become more like us. In 2011, the West bombed Muammar Gaddafi out of power in Libya and seemed surprised that the result was a dangerous vacuum. Western powers cut a deal with the theocratic and deadly Iranian state in 2015, allowing the ayatollahs to develop a nuclear capability.
And our attitude to globalisation and international trade has been just as naive. Liberal economic theory tells us that the more countries specialise, the more they trade, and the more they trade, the richer we all become. But as supply chains have become multinational, and commercial and technical knowledge transfers have gone cross-border, comparative advantage has shrunk. International economic competition is no longer just between nation states but between classes of workers – divided by education and skills – that stretch across borders.
A generation ago, when British companies became more competitive, British workers shared in the success of the company. Now, as skilled functions such as research and development and product design remain in the West, production and assembly is often completed in lower-cost countries. The wealth created by the company is distributed between its shareholders, its executives and its high-skilled designers and technicians. Lower- and medium-skilled workers in Britain do not just get a smaller share in the company’s success: many are no longer employed by the company at all. The result is that while the wealthiest Westerners have grown richer in the past decade, the incomes of ordinary working-class and lower-middle-class families have stagnated. And this is one of the contributing factors to the rise of populists, the fragmentation of electoral politics, and political stalemate and inaction.
The list of problems and crises is long: Western workers squeezed, trade wars under way and a crisis in international trade. Culture wars, the election of populists, and political fragmentation. Middle Eastern wars, aggressive rogue states, a race for nuclear weapons, and the rise of hybrid warfare, cyber attacks and terrorism. Chinese industrial espionage, debt traps and dumping. Climate change and migration crises. The financial crash and its aftermath. The rise of big tech, artificial intelligence and the speed of technological change. The failure of international organisations, from Nato to the World Trade Organisation, and the rise of new international institutions – such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – designed to challenge Western power.
Globalisation – and the world as we have known it for the past few decades – was coming apart long before coronavirus reached our shores. But the pandemic and its aftermath are likely to inflict one final and decisive blow that leaves the existing international order in pieces. The question is what comes in its place.
Western leaders need to listen to their voters and offer more economic security, cultural protection and national resilience against danger. But they also need to recognise that globalisation – in some form or other – is here to stay. The world will remain interconnected and nations will remain interdependent. That will require the reform of existing international institutions, and the construction of new ones. But our leaders also need to accept that Western hegemony is no more, and countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico will become richer and more powerful. Many states look not to Europe and America for ideas, inspiration and investment, but to different forms of authoritarian regime.
Democratic leaders also need to challenge their own assumptions and beliefs. Liberal ideology – presenting a mistaken impression of human wants and needs, an unrealistic universalism and a dangerous tendency towards teleology – needs to be cast aside. Instead we need a more conservative and pragmatic approach to international relations and global governance. We need to respect the different – and often clashing – values and interests that exist around the world.
The world needs a new multilateralism, in which the rise of powers such as India and Indonesia is reflected at the United Nations. We need new institutions to ensure peaceful economic competition between East and West. The West needs to create a new forum in which democratic governments can work together to regulate cyberspace. As coronavirus has showed, we need better international mechanisms to promote collaboration in scientific research, information sharing about public health and the coordination of national policies. But to maintain democratic legitimacy and public support, multilateral organisations need to remain intergovernmental and not supranational.
Enemies close: Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019
For all the defeatism and sense of managed decline in Britain, we will remain a strong international player. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with significant military and security capabilities, and nuclear weapons, Britain’s voice will matter. While fast-growing and populous developing countries will overtake many Western economies in size, by 2050 the UK will still be in the world’s top ten economies.
We need the strength to defend our interests in a more complex and dangerous world, but we also need to end the unsuccessful, wasteful and debilitating wars fought in the name of liberal interventionism. While we should make every effort to avoid involving ourselves in the sectarian war being fought across the Islamic world, we need to protect ourselves from its fallout, including the risk of extremism, terrorism and mass migration.
We need to be realistic about the imperial nature of Chinese policy in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, and become more strategic about our own foreign policy. We need to recognise that China is the principal strategic rival of our most important ally, the United States, and so we cannot go “all in” with China as it rises. We must also recognise that China’s modus operandi – setting debt traps for countries to gain leverage over them and engaging in mass industrial espionage – is a danger to Western interests.
We need to develop a special relationship with India and find a way of normalising our relations with Russia – something that will, admittedly, be difficult as long as Vladimir Putin continues his aggressive policies. We need a more hard-headed attitude to foreign policy, defence, aid and trade. While Brexit must ensure Britain remains genuinely independent of the EU, it will need to negotiate a close future relationship incorporating both trade and security cooperation.
At home, we need a radically different economic model that addresses the challenges posed by globalisation, changing technology and our ageing society. We will need to think differently about free markets, the role of the state in the economy, the level of public spending, the ways we raise taxes, the balance between labour and capital, and international trade.
In particular, we need to think again about the way globalisation is working. We have to question whether our assumptions about the benefits of free trade and comparative advantage are still true.
Does increased specialisation, to the degree we are experiencing today, still make us inexorably richer? Or does it consign ever more Western workers to lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs? Traditional methods of measuring economic strength might no longer be appropriate. Instead, we might need to start thinking about economic strength in ways that show how prosperity is shared across society as a whole.
Increasingly, unrestricted free trade might no longer be the inevitable route to prosperity many leaders have assumed it to be. International trade agreements will need to be negotiated to reflect this growing realisation – giving Western workers much-needed respite – but the world does not need a neo-mercantilist descent into trade wars and industrial espionage.
They say we should never waste a crisis. And coronavirus is a crisis like none the modern world has known before. It brings with it social, economic and political devastation, and much human misery. But it also presents the West with the undeniable truth that the world we made is coming apart. It is time to build something better.
Nick Timothy was joint-chief-of-staff to Theresa May from 2016 to 2017. His book, “Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism”, is published by Polity Press
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor