In the third week of April, the nation remained absorbed by the epidemic and its immediate effects, to the exclusion of most other concerns at home or abroad. This does not mean that the struggle for power and resources in the great, wide Hobbesian world has been suspended. It continues, just as the Hundred Years’ War did not stop during the Black Death—at its onset the English took Calais—and the carnage on the Western Front went on even as the Spanish Flu reaped its grim harvest among both soldiers and civilians in 1918.
In our modern times, significant international events have transpired nearly unnoticed as the world has given COVID-19 its undivided attention. The ultimate outcome of the pandemic is not in sight, but it is not too early to make tentative predictions about its geopolitical consequences.
The most important event in recent days, grossly underreported in the media, was an announcement on April 9 that Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed not to pump additional oil into an already saturated market. The agreement came five weeks after the Saudis started a brief and costly price war with Russia which had resulted in an oil price decline of more than 65 percent since the beginning of the year. The sense that an agreement had to be reached gelled on both sides after March 18, when U.S. oil prices reached a 17-year low at just over $20 a barrel. The OPEC-Russia deal amounted to the largest cut in oil production the cartel has ever seen, at just under 10 million barrels per day, or more than 13 percent of global output.
The decision was welcomed in Washington, with President Donald Trump proclaiming victory in his behind-the-scenes effort to broker it. He was eager to stop the oil-price freefall, which had the potential to cripple the U.S. shale oil industry. Trump appeared to emerge from the crisis as a winner, having proven that he can solve a complicated and multilateral crisis. “This has re-positioned him as an international leader and a reference for solving global crises,” wrote analyst Mohamad Kawas, of the UAE-based think tank Emirates Policy Center. “It has also proved his capability to defend the shale oil sector in his country.”
Nevertheless, it’s uncertain whether the agreement will be enough to push the prices back to their pre-March level, considering the rapid decline in demand due to global lockdowns.
The second most important piece of non-corona news came from Iraq. Last Sunday Iranian officials welcomed the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the country’s new prime minister-designate, even though the Trump administration had also expressed its support for his efforts. This was a rare but possibly not incidental example of the U.S. and Iran agreeing on something. Kadhimi, the former head of Iraq’s intelligence service, is the third candidate to try his luck at forming the cabinet in just 10 weeks. It has been reported that, if successful, he will launch an effort to mediate between Washington and Tehran in order to reduce tensions in the Gulf, and that such effort would be quietly condoned by both sides. Since Israel, Saudi Arabia, and American neoconservatives don’t want any of that, it is an even bet that if Kadhimi forms the government he will be maligned in the U.S. media as the ayatollah’s stooge.
In the meantime, the U.S. has continued a major deployment of naval assets in the Caribbean. This is seen as the Trump administration upping the ante in its conflict with the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, even though it is hard to imagine Trump approving military action six months before the election against a bankrupt South American country which presents no threat to anyone. This would be an effective way to revive Maduro’s fortunes and anti- Yanqui sentiment south of the border, which has been dormant for some years.
On the other side of the world, isolated battles continued to rage in Syria despite several coronavirus-inspired ceasefires. Turkey has been trying to keep the front lines active through her Islamist proxies, despite the ceasefires President Tayyip Erdoğan had reached with both Russia and the United States. Turkey is reported to have over 10 thousand soldiers deployed in northwestern Syria right now. It is likely that Turkish protégés will be instructed to cease attacks on Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, since Erdoğan does not want to jeopardize the newly launched joint Russian-Turkish patrols on the main highway between Aleppo and Idlib. It is unlikely, however, that Turkey will be able to adopt a pragmatic live-and-let-live attitude toward the Kurds across the Euphrates.
In addition to the reaffirmation of the nation-state and the parallel weakening of transnational institutions, it is likely that the epidemic will prompt an accelerated shift of the global power balance in China’s favor, and by extension to the panregion of Asia-Pacific. The corresponding decline of America’s role as the upholder of the “liberal international order” is both likely and welcome. That misnamed order, developed and upheld by the global elites for their own benefit, cannot be saved with the deployment of its current arsenal of financial and political instruments.
In the past two weeks, the most significant pandemic-related news is that China has fully reactivated her economy. She’s back at work, while most of the West remains locked down and stock values are nosediving on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is significant that the Chinese economy shrunk in the first quarter of 2020 for the first time in almost 50 years, but only because the country’s gigantic industrial sector slipped just 1.1 percent in March compared to a year ago. The damage in the EU and North America cannot be estimated at this time, but it is certain to be far greater. Furthermore, since China’s key export markets in Europe and North America suffer from the collapse of aggregate demand, Beijing likely will have to stimulate domestic consumption to keep the revived production going. In the short term, this will not be easy in view of China’s highly leveraged economy, but in the medium- to long-term, greater reliance on domestic consumption is needed regardless of the virus. It would make China’s economy less dependent on exports, better balanced, and more resilient.
At the same time, on the political front, the Far Eastern (dare we say Oriental?) model of authoritarian governance—which is by no means confined to the People’s Republic—will come to be seen as a viable alternative to the dominant Western brand, which is based on an ever-expanding array of individual “rights” and identity-based “communities.” As early as February 20, a China Daily article claimed that, “[w]ere it not for the unique institutional advantages of the Chinese system, the world might be battling a devastating pandemic.” The boast turned out to be premature, but the sentiment accurately reflects China’s enhanced self-confidence.
By contrast, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the globalist camp was on full display in Henry Kissinger’s plea in The Wall Street Journal for maintaining the existing order, mendaciously mispresented as his call for a new one. In addition to Pat Buchanan’s pertinent critique of Kissinger’s argument, let it also be said that Kissinger’s thoughts were remarkable for their mix of banality and wishful thinking. His notions of post-epidemic global collaborative visions and programs came across like a breath of stale air. His hope that the world will revert to the dysfunctional model of governance by transnational elites sounded like the Stasi’s still-surviving former operatives hoping that the East Germans will finally come to their senses and embrace the police state. An old man’s futile cri de coeur can be touching. In Kissinger’s case it was pathetic and repugnant.
In geopolitical terms, COVID-19 is a welcome stress test for the Western civilization in general and for the United States in particular. History teaches us that it is preferable for a status quo power to manage the shift in global power relations favoring a challenger, rather than resist it at the risk of a major war. The insistence of the neoconservative-neoliberal duopoly on maintaining hegemonistic full-spectrum dominance is irrational and should be challenged in the aftermath of the pandemic. It rests on ideological assumptions which are as inimical to America’s tradition as they are unsupportable by her material resources and human will.
In the early 1970s, Kissinger understood the benefits of opening up to Beijing as a means of triangulating the global chessboard and eventually exerting pressure on Moscow on the Cold War’s central front. Back then the USSR was far more powerful than the People’s Republic. Today, by contrast, China is far more powerful than Russia, but the U.S. cannot pursue a strategy based on improving its relations with Moscow without changing the position on Ukraine, NATO expansion, sanctions, etc. Russia’s lingering sense of insecurity vis-à-vis China is overshadowed by the perception of continued American malevolence. Latent tensions between Beijing and Moscow could become more visible if the Russians’ perception of a sustained challenge from the West were to be diminished.
As I wrote in Chronicles recently, creative geopolitical thinking is needed in order to terminate, at long last, the European civil war which exploded in July 1914, continued in 1939, and has not properly ended even 30 years after the USSR’s demise. If and when it ends, the existential challenges common to all Europeans and their overseas cousins in America can be addressed. Namely, that of resurgent jihad, demographic crisis, and the rapid, Pan-Western moral and cultural decline. Treating China’s continued rise as an existential threat worthy of risking war, in the aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic, would be worse than a crime. It would be a mistake.