This changes everything: How COVID-19 could upend geopolitics
I don’t trust you.
Don’t take it personally. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a friend or a stranger. I don’t care about your identity or your politics, where you work or if you work, whether you wear a mask or carry a gun.
I don’t trust you because you are, for the time being, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. You don’t have any symptoms? Maybe you’re an asymptomatic superspreader. Show me your negative test results and I’ll still have my doubts. I have no idea what you’ve been up to between taking the test and receiving the results. And can we really trust that the test is accurate?
Frankly, you shouldn’t trust me for the same reasons. I’m not even sure that I can trust myself. Didn’t I just touch my face at the supermarket after palpating the avocados?
I’m learning to live with this mistrust. I’m keeping my distance from other people. I’m wearing my mask. I’m washing my hands. I’m staying far away from bars.
I’m not sure, however, that society can live with this level. Let’s face it: trust makes the world go around. Protests break out when our faith in people or institutions is violated: when we can’t trust the police (#BlackLivesMatter), can’t trust male colleagues (#MeToo), can’t trust the economic system to operate with a modicum of fairness (#OccupyWallStreet), or can’t trust our government to do, well, anything properly (#notmypresident).
Now, throw a silent, hidden killer into this combustible mix of mistrust, anger, and dismay. It’s enough to tear a country apart, to set neighbor against neighbor and governor against governor, to precipitate a civil war between the masked and the unmasked.
Such problems only multiply at the global level where mistrust already permeates the system -- military conflicts, trade wars, tussles over migration and corruption. Of course, there’s also been enough trust to keep the global economy going, diplomats negotiating, international organizations functioning, and the planet from spinning out of control. But the pandemic may just tip this known world off its axis.
I’m well aware of the ongoing debate between the “not much” and “everything” factions. Once a vaccine knocks it out of our system, the coronavirus might not have much lasting effect on our world. Even without a vaccine, people can’t wait to get back to normal life by jumping into pools, heading to the movie theater, attending parties -- even in the United States where cases continue to rise dramatically. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919, which is believed to have killed at least 50 million people, didn’t fundamentally change everyday life, aside from giving a boost to both alternative and socialized medicine. That flu passed out of mind and into history and so, of course, might Covid-19.
Or, just as the Black Death in the fourteenth century separated the medieval world from all that followed, this pandemic might draw a thick before-and-after line through our history. Let’s imagine that this novel virus keeps circulating and recirculating, that no one acquires permanent immunity, that it becomes a nasty new addition to the cold season except that it just happens to kill a couple of people out of every hundred who get it. This new normal would certainly be better than if Ebola, with a 50% case fatality rate if untreated, became a perennial risk everywhere. But even with a fatality rate in the low single digits, Covid-19 would necessarily change everything.
The media is full of speculation about what a periodic pandemic future will look like. The end of theater and spectator sports. The institutionalization of distance learning. The death of offices and brick-and-mortar retail.
But let’s take a look beyond that -- at the even bigger picture. Let’s consider for a moment the impact of this new, industrial-strength mistrust on international relations.
The Future of the Nation-State
Let’s say you live in a country where the government responded quickly and competently to Covid-19. Let’s say that your government established a reliable testing, contact tracing, and quarantine system. It either closed down the economy for a painful but short period or its system of testing was so good that it didn’t even need to shut everything down. Right now, your life is returning to some semblance of normal.
The rest of us live in the United States. Or Brazil. Or Russia. Or India. In these countries, the governments have proven incapable of fulfilling the most important function of the state: protecting the lives of their citizens. While most of Europe and much of East Asia have suppressed the pandemic sufficiently to restart their economies, Covid-19 continues to rage out of control in those parts of the world that, not coincidentally, are also headed by democratically elected right-wing autocrats.
In these incompetently run countries, citizens have very good reason to mistrust their governments. In the United States, for instance, the Trump administration botched testing, failed to coordinate lockdowns, removed oversight from the bailouts, and pushed to reopen the economy over the objections of public-health experts. In the latest sign of early-onset dementia for the Trump administration, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany declared this month that “science should not stand in the way” of reopening schools in the fall.
Voters, of course, could boot Trump out in November and, assuming he actually leaves the White House, restore some measure of sanity to public affairs. But the pandemic is contributing to an already overwhelming erosion of confidence in national institutions. Even before the virus struck, in its 2018 Trust Barometer the public relations firm Edelman registered an unprecedented drop in public trust connected to... what else?... the election of Trump. “The collapse of trust in the U.S. is driven by a staggering lack of faith in government, which fell 14 points to 33% among the general population,” the report noted. “The remaining institutions of business, media, and NGOs also experienced declines of 10 to 20 points.”
And you won’t be surprised to learn that the situation hadn’t shown signs of improvement by 2020, with American citizens even more mistrustful of their country’s institutions than their counterparts in Brazil, Italy, and India.
That institutional loss of faith reflects a longer-term trend. According to Gallup’s latest survey, only 11% of Americans now trust Congress, 23% big business and newspapers, 24% the criminal justice system, 29% the public school system, 36% the medical system, and 38% the presidency. The only institution a significant majority of Americans trust -- and consider this an irony, given America’s endless twenty-first-century wars -- is the military (73%). The truly scary part is that those numbers have held steady, with minor variations, for the last decade across two very different administrations.
How low does a country’s trust index have to go before it ceases being a country? Commentators have already spent a decade discussing the polarization of the American electorate. Much ink has been spilled over the impact of social media in creating political echo chambers. It’s been 25 years since political scientist Robert Putnam observed that Americans were “bowling alone” (that is, no longer participating in group activities or community affairs in the way previous generations did).
The coronavirus has generally proven a major force multiplier of such trends by making spontaneous meetings of unlike-minded people ever less likely. I suspect I’m typical. I’m giving a wide berth to pedestrians, bicyclists, and other joggers when I go out for my runs. I’m not visiting cafes. I’m not talking to people in line at the supermarket. Sure, I’m on Zoom a lot, but it’s almost always with people I already know and agree with.
Under these circumstances, how will we overcome the enormous gaps of perception now evident in this country to achieve anything like the deeper basic understandings that a nation-state requires? Or will Americans lose faith entirely in elections, newspaper stories, hospitals, and public transportation, and so cease being a citizenry altogether?
Trust is the fuel that makes such institutions run. And it looks as though we passed Peak Trust long ago and may be on a Covid-19 sled heading downhill fast.
The global economy also runs on trust: in financial transactions, the safety of workplace conditions, the long-distance transport of goods, and the consumer’s expectation that the purchased product will work as advertised.
To cause a breakdown in the global assembly line, Covid-19 didn’t have to introduce doubt into every step in this supply chain (though it would, in the end, do something like that). It only had to sever one link: the workplace. When the Chinese government shut down factories in early 2020 to contain the pandemic -- leading to a 17% decline in exports in January and February compared to the previous year -- companies around the world suddenly faced critical shortages of auto parts, smartphone components, and other key goods.
The workplace proved a weak link in the global supply chain for another reason: cost. Labor has traditionally been the chief expense in manufacturing, which, from the 1990s on, led corporations to outsource work to cheaper locations like Mexico, China, and Vietnam. Since then, however, the global assembly line has changed and, as the McKinsey consulting firm explains, “over 80% of today’s global goods trade is [no longer] from a low-wage country to a high-wage country.”
Labor’s centrality to the location of manufacturing had been further eroded by the growth of automation, which, according to economists, tends to surge during downturns. As it happens, both artificial intelligence and robotization were already on the rise even before the pandemic hit. By 2030, up to 20 million jobs worldwide will be filled by robots. The World Bank estimates that they will eventually replace an astounding 85% of the jobs in Ethiopia, 77% in China, and 72% in Thailand.
Then there are the environmental costs of that same global assembly line. Moving freight contributes 7% to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with air transport being the most carbon intensive way to go. (Add to that, of course, the carbon footprint of the factories themselves.)
If all that doesn’t change the minds of CEOs about the benefits of globalization, then national security considerations might. The pandemic exposed how vulnerable countries are in terms of key commodities. Because China is responsible for producing more respirators, surgical masks, and protective garments than the rest of the world combined, countries began to panic when Covid-19 first hit because they no longer had sufficient national capacity to produce the basic tools to address the spreading pandemic themselves. The same applied to essential drugs. The United States stopped producing penicillin, for instance, in 2004.
The threat of infection, the spread of automation, the environmental impact, the risk of foreign control: the global assembly line just doesn’t seem to make much sense any more. Why not relocate manufacturing back home to a “dark factory” that’s fully automated, doesn’t need lights, heating, or air conditioning, and is practically pandemic-proof?
The current pandemic won’t spell the end of globalization, of course. Corporations, as the McKinsey report points out, will still find compelling reasons to relocate manufacturing and services overseas, including “access to skilled labor or natural resources, proximity to consumers, and the quality of infrastructure.” Consumers will still want pineapples in winter and cheap smart phones. But capitalists eyeing the bottom line, in combination with Trump-style nationalists insisting that capital return home, will increasingly disassemble what we all took for granted as globalization.
The world economy won’t simply disappear. After all, agriculture has persisted in the modern era. It just employs an ever-diminishing segment of the workforce. The same will likely happen to global trade in a pandemic age. In the early part of the last century, surplus labor no longer needed on the farms migrated to the cities to work in factories. The question now is: What will happen to all those workers no longer needed in the global assembly line?
Neither the international community nor the free market has a ready answer, but authoritarian populists do: stop all those displaced workers from migrating.
From the moment he descended that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race, Donald Trump’s effort to seal off the U.S. border with Mexico has been his signature policy position. That “big, fat, beautiful wall” of his may be simplistic, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and mistrustful of the world -- and may never really be completed -- but unfortunately, he’s been anything but alone in his obsession with walls.
Israel pioneered modern wall building in the mid-1990s by sealing off Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, followed by a 440-mile-long barrier to wall off the West Bank. In 2005, responding to a wave of migrants escaping wars and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East, Hungary built new bulwarks along its southern borders to keep out the desperate. Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia, and Croatia have done the same. India has fenced off the Kashmir region from Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has constructed a 600-mile barrier along its border with Iraq.
In 1989, there were about a dozen major walls separating countries, including the soon-to-fall Berlin Wall. Today, that number has grown to 70.
In this context, the novel coronavirus proved a godsend to nationalists the world over who believe that if good fences make good neighbors, a great wall is best of all. More than 135 countries added new restrictions at their borders after the outbreak. Europe reestablished its internal Schengen area borders for the first time in 25 years and closed its external ones as well. Some countries -- Japan and New Zealand, in particular -- practically walled themselves off.
Even as the pandemic fades in certain parts of the world, many of those new border restrictions remain in place. If you want to travel to Europe this summer, you can only do so if you’re from one of a dozen countries on a European Union-approved list (and that doesn’t include Americans). New Zealand has had only a handful of cases over the last few months (with a high of four new cases on June 27th), but its borders remain closed to virtually everyone. Even a “travel bubble” with nearby Australia is off the table for now. Japan has banned entry to people from 129 countries, including the United States, but there’s an exemption for U.S. soldiers traveling to American military bases. A recent outbreak of coronavirus at such garrisons on the island of Okinawa may well prompt Tokyo to tighten its already strict rules further.
And such border restrictions are potentially just the beginning. So far, the pandemic has unleashed an everyone-for-themselves spirit -- from export restrictions on essential goods to a feverish competition to develop a vaccine first. The United Nations has made various pleas for greater international cooperation, its secretary general even urging a “global ceasefire” among warring parties. The World Health Organization (WHO) attempted to organize a global response to the virus at its annual meeting. However, the Trump administration promptly announced that it would be pulling out of the WHO, very few combatants observed a Covid-19 ceasefire, and there is no coordinated international response to the pandemic outside of the community of scientists sharing research.
So, is this to be the future: each country transformed into a gated community? How long can a sense of internationalism survive in Wall World?
Conservatives used to make fun of the left for its penchant for relativism, for arguing that everything depends on context. “If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics,” former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said in 2011, “I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism.” Once upon a time, the rightwing railed against deconstructionists who emphasized interpretation over facts.
What, then, to make of the Republican Party today? So many of its leaders, including the president, don’t believe in the science behind either climate change or Covid-19. Many of them embrace the most lunatic conspiracy theories and some current congressional candidates even believe, by way of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, that a cabal of satanic child molesters in Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and various international organizations controls the world. In July, Donald Trump achieved the dubious milestone of telling more than 20,000 lies during his tenure as president. In other words, speaking of relativism, the Republican Party has put its trust in a man untethered from reality.
And then along came that pandemic like lighter fluid to a brushfire. The resulting conflagration of mistrust threatens to spread out of control until nothing is left, not the nation-state, not the global economy, not the international community.
In this pandemic era, a fire somewhere is a fire everywhere, for the virus cares nothing about borders. But the key to restoring trust must begin where the trust deficit has grown largest and that certainly is the United States. Not only have Americans lost faith in their own institutions, so, it seems, has everyone else. Since 2016, there has been a 50% drop in the world’s trust in the United States, the largest decline ever in the US News and World Report’s Best Countries survey.
And the reason the United States has the worst record dealing with the coronavirus is quite simple: Donald Trump. He is the leader of an ever-diminishing proportion of the public that continues to believe the coronavirus is a hoax or refuses to comply with basic precautions to prevent its spread. A scofflaw president who refuses to mandate the use of facemasks (even after officially donning one for his Twitter feed) inspires a scofflaw minority that puts the majority at risk.
Restoring trust in this country’s public health system and governance must begin with a competent system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantine. Yet the Trump administration still refuses to take this necessary step. Senate Republicans have pushed for $25 billion to help establish testing and tracing systems at the state level, but the president actually wants to eliminate even this modest amount from the budget (along with additional funds for government agencies tasked with addressing the pandemic).
Americans increasingly mistrust their institutions because growing numbers of us believe that we derive ever fewer benefits from them. The Trump administration has typically done its best to make matters disastrously worse, only recently, amid the pandemic and with millions unemployed, demanding that the Supreme Court gut the health insurance provided by the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. The bulk of the stimulus funds passed by Congress went to wealthy individuals and corporations -- and the president’s men didn’t even exercise due diligence to prevent nearly $1.4 billion in stimulus checks from being mailed to dead people.
The next administration (assuming there is one) will have a massive clean-up job restoring faith of any sort in such an unequal, broken system. After addressing the acute crisis of the pandemic, it will have to demonstrate that the rule of law is again functioning. The most dramatic proof would, of course, be to throw the book at Donald Trump and his closest enablers. They have violated so many laws that trust in the legal system will be further weakened unless they’re tried and punished for their crimes, including their willingness to sacrifice American lives in staggering numbers in pursuit of The Donald’s reelection.
In 1996, Bill Clinton spoke of building a bridge to the twenty-first century. Two decades into this century, Donald Trump has effectively torn down that bridge and replaced it with a (still largely unbuilt) wall reminiscent of the fortifications of the Middle Ages. Covid-19 has only reinforced the insular paranoia of this president and his followers. The path back to trust, at both a domestic and international level, will be difficult. There will be monsters to battle along the way. But in the end, it’s possible for us to take this country back, create a just and sustainable global economy, and rebuild the international community.
You and I can do this. Together.
John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2020 John Feffer