Aftershocks: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the New World Disorder

In an essay for War on the Rocks, Penn Biden Center experts Colin Kahl and Ariana Berengaut provide a detailed analysis of the possible geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and offer recommendations for restoring U.S. leadership to respond to the crisis.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a global public health disaster of almost biblical proportions. It is a once-in-a-century occurrence that threatens to destroy countless lives, ruin economies, and stress national and international institutions to their breaking point. And, even after the virus recedes, the geopolitical wreckage it leaves in its wake could be profound.

Many have understandably drawn comparisons to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. That pandemic, which began in the final months of World War I, may have infected 500 million people and killed 50 million people around the globe. As the grim toll of COVID-19 mounts, it remains to be seen if that comparison will prove apt in terms of the human cost.

But, if we want to understand the even darker direction in which the world may be headed, leaders and policymakers ought to pay more attention to the two decades after the influenza pandemic swept the globe. This period, often referred to as the interwar years, was characterized by rising nationalism and xenophobia, the grinding halt of globalization in favor of beggar-thy-neighbor policies, and the collapse of the world economy in the Great Depression. Revolution, civil war, and political instability rocked important nations. The world’s reigning liberal hegemon — Great Britain — struggles and other democracies buckled while rising authoritarian states sought to aggressively reshape the international order in accordance with their interests and values. Arms races, imperial competition, and territorial aggression ensued, culminating in World War II — the greatest calamity in modern times.

In the United States, the interwar years also saw the emergence of the “America First” movement. Hundreds of thousands rallied to the cause of the America First Committee, pressing U.S. leaders to seek the false security of isolationism as the world burned around them. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed back, arguing that rising global interdependence meant no nation — not even one as powerful and geographically distant as the United States — could wall itself off from growing dangers overseas. His warning proved prescient. The war eventually came to America’s shores in the form of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even before COVID-19, shadows of the interwar years were beginning to re-emerge. The virus, however, has brought these dynamics into sharper relief. And the pandemic seems likely to greatly amplify them as economic and political upheaval follows, great-power rivalry deepens, institutions meant to encourage international cooperation fail, and American leadership falters. In this respect, as Richard Haas notes, the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftershocks it will produce seem poised to " accelerate history," returning the world to a much more dangerous time.

However, history is not destiny. While COVID-19 worsens or sets in motion events that may increasingly resemble this harrowing past, we are not fated to repeat it. Humans have agency. Our leaders have real choices. The United States remains the world’s most powerful democracy. It has a proud legacy of transformational leaps in human progress, including advances that have eradicated infectious diseases. It is still capable of taking urgent steps to ensure the health, prosperity, and security of millions of Americans while also leading the world to navigate this crisis and build something better in its aftermath. America can fight for a better future. Doing so effectively, however, requires understanding the full scope of the challenges it is likely to face.