There will be a world after the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the first-wave countries tsunamied by COVID-19 appear to be slowing the spread of the disease within their borders.
Yes, the world must still battle the virus for some time to come, but it’s worth pondering now:
What will the world will look once the current onslaught is over? Will this plague topple nations great and small?
We can’t know for sure, but we can start making some educated guesses.
For starters, don’t bet on a linear relationship between disastrous times and the fall of regimes. After a series of bad harvests and a riot at the Bastille, the French king came tumbling down. On the other hand, bin Laden thought he could topple America with one hammer blow on Sept. 11, 2001 — and he’s the one who wound up going down.
In “The Rise and Fall of Civilizations,” Jared Diamond warns against banking on singular, linear relationships to explain the rise and fall of regimes. France, after all, was a rich and powerful nation, yet the king still lost his head. On the other hand, early modern England got smacked with the plague, a civil war, a revolution, a series of foreign wars and a mini-Ice Age — and still emerged as one of history’s most powerful empires.
So all we can do is guess about how regimes will weather the coronavirus storm. And in making that assessment, we must also consider not only their response to the virus, but also economic decisions, political turmoil, natural disasters (hurricane season is coming) and external factors that weigh mightily on their stability.
Remember, even if the discontented want to foment protest, extremism and political change, the pandemic creates a unique set of challenges for them. With the world social distancing, it’s harder to get organized; mass protests, for example, are harder to pull off. Moreover, in responding to the pandemic, regimes may institute even more rigorous travel restrictions, security measures and monitoring policies — all of which inhibit opposition, both clandestine and overt.
In times of social distancing, the internet can be a blessing. But it can also be a problem. For example, experts already worry about more radicalization by Islamist and other fringe political factions, because those most vulnerable to their hateful propaganda have more time at home to absorb their extremist drivel. Arguably, the most vulnerable regimes might be the ones that are the most networked.
Parliamentary democracies, which are most sensitive to rapid shifts in political attitude, might be the most vulnerable. So far, however, there is little evidence of that. Governments in hard-hit places like Taiwan and South Korea appear more popular. Countries like the U.K. and Germany have little to fear, as they lack a viable political opposition that people would trust to govern. (Not to mention the daunting challenge of figuring out how to hold credible mass elections in the middle of a pandemic.)
Some have argued that authoritarian regimes are better at dealing with COVID-19, but there is no credible evidence supporting that. For the most part, we have seen them pursue appalling public health policies, imposed by brute force alone. Meanwhile, democracies such as South Korea have demonstrated that it doesn’t take a dictatorship to get on top of a crisis.
Will the lies, inefficiencies and suffering propagated by the coronavirus response of authoritarian regimes bring their downfall? That looks unlikely in places like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. These are world-class oppressive regimes that have weathered some pretty tough times.
What we might expect, however, is that, in the short term, these global bad boys might be a little more risk averse, realizing they have to prioritize domestic stability over foreign adventurism. Iran, for example, has had to dedicate 20 percent of its government funding to pandemic response. That leaves less money for exporting misery to its neighbors.
Where we are most likely to see turmoil is in places where the government is already a basket case. Venezuela and Syria are prime examples. These governments can’t even keep the lights on, let alone mount a public health response to an epidemic. On the other hand, where shaky regimes can rely on powerful external sponsors — like the Russians and Cubans in the case of Venezuela — the odds against the people kicking out their oppressors remain daunting.
Many people argue COVID-19 will change the world forever. Perhaps. But as of now, that remains an open question. There’s also a good chance we’ll see far more continuity than change in world affairs, once COVID-19 has run its course, economies come back online, and we distance ourselves from social distancing.
James Jay Carafano, the vice president of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute, is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges. Daniel Kochis, a senior policy analyst in European affairs, contributed to this column. This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal. This piece originally appeared in Fox News.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!