Geopolitics In The Continued Age Of COVID-19


The U.S. liberal-led order in place since World War II (WWII) is now strained more than previously over the COVID-19 pandemic. Pundits can debate back and forth the nature of where the strain began, and the implications of its origins. There are numerous geopolitical issues this global shutdown has uncovered that need attention.

Many western nations – particularly the U.S. and European Union (EU) “are irate at China for its dishonest and lethal suppression of knowledge about the viral outbreak.” Global tension in the form of a back-and-forth leading to a new Cold War between western-aligned nations and China is one of the uglier outbreaks from this virus. What are the ramifications?

Foreign Affairs insinuates China wants to be a “global savior,” as the west, and most of the world global hunker down using social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Will Chinese problems become the United Nations security council agendas in the near future? Chinese goods and services are now under attack. Are there products reliable and safe? Does power overwhelm being a perceived  “serial falsifier,” of products shipped to all seven continents? In the age of branding and social media, it could be said their brand is tarnished. 

For the countries overwhelmed by the virus – whether China meant for this to happen or not – is no longer the issue. Human and financial losses will take decades to recover, and it is difficult to ascertain the geopolitical implications and economic decoupling options nations and continents have to consider moving forward with China. There is an ongoing tension that will not dissipate without soft power and diplomatic reasoning taking precedence.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson believes China:

“Will not meekly accept its new reduced post-viral status. It will act even more provocatively and desperately than ever. Adversaries are most dangerous when cornered and wounded.”

Possible Chinese nuclear tests “in violation of zero-yield global agreements,” may belie this point. Beijing and western government clashes are serious, but other global areas deserve geopolitical attention. 

Iran’s coronavirus response has been tepid. Domestic unease with forces against fighting with the West and UN in the form of U.S.-led sanctions against the Iranian regime is taking place. Shortages, chronic unemployment, and distrust of the government by the Iranian people could be some of the reasons why the Iranian navy provokes U.S. patrols in the Persian Gulf. 

Then there is Russia and Saudi Arabia. Both countries need higher oil and natural gas prices to sustain their economies. Each regime is deployed overseas, costing them billions – Russia in Syria – and the Saudi’s in Yemen. Neither conflict has a negotiated ending, and COVID-19 is delaying possible ceasefire agreements. 

What has taken place with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for global media outlets, intelligence agencies, and governments to ask if he is in grave health? Did the coronavirus cause his sickness, or something else? If he is ill, then who is the next leader? Does that change North Korea’s relationship with China and the U.S.? Speculation is rampant.

The largest geopolitical dilemma is the continuation of crashing oil prices when the coronavirus shutdowns have crushed demand for petroleum and oil-based distillates.  Over 6,000 products come from a barrel of crude oil, which means governments will have to intervene to secure prices and make sure refineries will stay in business. 

The world was moving towards decarbonization, but ventilators, plastics, and medications to fight the pandemic would not be in existence without crude oil. The Wall Street Journal wrote “Big Oil to the Coronavirus Rescue,” in response to this reality.

Energy policies such as the Green New Deal now has to overcome the estimated $93 trillion cost when governments and central banks are spending trillions to combat global shutdowns. These lockdowns have shown the disruption that will occur to decarbonize and rely on renewables while moving off fossil fuels for transportation and electrical generation. 

Environmental cleanliness is more important than ever and ecological destruction that results from clear-cutting forests and destroying water systems for solar and wind farms will need to be dealt with in the coming months and year to make decarbonization a reality. Countries like Australia are finding electrical grid instability is the norm with heavy renewable usage. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studied a thousand scenarios for carbon-free economic systems and industrial decarbonization and concluded a mix of fossil fuels with some renewables was the best solution. Leading environmentalists are coming to the same conclusions. The amount of land, raw materials, and waste disposal procedures have geopolitical consequences when renewables are still in the beginning stage, and nations have to use more fossil fuels. 

Energy and geopolitics are intertwined, and the U.S. was the leader in this race until COVID-19 hit. The U.S. Department of Energy – to meet growing global and U.S. energy upticks – wants “to restore U.S. leadership in nuclear energy.” Does this also mean the U.S. will also expand its nuclear triad with the advent of domestic nuclear energy to electricity use possibly rising and billions in research dollars appropriated? 

Recent energy data shows how U.S energy policy and hydraulic fracturing changed the structure of geopolitics until the coronavirus struck. The U.S.’ “total energy exports exceed(ed) imports in 2019 for the first time in 67 years,” and “U.S. energy production exceeded consumption for the first time in 62 years.” 

Gains were made in production, efficiency, and lowering emissions that were unheard of years ago over an increased natural gas-fired electrical generation. Analyzing U.S. energy policy in 2020, and during this “new-normal” will be a tug-of-war between clean and traditional energy resources. Can renewables change the world the way fracking has on the geopolitical stage? A middle ground will need to be reached, and COVID-19 may bring this occurrence.

Zero-interest rates and global recessions are economic difficulties to overcome. Scarier times and unrest are likely ahead for the new dawn of nation-state versus nation-state that COVID-19 has unmasked. Soft and hard power working together with diplomacy are tools to mitigate and return the world back to some semblance of normal.