Are state responses to the virus shifting the balance of power between China and the west?
Andrà tutto bene, the Italians have taught us to think, but in truth, will everything be better the day after? It may seem premature, in the midst of what Emmanuel Macron has described as “a war against an invisible enemy”, to consider the political and economic consequences of a distant peace. Few attempt a definitive review of a play after the first three scenes.
Yet world leaders, diplomats and geopolitical analysts know they are living through epoch-making times and have one eye on the daily combat, the other on what this crisis will bequeath the world. Competing ideologies, power blocs, leaders and systems of social cohesion are being stress-tested in the court of world opinion.
Already everyone in the global village is starting to draw lessons. In France, Macron has predicted “this period will have taught us a lot. Many certainties and convictions will be swept away. Many things that we thought were impossible are happening. The day after when we have won, it will not be a return to the day before, we will be stronger morally. We will draw the consequences, all the consequences.” He has promised to start with major health investment. A Macronist group of MPs has already started a Jourd’Après website.
In Germany, the former Social Democratic party foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel has lamented that “we talked the state down for 30 years”, and predicts the next generation will be less naive about globalisation. In Italy, the former prime minister Matteo Renzi has called for a commission into the future. In Hong Kong, graffiti reads: “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.” Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state under Richard Nixon, says rulers must prepare now to transition to a post-coronavirus world order.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has said: “The relationship between the biggest powers has never been as dysfunctional. Covid-19 is showing dramatically, either we join [together] … or we can be defeated.”
The discussion in global thinktanks rages, not about cooperation, but whether the Chinese or the US will emerge as leaders of the post-coronavirus world.
In the UK, the debate has been relatively insular. The outgoing Labour leadership briefly searched for vindication in the evident rehabilitation of the state and its workforce. The definition of public service has been extended to include the delivery driver and the humble corner shop owner. Indeed, to be “a nation of shopkeepers”, the great Napoleonic insult, no longer looks so bad.
The obvious and widely drawn parallel has been, as so often in Britain, the second world war. In The Road to 1945, Paul Addison’s definitive account of how the second world war helped turn Britain to the left, he quotes the diary of the journalist JL Hodson in September 1944: “No excuses any more for unemployment and slums and underfeeding. We have shown in this war we British don’t muddle through. Using even half the vision and energy and invention and pulling together we’ve done in this war and what is there we cannot do? We’ve virtually exploded the argument of old fogies and Better Notters who said we cannot afford this and mustn’t do that. Our heavy taxation and rationing of food has willy nilly achieved some levelling up of the nation.”
In the same vein, Boris Johnson has been forced to unleash the state, but the impact in Britain seems more noticeable on civil society than politics. The famously standoffish British are no longer bowling alone. The sense of communal effort, the volunteer health workers, the unBritish clapping on doorsteps, all add to the sense that lost social capital is being reformed. But there is not yet much discussion of a new politics. Perhaps the nation, exhausted by Brexit, cannot cope with more introspection and upheaval.
In Europe, the US and Asia the discussion has broadened out. Public life may be at a standstill, but public debate has accelerated. Everything is up for debate – the trade-offs between a trashed economy and public health, the relative virtues of centralised or regionalised health systems, the exposed fragilities of globalisation, the future of the EU, populism, the inherent advantage of authoritarianism.