The year 2021 began with hopes for a gradual recovery from the pandemic and the restoration of the ways of life and development that had been sacrificed to lockdowns and quarantines. The introduction of vaccines and people’s growing willingness to get vaccinated differentiate 2021 from 2020 and may help those hopes come true.
However, politically important and largely irreversible changes have taken place in the world. Having begun even before the pandemic, these changes have now found new dynamics, they will remain with us and will have a significant, and in some cases, decisive impact on global politics. Among other important changes, these include growing inequality, the further strengthening of Internet corporations, global warming and others – shifting our attention to the institutional and power politics dimensions of the transition from an American-centric to a pluralistic world order.
First, the pandemic has cemented a shift in the global balance of power from the West to Asia. Second, it revealed the weakness of states and societies that are not ready for large-scale social changes. Both trends, acting before the pandemic, were exposed as a result of its development and pose serious potential adaptation risks to an already difficult global transition.
The global power shift is especially noticeable in connection with the loss of the US’ leading position in the production of the world’s gross product in terms of the purchasing power of currencies, and the advancement of China. It was China that took control of the spread of Covid-19 faster than others and restored economic growth in the country against the backdrop of a five percent decline in global GDP in 2020. Meanwhile, predominantly negative economic and social processes developed in the USA, Europe, Russia and other countries. Growth rates fell, unemployment grew, social programmes collapsed, and internal and external debts accumulated. All this is fully characteristic of the United States, which continues to compensate for its lack of systemic solutions by mass-printing dollars.
The change in the global balance of power as a result of a pandemic can be compared to the results of a world war. However, if after the Second World War, America, which remained aloof from the main battles, ascended to the pinnacle of global economic power, the pandemic strengthened China. This does not necessarily mean that China will gain a foothold in its leadership position and be able to reform much of the world order in its own way, as the United States did in the post-war period. But China has a considerable window of opportunity, which will open wider if the recovery of the United States and other Western countries stalls. There is no doubt that, as strength recovers, the Atlantic West - and above all the United States - will fiercely resist the further rise of China and the non-Western world as a whole.
For Russia, this is one of the main international risks in the medium and long term.
The second most important trend and risk in our changing world is associated with the internal weaknesses of states and societies, revealed in connection with their response to the pandemic. This is not only about the so-called Covid nationalism, manifested in the refusal of states to search for joint solutions in favour of closing borders and exploiting external threats. In America, this trend has taken a particularly grotesque form. President Donald Trump has declared Covid a "Chinese" virus, urging China to "answer" for the damage done to the world. He distinguished himself by the fact that he offered millions of dollars to German scientists who had advanced in the creation of a vaccine, on the condition that their developments would become the exclusive property of the United States.
The vulnerability of Western societies manifested itself primarily in the split of the elites and the bureaucratisation of the response to a sudden health crisis. In the United States, the political class was completely absorbed in the struggle between liberal globalists and nationalists led by Trump. In the face of this struggle, a nationwide programme to combat the virus was not and could not be formulated. Even the wearing of masks and social distancing, deemed necessary to reduce infection and mortality, have become politicised. Republicans, largely influenced by Trump, tended to disregard and ridicule these measures.
Now that Covid and polarisation have fuelled Joe Biden's rise to power, the apparent rift in the elites will take new forms, while continuing to weaken the country and reduce its opportunities in the world arena. The significance of this split has emerged following the recent storming of the Capitol by those protesting the election results. According to one poll, 68% of Republicans did not see the assault as a threat to democracy, while 93% of Democrats did. According to another poll, 86% of Democrats supported the immediate removal of Trump from office in connection with the protests and storming, but this demand was supported by only 15% of the president's party members. Even if the impeachment is successful, the roots of the political polarisation of American society will remain. They are rooted in social and racial structures, requiring the creation of a new, nationally oriented development model in the country corresponding to changes in the world.
Bureaucratisation and political polarisation also manifested themselves in the reaction to the pandemic among European societies. The principle of “every man for himself” initially prevailed in the European Union, and the search for enemies in various societies and social groups led to the targeting of China, Russia, migrants from the Middle East and America. An exception was the signing of an agreement between The Gamaleya Center and AstraZeneca on joint trials and the use of developed drugs. European bureaucracy, renowned for its clumsiness, has confirmed its bad reputation during the pandemic.
Even more obvious were the weaknesses of the countries of Eastern Europe, that hardly advanced in the fight against Covid. Ukraine, for example, could neither develop nor obtain a vaccine from the outside, refusing to purchase Sputnik V from Russia. This country risks being the last in the list of those who will be able to protect themselves from the pandemic. Cracks may appear in the statehood of the countries of this region, and they may become victims of the processes of global transition. As Fyodor Lukyanov justly said, not all states of the post-Soviet region will survive. This is really true, as the region continues to be a field where the interests of the great powers collide.
The Chinese model also has its own flaws with respect to global adaptation, despite the successes in the fight against Covid. One key weakness of China and, to a lesser extent, of the Asian model as a whole is its relative closeness and, as a result, distrust from the rest of the world. The Chinese model, with its rigid internal hierarchy, continues to work for China, but it can hardly be a role model. In addition, neither China nor other Asian countries are yet ready to take on a significant share of the responsibility for stabilising the international system. Chinese leaders prefer outside investment projects and to tie the recipient ruling elites to financial commitments to international rule-making and a dialogue with a wider society. As a result, the outside world, such as Central Asia, is accepting Chinese investments while continuing to be wary of their donor.