COVID-19 and a New World Order: Authoritarianism or Saving Democracy?

An analysis of how the current pandemic will change world order as we know it.

International orders seldom change; however, the Coronavirus has significantly altered the dynamics of the world order. Instead of healthy cooperation, we see an ineffective United Nations, internationally closed borders, and the WHO transformation into a political tool- all while the shifting geopolitics and structural inefficiencies have allowed new global threats to arise. What will the world look like after this? How do we face authoritarian states such as China and Russia that undermine the democratic world? More importantly, what makes authoritarianism attractive?

As a world power seeking to export its state model through diplomatic maneuvers under dark cover provided by the pandemic, China should be considered the greatest threat to the liberal world order. China’s model of governance is a variant of authoritarian capitalism where civil society is state-controlled. Beijing has used the pandemic to further signal that China’s governance model has been more effective than most western countries, particularly democracies.

While the government basks in the credit it received from the WHO for its handling of the crisis, many accounts fail to mention that China’s secrecy and authoritarianism fostered the spread of COVID-19. Championing itself as a leader during the crisis, China’s “Health Silk Road” is no benevolent measure- it is an exploitive variant of the Belt and Road Initiative and far more dangerous. Furthermore, the aid comes at the price of public displays of gratitude, which significantly enhances the country’s soft power and muzzles public criticism. China’s international presence is critical in developing a sympathetic stance towards authoritarianism and China, rather than the West.

Photograph by the U.S. Department of State

Does this mean that the world must now prepare for a period of hostility? No, COVID-19 may allow the world to adopt a more precautious stance towards China. For example, the limit on state-backed Chinese investments could be implemented while aiming to lower barriers to trade over time. However, such actions must be in conjunction with China. There will be no winners from another Cold War- the world must avoid the return of global strategic rivalries that wrecked the 20th century.

Another particularly interesting relationship that has significant implications for world order is the relationship between the United States and Russia. Russia’s involvement in Syria, Venezuela, and other states left US-Russian relations in a perpetual state of disarray. However, the post-pandemic world may provide an opportunity for cooperation. The dramatic drop in oil prices has put tremendous economic strain on Moscow. Under such pressures, the sanctions placed on Moscow by Washington, which were not harmful earlier, may force Russia to the negotiating table, especially during a prolonged crisis like this.

Although authoritarian, Russia may use the pandemic to alter the dynamics of world order by fostering closer ties with the United States. As the US drifts further away from China, Russia may become an important counterweight to better ties between the Chinese and the Americans. Thus, the pandemic presents both significant opportunities to curtail the spread of authoritarianism and strategies for adjustment.

However, there are more challenges to face. The rising numbers of sick people, growing unemployment, increased anxiety and financial stress, and inequality, racism, and a scarcity of community resources have set the stage for a wider crisis. As people become more aware of the pandemic, the connections between physical, economic, and human insecurity is more tangible. A lack of accountability, bureaucracy, red tapeism and power politics reinforce mistrust between the people and officials, pushing them further towards authoritarianism. Thus, we must address such threats that are as important as external threats from states. The importance of a human rights and gender lens must be incorporated to address this new reality.


Photograph by Wikipedia

Instead of fighting authoritarianism it is more beneficial to dwell on why and how did authoritarianism, so defeated, rise once again? The only advantage that authoritarian governments exert is that they can make quick decisions, particularly as seen during the pandemic. However, democracies like Germany, Norway, and New Zealand have fared just as well. The fact is that authoritarian leaders, do not grant or fulfil the promises they make, nor do they fare better than democracies.

Never before have we faced such a situation where we have the opportunity to rebuild an order that works on the principles of cooperation and compromise- one that not only accounts for state interests but also combats climate change, public health challenges, inequality, racism, etc. Thus, we should imagine a two-level system. The new order should focus on problems such as climate change, cybersecurity, and pandemics that will threaten our world in the coming era as much as nuclear weapons did in the previous one. COVID-19 has made us all aware of our vulnerability; we should channel that trauma into norms and institutions just as forceful as those that keep nuclear proliferation at bay.

This pandemic may represent the high-water mark for the appeal of authoritarianism. However, let us not forget the essence and promise of democracy and what it means. As we emerge from this pandemic, we should heed the lessons of history. Let us not repeat the mistakes made before but chart a new course, a different one, and navigate the history of our times towards fairer seas.



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