Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world?
The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.
There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.
Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?
I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.
For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.
Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.
How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal?
This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.
It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?
We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.
Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.
These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?
I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.
Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back?
During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.
Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?
High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.
I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them.
In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.
Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.