For the past few years it has felt as if the world was on the verge of a major change. Cracks had appeared in the liberal, uni-polar world order that was established in the aftermath of the Cold War. This system had largely been built on the assumption that prosperity leads to peace, and that more democracy, globalization, and integration would create more prosperity. Many subscribed to this logic, and during the 1990s and 2000s the results largely spoke for themselves. Democracy spread throughout the world, new technologies permitted the exchange of goods, services, people, and finance in record numbers, and multinational organizations expanded their memberships as well as their scope. At the same time, the world was getting richer. Free-trade, investment, and aid helped lift millions of people worldwide out of poverty, and into the middle classes. As advertised, this proliferation of wealth also ushered in an era of relative peace. With the Soviets vanquished, the United States stood head and shoulders above the rest; the architect and guarantor of this new system. It seemed that after all the horrors and bloodshed of the twentieth century, the world was finally ready to move on. As Francis Fukuyama famously observed, the “End of History” was in sight.
In hindsight, the warning signs were there. Some of them were explicit; the break-up of Yugoslavia and the carnage that followed proved that war hadn’t disappeared. Some were more opaque, and thus easy to dismiss or explain away. Democracy may have failed to take root in China and many of the former Soviet republics, but this was bound to change. The argument went that as their standard of living improved, and Western influence became more pronounced, citizens would demand greater representation in government. This of course was not the case, but at the time no one seemed interested in the truth. Prosperity was the name of the game, and as long as your lot in life was improving the occasional glitch in the system could be forgiven. This all changed after 2008.
The global financial crisis exposed the unwelcome truth that the system in place since the end of the Cold War is not perfect, and that its pillars of democracy, globalization, and integration have their limits. The Western democracies were no less susceptible to the shocks of 2008 than other forms of government. Globalization has made it cheaper and easier than ever before to travel, trade, and invest, but it has also cost millions of workers their livelihoods through outsourcing and deindustrialization. Nations are willing to accept integration, both political and economic, as long as everyone is making money. However, when times get tough, they still instinctively look inwards as their priorities swiftly realign. All of these realities were brought to light by the crisis in 2008, and in the years that followed things have gone from bad to worse.
The standard of living in China has continued to rise, but there has been little appetite shown for democratic government. Democracy has proven ineffective in new footholds such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Even more worrisome are signs emanating from Europe where the democratic institutions of places like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey are being hollowed out by conservative, right-wing politicians with autocratic leanings.
Globalization has undoubtedly brought jobs and a rise in living standards to the developing world and made a select few individuals extremely wealthy. Its benefits have been far from universal however, and many feel as though they’ve been left behind. It has exacerbated tensions by squeezing the West’s middle classes who have seen their jobs disappear overseas. As a result, it has widened the chasm between the rich and the poor as well as the urban and rural, and created a dangerous disconnect between politicians and the people they govern.
Meanwhile, international integration projects continue to unravel at an alarming pace. Bickering between NATO member states has become a common theme as the organization struggles to redefine its purpose. The E.U. is fraught with tensions between north and south as well as east and west. Economic policies lie at the heart of north/south squabbles while differences of opinion on values, sovereignty, and Russia divide east and west. The questions of immigration and freedom of movement will continue to cause friction within the block, and so too will the role and influence of China on the old continent. Other organizations that have supported the system over the years like the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF appear ill-equipped to address the problems of today.
Worst of all, the relative peace we’ve enjoyed over the last few decades looks increasingly precarious. A resurgent Russia has flexed its muscles in Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have threatened to boil over on occasions. The wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen rumble on, and have drawn in a lengthy list of foreign powers. The Chinese continue to probe in the South and East China seas, testing the boundaries of their neighbors’ patience as well as the resilience of the American led alliance system in the Pacific. Throw in trade disputes, protectionism, and climate change and the situation looks bleak.
All of this points to a system already under severe duress at a time when it is facing its greatest challenge. The Coronavirus has caused fear throughout much of the world, and nobody knows how long the pandemic will last. What is clear though is that the measures necessary to combat the virus have ground the system to a halt. Borders are being closed, and nations are withdrawing into themselves. The movement of people, goods, and services is down to a trickle. Divisions are once again rearing their ugly head in multinational organizations like the E.U., and governments of all sorts (including democracies) are having their preparedness, transparency, and responsiveness questioned.
Could the Coronavirus be the final nail in the coffin of a system at its limits? The virus has shaken people’s belief in its very foundations, and whether that faith can be restored is anyone’s guess. The world is experiencing a collective burnout, and how we respond will be pivotal in shaping our future. The Coronavirus has deeply affected us all, but the full extent of its impact will not be known until we see what emerges next.
Rob Burger is a Canadian working in Ukraine.