Skyline of Shanghai, China
Skyline of Shanghai, China Credit: Getty Images

A full year has passed since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and the virus’s devastating toll is clear: Over a hundred million confirmed cases, 2.6 million confirmed deaths, and incalculable costs to lives, livelihoods, and economies all around the world. Public health officials are leading an unprecedented logistical effort to vaccinate the global population to stem the tide of the worst global natural disaster (by far) since the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

Less clear—but equally important—is what the pandemic’s impact will mean for global relations, and world politics generally, now and into the future.

Will the post-pandemic world continue to resemble the United States-led liberal order, which was already under severe strain before the outbreak? Or, will China and other rising actors take advantage of the disparate impact the virus has had on the world’s leading democracies, to try to forge new leadership structures in world affairs? And how will all of this affect the poorest regions of the world—the ones always hardest hit in times of global change?

It may be too soon for definitive answers to such crucial questions. But it is by no means too soon to be posing them.

History has a way of throwing curveballs that shake up the international system. Think Sarajevo, June 1914, when an assassination sparked a world war, and an end to three empires.

Over the past three decades, multiple curveballs have been thrown at world affairs—the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 and America’s highly militarized response; the 2008 global financial crisis—each of which drastically altered the assumed trajectory of world politics.

We should note that the second and third of these—America’s war on terror, and the global financial crisis—provided the impetus for a rapidly rising China to break from Deng Xiaoping’s famous “hide our strength and bide our time” approach to foreign policy and begin playing a more assertive role in global affairs. This process has been supercharged since Xi Jinping was anointed “president for life.”

The pandemic outbreak has thrown another curveball at the world: an even more forthright role of China in global affairs. This is ironic, considering the virus originated in China. Since then, however, most countries have been hit much harder in terms of deaths per capita (where China ranks 145th) and costs to their economies. This is particularly true for the major democracies of Western Europe and North America, half of which rank in the top 25 for deaths per capita (nearly all rank in the top 40) and all of which continue to suffer under at least a partial economic lockdown, though the United States has proved more economically resilient than most of Europe.

Mohamed El-Erian, chief economist for the European financial services giant Allianz, summarized the global economic stakes in an interview earlier this month: “China is sprinting ahead. The U.S. is second. And Europe is struggling.”

This is an inflection point for global geopolitics, because these three entities—the United States, China, and the European Union (plus the U.K.)—account for about $54 trillion of the world’s $84 trillion in total G.D.P., or nearly two-thirds of the world’s total.

However, even before the pandemic struck, the 21st century was already shaping up to be not just an economic (and military) hard-power competition between the two strongest countries, the United States and China. It was also shaping up to be an ideological competition over which political system was best suited for the challenges of the modern age: the China model, or the American-Western model.

President Xi has been anything but shy in promoting his “China Dream” (a not-so-subtle swipe at the American Dream), a model of supposed one-party efficiency, which he also wishes to extend to global leadership by forming “communities of common destiny” and “actively reforming and developing the global governance system.” Indeed, as most Western countries focus on vaccinating their populations, China pursues “vaccine diplomacy”—a display of soft power at the expense of Western leadership.

The pandemic, it seems, has offered China an opportunity to challenge Western liberalism in ways not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War. It certainly didn’t help that the virus struck just as the world’s two oldest democracies were mired in their tumultuous Trump and Brexit experiences.

And yet, it would be foolish to bet against the West, or to assume that China’s newfound bravado will inevitably lead to escalating conflict.

For example, the reason liberal democracies were so virus-vulnerable is that they embody greater exposure to international travel and trade than most other countries. Unlike one-party autocracies, they are societies that function best when open and flowing. It is surely no coincidence that the world’s most rambunctious democracies, led by the United States, are now pumping out the most cutting-edge vaccines; medical marvels that will likely save hundreds of millions of lives before the pandemic fades from view.

If the United States adapts its post-pandemic economy in ways that transform how the world works (and plays), it will be owing to its unmatched culture of innovation. There’s a reason why—even after three decades of tumultuous global (and domestic) politics—the U.S. economy remains one-third larger than China’s, despite having one-fifth its population.

In other words, this is not June 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. In fact, if China and the United States can get beyond their understandable—if shortsighted—tensions with each other, there may actually be an opportunity for historic global collaboration, perhaps starting with a new joint venture aimed at preventing or containing future global pandemics. Sometimes, trajectories can turn for the better.

Stuart Gottlieb

Stuart Gottlieb teaches American Foreign Policy and International Security at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he is also a member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the U.S. Senate (1999–2003).