Dave Sharma was Australia's ambassador to Israel from 2013 to 2017. Now a member of Australia's House of Representatives, he chairs the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.
Robert Harris's 2019 novel The Second Sleep opens with a scene that reads like the Middle Ages. Someway into the novel, we realize that it is actually set 800 years into the future, around 2800 AD. In 2025, an event that our descendants refer to as the Apocalypse, our civilization collapsed.
The cause is never spelt out, but it is the direct result of a level of technological sophistication that rendered society uniquely vulnerable to total collapse. Harris, in this instance, is writing fiction. But it's a useful reminder that historical periods and eras come to an end. Empires and nations dissolve.
As one of the characters in the novel writes: "All civilizations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is."
We are now 75 years into what has basically been a single era, the postwar era. Much has changed in that time, but the system of order which governs the world basically remains the same.
Plague devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War, when victory over Sparta was within reach. It was a blow from which Athens never recovered. The Plague of Justinian crippled the eastern Roman Empire and fueled the rise of Islam as a political force. The Black Death in Europe was a social leveler, strengthening the bargaining power of workers and dealing feudalism a mortal blow.
Is the COVID-19 pandemic likely to profoundly alter the direction of the world and humanity? Or, dramatic as it seems, will it rank as an historical footnote? The world's ability to understand and treat COVID-19, the quality of our public health systems, and our ability to gather and share data and learn, are orders of magnitude better than even a century ago.
But the world is also a much more interconnected place than it was, and in many respects the population and our systems are less resilient to shocks of this magnitude. We should all have the modesty to recognize that it is simply too early to draw any solid conclusions about the post-COVID world. A few trends are apparent, however.
First, power relativities between nations will almost certainly change. Global shocks inevitably change the power order in the world, often in unexpected ways, and this alters the patterns of state rivalry and competition. Those countries that have managed the health impact of the crisis well, cushioned the economic impact, and kept public faith in their institutions and systems of government, and kept their internal cohesion as a society: these are the nations that will emerge the strongest from this crisis.
On this metric, the fate of the western alliance system is mixed. Nations such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Germany and Australia have fared well. The United States and the United Kingdom have performed poorly, as has much of Western Europe. India is still in the midst of the crisis. China, despite being ground zero for COVID-19, has managed well. Russia, another authoritarian state, has not. Much will depend now on the speed of the economic recovery, but it's clear that the economic impact of the pandemic will have some enduring effects on the power order.
Second, we have undoubtedly passed the high watermark of globalization. National governments, borders, and the apparatus of the nation-state have been key tools in managing this crisis. International travel and tourism have ground to a halt. Its recovery is likely to be slow.
Societies have turned to their national governments to protect them, not to supranational or multilateral bodies. Diversity and resilience of supply will be key watchwords going forward. We can expect more onshoring of manufacturing capabilities, driven by both commercial and national security imperatives, and less globally-integrated supply chains.
Free trade will come under pressure as a result, and protectionist pressures will rise. There will be a natural swing of the pendulum back toward the nation-state. The challenge for nations that value the open and liberal order will be to ensure that this does not lead to a full-scale resurgence of nationalism and a dismantling of the rules-based multilateral order.
Finally, there is a contest of narrative and legitimacy underway, still in its early days. Which models of governance will emerge with their prestige enhanced? Which countries will be seen to have performed the best, and so offer the most compelling model for others to emulate? Will authoritarian governments or liberal democracies be seen to have handled this better?
Equally important, will some states earn the moral opprobrium of others -- and so have weakened their claims to global leadership -- for how they have handled themselves through this crisis? The world has spent decades establishing and fine-tuning our machinery to control and regulate particularly dangerous material, such as nuclear fissile material and chemical and biological weapons.
As we have seen through this crisis, the uncontrolled release of biologically active material -- in this case, a new strain of coronavirus -- can be just as threatening to global peace and stability. We may need treaties and norms with more intrusive enforcement to guard against future pandemics.
The world is in flux and 75 years is a long time. Those of us who value the open and liberal order must be prepared to defend it.