The world has also firmly entered the era of pandemics, which seems here to stay and affects the very fabric of international relations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in a lasting way. In 2021, it has become clear that it will not be done quickly. In the summer of 2020, there was still hope, and many were saying:2021, the clouds will fade “,” text “:” come on, another six months, a year, and somewhere in 2021, the clouds will fade “}} ‘>come on, another six months, a year, and somewhere in 2021 the clouds will clear… That no!
At the end of 2021, in Europe and North America, new cases of COVID-19 – but not severe cases or deaths – reached levels comparable to the large peaks at the start of the year. Depending on the country, we are now in the fourth wave (in Germany), the fifth (in France) or even the sixth (in the Netherlands).
The effect of pandemics not only on the global economy, but also on the strength of nations and the cooperation – or rivalry – among them, is evident. Economic and geopolitical issues have become entangled with the pandemic: the question of sharing vaccines, out of altruism or out of well-understood interest, has become central.
The past two years have shown that the response to such a situation is at the same time individual, regional, national and global.
Global health has joined the climate as a transversal and permanent factor in international relations, and as a recurring and irremovable issue of these. Viral particles, like carbon dioxide (CO2), have crossed borders by thwarting policies.
This is true, and not only for COVID-19: the idea is taking hold that it will be necessary to know how to live permanently with the danger of pandemics, the sword of Damocles weighing on humanity. This overwhelming idea, especially with the emergence of the Omicron variant at the end of the year, took hold in 2021.
COVID whips up China-US rivalry
The pandemic has worsened relations between the two great world powers. In 2021, the new Biden administration accused the Chinese Communist Party of failing to contain the virus that emerged from Wuhan at the end of 2019.
According to a plausible hypothesis, SARS-CoV-2 would have emerged from a Chinese laboratory from where it escaped by accident, probably in the fall of 2019; a hypothesis that China has fought against as if it were to its credit, actively – and suspiciously – blocking any further investigation into the matter.
China, initially injured and weakened at the start of 2020, has recovered, has better resisted contagions and then made it a prestigious argument. It now appears less damaged by COVID-19 than the United States and other countries have been.
Officially listing less than 6,000 dead, Beijing no longer even takes the trouble to hide its contempt for the United States and their catastrophic death toll which, in mid-December, exceeded 800,000 deaths.
Whipped up by COVID-19, the rivalry between China and the United States is now structuring international relations like never before.
The perception of a threat from China is strong in Washington, less strong in European capitals and non-existent in many parts of Africa or Latin America, where it was often seen (until recently) as a benefactor and giver of wealth.
In the United States, the
chinese threat has become the number one international priority for the United States. Remarkably, this priority has remained constant from Donald Trump to Joe Biden: the two administrations have also focused on Beijing.
One power on the decline, the other on the rise
A declining power, facing another on the rise: this is what emerged in 2021 more clearly than ever. According to historians since Thucydides (5e century BC), such antagonism can lead to dangerous conflicts when the declining power tries to resist its initiated decline, while the rising one is swollen with pride and will to dominate.
This pattern corresponds fairly well to a President Xi Jinping who, in Beijing, reinforces his absolute power, watches his population as never has been done in history, has his
thought in the Constitution, crush freedoms in Hong Kong, threaten Taiwan and promise the rest of the world that China, all in muscle, will never be
modest, as Deng Xiaoping advocated in the 1980s and 1990s.
A test in 2022: the question of Taiwan, an island concerned about its autonomy and the preservation of its freedoms, but whose democracy and de facto independence are intolerable for Beijing. Will there be an invasion? It is possible, without being sure. And if so, what would the United States do? Beijing can bet they won’t budge, despite their repeated warnings and arms sales to Taipei.
The same reasoning and the same questions can apply to Ukraine in the face of Russian troops massed on its border. Here again, a Russian invasion is possible, but not certain or even probable. The affairs of Taiwan and Ukraine also take on a dimension of war of nerves, of psychological warfare.
Another element that emerged in 2021: the informal Beijing-Moscow alliance as a pole of ideological and strategic opposition to a West whose loss of prestige and decline we want to accelerate. In the two capitals, we have been delighted, in recent months, to see the United States humiliated in Afghanistan and France stumbling militarily in the Sahel.
Populism: advance or retreat?
Another central question: has populism, with its various variants around the world, retreated or advanced in 2021? What will happen in 2022?
Here, the signals are contradictory. In Germany, the September federal elections saw the party’s nationalist far right Alternative für Deutschland (AdF) to fall back towards 10%, after having been closer to 15% in 2017. In France, on the other hand, a few months before the April 2022 elections, two rival candidates labeled extreme right – Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour – close to 30% combined.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte cannot stand for re-election in May 2022, unlike Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who will likely try in October to prevent the return of former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In the very heart of Europe and the United States, and in recesses of Asia and Latin America, the loss of prestige of democracy is eroding its support and reinforcing certain authoritarian tendencies.
But nothing is inevitable: the experience of power by populists like those in Italy (the League of Matteo Salvini in 2018 and 2019) has not proved to be conclusive. Excellent for flinching in opposition and fetching a strong protest vote, they prove to be less convincing when it comes to having a positive program and implementing it.
In 2021 in Italy, the man of the moment is called Mario Draghi, Prime Minister since February 13. He’s a former Liberal banker, and his approval rating hit 70% at the end of the summer.
And finally, in the United States, in 2022: persistence and even victory of Trumpism, during the mid-term elections? On this level as on others, the influence of this country – even strategically declining – on the rest of the world remains significant. Even its disappointments both internally and internationally can have a prophetic dimension.