COVID-19 has made the world leaderless, just like what we saw back in the 1930s

Anthony Pahnke

Anthony Pahnke

Anthony is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University, in San Francisco, California. His research deals with social movements and protest, development, and trade policy.

This article is more than 6 months old

The coronavirus has exposed serious faults in US power, while also crippling most of Europe as well as China. To understand this current historic moment, we need to look to the 1930s – a time when the global political and economic order was also thrown into chaos. This comparison isn’t meant to be pessimistic. Rather, what we can learn in this historical comparison is that politics matters more than ever in a time of crisis and collective struggles will determine our future.
COVID-19, (or the coronavirus) has shined a bright, glaring light on the United States. What we see is a country in disarray – a collapsing economy, an incoherent, if not inept response from many of the country’s leaders, and panicked shoppers crowding grocery stores.

Far from an example for others around the world, what folks are witnessing is a lesson in what not to do in times of crisis.

Worse still, when the world looks for direction from others, it’s hard to pinpoint a clear leader, or model for guidance.

Look around – country after country is in the grip of the pandemic and struggling to deal with its effects. Most countries are in lockdown, closing their borders and shutting themselves off from the world. Deaths from the virus are mounting and troubling governments in Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, and France. Sweden’s laissez-faire approach, which has drawn confusion and surprise, is not inspiring politicians or leaders to follow.

And China? Yes, some reports show that the country is sending doctors and medical supplies to affected countries. While improving its international standing on the world stage, and showing leadership in a way, China is also being called out for its early, problematic response to the pandemic, and sources in US intelligence have accused the country for disseminating incorrect information about the number of cases and deaths.

No matter where you are in the world, the coronavirus has sucked us all into a veritable whirlpool. And as countries, businesses, and individuals scramble, reaching for a lifeline, the virus provides daily reminders that it’s in control and that we are all caught in its current.

Virus. Picture @ Pixabay.

On an international scale, have we experienced a comparable historic moment in terms of crisis and leadership?

The answer is yes – what we are seeing in terms of state action and economic fallout is akin to the interwar period in the early twentieth century.

It’s worth highlighting – that during the first half of the twentieth century one state didn’t suddenly assume dominance on the world stage from another. Yes, looking back now, we can see how the UK was in decline and the United States was ascending. But, it’s necessary also to note that this transition was not like runners handing the baton to each other during a race. No, the rise of the US to become a world power didn’t happen overnight. It took decades.

Right now is not like 1945, when the Second World War was concluding and the United States asserted its economic and political power over much of the world as most of Europe was destroyed.

This historic moment is now more like the early 1930s, when states were closing their borders and shutting themselves off from one another, and international institutions were receding into the political background.

The reality concerning the US is that its current weakness is not a momentary lapse, or some kind of “hiccup” of its dominance in world politics. In fact, the problems in the US that the coronavirus has exposed are deep and have been years in the making (to know more about this topic, read the article entitled “The United States is a dying superpower”).

Decades of free market fundamentalism have diminished public services, which has only been exacerbated by the Republican Party’s anti- (or so-called “limited”) government ideology. Instead of building a robust healthcare system, both Democrats and Republicans have squabbled over particulars for years. Former President Obama’s plans for a universal system was compromised away, as conservative actors in government consistently opposed any kind of government option that could have included everyone.

It’s not just in healthcare where the US shows dysfunction. Economically, close to 80% of the population live from paycheck to paycheck. Again, this problem did not arise suddenly. Rising inequality has been a concern since the 1980s. For young adults born after 1990, it looks likely that they will not achieve the same kind of economic standing as their parents enjoyed.

Political squabbling and division further riddle the US system. President Trump campaigned, and has governed, with a divisive rhetorical style that isolates and demonizes immigrants, people of color, and really, anyone who criticizes him. While this approach has allowed him to keep his base of support, it hasn’t worked well in his dealings with the virus pandemic.

Trump can neither build a wall to keep the virus out of the US, nor bully it away with a barrage of tweets.

Just ask the representatives of the countries who were asked by the Trump administration to declare the coronavirus pandemic the ‘Wuhan virus’ at the most recent G7 meeting. The request was rejected unanimously, as the US failed to make others internationally accept its distorted vision of our global healthcare disaster.

And really, why would anyone at this point take advice on the pandemic, whether concerning what to call it, or how to deal with it, from the US? Weeks of ignoring, or downplaying it, has allowed the virus to spread, as the government still struggles to test people for the virus and provide much necessary equipment and supplies to healthcare workers who are on the frontlines.

Where’s the United Nations as the US flails around? Well, it’s sitting this one out. The Security Council – the principal decision-making body of the international institution that authorizes multilateral interventions and peacekeeping operations in troubled regions – has remained silent as the pandemic has spread.

This begs the question about China, namely, is this an opportunity for its rise?

Besides its own flawed response to the crisis, it’s not certain that the rising power is in any kind of position that could rival the United States to become seen as globally dominant.

Militarily, the US dwarfs the world in spending. While the US currently has nearly eight hundred military bases around the world, China has one.

China’s economy has grown exponentially over the last few decades, and with 5G technology, the country is showing that it is entering into high value industries, potentially as a global leader.

The key word here is ‘potentially.’ The coronavirus economic fallout has affected the Chinese economy, just as it has the American – rising unemployment and disrupted trade routes don’t show one clear winner, but many losers.

And in terms of ideas, it’s hard to see a clear attraction to the Chinese model as an ideal.

Just before the pandemic, the government’s treatment of protestors in Hong Kong drew criticism, as did the camps that have been constructed for the Muslim Uighurs. Moreover, as this pandemic forces millions around the world to stay home, most likely they are watching films from Hollywood and not state-run television from Beijing.

Global economic turmoil, states in retreat, dominant powers in decline – welcome to the 1930s.

At the time The Great Depression drew most countries in the world downward, driving up unemployment in the US and Europe. In response, the US passed legislation – the Smoot-Hawley Act – which placed tariffs on imports in a flawed attempt to protect domestic production. The government also deported a million Mexican-Americans–some of whom were citizens – as nationalist sentiment increasingly drove the US’ politics.

European countries were similar. Fascist parties and extreme nationalist ideas took hold in Italy, Spain, and Germany. In Britain, tariffs were placed in the 1930s on everything from foreign films to mutton. Across Europe, countries used economic policy as a way to compete with one another, engaging in what scholars have called ‘beggar thy neighbor’ trade policies.

Meanwhile, the League of Nations – the international institution created after World War I to foster global cooperation – fell apart. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) didn’t exist at the time. There was the Gold Standard, which despite its suspension during World War I, was in place throughout the 1920s. Yet, this international agreement to control currency also folded, as Britain, then other countries withdrew and decided to go it alone.

It is thought that Antonio Gramsci said, or wrote, that when “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born, now is the time of monsters.” For us, if the ‘old world’ was dying before the coronavirus hit, then our global political and economic systems may have been dealt a swift death blow by the coronavirus in just the past couple of months.

It is precisely at such times, as Gramsci also pointed out, that struggles play out. This was the world of the interwar period and it’s ours as well. This also means that we don’t know what the future holds, especially as it seems as though the US, China, and most other countries are playing catch up to the virus, which is the force that is really dictating international terms and conditions.

It will be up to the rest of us what we make of this historic moment – will we let monsters, whether in the form of extreme nationalism and racism take hold in the coming years? Or, can social forces work together to lead democratic, emancipatory opportunities? I cannot tell one way or the other. What is certain is that now is the time for politics, and for the future it is our responsibility to get beyond this crisis and make a better world where such devastation cannot happen again.


Anthony Pahnke


Received: 03.04.20, Ready: 06.04.20, Editors: Federico Germani, Robert Ganley.

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