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A new global covenant? Great power conflicts and conflict resolution in the post-corona era

Mohammed Cherkaoui

A lively debate has already begun about the potential effects of the current crisis and coining period of recovery on the global political order. One school of thought emphasizes a shift in the global balance of power toward the Asian nations that demonstrated their ability to deal with collective threats while the West proved less able to do so. Others predict a resurgence of European solidarity and social democracy, while still others foresee an accelerated trend toward nationalist isolation. The possibility of intensified competition between Great Powers is generating discussion about the need for UN reform and the creation of new conflict resolution facilities. This chapter describes key elements of the international agenda post-corona and suggests opportunities for significant peacemaking.

The coronavirus era indicates deep, if yet unmeasured, shifts in how the human race will reconstruct public health, science, economy, security, state power, and other variables of international relations. It also showcases a transitional period that indicates the rise and fall of certain international orders; however, it may represent the "tipping point from the international liberal order to disorder” (Tocci, 2020).1 Future historians might well reflect back on two distant eras: BC (before coronavirus) and AC (after Coronavirus). A coronavirus-driven transition between BC and AC could be much deeper than the previous mega turns in history such as Globalization in the 1980s; end of Colonialism in the 1960s; Feudalism in the 1900s; Modernity starting in the 1850s; and the Industrial Revolution in the fifteenth century. As for the coronavirus trajectory, most observers are skeptical since “the signs are not promising that the major powers either comprehend the risks of the current transitional period or have a clear vision for a new international order that would be broadly acceptable and thus considered legitimate by most other states” (Stares, 2020).2

This chapter examines the potential effects of the current crisis and coming period of recovery on the global political order, and foresees four potential structural shifts. There has been a split of opinions: one school of thought emphasizes a shift in the global balance of power toward the Asian nations that demonstrated their ability to deal with collective threats while the West proved less able to do so. Qingguo Jia, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, maintains the post-World War II order is not ending but is clearly in "serious trouble.”3 Others predict a resurgence of European solidarity and social democracy, while still others foresee an accelerated trend toward nationalist isolation. Some Europe enthusiasts notice Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the pandemic has given the opportunity “to assert her leadership on the international scene” (Bas, 2020).4 The possibility of intensified competition between Great Powers is generating discussion about the need for U.N. reform and the creation of new conflict resolution facilities. What does the international agenda look like post-corona? What opportunities for significant peacemaking are likely to appear?

The Thucydides Trap, Europe Über Alles, and a Sectarian Cold War

The coronavirus moment has been a test of medical capacity and of political will as well, both in national and international terms. It would strengthen states, reinforce nationalisms and closed-door policies, and ultimately undermine globalism. Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, points to an ironic lesson: we are not once again on the brink of global war, "not every crisis is the 1930s all over again. But conflict and rivalry are endemic to international affairs, and we forget that at our peril” (Brands, 2020).5

China has positioned itself to be the “doctor and the lab” of the West in 2020. President Xi described his country's medical assistance for Europe as an effort to further a "Health Silk Road,” stretching his Belt and Road trade-and-infrastrucuire initiative. However, Chinese officials have been criticized for mounting a “propaganda campaign” to make certain Western states look like the Three Stooges. The new pandemic has only accelerated a west-to-east shift of power. President Trump’s condemnation of the World Health Organization (WHO) for siding with Beijing was an indicator of a world disorder despite the short-lived "mask diplomacy” (Hornung, 2020).6

Political realism scholars, like Stephen Walt and Francis Fukuyama, agree on this easternization of the global distribution of power; “South Korea and Singapore have responded best, and China has reacted well after its early mistakes. The response in Europe and America has been slow and haphazard by comparison, further tarnishing the aura of the Western ‘brand’” (Walt, 2020).7 However, soft power theorist Joseph Nye argues coronavirus

A new global covenant? 63 will not change the global order, and the pandemic is "unlikely to prove a geopolitical turning point." He also maintains "while the United States will continue to hold most of the high cards, misguided policy decisions could cause it to play these cards poorly" (Nye, 2020)8

China remains determined to challenge what it perceives as a "Westcentric” existing global order. It also intends to capitalize on the withdrawal of the Trump administration from several international organizations, including UNESCO, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Universal Postal Union, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and also Trump’s criticism of NATO and his new feud with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Chinese officials perceive the Trump administration's policies as “an exception rather than the rule in post - World War II U.S. activities” (Jia, 2020).9 They will not seek a direct clash with the United States or sleepwalk into a Thucydides's trap, which assumes all rising powers inevitably clash with the predominant powers (Allison, 2017).10 Instead, China will remain eager to patiently watch the continued decline of the United States' standing in the world, while most countries have opted to remain active members in those institutions and pacts.

By late March 2020, the science of coronavirus turned into a battle of knowledge, brain drain, and Trumpian profiteering. The German government expressed resentment to the news that President Trump had offered Slbn to the Tiibingen-based biopharmaceutical company. Cure Vac, to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.”11 German economy minister Peter Altmaier pointedly stated "Germany is not for sale.” His colleague foreign minister Heiko Maas asserted "German researchers are taking a leading role in developing medication and vaccines as part of global cooperation networks. We cannot allow a situation where others want to exclusively acquire the results of their research.”12

Chancellor Merkel was described as a leader who "maintained an open democracy in times of crisis.” Her March 18 address to the nation was well-received and brought her more admiration. The influential Sueddeiitsche Zeitung newspaper wrote, "Merkel painted a picture of the greatest challenge since World War II, but she did not speak of war . . . She did not rely on martial words or gestures, but on people’s reason. . . . Nobody knows if that will be enough, but her tone will at least not lead the people to sink into uncertainty and fear.”13 She is the only world leader who included in her team social scientists and experts in constitutional rights to help plan the transition into a post-coronavirus era. Germans found “Mutti,” the affectionate nickname they had been using for years; “a Mutti whose management of the crisis with scientific rigor, empathy and pragmatism has stood in stark contrast to the erratic, dramatic and chaotic management of many leaders.”14 Merkel's leadership has also made headlines after she hosted the

56th Munich Security Conference, and earlier the Conference on Peace in Libya on the 19th of January in Berlin, under a provocative title of “West-lessness,” which refers to a world without Western dominance.

A third significant geopolitical shift is the deepening uncertainty, rise of nationalisms in the Middle East, and the Turkish-Iranian-Israeli-Saudi-Emirati power showdown. These regional hegemonic projects in Syria, Yemen, and Libya add to the blurry post-coronavirus reality, and Ian Bremmer's notion of a “G-Zero world” and a “geopolitical recession.”15 For instance. Iran turned down the U.S. offer of assistance by loosening sanctions on the Iranian banking system. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi denounced Pompeo's offer as “a ridiculous claim and a political and psychological play” and condemned United States “economic terrorism.”16

Israeli plans of annexing parts of the occupied West Bank have already sent signals of a hot summer of boiling tensions. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex up to 30% of the West Bank by July 1, and said the move, stemming from President Trump's peace plan, will write another “glorious chapter in the history of Zionism.”17 The annexation plan adds to the complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and raises questions about the Palestinians' rights of existence on a map that has been described as resembling “Swiss cheese.”

The coronavirus era will also accelerate the rise of new silos of power as symmetrical three-tier groupings of states: a superpower, a regional power, and small states. For instance, several Middle East countries have repositioned themselves around these silos of power: The United States, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates vis-a-vis Russia. Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. Russia has intervened politically and militarily in Syria and established two major bases: Hmeimim Air Base in the south-east of the city of Latakia, sharing some airfield facilities with Bassel Al-Assad International Airport; and the naval facility which Moscow considers as “Material-Technical Support Point” on the northern edge of the seaport of the Syrian city of Tartus.

The June 5, 2017, blockade of Qatar by the Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) has strengthened Doha's trade, military, and diplomatic ties with Turkey and Iran. I was invited to Doha in May 2018 to make a presentation entitled "A Geopolitical Outlook of the Gulf Crisis Trajectory’: Political and Strategic Variables,” while considering the region could become a tinderbox of tensions under Trump's unsettled policy toward Iran and Saudi Arabia and how any United States-Iran standoff would be a catalyst of future developments. I foresaw three main variables: a) strength of a Saudi-UAE-American-Israeli axis as a major realigmnent of U.S. strategic relationships in the region; b) Saudi Arabia would bear embarrassment in

Yemen and targeted by missile attacks launched by the Houthis across the border; and c) the Saudi and Emirati money will exhaust its potential in generating political capital in Washington.

The repetitive attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in 2019 provided an opportunity for the Kremlin to present its “Russia’s Security Concept for the Gulf Area” as a “collective” plan of action. The Russian Mission at the United Nations delivered a letter to the Security Council and the General Assembly July 23, 2019, arguing that the idea of establishing a security system in the Gulf area "might be essential for consolidating political and diplomatic efforts in this region. It implies a long-term program of action aimed at normalizing the situation, improving stability and security, resolving conflicts, identifying key benchmarks and parameters for a future postcrisis architecture, as well as ways to fulfill the related tasks.”18 Three months later, China decided to support the Russian plan, and maximize its potential in replacing the Gulf’s US defense umbrella, and position Russia as “a power broker alongside the US,” amid heightened tensions as a result of "tit-for-tat tanker seizures and a beefed-up US and British military presence in Gulf waters.”19

Pandemic deterrence and human dimension in a post-U.N. World?

The WHO was reluctant to announce that the coronavirus was “officially a pandemic” and did not decide to bring the bad news until March 11. Dr. Ghebreyesus stated, “There is so much attention to that word. Other words matter more: prevention, preparedness, political leadership and people ... We're in this together.”20 Months later, coronavirus has infected tens of millions of individuals and millions of deaths. The fluctuations of the coronavirus infection rate and death toll have challenged national governments and the United Nations system alike. Two revealing statements in New York and Geneva showcase not the devastating impact of the pandemic only, but also the inability of the existing world order to act. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believes the pandemic exposed “tremendous shortcomings, fragilities and fault lines.”21 In Geneva, the best advice suggested by Dr. Ghebreyesus was as follows: "please quarantine politicizing COVID. We shouldn't waste time pointing fingers.”22

World diplomats at the U.N. headquarters in New York and public health experts at the WT1O in Geneva have been bewildered in responding to a global raison-d'etre tough question. Two recent resolution drafts presented at the Security Council, one by France and Tunisia, and the other by Germany and Estonia, call for a “humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days” in order to allow for the delivery of aid to the hardest-hit communities.23 However, the Trump administration has threatened to use its veto if there were any explicit reference to the WHO, which Trump has accused of downplaying the seriousness of the virus outbreak that began in China. He also notified the U.N. Secretary General of the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO effective July 6, 2021. This decision has been considered to be “among the most ruinous presidential decisions in recent history,” and it would "make Americans less safe during an unprecedented global health crisis,” as argued Lawrence O. Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.24

As an uncontrollable cross-border pandemic, coronavirus is a new harrowing reminder of the fragility of human life and will deepen a public health-centered BC/AC historical periodization. French Doctor and virologist microbiologist, Didier Raoult, told French legislators in Paris the battle with Coronavirus has been "70 to 80 percent politics and 20 to 30 percent science.” He also exposed some lobbyists against the use of Hydroxychloroquine, which he considers “the least expensive and simplest way to treat the coronavirus.” The BC-AC transition may not lead to abolishing the WHO and replacing the United Nations; however, the coronavirus aftermath will be paving the way for three possible scenarios:

First, there will be a renewed debate about the Security Council reform in light of the 2005 deliberation at the General Assembly. Brazil's representative, one of the Group of Four (G-4 besides Japan, Germany, and India), who were aspiring to become permanent members of the Council, stated "the realities of power of 1945 had long been superseded. The security structure established then was now glaringly outdated.”25 Japan's ambassador asserted “countries with the will and resources to play a major role in international peace and security must always take part in the Council’s decision-making process.”26 Now, the fear of coronavirus may lead to shortterm isolationism. However, the conventional wisdom will restore the significance of international cooperation by necessity in the long term; and there could be a silver lining in the transition out of this gloomy coronavirus cave to reconstruct the U.N. system.

In the Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the United Nations to be released on September 21, 2020, diplomats in New York seem to have internalized a sense of unfounded praise and claim of “owning” the discourse of peace. They argue "there is no other global organization with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact as the United Nations. No other global organization gives hope to so many people for a better world and can deliver the future we want.”27

One may not contest the promise of the U.N. Charter and the normative foundation of the whole system, but coronavirus has called for some pragmatism and efficiency in delivery of the promised goals. Germany

A new global covenant? 67 is well positioned to push once again for the U.N. reform and the way it operates and "laying the lasting foundations for a Globalization 2.0 in the interests of the greatest number of people.”28 There could be a “Merkel moment” to promote a new, fair, and balanced internationalism. The Enlightenment Kantian paradigm, which was significant in the creation of the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, may return to inspire the post-corona global politics with the focus on the individual, the free moral self and subject, placing structure and all the embedded political institutions and economic regulations at the periphery, with an open mind for perpetual peace. Kant urged the self to “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”29

Second, there will be reluctant acceptance among Great Powers of a shift from nuclear deterrence to pandemic deterrence. One good indicator is the first NATO foreign ministerial by secure video teleconference April 2 where NATO's response occupied much of the agenda. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observed that the coronavirus crisis was “too great for any one nation or organization to face alone.”30 In Washington, the Congressional Research Service raised the question of whether and how the global pandemic might lead to "profoundly transformative and long-lasting changes in the U.S. role in the world.”31 The existing 13,410 nuclear weapons in the world have not defeated the coronavirus attacks across the five continents. However, the Trump administration has reassured the new pandemic will not affect its nuclear weapon investments while allocating a 20% increase this year.

The existing balance of power inside the Security Council will be challenged by a coronavirus-shaped momentum at the General Assembly. For seventy-five years after WWII, humanity has been told nuclear weapons are “necessary and essential” for international security and strategic balance of power; and without them, the world would face another global conflict. Now, this nuclearism is waning and being marginalized by rising coronavi-rusim and its threat of a public health and economic apocalypse of the early 2020s.

Third, there will be prominence of the human dimension and ecological imperative in reconstructing the world order. Public health will gain significance in any conceptualization of national and international security. Any BC-to-AC historical periodization will strengthen the need for the pandemic deterrence, as an offshoot of the highly advocated basic human needs by the conflict resolution community, or the “human dimension” as theorized by Abraham Maslow and John Burton. The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary’ of the United Nations declaration indicates the General Assembly’s “full support” for reviewing "the peacebuilding architecture.”

The United Nations Development Program, the most nuanced organ of the U.N. system in dealing with the global socio-economic challenges, has constructed its coronavirus crisis response to help policymakers look beyond recovery, toward 2030, in four main areas: governance, social protection, green economy, and digital disruption.32 U.N. Chief Guterres also believes the impact of coronavirus “is adding fuel to an already burning fire of discontent and anxiety.”33 He has called for action on three fronts: a) immediate support for at-risk workers, enterprises, jobs, and incomes to avoid closures, job losses, and income decline; b) greater focus on both health and economic activity after lockdowns ease, with workplaces that are safe, and rights for women and populations at risk; and c) we need to mobilize now for a human-centered, green and sustainable, inclusive recovery that harnesses the potential of new technologies to create decent jobs for all -and draws on the creative and positive ways companies and workers have adapted to these times.34 Guterres’s three recommendations echo the need for gratifying basic human needs. They also make a hint of a strategic shift from power to public health and economic survival as a new unit of analysis.


  • 1 Nathalie Tocci, “The European Union,” in Perspectives on a Changing World Order, ed. Paul B. Stares et al.. Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder No. 1 (New York: Council on Foreign Relations. June 2020).
  • 2 Paul B. Stares et al., eds.. Perspectives on a Changing World Order, Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder No. 1 (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, June 2020).
  • 3 Qingguo Jia, “China,” in Perspectives on a Changing World Order, ed. Paul B. Stares et al., Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder No. 1 (New-York: Council on Foreign Relations, June 2020).
  • 4 Jean-Christophe Bas, “Promoting a New Balanced Internationalism: The ‘Merkel Moment'?,” Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, June 3, 2020,
  • 5 Hal Brands, “Coronavirus Hasn't Killed the Global Balance of Power,” The Japan Tinies, May 31, 2020, opinion/2020/05/31/com mentary/world-commentary/coronavirus-hasnt-killed-global-balance-power/#. XvB3imgzZPY
  • 6 Jeffrey W. Hornung, “Don’t Be Fooled by China’s Mask Diplomacy,” RAND Corporation, May 5, 2020,
  • 7 Stephen Walt et al., “How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, March 20, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.eom/2020/03/20/ world-order-after-coroanvirus-pandemic/.
  • 8 Joseph Nye, “No, the Coronavirus Will Not Change the Global Order,” Foreign Policy, April 16, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.coni/2020/04/16/coronavirus-pan demic-china-united-states-power-competition/.

Jia, “China.”

Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucy-dides’Trap? (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

“Coronavirus: Anger in Germany at Report Trump Seeking Exclusive Vaccine Deal,” The Guardian, March 16, 2020, mar/16/not-for-sale-anger-in-germany-at-report-trump-seeking-exclusive-coro-navirus-vaccine-deal.


France 24, “Merkel Shines in Handling of Germany’s Coronavirus Crisis,” March 29, 2020, www.france24.coni/en/20200329-merkel-shines-in-handling-of-germany-s-coronavirus-crisis.

Bas, “Promoting a New Balanced Internationalism.”

Ian Bremmer, “We Are in a Geopolitical Recession: That’s a Bad Time for the Global Coronavirus Crisis,” Time, March 13, 2020, geopolitical-recession-global-crisis/.

Matthew Petti, “Coronavirus: The Deadly NewU.S.-Iran Standoff,” The National Interest, March 9, 2020,''blog/middle-east-watcli/ coronavirus-deadly-new-us-iran-standoff-131197.

Tom Bateman, “Israel Annexation: New Border Plans Leave Palestinians in Despair,” BBC, June 25, 2005, 39808.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Russia’s Security Concept for the Gulf Area,” July 23, 2019, assetjpublisher/0vP3hQoCPRg5/content/id/3733593.

James M. Dorsey, “Will There Be a New Russian-Chinese Security Architecture in the Gulf?” BESA, September 13, 2019,'.

World Economic Forum, “Coronavirus Is Officially a Pandemic - but We Can Change Its Course: Today’s WHO Briefing,” March 11, 2020, www.weforum. org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-is-official-a-pandemic-but-we-can-change-its-course-who-briefing/.

Antonio Guterres, “Launch of Policy Brief on COVID-19 and the World of Work,” UN News,'en/coronavirus/world-work-cannot-and-should-not-look-same-after-crisis.

UN News, “No Need to Politicize COVID-19: UN Health Agency Chief,” April 8, 2020,

“New Resolution on Immediate Global Ceasefire Presented to UN Security Council,” AFP. May 13, 2020, www.france24.coin/en/20200513-new-resolu tion-on-global-ceasefire-during-covid-19-pandemic-presented-to-un-security-council.

Katie Rogers and Apoorva Mandavilli, “Trump Administration Signals Formal Withdrawal from W.H.O.,” The New York Times, July 7, 2020, www.nytimes. com/2020/07/07/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-who.html.

United Nations General Assembly, “General Assembly Opens Debate on ’Group of Four’-Sponsored Draft Resolution on Security Council Reform,” July 11, 2005, GA'10367, 10367.doc.htm.


General Assembly of the United Nations, “75th Anniversary of UN,” June 5, 2020,

Bas, “Promoting a New Balanced Internationalism.”

  • 29 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Jonathan F. Bennett, www.earlymoderntexts.compdfkantgw.pdf.
  • 30 Rachel Ellehuus, “NATO Responds to the Covid-19 Pandemic.” CSIS, April 2, 2020,
  • 31 Congressional Research Sendee, “U.S. Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress,” Atlantic, June 22, 2020.
  • 32 UNDP, “COVID-19 Pandemic Humanity Needs Leadership and Solidarity to Defeat the Coronavirus,”
  • 33 Guterres, “Launch of Policy Brief on CO VID-19 and the World of Work.”
  • 34 Ibid.

Part III

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