The acuity of the historical nature of the coronavirus comes largely from the triple conjunction of the immediacy of its impact, the consequences of its global magnitude and the evidence of its transformative nature. With a swiftness and certainty rarely so combined in international relations, a palpable consensus has emerged both within and among societies of this world: everything has already changed, and everything will change even more.
Of course, history teaches us that we must always put the emphasis on novelty into perspective, especially when we are still in the eye of the storm and the precedents of global crises too often forgotten, pandemics includedare legion.
Nevertheless, this crisis objectively gives the "front page" of a new phase in the grammar of international security. First of all, it does so by confirming an emerging trend: unpredictability is now the main feature of this scalable global security architecture.
The end of the post-9/11 era.
For some years now, this notion of uncertainty had been recognized as fundamental, but this indeterminacy remained all too abstract and was mainly associated with cybersecurity issues (i.e. our lack of control over new technologies and our blind faith in them). "solutionism") and political crises (i.e. questions about the geographical origin of the "next source of tension" guided by the habit of seeing them coming only from certain destinations). The "Corona upheaval" now gives substance to this notion in a new way. It endows it with a real difficulty, both operational and intellectual, in the face of an intimate materialization of the unexpected.
Likewise, the post-Corona period brings a palpable end to the long post-September 11th period in which the world has been vaguely housed for nearly two decades. During these nineteen years, the plethora of global insecurities has remained, in one way or another, under the surface of the world. cast a shadow of this "absolute event" that had opened the century so dramatically. Neither the Iraq war in 2003, nor the Arab Spring of 2011, nor the war in Syria that began in the same year, nor the episode of the Islamic state in 2013-2017, nor the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, nor the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016, had dislodged the "post-9/11" prism. This is because, in one way or another, these developments had all come in the destabilizing wake of 9/11. It can now be said that - preceded by the fear of an electronic virus in 1999 (Y2K, the Y2K bug) and followed by a respiratory system virus in 2020 - the post-9/11 world has come to an end on the eve of its twentieth anniversary, even if this period has bequeathed its indelible, ultra-secure contribution to the next era.
Beyond the medical aspects, what will be the geopolitical forms of this new pivotal moment that is being born before our eyes? Although it is too early to give a clear answer, if we must guard against any historical determinism and if we must insist on the evolutionary nature of this process, four major dimensions are nevertheless already emerging: the strengthening of a statism with marked authoritarian tendencies; the deepening of the militarization of the world; the standardization of surveillance; and the surge of a wave of counter-globalization.
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Firstly, throughout the world, with the support of the army and the police, the state entity has clearly reaffirmed its authority in the current crisis, acting as saviour and supra-decider, but also in a punitive manner as we have seen in India, Kenya, the United States, France and elsewhere. States of emergency, emergency regimes and proto-states of siege have been invested too easily, even with barely veiled enthusiasm, by governments finding in this unexpected situation loopholes to the demands for justice they regularly face. Over and above the ragged bureaucracies and the fade-out decision-makers, the situation of exception has given greater scope to States already engaged in an authoritarian drift - such as the Hungary by Viktor Orbans, the Philippines by Rodrigo Duterte or the Brazil by Jair Bolsonaro - and the autocratic surveyor is in fact finding new social destinations. Pushing the limits of his own excesses and violence against the rule of law in the United States under his mandatePresident Donald Trump was able to declare on April 13 that his authority is "total".
It is likely that this dynamic of dirigiste refocusing - begun before the coronavirus crisis and reinforced on that occasion - will continue and grow. It will do so all the more so since it has now been streamlined almost everywhere by popular demand for protection. Frightened, societies will ask themselves less and less about the justification and democratic admissibility of these measures and advances, which are leading to the infantilization of citizens - who are now scolded by police officers giving them civics readings in posh neighbourhoods and beatings in poor areas.
Yes, then, the interventionism of the 1990s and the post-September 11th wars have favoured the proliferation of martial logics, the current pandemic will, in any case, continue to deepen this pattern of obedience orders. The response to the Covid-19 outbreak logically came within this martial context - French President Emmanuel Macron warning that his country was "at war" - because the international dynamics had been worked out in this way for almost thirty years. From now on, all crises can be seen through this simplistic and Manichean prism of "war" - in fact, they already are, and war rhetoric has taken precedence over diplomacy worldwide.
This state ubiquity and martiality - which do not question neoliberalism... of the majority of these States but are declining - may, therefore, be accompanied, or even preceded, by an monitoring extent of geotagged citizens. Established as a global standard that is less and less contradicted, it will add a dimension of "necessity" in addition to the argument of social utility already widely advanced. Some UN convention may follow and, similarly, the dictates of performance will prevail.
Above all, it will be increasingly difficult to establish a footprint and follow-up of these practices introduced in the violencethe urgency and without parliamentary consultationas did the China, Israelthe Russia and South Korea with the tracking of citizens, the digitalization of movement restrictions, the requirement for facial recognition and other innovations, again and again in the name of sacrosanct security. Constitutional ambiguity situations and the illegibility of certain cases will, one can imagine, allow quarantine for non-medical reasons. As these measures will be implemented through fallible (and manipulable) technologies, the dangers for the citizen of finding himself in literally Kafkaesque situations will increase significantly. Why, one must ask, has the future been regularly imagined in the dystopia mode over the last century, from René Barjavel to Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley, Philip K. Dick, Pierre Boulle and Ira Levin?
Probably needs to be tempered. Does this involvement of States not have beneficial effects? Does it not protect the social fabric? Isn't the State in its role? Doesn't technology make our lives easier?
Clearly, measures to support the population are welcome everywhere, particularly to absorb increased precariousness; similarly, the reorganization and proper functioning of the spaces of interaction are undeniably necessary for social order. However, we should not naively conceal the fact that the current historical period is marked by the widening gap between, on the one hand, sufficient state systems that are still being exhausted and, on the other hand, societies, in both North and South, which are increasingly confused by these discourses and these "new forms of state". pervasive guardianship practices - now sanitized, digitized and racialized.
Today, the redeployed state does not win membership as much as it receives it simply by forfeit. Also, the coronavirus crisis will most likely give rise to a wave of counter-globalization. Such a wave will not necessarily be the ideologized act of anti-globalization activists who have already been active for a long time, but perhaps more the result of a new moment of shared fatalism - paradoxically worldwide - about the limits of interdependence. Sentiment is being born, soon to be followed by practice. This phenomenon can create existential and not merely economic vulnerabilities within societies.
The growing conviction that "all-exchange-is-not-forcibly-good" will result in a strengthening of the logics of international disunity and national protectionism. In the image of the consolidated authoritarian state, this closing of the world will, after all, fit into the pre-existing logic of fortresses to be protected in Europe and walls to be built in America, but also systems to be enclosed and padlocked in Russia, China or the United Arab Emirates. The urgent need to protect "our" nation against protean threats from outside will become a recurring political theme everywhere, significantly hampering international cooperation.
The post-Corona world will define its own characteristics. And it is here that the novelty lies fundamentally, since it will do so while remaining precisely faithful to its logic of inconstancy. Also, one cannot yet predict these; in a famous fall Paul Valéry wrote in 1960 that "the unforeseen itself is in the process of transformation and the modern unforeseen is almost unlimited".
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This vector of the unknown will make the geopolitics of the post-Corona era more social than political. Hybridity crossing, a form of laboratory of hierarchical contemporary governanceshe already links "distant" military experimentation and "near" social tests.. In the image of the characters in José Saramago's novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blinding(1997) with an inexplicable epidemic of blindness and falling into tension, suspicion, hostility, malevolence and selfishness, States themselves will be able to play this game again. wolf's time on the world stage, cementing polarization.
"To something bad is good," as the old saying goes. Let us hope, then, that in the midst of this instability and the unknown, and in order to live and not simply survive, this crisis will certainly also give rise to a better understanding of our relationship to the world, as well as a humility and generosity in helping one another that is sorely lacking in an international arena where justice and wisdom are scarce. For the time being, however, we cannot ignore the reinforced signs of the virus of an ever more sensitive Orwellisation of geopolitics.
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould MohamedouProfessor of International History and Director of the Department of International History at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He is also a visiting professor at the doctoral school of Sciences Po Paris.
Professor Mohamedou earned a PhD in political science at the City University of New York. He was a Research Fellow in Residence at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before becoming a Research Associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute on the United Nations in New York. He served as Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy before returning to Harvard where he was Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research and then Deputy Director and Academic Dean of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. His research focuses on political violence and transnational terrorism, war transformation, political liberalization and state-building.
Header image : photo: Hector Retamal / AFP