Coming Together & Pulling Apart – the Geopolitics of Covid-19

A new report from the BFPG, authored by the BFPG’s Director Sophia Gaston with researcher Evie Aspinall, sets out the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped geopolitical realities. It examines how major international institutions mobilised to respond to the crisis, and how the pandemic has interacted with shared global challenges, such as climate change. The report argues:

  • The coronavirus pandemic has been a truly transformative event, and has accelerated many of the geopolitical trends that were already developing prior to its emergence and spread. The question of its impact, therefore, is largely a story of hastening forces, rather than reshaping realities.
  • The notable exception to this process is the influence of the pandemic on global inequality, and the potential for the considerable recent gains in health, prosperity, security and access to education throughout the developing world to be reversed by the disruption of a single year.
  • Geopolitically, the major development has been the escalation of tensions between China and many other Western nations, with the gap between the ‘great power competition’ being exercised with the United States, and the position of its allies, narrowing considerably during 2020. The increasing convergence in these positions will undoubtedly precipitate the establishment of a new paradigm to China-Western relations.
    • Although the United States has also suffered severe reputational damage for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic – and in many ways, the relative falls in trust are more profound – the blame for its inept and inconsistent response is largely placed at the feet of the outgoing President, Donald Trump.
    • It is significant that the coronavirus pandemic arrived in a period of significant instability in the liberal world order. It is clear now that the opportunity to leverage the pandemic as an opportunity to restore these relationships has not been seized. Although there are many important examples of the collective global response having mobilised effectively, there are equally as many examples of where instincts towards cooperation were missed, or actively dismissed.
    • As we edge towards turning the corner with the welcome news about the production and deployment of coronavirus vaccines, it appears that the pandemic will end in the way in which it began – with nations turning back inwards to focus on delivering on the needs of their people and scrambling for a competitive advantage to hasten their recovery.
    • Nonetheless, despite the proliferation of the rhetoric of vaccine nationalism as this gruelling year comes to a close, the emergence of the vaccine itself reveals much about the fertile ground that remains for strategic partnerships – especially those that approach the question of solving shared challenges with the creative power and ingenuity of both the market and the state.
    • With the existential risk of climate change continuing to loom large, and China’s economic dominance now conceived as a fundamental security threat, the vaccine development process shines a light on a path forward for a renewed era of liberal cooperation.
    • Moreover, although the pandemic has ultimately failed to prove the socially unifying force that many hoped it would become, healing the wounds of a bruising period of populist and polarising politics in advanced democracies, it has certainly underlined the importance of well-functioning institutions and cohesive societies, and shone light on the tremendous capabilities of scientific advancement.
  • There is a generational opportunity for democratic leaders to seize the moment for a period of social and political renewal, to rebuild their economies in a more sustainable and equitable fashion, and to forge an era of productive cooperation to address the challenges we mutually recognise and must collectively solve.


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Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.