Imagining a Post-COVID-19 World:

Strategic Future

MAY 2020

By Job C. Henning, Managing Partner, Auxano Strategies and formerly advisor to the National Intelligence Council, co-director of the US Congressional Commission, the Project on National Security Reform, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and advisor to Director, Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense
Jeffrey Saunders, Founder, Nordic Foresight, Associated Partner, Behavioural Strategy and former Director, Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, former advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Stability Operations
Michal Koran, President, Global Arena Research Institute, Czech Technical University - Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics, Assistant Professor Masaryk University, Researcher, and former Deputy Executive Director, Aspen Institute Central Europe

 

This article is a condensed version of the “There’s no returning to business as usual: strategic futures for a post-COVID-19 world.” 

background

Government responses to the COVID-19 crisis continue to be volatile and nationally focused. To avoid a breakdown of the healthcare system, governments have sought immediate actions, virtually at any cost and regardless of other consequences. All the while, core aspects of the disease itself remain unclear, creating anxiety, changing government policies and polarized political responses to isolation and reopening measures. 

National responses have far-reaching political and fiscal implications with strategic dimensions. The global economy is experiencing the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. National budgets and the social safety net, the core element of the modern liberal state, are now under stress. Developing nations are seeking financial assistance on levels not seen since the 2008 crisis, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that financial institutions in the developed economy face liquidity crises. 

Many call for a more multilateral approach to the crisis, although the trend is in the opposite direction. Further, few have articulated what a better multilateral approach should look like. Some warn about the threats to a globalized economy, ‘decoupling’ with China, the final demise of American hegemony and an end to globalism. These are little more than ideological projections. Others make clarion calls to a new order. As seductive as this Churchillian rhetoric may seem, such calls are unrealistic. They risk distracting us from the real options we face. 

IMAGINING WHAT YOU CAN’T PREDICT

While there is widespread agreement that the post-pandemic world is likely to look considerably different, there is not much agreement on how it will change. The high level of uncertainties around key aspects of the crisis currently make it very hard to model and forecast the impact of the crisis on the global strategic environment.

Although we cannot predict it, we can imagine it. The following are a set of scenarios about what the world could look like over the next several years. Scenarios can help us understand the potential social, political and cultural implications of the COVID-19-crisis, and how it could have longer-term effects on our institutions, norms, values and morals. By making our assumptions more explicit, scenarios can also help us understand many of the strategic risks our actions are incurring, while realistically looking for possible positive outcomes. By forming a common view of what could happen, we might be better prepared to know what to look for and to know how to interpret data when we see it and to recognize patterns, and start to make more effective and coordinated choices today.

scenarios

click on scenario

The Panic Normalised

  • Cyclical virus

  • little international cooperation

  • spillover to international trade

  • volatile commodity prices

Taming Our Worst Impulses

  • Higher level of international cooperation among developed nations

  • vaccine development

  • COVID-19 virus is brought under control in high-income countries

Too Little, Too Late

  • Weaker and slower international cooperation

  • long term negative economic effects

  • return of corporatism

  • stultified attitudes and behavior

“No Return to Normal”

  • Isolation measures unsustainable

  • testing undeveloped

  • virus cyclical

  • effective steady-state response

  • slower and more distributed economic growth

  • evolved attitudes and behaviour

An Atomised World

  • Ineffective pandemic response

  • national competition prevails

  • declining public trust in government

  • legitimacy crisis as public seeks alternatives to institutions

a disaster forgotten

  • Isolation measures unsustainable

  • crisis fatigue

  • no effective steady-state response

  • conservative retrenchment

  • no investment in resilience

which scenario do you think is most likely?

vote in the poll at the conclusion

SENSEMAKING

One of the dominant themes in the scenarios is that the experience of this crisis is not going to be a quick ride and that the wave of optimism in markets and in governments concerning the reopening of the economy might not be justified. Governments need to do more to prepare populations for what to expect and begin to introduce gradual policies and long term plans for a world that does not return to normal any time soon. Governments need to develop ways to do this in financial and socially sustainable ways. It will be hard or impossible to maintain a ‘war footing’ vis a vis this crisis. The disaster is not visible to everyone and most people do not directly feel its effects or agree on its importance. 

There is currently no obvious way that new leadership could emerge from this crisis, which is more likely to exacerbate existing trends in domestic politics and in shifting global roles among nations. It could accentuate existing entropy already at play within the European Union. We should be realistic about what is possible in the wake of the crisis and focus on managerial competence, coordinated and targeted policies, and functional cooperation, rather than an ambitious renewed system of alliances around shared values. For the trans-Atlantic community and NATO, a ‘go slow’ and pragmatic approach would be better suited to the circumstances.

National competitive strategies could have a subversive effect on values of collective security. While not directly related to NATO, the virus, and our responses to it, could indirectly weaken the foundations of the alliance at a critical moment in its history. 


The crisis could create a significant number of conditions that favor larger, more powerful governments and corporations, as well as more coordinated activity among them. Businesses with larger balance sheets and more influence with governments are far less likely to be terminally damaged by the crisis. 

We should be attentive to the significantly increased opportunities the current environment creates for more disruptive activities within western democracies by authoritarian state actors, such as ‘astroturfing’ demonstrations against leadership over isolation measures and the politicization of economic and social responses to the crisis. This creates a potential advantage for Russia given its refined ability, capacity and willingness to intervene in other nations and societies. This advantage is further strengthened by the relative inability or unwillingness of western governments to defend against these intrusions. 

The crisis environment also may provide a distraction that authoritarian governments may exploit, such as what China might be doing in Hong Kong. There are, however, no obvious inevitable trajectories for China from the global COVID-19 crisis. Themes in the scenarios show the many different ways the crisis environment could affect China or be used by China. They are as diverse as the ways the western democracies could be affected by or respond to the crisis. While China’s authoritarian form of governance may give it some advantages, the crisis does not necessarily create a strategic environment that favors China or pushes China farther apart from the United States. Western governments may find themselves looking more like China on technology and surveillance. A lot depends on specific circumstances and choices made. 

The crisis could have sustained effects on the global economy’s ‘Periphery’ as previously cheaper manufacturing locations lose contract manufacturing, reinforcing reshoring trends of manufacturing moving back to advanced markets due to AI and automation. Where China fits into the ‘Core’ vs. ‘Periphery’ of the global economy in this regard will influence how the crisis affects the Chinese economy and society. 

Technology’s role in the post-crisis society is less certain than first impressions might suggest. While it could be embedded in society in ways that make distance learning and remote work commonplace in our economies, it also could feed on-going trends that make big tech and governments gather more information on individuals. Some of this is no doubt necessary. Some of it will challenge western notions of privacy and freedom unless populations demand accountability and protection of their freedoms, state leaders fight to maintain transparency and their citizens’ rights to privacy and confidentiality. 
 

conclusion

The Roosevelt administration did not recognize the impending invasion of Pearl Harbor, nor could the Bush administration recognize the rise of al Qaeda, even though both had access to the relevant data. Similar problems underlie many failures in the corporate world, as companies failed to recognize how a competitive environment was changing around them. Pattern recognition can help decision-makers and societies avoid future catastrophes.

The post-COVID-19 world will be the start of a new epoch, and these scenarios are illustrative about what the world could look like over the next several years, vignettes that suggest key contours. The patterns they present can help decision-makers and societies avoid future catastrophes. Ideally, they serve as a prelude to a larger, rigorous phased multinational effort with multi-domain expertise. 

We will face challenging moments that suddenly change the course of the global crisis. By pointing us towards certain kinds of data and mentally preparing us for possible ways the future could unfold, we can gain a better understanding of specific risks we are assuming, as well as become better prepared to recognize pivot points. This will help us collectively act in ways that maximize the odds of desirable outcomes and increase our ability to manage risk and operate in an environment with very imperfect knowledge. 

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