W. M. Spellman, author of A Concise History of the World Since 1945, analyses the current global pandemic with comparative history.For students and scholars of recent world history - not to mention authors of survey textbooks - the current global pandemic and accompanying public health crisis is poised to disrupt some major narrative themes of the past three decades. Two of these themes, the spread of responsible, democratic government, and the accelerating march of global capitalism, are likely to undergo major revisions in the wake of COVID-19. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s inaugurated a number of rapid, peaceful transitions to democracy in states formerly under the control of the Soviet Union. And as recently as 2012, when the first stages of the multi-state “Arab Spring” suggested a democratic transition across a number of Muslim-majority countries, the expansion of Western-style democracy seemed secure.
The abrupt failure of democracy efforts in key Arab states, and the subsequent rise of insular nationalism across much of Europe in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, fueled the growth of anti-democratic, anti-globalist political movements around the world. By 2016 populist leaders from Moscow to Manilla, Warsaw to Washington, in Bucharest and Brasilla, all moved away from the optimistic rhetoric of democratic inclusion, multilateralism, and global integration. In its place emerged the divisive language of nationalist singularity, coupled with a growing suspicion of the outsider.
COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate these disturbing trends as nations close their borders and disrupt global manufacturing and supply chains. And as calls for a return to an imagined era of economic self-sufficiency become more strident, assigning blame for the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 threatens to erode international cooperation and effective action to address a common public health emergency.
Absent a robust social safety net similar to the one that many nations adopted after World War II, closed economies, ballooning debt, failed businesses, and surging levels of unemployment may erode trust in the efficacy of liberal democracy, creating opportunities for anti-democratic purveyors of simple solutions to complex challenges. Even before the current global crisis, Russia’s authoritarian leader opined that Western-style liberalism was “obsolete”. Will the longer term social, psychological, and economic damage wrought by COVID-19 reframe the narrative of recent global history?
Will two of the leading themes of the post-Cold War decades, the advance of democracy and market based economic globalization, need to be reframed in an era of deep uncertainty? Will an invisible and unforgiving enemy oblige historians of recent world history to begin the revision process anew?