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“There is no new normal,” “these unprecedented times,” “now we all have to work together” – whatever your favorite pandemic BINGO drinking phrase is, you’ve heard it enough since March that you probably had to either give up the game or check into rehab.
Of the making of pandemic cliches there is no end, and much cable news wearies the body. Wading into that morass is a brave, if familiar, book by Fareed Zakaria, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. We are, after all – as Zakaria argues – already in the post-pandemic world. It’s happened. It’s not over, but the world we inhabit is still after (this) pandemic happened. A clever, synthetic, popular read by one of America’s leading public intellectuals may be just the catharsis we need for our weary clichés.
Zakaria boils down our post pandemic world to three options: (1) the pandemic will be the hinge event of modern history, forever altering our course; (2) the pandemic will be a crisis that will pass with a vaccine, followed by business as usual; and (3) the pandemic will not reshape history, but it will accelerate changes that were under way. Of the three, Zakaria – affectionately quoting Lenin – thinks the third is the most likely: “There are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen.”
Expect, in other words, more of the same, but faster.
World order, like any system, says Zakaria, has an unholy trinity. Economists call it “Mundell’s Trilemma.” Technologists such as Jared Cohen have their own triune paradox, but the basic insight is the same: in any system you can only choose two of open, fast, and stable. The world we live in is open and fast, he says, but wracked by instability.
Political and cultural power were rocked by 9/11. Economic and financial power took the hit in the Great Recession. Finally, Zakaria says, the natural world, which has only barely begun its tempestuous revolt against our fast and open lifestyles, kicked up the Great Pandemic. Can we shift down – as the populists and nationalists seem to want – to less open, less fast, more stable? Do we want to?
Zakaria’s lessons are bite sized opinion editorials about the state of 10 key issues as he sees them, and how pandemic politics will accelerate them. Government gridlock? Getting worse, caught in the false dilemma of bigger or smaller when we need better. Market economies underwriting market societies? Probably also worse. Populist backlash and meritocratic cul-de-sacs? Worse.
The pandemic has widened already wide divisions. Class, race and gender are now not only social chasms, but epistemic chasms. Digitization – a culprit here – is accelerating, of course, but that exacerbates the widening socio-economic gaps meaning – this is already lesson 7 – inequality is getting worse too. The pandemic painted in bright, broad strokes the truth of medical, economic, and social inequality.
Urbanization is stable, says Zakaria. Certainly, there are some fascinating ideas about creating antifragile rather than merely resilient urban environments, but generally cities are not going away. Rather, they’re growing a trend that will keep accelerating too. Globalization, on the other hand, has definitely hit a spot of bother. Zakaria anchors his enthusiasm for its unstoppable march in the law of comparative advantage – countries simply have to trade – but he doesn’t stake a final claim that it must accelerate, as some once said it would.
“Ultimately,” he says, “countries are on their own.”
Vaccine nationalism on the horizon may put the point to that. This fits with Lesson 9: The old/new bipolar world, split between reluctant America and rising China, a world that will not converge in one grand neo-liberal experiment, but in which the friction of rival power and politics will (again) be familiar.
Like so many great liberal manifestos, religion is missing in action, which is too bad because it might have disrupted what ends up reading a bit like a weary, long road rally for liberal internationalism. Lesson 10: multilateralism is still the best prospect for common security, collective action, and economic growth. There is a poetry – real poetry, he quotes Truman quoting Tennyson – in this ballad for a liberal internationalism that could yet be.
Oh, like a Hosea of old he knows his lover is a broken bird. A witty inversion of Voltaire tells us the liberal international order is neither as liberal, nor international, nor orderly as nostalgists describe. But like Hosea, he is betrothed. She can be better. She will be better.
“Nothing is written,” Zakaria titles his final chapter.
The future is ours to choose.
There is an enviable surety and conviction in Zakaria’s spirit. Despite the pandemic having accelerated so many of the worst trends of the 21st century, despite the doomsayers and declinists, we gotta dance with the one who brung us. Take the long view. Look at the fruits. We’re better than our mistakes. Keep it open. Keep it fast. But I’m not sure we can survive it. If more of the same only faster is the post-pandemic world Zakaria predicts, the bumps might not be worth the ride.