COVID-19 – global pandemic or existential crisis?

The geopolitics of COVID-19

COVID-19 has infected many millions of people and claimed more than a million lives. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis. But it’s also much more than that, according to Colin H. Kahl – former Deputy Assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor to the then Vice-President Joe Biden – who now serves as co-director of the Center of International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

In discussion on the #TechFit4Europe podcast with Casper Klynge, Kahl talks about why he sees the pandemic as a global existential crisis.

Here are five takeaways from their conversation, which was recorded on June 8, 2020.

1. There are unexpected similarities between COVID-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic

The COVID-19 death toll is unlikely to be as severe as the Spanish Flu pandemic, which caused at least 50 million deaths in 1918-1919. But the coronavirus could have even greater geopolitical consequences.

Around the end of World War One, Europe was in turmoil, experiencing revolutions, nationalism, political extremism, and financial depression. Here in 2020, our world is more interconnected than ever, and before COVID-19, many similar trends were emerging, such as militarism, protectionism, and xenophobia, according to Kahl.

2. The international community faces an existential moment

COVID-19 hasn’t remade the world, Kahl says. Instead, it has magnified and amplified many existing challenges, such as “transnational dangers like climate change, biosecurity risks like pandemics” and cyber-attacks. “I think a lot of those arguments stayed largely hypothetical, and they’re no longer hypothetical,” he says.

Kahl also talks about the changing global distribution of power: “Faith in the U.S. was declining,” he tells Casper Klynge, and China had already begun to play a different role on the international stage.

He observes that the early phase of the pandemic saw countries reacting by putting their own interests first. But the reality is that “we are all in this together,” says Kahl – and, he believes, “extraordinary international cooperation” is the only way to overcome the challenges we all face.

3. The virus could lead to greater inequality

Kahl believes that a new global divide is emerging, with countries such as the U.S., China, South Korea, or those in the EU having a lot more resources to keep their economies afloat.

There are differences, Kahl says, in the way people’s daily lives are being affected, which is also highlighting inequalities. “We’re all annoyed that our kids are at home having to do homeschooling, but we have computers and tablets for them. We have school districts that can meet their needs.

“That’s not true of a lot of poorer communities and minority communities where there’s a huge digital divide, access to these technologies, schools with fewer resources,” he says.

4. The pandemic will amplify concerns about technology’s moral responsibilities

Tech companies with substantial wealth and resources at their disposal have “a moral imperative to make sure that their technologies are not contributing to inequality,” Kahl believes. Instead, they should be working to diminish inequalities. Part of that may also mean helping people better understand how their data is used.

Social media platforms in particular have been used to spread misinformation about the pandemic and Kahl sees this as an area that needs to be addressed. With governments, there’s some degree of accountability – especially in democracies, he argues. He sees a need for more accountability in the tech sphere.

5. Digital sovereignty is the next fault line between Europe and the U.S.

Digital sovereignty was being debated in the pre-COVID era, Kahl says – but the pandemic has made it more pressing. The shock experienced by global supply chains could lead to a period of reshoring, where nations bring manufacturing back within their own borders; bringing the issue of sovereignty to the fore.

This shock he mentions could provide the “impetus to make sure that countries (can) rely on the technological backbone of their economies, I have to imagine that impetus has certainly been growing in the United States. I would imagine it will grow in Europe and other places.” That may lead to tension relating to regulatory frameworks.

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A transcript of this episode can be found here.


**The views, information, or opinions expressed during the series are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of Microsoft**

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