Skip navigation

Vulnerability and Resilience in Times of the Corona Pandemic: A Geopolitical Approach

The corona pandemic: from the spread of the virus to the different kinds of government response, it is many things to many people. It is a challenge for virologists and epidemiologists, a bonanza for social scientists – who can observe societies in a state of emergency – and not least it is an invitation to theorists of geopolitics and strategic action to carefully revise their models and suggestions in the light of recent experiences. While epidemiologists were immediately called upon to provide their expertise essentially from one day to the next, social scientists could take a little more time before presenting the first studies. Strategic thinkers and geopolitical theorists were and still are under the least time pressure – which explains why the debate on the consequences of the pandemic for security policy in a globally networked world has only just begun.1 This is understandable, since it is difficult to substantially evaluate and (possibly) revise the assumptions made so far, before we know how the pandemic will progress. But on the other hand, this waiting is not without risk either. Fundamental changes in strategic and geopolitical constellations have already taken place, and whoever understands them first will probably gain the greatest advantage from them. The following reflections are intended as a preliminary appraisal of the consequences of the pandemic from a security policy perspective, with notes on a prospective reformatting of central geopolitical assumptions.

The onset of uncertainty

Modern societies rely on longer-term planning to meet their citizens’ expectations with regard to the provisions that will be put in place for their welfare. This in turn requires reliable anticipations of the future, for which purpose legions of experts are employed – in fields ranging from economics and demographics to ecology and meteorology. The earlier you know what will stay the same and what will change, the better you are able to prepare for it. Incidentally, this applies not only to societies, but also to personal life choices. Yet planned-out visions of the future are contingency-averse: wherever possible, chance is eliminated from the equation with the aid of large amounts of data. Even the disaster scenarios of apocalyptic alternatives are based on data, with the present extended into the future. Contingency is the Achilles’ heel of modern societies. Accordingly, society’s first and foremost expectation of science is that it will reduce uncertainty and eliminate contingency.

The outbreak of the corona pandemic during the late winter of 2019 and spring of 2020 marked – among other things – an onset of uncertainty in a planned-out and well calculated world. The onset began with the realization that the virus could not be regionally contained. It did not remain an epidemic in the greater Wuhan area, but began to spread – first in the global North, then in the global South. Moreover, it was not possible to say when medicines to treat it would become available, or what they would be. Now it continues, with the unanswered question of when we will be able to return to our old ways of life, or whether that is even possible. The effect of the pandemic was to throw a blanket of uncertainty over everything that had been considered solid and secure. Societies suffered and are suffering the most profound shock: the pandemic has upset not only their administrative order, but also their state of mind.

Looking back over the first half of 2020, three main response patterns can be identified. These are: 1) urgently asking what “the” science says; 2) using war narratives to create analogies; and finally, 3) conspiracy theories in their various forms. They all pursue an imperative, which is to repress or eliminate the uncertain. The shock of uncertainty led to expectations of “the” science that were based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Definitive answers were expected, i.e. “truths”, but what science and medicine could offer were interim results of an ongoing research process. The fact that researchers in one and the same field arrived at different results and conclusions is part of how science normally operates. Yet under the pressure of expectations of certainty, this was perceived as a confusion of communication. As a result, a growing number of voices claimed that the experts knew nothing. This, in turn, led to the conclusion that their recommendations need not be followed. Others feared the emergence of a form of “rule by experts” that would override democracy and the constitution. “The” science at any rate could not provide a return to the familiar culture of certainty.

War rhetoric served a similar function, and was frequently heard during the first weeks of the pandemic experience. It is true that war and epidemics often occur together – as illustrated in the striking image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, for example, in which war, pestilence, famine and death befall humankind together. Throughout most of history, wars have resulted in outbreaks of epidemic diseases, whether during sieges, or due to poor hygiene conditions among troops, or also because pathogens were used deliberately against the enemy. But war was something that was started and also ended, and with the end of the war, the epidemics usually subsided again. The narrative patterns of war and pestilence are similar, and the idea of an external threat that must be fended off is rooted in this similarity. Even setting aside the war rhetoric, it is hard to avoid talking about lines of resistance, defense, breaches and so forth. Associated with such language is the idea of the defeatability of the external enemy, and this offers an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty. But then it turned out that the heroic pose did little to help against the virus. Being brave was more likely to get you infected than fend it off. The refusal to wear a mask is a symbolic remnant of the heroic attitude.

Both patterns of response – the exaggerated expectations of science and the warlike semantics – illustrate the vulnerability of modern societies to uncertainty and contingency. But science said it needed some time before it could create new certainties, and the war narratives were misleading. This became an opportunity for pandemic deniers and conspiracy theorists. Pandemic deniers and conspiracy theorists both exploit the vulnerability of modern societies in the face of uncertainty, with greater success the more forcefully they state their case. According to them, everything is just an invention of power-hungry elites, via which they are putting their sinister intentions into practice. Or the pandemic exists, but is the work of secret services or malevolent individuals, so you can find out exactly who and what is behind it – if you only want to know.

Usually, however, disasters are alleviated by the adoption of an increasingly indifferent attitude – and the adoption of moody indifference is one of the most important self-assertion mechanisms in modern societies. Many people react to the endless stream of alarm messages with a shrug of the shoulders. The brief phase of excitement is compensated by times filled with a mixture of ironic distance and bored looking-away. This is the preferred form of resilience which post-heroic societies2 employ to deal with their continuing vulnerability. Ironic distancing also helped in dealing with Covid-19; but bored looking-away was not possible – if only because the careful use of masks and sanitizers as well maintaining social distance requires constant attention. This is probably also why the mask has become symbolic of attitudes towards the pandemic and the measures to contain it.

Global supply chains and social centrifugal forces

The pandemic has turned global supply chains into an element of vulnerability for economic regions. In Germany, for example, many factories had to shut down long before the borders closed, because some of their global suppliers had halted production. Yet precisely this global economic interdependence had been considered a tried-and-tested way of preventing supply bottlenecks and production stoppages, since it was possible to look for alternatives worldwide and quickly implement logistical changes. Trusting in this possibility, factories cut their inventories and implemented just-in-time manufacturing, with huge cost savings. Inventory is one of the items where significant savings can be made. The situation worsened as masks and ventilators became in short supply and states competed for scarce resources. At times, something of a stockpiling hysteria prevailed – from households to the nation state. Trust in the anytime availability of anything that is needed had created a new vulnerability. From corporate management to public administration, more attention will be paid from now on to the stockpiling of strategic resources and goods, to ensure the survival – at least in the medium term – of businesses and the politico-social fabric as a whole.

But at what level does the political-economic entity properly reside, whose resilience we are discussing? At the level of the nation state, as was the case in Europe at the height of the crisis, with recourse to historical knowledge? Or better at the level of the EU, the eurozone, or the Schengen Area? At any rate the question of costs speaks in favor of the EU area, where an appropriate stockpiling policy can be applied more broadly and comprehensively than at nation-state level. In addition, deficits in research and production identified in the context of the corona pandemic can be compensated more quickly and effectively by pooling capabilities than at national level. Admittedly, the issue then is who makes the decisions, and whether there is enough trust in Europe to prevent populist resentments arising. It is well known that such resentment quickly appears when the people of an EU country gain the impression they are being unfairly disadvantaged. Clear decision-making competence without protracted negotiations and arduous compromises is essential here. So too are generally comprehensible guidelines for making such decisions. This is Europe’s vulnerability, which causes it to seek refuge in the nation state.

All in all, there is more to be said for than against developing the resilience area at the European level. Firstly, there are the cross-border economic ties of the Schengen Area, which would be severed by a nationally organized regime. This problem had an extremely unfavorable effect on the European economy in the spring of 2020. Other points to consider are the sustainability of this area in the event of prolonged isolation from global passenger and goods traffic, as well as its ability to assert itself against other competing resilience areas. The European nation states – even the large ones – clearly have a limited ability to compete on their own against the United States and China, whereas the EU can be a serious global player.

Resilience in this case means placing a cordon sanitaire around the area in question to seal it off from global traffic. This is based on the assumption that restricting the movement of goods and people will also limit, or at least slow down, the spread of the virus, thus gaining time in which to put one’s own precautionary measures in place.3 It can be expected that other global economic actors will take similar steps, so global trade will grind to a halt anyway. In this sense, resilience can be understood as a tendency toward self-sufficiency. Since the pandemic will be at the top of the agenda as a security policy challenge after the experiences with Covid-19, the preparations for “switching” to such resilience areas are likely to be so extensive that the structures of “greater economic regions”4 which tend to be capable of isolation will form beneath the global economy. The expectation of resilience that has hitherto been associated with a globalized economic area is likely to shift to large areas of regional economic integration.

Resilience, however, involves not only the tendency for areas to become self-sufficient, but also the ability to get the economy moving again and limit the social consequences of a temporary lockdown. This too should be much easier at European level than at the level of nation states. It is obvious to everyone that many nation states are unable to cope not only with the consequences of a government-imposed lockdown (mostly short-term), but especially with the changes in people’s economic and social behavior (which are long-lasting). The greater the degree of economic and political integration within the greater regions mentioned above, the more resilient they are in dealing with the social repercussions of pandemics.

As a generalization, it can be said that pandemics which affect economic sectors and social groups in different ways increase the centrifugal forces in a society. Appeals to social cohesion do nothing to change this. Although they may mobilize spur-of-the-moment solidarity, they are hardly adequate for accompanying a deep structural change in the economy. Thus resilience in handling pandemics also means using centripetal force to counteract the centrifugal forces unleashed by a pandemic. This dimension of resilience is likely to occupy Europeans for the longest time and in the most intensive way. It will also increase the global North-South divide and reverse much developmental progress of recent years. This will have direct security policy consequences, to the extent that the breakdown of societies in the global South leads to renewed migration pressure toward the global North.

Shifts in political attention

Like most crises, the corona crisis has paradoxical effects. As has been shown, a strategically well considered response to the challenges it poses implies increased cooperation in “greater regions” to ensure the effectiveness and financial feasibility of countermeasures. But at the same time, a retreat into national egoisms has developed at the level of political mentalities, fostering small-scale thinking and action. Furthermore, under the impact of the pandemic, the political planning perspective has increasingly shifted from the long to the short term. This has widened the gap between rational action and emotionally charged thinking. The different courses of infection in the countries, the various countermeasures and, not least, the temporary competition for scarce masks, ventilators and drugs boosted the nation-state orientation and made the EU look like a weak actor. This has weakened the EU, and therefore, if the considerations above are correct, it has ultimately increased the vulnerability of the member states. Dealing with this collection of paradoxes is the starting point for new strategic thinking in Europe.

The focus of attention has shifted from external challenges and, in the narrower sense, security policy issues, to security against infection and the provision of masks and medicines. Some national governments have exploited this shift to assert their power-politics and economic interests by breaking international rules and acting aggressively. In the course of the pandemic, new trouble spots have emerged, carrying a high risk of military confrontation, while at the same time the international community has stopped addressing old trouble spots. When exploited for power-politics, pandemics increase the vulnerability of the international order as the enforcement of rules falls down the agenda of the relevant political actors. Because the “guardians of order”5 have other concerns, saboteurs of this order can act with impunity.

Conflicting greater regions instead of rules-based globality

After the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the bipolar world order, a new idea emerged in the 1990s: a world order that was to be characterized by global cooperation, where zero-sum games would be replaced by win-win arrangements, the economy would play a more important role than the military, international cooperation would consist of commitments to multilateral rules, and the internal affairs of states would also be subject to a certain degree of normative regulation. The idea was that war as a mode of conflict resolution should disappear for good, to be replaced by police activities to enforce basic human rights. It would not be possible to achieve all of this with a single large treaty, but the world would move gradually toward this goal – and it was foreseen that it would proceed along this path for a long time to come.

Belief in this path as the only one that made sense was so great that no further thought was given to the conditions necessary for its existence. Instead, people were busy associating ever new and farther-reaching goals with it: banning nuclear weapons, ending all forms of discrimination, protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity, climate protection and limiting global warming. This was driven forward by non-governmental organizations, who saw themselves as global community entrepreneurs. What was overlooked was that for such an order to exist globally, all major actors had to cede some of their sovereignty and would need to grant the international community insights into their capabilities and domestic politics. Russia and China, however, insisted on their sovereignty and “non-interference in internal affairs”. In the case of the United States, it was not at all clear to what extent it would allow the world community to influence its actions. Another question regarding the United States was whether it was willing and able to play the role of a “guardian” of this order. The guardian role implies an investment in common goods, i.e. investing in ways that tend to benefit everyone. This involves not only the notorious free-rider problem, but also the willingness of a clear majority of U.S. citizens to commit themselves to the global common good, and so set aside national self-interest. Donald Trump’s slogan “America first” was a definitive rejection of this project.

To many observers, it was clear even before the pandemic began that the project of a global order based on standards and rules had failed. Even a stronger European commitment to this order could not change this; Europeans were too weak and too divided to take on the role of the United States. The course of the pandemic then made it clear that a system of independently operating greater regions had long since emerged. They not only pursued their own interests, but also claimed their own values and norms. It was also evident that the old “West” no longer existed, as Europe and the U.S. had increasingly grown apart.

If we look into the various forms of government action to contain the pandemic, lines of tradition become visible. They show that political action was not dependent solely on the respective government, as strong links to the political culture of the country concerned can also be seen. It is possible to distinguish three broad models of government action.

First, we find government action in which the state is equipped with limitless power and authority; its orders are not subject to review by independent courts, and there is no civil society opposition. To contain the spread of the virus, the government can place entire cities under quarantine, but it is also able to provide essentials to the population confined to their homes. Control of the economy and a tightly organized state apparatus give it the means to do this. It does not reject scientific advice, but treats it as arcane knowledge. This means that it does not allow contradictory expert opinions to circulate among the public, and also prohibits any debate about them in society. This kind of government action is paternalistic and legitimizes itself by its results, which are often exaggerated. Let us call this the Chinese-East Asian model. It benefits from a traditionally disciplined population. The specific vulnerability of this model lies in its output legitimation: if successes fail to materialize or doubts grow that official reports of success do not reflect the actual situation, people’s trust in the government can quickly disappear. Then the omnipotence of paternalism becomes its Achilles’ heel. Unconditional trust turns into general distrust.

This contrasts with a type of government action that feigns all-encompassing knowledge and ability, but is actually limited to the image and attitude of the president or head of government. War semantics, which otherwise have fallen out of use, play a key role here. The trouble with this model is that the government has neither the competences nor the capabilities required for a paternalistic model. Consequently, a gap opens between the president’s showmanship and the actual measures to care for infected persons and combat the virus. It becomes publicly apparent how the man at the top (empirically it could also be a woman, however currently it is not) brushes aside scientific expertise, making the fight against the virus a matter of courage and determination. In one case, the result is a zigzag course (Boris Johnson). In the other, it is showmanship following the narrative of the Western, where the hero takes on numerous villains alone, yet triumphs over his adversaries in the end. Let us call this the Anglo-American model. It is highly vulnerable due to its overall poor results, because it generates trust only among those who fully subscribe to the narrative, but not among those who look at the results.

And then there is another type of government action, tentative and cautious, and which is understood to be reversible, depending on the infection situation and the state of research. In the initial situation, however, the government has only limited competences and capabilities, though it can certainly expand them. Yet if it does so, it can count on objections from the courts and resistance from sections of civil society. It must therefore justify its decisions in a way that will stand up in court and, at the same time, it must constantly solicit the public’s support. The government also draws on scientific expertise, which is not regarded as arcane knowledge to be withheld from the public, but instead is circulated and debated publicly. Experts’ different assessments of the situation are discussed, as are the sometimes contradictory recommendations for action, for example by virologists, economists and psychologists. A high degree of transparency with regard to the rate of infection, and the consequences of the measures taken to reduce it, allows for a constant evaluation of successes and failures. Meanwhile, these are not solely dependent on the government’s actions, but also on the behavior of the population, which plays a decisive role. In this respect, responsibility is shared. Let us call this the European-German model; it is practiced in most of Western Europe, and is most distinct in Germany. Its vulnerabilities are also its strengths: the openly communicated reversibility of measures, the strong involvement of civil society, and public debate about scientific expertise. With this model, trust in government action must be constantly earned. It is the only model that seeks to develop tolerance for contingency, and to this extent it is oriented toward strengthening resilience.

Each of these three models has its own security policy effects. In conjunction with the respective resiliencies, these could become an identity marker of regional orders. This further promotes the process of political and cultural segmentation of the world order, albeit not with the religious underpinning assumed by Samuel Huntington6 and, in contrast to his model, also not as a globally encompassing structure. Instead, the three types of government action serve as a paradigm model. They are evaluated by the “rest of the world” in terms of their compatibility, and this evaluation could become a major (re)distribution channel for soft power: the Anglo-American model is the easiest to copy, and therefore is particularly attractive to populist political cultures, but it could lose out in the evaluation because of its low resilience. The European-German and the Chinese-East Asian model are much more difficult to copy, because they are based on conditions that in most cases are not present. Thus they have more of a prospective relevance; the competition between these two models could become decisive for the distribution of power and influence in a newly emerging world order. For this reason, dealing with the pandemic is of far more than just internal importance; it may become an accelerator in the formation of a new world order.

1 See currently the articles by Osterhammel, Hofman, Rüland and al-Bagdadi in Kortmann, Bernd and Schulze, Günther G. (eds.) (2020): Jenseits von Corona. Bielefeld, pp. 255-293.

2 On the concept of the post-heroic society, cf. Münkler, Herfried (2015): Kriegssplitter. Die Evolution der Gewalt im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert. Berlin, pp. 169-187.

3 On knowledge in this regard, cf. Harrison, Mark (2012): Contagion. How Commerce Has Spread Disease. New Haven; on the development of state counter-action, cf. Baldwin, Peter (1999): Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830-1930. Cambridge.

4 The concept of the Großraum (“greater region”) goes back to Carl Schmitt, which makes certain reservations about its use understandable. However, it is well suited to conceptualizing the described developments.

5 On the concept of a “guardian of order”, which is more comprehensive than that of the “global policeman”, since in addition to sanctions it also includes rewards, cf. Münkler, Herfried und Borgolte, Michael (2019): Ordnung – Ein politisch umkämpfter Begriff. Berlin, pp. 11 f.

6 Huntington, Samuel (1996): The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. London, pp. 155-174.



Herfried Münkler, born in 1951, is an emeritus professor of political science at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Many of his books are considered standard works, such as “Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen” (2009, awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize), as well as “Der große Krieg” (2013), “Die neuen Deutschen” (2016) and “Der Dreißigjährige Krieg” (2017), all of which were on the bestseller list for months. Herfried Münkler has received numerous awards, including the Aby Warburg Foundation’s Science Award and the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Fellowship.