Pandemics can fast forward the rise and fall of great powers

Originally posted on National Interest

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States, analysts are rightly focused on the possible medical and economic ramifications, but this pandemic is already shaping the most important geopolitical development of the twenty-first century: America’s great power rivalry with China.

How well Washington and Beijing manage the ramifications of the Coronavirus in the weeks ahead may determine who leads the international system decades hence.

After all, as I explain in a new book, global pandemics have contributed to the rise and fall of great powers in the past.

In the fifth century BCE, Athens was the leading power of ancient Greece. It was a wealthy trading state, the center of Greek arts and culture, and a naval power that had successfully led the Delian League alliance in the defeat of the mighty Persian Empire.

In the Peloponnesian War with its rival Sparta, however, Athens was struck by the plague in 430 BC. Believed by modern scholars to have been an outbreak of typhoid from North Africa, the illness decimated Athens’ population, depleted its military personnel, and even took the life of its most effective leader, Pericles. Prior to the outbreak, Athens appeared on the verge of victory, but weakened by the affliction, it sued for a temporary peace in 421 BC. When the fighting resumed, Athens was eventually defeated and its democratic form of government overthrown by the victorious Spartans.