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What political psychology tells us about the likelihood of war post-pandemic

Giuseppe Paparella

Phd researcher and teaching assistant in the Defence Studies Department

24 July 2020

To date, senior analysts and commentators have provided a wide range of opinions about the likely implications of the novel coronavirus pandemic for the risk of interstate war, including the likelihood of a new Cold War emerging.

On the one hand, commentators have suggested the pandemic has simply accelerated ongoing geopolitical dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, where distinct and rival geopolitical formations have emerged in reaction to China’s mishandling of the outbreak at home and their dissemination of propaganda against other countries’ mistakes in dealing with it.

These predictions have been confirmed recently, where the US administration has repeatedly accused China of propagating the virus, and a former US trade official has announced the start of a new Cold War, amid increasing tensions between the two countries. Scepticism about China and a widespread loss of trust towards Beijing have fuelled considerations that a more confrontational attitude towards China is already taking root in the US and elsewhere.

On the other hand, and quite counter intuitively, a more sophisticated line of reasoning suggests the novel coronavirus pandemic has built the foundation for an unexpected pax epidemica between the US and China. According to Barry Posen, the pandemic has inflicted significant damages on all the great and middle powers to the extent that none would be in a position to win a war anytime in the near future. Most importantly, policymakers’ pessimistic considerations about their own country’s military capabilities and readiness for war would make them risk-averse and unwilling to undertake any major military campaign, therefore calling off the risk of interstate war altogether.

Policymakers’ pessimistic considerations about their own country’s military capabilities and readiness for war would make them risk-averse and unwilling to undertake any major military campaign.– Giuseppe Paparella

Although such forecasts are perhaps premature, it’s worth considering the basic assumptions that both positions have in common. Those who predict further clashes between China and its neighbouring countries, including the United States, implicitly admit they are paying the consequences of China’s obscure manoeuvring and geopolitical ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, and are therefore victims of China’s confrontational and non-transparent approach to international affairs.

Conversely, analysts who instead see in the pandemic as an opportunity for a long peace assume states become aware of their own economic and military weaknesses. Peace, as Posen suggests, is served by pessimism: since Covid-19 has weakened great and middle powers more or less equally, all of them will be pessimistic about their military capabilities and readiness for war. States, and policymakers sceptical about their own military prospects will be more willing to accept unfavourable and humiliating bargains in order to avoid war.

Both approaches recognise the pandemic might have produced negative emotions and attitudes—including feelings of victimisation, humiliation, and a pessimistic attitude caused by the awareness of being economically and militarily weaker—in those countries badly affected by it. However, and as acknowledged by several scholars, such emotions and attitudes can also damage the state’s self-esteem, generate negative self-images, and even increase a state’s preference for war.

If that is true, what strategies are more likely to follow in the long-term as a result of the interaction among countries that have developed negative self-images and that, at the same time, increasingly see each other as enemies? In the following section, this article will outline what strategies the US and other key Asia-Pacific countries—the so-called Quad Plus—which includes the United States, Japan, Australia, India, and a few others, will possibly adopt vis-à-vis China as a result of the pandemic and their damaged self-esteem.

The Kaplowitz Framework

In 1990, Noel Kaplowitz, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis, published in Political Psychology an article titled “National Self-Images, Perception of Enemies, and Conflict Strategies: Psychopolitical Dimensions of International Relations.” The major aim of the article was to provide a “psychopolitical theory of international conflict” based on the interaction between national self-images and perceptions of enemies. Kaplowitz came up with a typology of conflict strategies that included both manifest aims and latent attitudes in order to understand the drivers of multiple conflict outcomes.

The Kaplowitz study departed from a simple but powerful consideration: that “the ways in which peoples and groups within nations see themselves influence their conflict behaviour in direct and indirect, conscious and unconscious ways.” Negative self-images—which occur when individuals and groups describe, perceive, or feel themselves in terms of passivity, weakness, and fatalism—produce an ambivalent impact on behaviour as they can both generate compensating defensive attitudes and a willingness to engage in a more assertive and defiant behaviour to prove self-worth at the same time.

However, it is only when negative self-images interact with different degrees of enemy perceptions—highly negative or negative –– that hypotheses about conflict strategies can be formulated. When negative self-images and negative perceptions of the enemy combine, the Kaplowitz framework returns three distinct conflict strategies:

  • Totalism: a strategy that entails the complete elimination or subordination of the enemy, who is perceived to be “intrinsically evil, inherently aggressive, or basically inferior”;
  • Long-run totalism: in which totalist aims are denied bilateral, regional, and international power configurations, and the enemy is considered too powerful to engage in totalist strategies; and
  • Latent acceptance of the enemy despite manifest long-run totalism: a strategy characterised by the expectation that the enemy cannot be defeated; coexistence is therefore necessary, but intense hostility continues.

US and China post-pandemic

American self-image and esteem are clearly deteriorating as a result of the current pandemic. Worryingly, this trend is reflected in both public surveys and expert assessments. The Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic, according to these surveys and assessments, is damaging the national economy and has already caused a considerable reputational loss as a global leader, sowing divisiveness and engendering hostility towards the country even from long-term allies, like Germany.

Other commentators, have compared the United States to a failed state, with others warning that the lack of leadership showed during the crisis, a failure to reopen the economy, and a second lockdown could bring about additional distress to American citizens.– Giuseppe Paparella

On a similar note, and reflecting on the American loss of leadership in favour of China, pundits have depressingly acknowledged that, in facing the coronavirus, “Trump has taken us to the brink of irrelevant—not quite the abyss, but teetering on its edge.”

Such expressions of negative self-esteem do not just belong to the exclusive realm of polls, academia, and journalism. A Pew survey published in April reports widespread concern among the US public on the Trump Administration’s handling of the outbreak at its inception. More importantly, only 39 per cent believed that, in his public comments on the coronavirus outbreak, the president is presenting the situation as it really is, while more than half (52 per cent) state that he is making the situation seem better than it is.

These findings reflected public distrust towards the administration, accompanied by a substantial proportion of those feeling depressed at least once in a week (48 per cent) and significant levels of increasing anxiety (73 per cent).

At the same time, an intense anti-Chinese rhetoric has taken hold not solely in the administration. In addition to President Trump’s accusations of China covering up the outbreak early on and for manufacturing the virus in a Chinese laboratory, Joe Biden—Trump’s opponent for the White House in the upcoming November elections—and the Democratic party have criticised the president “for believing discredited Chinese government propaganda about containment of the virus.” Equally significant is the negative perception of China that is now dominant in the American public. Another recent Pew survey has shown that a substantial majority of Americans regard China unfavourably, with a whopping nine-in-ten adults seeing China’s power and influence as a threat, including 62 per cent who say it is a major threat.

What does this combination of US low national self-esteem and highly negative perceptions of Beijing tell us about American future strategy vis-à-vis China? According to the Kaplowitz framework, if both trends consolidate this will most likely translate into a long-run totalist strategy that implies a more aggressive and conflictual American policy towards China. However, given China’s current influence and power, immediate confrontation would be avoided in favour of a more incremental approach aimed at isolating, disempowering, and weakening China in the long run: an outcome quite different from that of a great powers pax epidemica.

The Quad Plus and China

Named after the Quad concept—a security cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India that was first introduced by a Japanese initiative in 2007—the Quad Plus today is composed of its four original members as well as Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea. The varied composition of the Quad Plus regime implies that many different self-images, and potentially also divergent perceptions of China, have to find a synthesis when it comes to translating strategic objectives into political actions.

However, the global impact of the coronavirus outbreak has brought about a sudden harmonisation of the second aspect—that is, a widespread and now commonplace negative perception of China across all the Quad Plus actors. In addition to the US, all the remaining six countries are reporting increasing negative perceptions of China. At both the policymaking and public sphere levels, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Vietnam are all—to different degrees—pointing fingers at Beijing for originating the virus, a lack of transparency, negative influence over the World Health Organization, bullying, and efforts to take advantage of the crisis to establish a tighter control over the South China Sea.

On the other hand, these same countries report multiple self-images as a result of their own handling of the outbreak and its spillover effects. The pandemic has aroused public confidence in government leadership in Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand.

In Australia, however, while the public is certainly confident in the measures adopted by the government to limit the outbreak, they are also worried about the financial uncertainty that will follow. The confidence in leadership is even less for India, where the public has expressed increasing levels of anxiety and fear since the lockdown began. A similar state is seen in Japan, forced to postpone the Olympics for at least a year and with the very real possibility of cancellation, all compounded by growing economic and financial anxiety over what the next few months might hold.

What does the combination of mixed and ambivalent self-images with a homogenous negative perception of China within the Quad Plus tell us about future joint strategies? In a case as complex as this, the Kaplowitz model helps clarify that joint strategies to deal with China would fall within a framework of long-run totalism tempered by a latent acceptance of the enemy and the expectation that China’s power and influence would not go away anytime soon.

In practice, this approach would mean pursuing pragmatic efforts towards some form of coexistence between the Quad Plus geopolitical bloc and China, although characterised by a deep lack of mutual trust and intense episodes of hostility. Even in this case, the suggested strategic outcome would be different from one characterised by an open geopolitical contest for the Asia-Pacific between two rival formations.

Conclusion

Although it is too soon to fully grasp the geopolitical impact generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kaplowitz framework and self-images borrowed from the field of political psychology help us make the complexity of the current crisis more intelligible in light of the available evidence.

At the same time, the framework rules out strategic outcomes that simplistically predict either war or peace between the United States, China, and the other main actors in the Asia-Pacific.

Policy prescriptions to deal with the current crisis need to consider several factors: first, that the pandemic will generate long-term economic, political, and financial distress in the countries affected; second, that for China it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to cooperate and pursue its interests peacefully within the hostile and distrustful environment that is currently emerging in the Asia-Pacific; and third, that the US risks finding itself involved in a long and wearing conflictual relationship with China if it decides to follow on the current path of diplomatic isolation and disengagement. Mitigating these issues requires systematic about the long-term consequences of the strategic postures adopted by adversarial powers.

Giuseppe Paparella is a PhD Candidate in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, and a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

This piece was originally published in the Strategy Bridge.

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Giuseppe Paparella

Giuseppe Paparella

PhD Candidate

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