All of which leads me to contemplate the current coronavirus pandemic in the context of history, and to propose a simple thesis: The ways that nations respond to the pandemic today will largely determine their fortunes and fates over the next couple of decades at least, and perhaps beyond. Nations that are more successful at controlling the disease and minimizing fatalities will enjoy more social cohesion, while those that delay active measures to control its spread will see greater social stress, and a crippling of public faith in leaders and institutions.

Of course, nations that already enjoy high levels of social cohesion and sound leadership are better positioned to successfully contain the pandemic. Thus, the coronavirus may end up simply being a magnifier of trends already in progress. If it is true, as some have argued, that the United States is an empire in decline, the virus may simply speed up the erosion of its global influence. And if some Asian nations seem destined for a more prominent place in international politics and commerce, the pandemic could propel them to that position even faster.

As for economic impacts, there may be no way to avoid extreme and enduring damage to markets and supply chains. Delaying containment measures in order to maintain business as usual would likely lead to overwhelmed health care systems and, in turn, higher death rates. Fear of contagion would then likely cause disruptions of trade and commerce at least as severe as those triggered by the proactive lockdown measures that have already been enacted in some of the countries furthest along in the pandemic cycle — notably China, whose economic activity seems to have shrunk remarkably in the past two months. One way or another, we seem to be in for a global depression. But, as with the pandemic, the ability of nations to weather hard economic times may depend largely on factors of leadership and social cohesion.