Missing in action: US leadership is the biggest casualty of the coronavirus crisis

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

For all of us in lockdown with still little light at the end of the tunnel, the coronavirus has made our lives seem strange and disorientating. Yet for someone like me who worked on the transatlantic relationship at NATO for 38 years, the weirdest sensation of all has been the absence of the United States from the global scene.

Perhaps we had become too accustomed to seeing the United States in the driving seat rallying the international community into action during all the previous great crises of the post-Cold War world. Even when Washington seemed initially reluctant to lead, as during the early stages of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s or the air campaign against Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, it soon changed course. Sometimes this was because of the growing awareness of the stakes involved, as in its response to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia in 1992; sometimes it was because the US saw its own participation as necessary to uphold multilateralism, the authority of the United Nations or the vitality of its alliances.

I was at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in 1994 when the then US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, opened the proceedings by saying that “NATO is more important than Bosnia”, and that the Clinton administration had decided to commit US ground troops to the Balkans to protect the European allied forces already there. Changing US policy and committing its resources to Europe was a price worth paying to preserve an alliance that the US needed for many other purposes.

When the US managed all the great crises of the past couple decades it did not act alone, nor could it have solved these crises by itself even if it had tried. It worked with the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to mobilise the G20 to recapitalise the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It worked with France and the UK in sending troops and hospital ships to Sierra Leone and Liberia to curb the Ebola outbreak while engaging the World Health Organisation for expertise and local resources. The US put together a coalition of over 50 nations and international organisations to combat ISIL, held the largest summits in Washington in US history to contain the spread of nuclear materials, and brokered the agreement on climate change in Paris in 2015. It reached out to Russia, China and the EU in 2015 to put pressure on Iran to freeze its nuclear activities, and even a president as closely associated with US military supremacy and unipolarity as George W. Bush organised an international coalition to improve medical treatment for AIDS, quadrupling US funding for UN-led initiatives in the process.

In short, no global challenge could be mastered by Washington alone, but no challenge could be tackled without it. In this respect, Madeleine Albright was right when she called the US the “indispensable nation”. Whatever the aspirations of the EU, China or Japan to step up as globally responsible actors, none has ever come close to having the credibility or convening power of the United States.

The crisis so far has shown that China, sensitive and on the defensive, is not able to lead a global response

Yet this time around, it is different. The US has been preoccupied only with itself. At first sight this can seem understandable as the US has recorded over 41,000 deaths so far, double the number in Italy, Spain and China. 22 million American workers have applied for unemployment benefits in the last month alone. This gives “America First” a somewhat bitter ring. As with all other affected countries, dealing with the dual health and economic crisis at home has to be the first priority.

Yet the coronavirus is different from previous crises in its quasi universality and its indifference to purely national approaches and solutions. Either the whole world is safe or no-one is safe. Yet instead of building a centralised management at home, the federal government in Washington has allowed states to compete with each other for personal protective equipment and testing samples.

But even if its focus inwards may be reasonable given the circumstances, America’s withdrawal has nonetheless given the coronavirus pandemic a different flavour from past crises. The US has used the crisis to deepen geopolitical fissures that were already fracturing the international system before the crisis. US relations with China were not on a good trajectory but have been worsened by the US insisting on describing the virus as the “Wuhan virus”, accusing China of a cover up in delaying information on the virus in the critical early stages or of falsifying its statistics on death rates. There has even been talk on the fringes of the Republican Party of imposing sanctions on China because of the way it has handled the pandemic.

China may indeed have a case to answer but it hardly makes sense to open a controversy now when China’s cooperation is key to the global management of the pandemic. China produces much of the protective equipment and medicines that the US so urgently needs because it did not adequately prepare to cope with a pandemic that the US National Intelligence Council has been predicting for several years. Moreover, China will be key to scaling up a vaccine that will need to be affordable and accessible to billions on the planet if normal activity is to ever resume. As the global economy restarts its willingness to open its markets and to recycle government debt through bond purchases will also be important.

Whatever America’s missteps, the crisis so far has shown that China, sensitive and on the defensive, is not able to lead a global response. A few shipments of protective gowns and masks in the guise of charitable donations do not add up to a Chinese Marshall Plan. Yet the Trump administration’s approach to Beijing remains as ever bilateral, tactical and transactional when it should be raising its game and embedding China in a UN-based international coalition coordinated by the Security Council and the G20. Instead fanning the flames of Chinese nationalism and hurt pride only makes it easier for Beijing to play the bad guy, clamping down on the leaders of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and deploying its ships into areas contested with Vietnam in the South China Sea.

More robust US-led international cooperation will be crucial in helping the world back on its feet after the crisis

A second omission by the US is the lack of interest in the impact of the coronavirus on the developing countries, particularly in Africa. Cutting funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) makes no sense as it not only helps the poor countries to fight the coronavirus but also other diseases such as Ebola, yellow fever, malaria, West Nile fever, Avian Bird flu and chikungunya. The US hardly has an interest in seeing China replace it as the largest WHO funder and becoming more susceptible to alleged influence from Beijing. To date, the virus has not yet had the devastating impact on Africa that has been feared. There is still time for the developing countries to learn from the successes and mistakes of others and to receive help to improve their resilience.

When it comes to confronting the virus, many of these countries lack critical prerequisites such as a functioning health system, populations with a high level of overall health based on good nutrition and hygiene, social cohesion and civic discipline, and effective leadership to take decisions quickly and early. Where these factors are in existence, such as in New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan, lockdowns have been short and economic damage reduced. This is not to suggest that the deficiencies in the developing countries can be corrected in a matter of weeks or months but the US should be rallying the G7, G20, UN agencies such as the WHO and the global financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank behind a concerted assistance package. This could consist of debt relief and the building of health capacity in diagnostics, testing and intensive care treatment.

Once the health crisis in the developed countries subsides, they can mobilise field hospitals, laboratories, scientists and doctors and nurses to train local staff. Small scale military deployments could also help as during the Ebola crisis. It helps in this respect that African and Arab countries have overwhelmingly young populations (the majority under 30) and this should help them in the long run to ride out the virus.

Third and finally, more robust US-led international cooperation will be crucial in helping the world back on its feet after the crisis as well as anticipating and planning for a possible second wave of the virus next winter. Borders will need to be re-opened for the free movement of people and goods. Many countries depend on migrant workers and tourism. Global supply chains will need to be restored and airlines able to resume flights. Parliaments will need to recover their role to scrutinise governments and emergency powers be ended. Some governments may drag their feet in this regard. One thinks of Hungary but there are others too. The central banks will need to coordinate stimulus measures and financial and fiscal policies to limit the number of bankruptcies and reopen markets for business.

There will inevitably be populist pressures from what Gordon Brown calls “the international coalition of anti-internationalists” for protectionism and even autarky. These will need to be resisted if we are to have a level playing field for international trade and investment. At the same time, Western countries will need to be alert to the possibility that China, which is first to begin to recover from the crisis, could exploit the massive debt levels left behind by the pandemic to acquire more control of strategic assets in high-tech areas such as AI, advanced computing, telecommunications and bio-engineering.

Democracies such as Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan have been arguably even more effective than China

So, a balance will need to be struck between efforts to restore pre-crisis modes of globalisation and supply chains, and more home-based production and diversified supply arrangements to improve the self-reliance and resilience of the democracies to cope with future shocks. There will inevitably be calls to increase national production of medicines and medical equipment, to build greater surge capacity into health services, to increase vaccine research and to look at food security and resource stockpiling.

This pandemic will also unleash a fair amount of debate and self-reflection: about fairness and equality in our societies, the status of health and public workers who have been in the front line, the prevalence of teleworking and self-isolation in our daily lives, whether the quarantines will direct people away from consumerism and affluence to refocus on family and the environment, and so on. There is also the question of the growing role of the state over the economy and as a guarantor of security, and whether privacy and freedom of speech should be curtailed to give Big Brother governments more powers to supervise our movements, social contacts and health histories in the name of protecting us against future pandemics and shocks.

Once the pandemic has subsided, China and other authoritarian regimes will no doubt try to construct a narrative of the superiority of their model in dealing with major disruptions. Yet democracies such as Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan have been arguably even more effective than China, and South Korea even managed to organise a fully democratic national election in the midst of the coronavirus crisis with an increased voter turnout. In sum, when it comes to restarting the global economy in a managed stage by stage process, the role of the US will be critical to ensuring that democracy and multilateralism are the winners rather than the losers after the crisis, and that the world draws the right lessons rather than indulges in hasty knee jerk reactions. In which ways can the US tip the balance?

It is an open question how long the democratic world could survive the absence of US leadership before the fabric of security and the rule of law is torn beyond redemption. Atlanticists can take some comfort in opinion polls by the Pew Research Institute and the Chicago Global Affairs Council that show that Americans in their great majority want the United States to be engaged internationally and to work with allies. This said, the polls have also shown Americans want burdens to be shared more equally, dislike the protectionism of others and are sceptical about the use of military power and troop deployments in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The US business community is unhappy about competition from state-subsidised industries in China or Europe but remains supportive of globalisation and overseas investments. The governors of US states have provided clear messages and consistent leadership in handling the coronavirus. They are also more visible in international meetings, such as the UN COPS on climate change, than officials from the federal administration and they take a very different policy line. This extends to issues such as trade, migrants and foreign students as well.

A new US administration should make some fundamental US strategic commitments vis-a-vis China

Above all this is election year in the US. In the short run the campaign has dialled up the rhetoric against China, including on the side of the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, sounded little different from her Republican counterparts in her criticism of China during her recent appearance at the Munich Security Conference. Yet at the same time, the withdrawal of Bernie Sanders from the race now gives American voters a clear choice. Between a populist and a liberal internationalist. Someone who is committed to working with allies constructively against someone who frequently takes them by surprise and prefers unconditional followership. Someone who will have a frank and open conversation with the American people about their responsibilities and the trade-offs in managing an interconnected world versus someone who insists on a zero-sum game, winner takes all approach which may work in the short run but which will inevitably isolate the US and lead to a decline in its influence and prosperity over the long term.

So, the November presidential election will give the voters a choice between two very different commanders in chief, both of whom have been tested in recent crises. If on the basis of this experience and its results, Trump is re-elected it will imply that populist nationalism has come to occupy the centre-ground of US politics and not just the Republican or nativist right. The rest of the world will perforce have to draw the consequences. In particular the calls of French President Macron for the EU to acquire strategic autonomy in the defence domain and key emerging technologies will have even more resonance. Yet the green shoots are there for a revival of benign US global leadership if the US electorate is willing to exploit them.

If Joe Biden is elected in November, there are some quick wins that he could use to show that the US is back as a builder of international order. He could agree with Russia to extend the New START treaty on nuclear weapons for a further five years. This would help to buttress the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to be reviewed in the UN later this year. It would also buy time for the US and Russia to devise a new negotiating mandate to embrace new technologies such as hypersonic and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, as well as engage China in restraint and transparency measures. Another win would be to re-join the nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA) provided that Iran returns its nuclear processing activities to the levels specified in the agreement and gives commitments regarding missile production and testing. Biden could also have the US recommit to the Paris climate agreement and restore funding to UN bodies such as the WHO. He could also stop the blocking of the WTO by allowing the appointment of new WTO arbitration panels to go ahead. The key thing is to demonstrate that agreements and treaties entered into will be kept.

Looking to the longer term, a new US administration should make some fundamental US strategic commitments vis-a-vis China. The first is to seek common ground wherever possible and as part of a broader approach to security. There are numerous issues where China and the US have an interest in working together. Managing pandemics, tackling climate change, upholding a rules-based international trading system and curbing nuclear and missile proliferation, notably by North Korea, are the most obvious and important. Past actions over Iran, North Korea and the 1991 Gulf War show that the two countries can work together pragmatically.

The US has always bested its rivals by outperforming them

A second fundamental orientation is to rule out a future war with China as a form of Thucydides-based fatalism and decide instead to make it clear that US strategy will be based on deterrence and war avoidance. Even if high budget deficits flatten out the US defence budget and oblige the Pentagon to look for cheaper ways of sustaining its global presence, this means enough military credibility to persuade China that lashing out (for instance against Taiwan) would be much too risky to be contemplated while avoiding pushing China into a corner that makes it see war with the US as preferable and inevitable. Deterrence over a long period is not an easy task. It requires juggling allies, military, economic and diplomatic instruments all while managing political and domestic public opinion, as the US found out with the Soviet Union during four decades of the Cold War. Yet despite a couple of near nuclear catastrophes in the early Sixties, deterrence was ultimately successful. It required patience, fortitude and deft political leadership. So, the same strategy can be used vis-a-vis China as well.

Finally, the US has always bested its rivals by outperforming them. China is a formidable competitor in terms of innovation in AI, 5G technology and bio-engineering. It has a highly educated workforce and a clear industrial strategy. Yet the US has faced many high-tech rivals throughout its history from the UK in the late 19th century to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union for a short time in the early stages of the space race and the Cold War, to Japanese cars, TV sets and machine tools in the 1970s. The US has ultimately rallied and outpaced them all once it has accepted to compete rather than play the protectionist blame game. It is not a good sign that today the US is looking to two European companies, Ericsson and Nokia, to be the main challenge to Huawei and ZTE in the field of 5G; but the fundamentals of a US revival beyond the power of its social media companies are still strong. Again, it is a question of national leadership in setting the course.

Mark Twain famously joked that “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. All friends of the liberal international order in the post-coronavirus world need to hope that this applies to the global leadership role of his homeland. Nothing is pre-determined in this world; for better or worse, individuals and their choices still determine the course of events, and as this crisis has shown, there is still a lot at stake and everything to play for.

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