The coronavirus crisis is global, but it has had different impacts, and provoked different responses, in each country it has hit. Moreover, because the world’s two most powerful countries have been — for different reasons — at the center of the crisis and are not looking better in the eyes of the rest of the world for how they have handled it, these events will have an enduring influence on global politics. The pandemic has revealed flaws in geopolitical structures as well as domestic political systems and has accelerated the unraveling of what until a few years ago looked like an irreversibly globalizing world. This pandemic requires global cooperation on an enormous scale, but global institutions, multilateral organizations and powerful states have proven woefully unable to accomplish this.
Coronavirus Has Laid Bare the Deep Structural Problems in the US Healthcare System
We Americans frequently tell ourselves that the world looks to us for leadership in times of crisis. This notion is closer to jingoistic sloganeering than empirical reality, but it is true that as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, the United States can play an extremely valuable role in solving global problems. It is equally true that during the current coronavirus crisis, the US has done the opposite. While this is partially due to the dangerously uninformed buffoonery emanating from the White House, the coronavirus has also laid bare structural problems in the US healthcare system that has made the American response to the current crisis slow and inadequate.
Coronavirus Has Also Highlighted China’s Vulnerabilities
The US is not the only powerful country that has been particularly flummoxed by the coronavirus. The virus began infecting and killing people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. While some praised the Chinese government for moving quickly, the lack of transparency and freedom there led some Chinese experts to report overly optimistic findings to their superiors in the initial stages of the pandemic, thus slowing the response to the virus and contributing to its spread. In recent weeks, China and the US have found themselves in a propaganda battle over who is to blame for the spread of the virus that has been petulant, dishonest and unhelpful on both sides. This has revealed that both the Chinese system of Leninist corporatism and the US experiment with populism and democratic rollback are incapable of addressing the crisis, and thus serve as poor models for the rest of the world.
Coronavirus Has Sidelined the UN
The pandemic has also significantly sidelined the role of the UN. Similarly, in Europe it is not the EU, but the member states themselves that have been on the front lines of this health crisis. Even deep alliances like those between the US and the UK, Japan or South Korea — which have frayed badly in recent years due to Donald Trump’s ill-conceived America First policy — now seem almost irrelevant in the fight against Covid-19.
As states rush to arrest the spread of the coronavirus and bolster their economies, it is worth remembering that it didn’t have to be this way. The pandemic has struck at a moment when the acceleration of globalism of recent years interacted in a toxic manner with a resurgent populism from Beijing to Washington to London to New Delhi that is making the crisis much worse than it had to be. If the US had been able to provide some real leadership, if the Chinese government had been more forthcoming about the crisis in its early days, and if global health protocols had been created quickly to address the spread of the coronavirus, the world would look very different today.
We are in the Midst of a Surreal and Unprecedented Moment
Unfortunately, those things did not happen; and we now find ourselves in the midst of a surreal and unprecedented moment. Nonetheless, it is likely that this crisis will pass. When that happens, the global political system will have been substantially rearranged. To start, the two most powerful countries will have revealed themselves to be radically incapable of cooperation or true leadership. This will leave an enormous vacuum in the geopolitical order that will likely contribute to an acceleration of the breakdown of global systems and alliances, while making it clear beyond doubt to European powers that the US is no longer a reliable ally, and certainly no leader in fighting various serious global challenges.
It is also likely that once the most intense phase of this crisis passes, there will be a backlash against globalism. Some countries, including almost certainly the US, will reevaluate the wisdom of relying on international supply chains for so many important health and consumer products. Other countries, particularly affluent European ones — as well as the US — may tighten border controls significantly. Both of these measures would have a huge impact on the global economy, possibly forcing China to negotiate differently with the rest of the world.
Our global political institutions and systems have thus far failed to effectively combat the pandemic, just as they have failed to address other life-threatening challenges. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed climate change out of the headlines and out of the minds of many policy makers, but it has not gone away. Climate change is still lurking out there. The only way to address that looming disaster is through cooperation, sacrifice, trust in science and data, compassion and a willingness to change our lifestyles. These are the tools that appear to be in short supply now, but which are needed to defeat the coronavirus pandemic as well.