What is striking about the latest surge in analyses is the degree to which so many of them conclude with the reinforcement of preexisting trends. Sino-American relations were already pretty rocky, and covid-19 has made things worse. Don Lee of the Los Angeles Times noted last week that the pandemic “has moved the United States and China a big step closer to a new cold war. It has strengthened hard-liners in both countries.” Maybe that is a change from what a post-phase-one-trade-deal world would have looked like, but that premise is highly dubious.
Adam Tooze has been disgustingly prolific during these days of quarantine. As his recent Foreign Policy column observed, U.S. financial hegemony remains undisturbed by the crisis — because Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell has exercised international leadership in ways that President Trump cannot even conceive of doing. His London Review of Books essay on the pandemic’s consequences for the global economy highlights the ways in which the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the United States, European Union and China: “What caused the panic last month was the realisation that Covid-19 has exposed all three weaknesses simultaneously.”
One can extend Tooze’s analysis beyond economics. An important element of both soft power and hard power during a pandemic is an actor’s ability to move quickly and contain the spread of the pandemic within its borders. What stands out over the past month has been that no great power has done this well at all. China was the epicenter of the outbreak and was less than completely transparent at the outset. The fragility of its one-party regime is hampering its research efforts right now. Beijing has moved further down the mitigation curve than others, but its offers of aid have proven to be shoddy. The longer-term effect of this virus will probably be further supply chain diversification away from the Middle Kingdom.
If China has fared poorly, the European Union and United States have fared even worse. To be fair to the E.U., the Eurofail was somewhat by design. Scott Greer noted in the New York Times that, “The truth is that when it comes to public health, the Union has done what its member nations wanted it to do: not much. For years, European governments have kept Brussels out of health care and public health whenever possible.”
Politico’s David Herszenhorn and Sarah Wheaton’s in-depth look at the E.U.’s coronavirus response confirms this assessment and much more. They managed to get Janez Lenarčič, the E.U.’s commissioner for crisis management, on the record saying “I think it is only honest to admit that nobody expected that the dimensions of this outbreak would be such here in Europe.” They also note other dysfunctions within the customs union, particularly the inability of member governments to provide reliable information and supplies to those in need.
If the European Commission’s fecklessness has been by design, the Trump administration’s appears to be by choice. Both the New York Times and Washington Post had Sunday front-pagers detailing how the administration’s dysfunction cost the United States weeks in response time, resulting in little but empty promises and more deaths.
It’s the smaller stories, however, that reveal the depth of incompetency at work here. The president’s personal grudge against the U.S. Postal Service threatens to bankrupt an institution that disproportionately benefits Trump’s rural base. The president’s repeated insistence that the federal government is not a shipping clerk belies the fact that this is exactly the federal government’s purpose during times of emergency. It has also led to the kinds of dysfunction that my Post colleagues chronicled recently, including this gobsmacking anecdote:
Some governors and lawmakers have watched in disbelief as they have sought to close deals on precious supplies, only to have the federal government swoop in to preempt the arrangements.Officials in one state are so worried about this possibility that they are considering dispatching local police or even the National Guard to greet two chartered FedEx planes scheduled to arrive in the next week with millions of masks from China, according to people familiar with the planning. These people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, asked that their state not be identified to avoid flagging federal officials to their shipment.
Even when it comes to any post-pandemic opening, other Post colleagues report that “the White House has made a deliberate political calculation that it will better serve Trump’s interest to put the onus on governors — rather than the federal government — to figure out how to move ahead.” Not the national interest, mind you, but Trump’s political interest.
Not all of America’s screw-ups are the fault of Trump; some of the poor pandemic response was decades in the making. Nonetheless, Trump’s predecessors had the good sense to respond with alacrity when the system was blinking red. Trump did the exact opposite. Little wonder that foreign coverage of the U.S. response is dripping with disdain.
Other great powers are not exactly thriving, either. A week ago, some Russians were crowing about the PR victory of sending medical supplies to a besieged New York. As Andrew Higgins of the New York Times reported more recently, however, “Russia, relatively spared until now from the ravages of the virus, has started on the same harrowing path taken weeks ago by hard hit countries like Italy and now the United States.”
If there is a trend, it is the one that the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove identified last week: “Leadership and inspiration in this crisis have come from countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. The coronavirus performance of the superpowers has been unimpressive; but smaller, more agile countries, with rational politicians and effective bureaucracies, have done better.” Fullilove could have added New Zealand, Iceland and Ireland to that list. Small, well-run countries: so hot right now.
Like most trends, this one might not last. Not all small states are faring well — see Sweden, for example. Perceptions of power during this pandemic are subject to constant updating. No great power is doing well right now, but Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique’s Bruno Tertrais is right when he noted that whichever country develops treatments and vaccines first will be able to recover its reputation and influence. That should be the only thing that matters in great power politics for the next year or two.