The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis tailor-made for a global response. The virus knows no borders and kills without discrimination. It has halted daily life and devastated economies. The threat it poses is immediate and lethal.
Traditionally, a catastrophe like this — something that touches everyone — triggers an ordering moment in international politics. Nations should be aligning their efforts to develop a vaccine, contain the disease, produce and allocate medical equipment, and stabilize the global economy. They should be strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO).
But nothing of the sort is happening. Countries are competing for, and hoarding, medical equipment as they engage in a biotech arms race to find a vaccine. They are closing their borders and scapegoating foreigners. The United States is treating the WHO like a punching bag. To raise money for vaccine development, the European Union recently hosted a video gathering of leaders at which German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others pleaded for a coordinated global response. But the United States, Russia and India all passed on the meeting, and China’s low-level representative pledged no funds. Why is a global health emergency that should result in global solidarity producing such disarray?
A look back at previous instances of cooperative ordering provides the answer. In modern times, there have been four such moments: the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the end of World War I in 1919 (which followed the previous year’s flu pandemic and encompassed efforts to advance public health), the end of World War II in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in 1989. These were eras of geopolitical upheaval, not health emergencies. But in their comparably ruinous effects, they offer the best insight into what should be happening now — and why it isn’t. All told, the prospective deaths and economic damage caused by the coronavirus may equal the costs of the world wars. The first one took the lives of some 115,000 Americans, a number likely to be surpassed by the pandemic’s toll. Armed conflicts disrupt trade and destroy assets, but they also ramp up economic activity to support the war effort. This pandemic shuts everything down. Even amid the Nazi Blitz, Londoners went about their daily routines, scurrying to bomb shelters only when the sirens sounded. Today, Londoners are sheltering around the clock. And the pandemic, like war, dominates public discourse and concentrates the mind. Around the world, it is all about the coronavirus. We are in this together.
Three attributes turn an international emergency into a geopolitical realignment: the existence of a wartime alliance that morphs into a peacetime coalition, an identifiable end to the crisis that begins a new chapter, and the presence of a powerful and visionary country to guide the effort. Today, all three of these attributes are missing.
After the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II and the Cold War, wartime cooperation made for peacetime innovation. The Quadruple Alliance (Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria) that emerged to defeat Napoleon was the same group that convened the Congress of Vienna in 1814, leading to the launch of the Concert of Europe the following year. France joined in 1818, and the Concert preserved peace for decades to come. In 1919, victors against Imperial Germany (the United States, Britain and France) ran the show at the Versailles Peace Conference, which redrew national boundaries and gave birth to the League of Nations. In 1945, the Allied powers were the architects of the postwar order and the United Nations. And at the end of the Cold War, the leading members of the Atlantic alliance (the United States, Britain, France and West Germany) presided over German reunification, the end of rivalry with the Soviet Union, and the enlargement of NATO and the European Union, the two pillars of European stability during the Cold War.
Today, there is no standing coalition to guide international cooperation. Relevant international bodies (such as the WHO) exist, but the coronavirus crisis broke at a moment of geopolitical fragmentation. The United States and China are sparring over security and trade. The Atlantic alliance is still standing, but it is sorely strained by sharp differences between President Trump and his European counterparts. Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a political brand of jousting with, and seeking to undermine, the West. Nations lack the trust and cooperative spirit that come with wartime alliances. The pandemic’s harms are similar to those of war, but there is no coalition to drive any kind of international reordering.
Nor is there a clear endpoint, an armistice day that would mark the conclusion of suffering and the beginning of efforts to create a better way. In 1815, 1919 and 1945, the guns fell silent. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. The woes that preceded those events had discredited the old order and created an opening for a more peaceful and cooperative alternative. Members of the Concert of Europe settled territorial disputes and set up creative mechanisms — neutral, buffer and demilitarized zones — to avert the return of rivalries. Even though the Senate was unwilling to approve U.S. participation in the League of Nations, some 60 countries joined, cooperating to mediate territorial disputes, reduce armaments, set up an international court of justice, protect ethnic minorities and stand up a health section to contain disease. These efforts laid the groundwork for the rules-based order that would emerge following the next great war. The institutions that Washington shepherded into existence after World War II — the United Nations, the Bretton Woods monetary system, NATO — anchored the international system for decades to come. So the post-1989 order could build on what already existed: NATO and the European Union opened their doors to Europe’s new democracies, the Group of Seven turned into the Group of Eight by including Russia, and China joined the World Trade Organization.
With the coronavirus, there is no prospect of an “all-clear,” no definitive moment when leading nations can breathe a sigh of relief and collectively deliberate how to build a more secure future. Instead, the pandemic is likely to straggle on, waning and waxing in different locations until it gradually dies out. Some countries are already reopening for business while others envisage prolonged lockdowns. Even after a vaccine emerges, nations will compete for doses. Against this muddled backdrop, the key players are poised to remain inwardly preoccupied and going their own ways.
Finally, ordering moments take shape when a strong and forward-looking country guides the enterprise. In 1815, it was Britain and its foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh. In 1919, 1945 and 1989, it was the United States, with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush setting the pace. All of these leaders understood that only international teamwork could tackle common challenges. Each presided over the most powerful country in the world but grasped that internationally shared gains were the best way to advance the national interest. And they did not wait for the crises to subside to begin planning what would come next. Almost a year before the United States entered World War I, Wilson was already generating ideas about a postwar league to keep the peace, affirming that “we shall be as much concerned as the nations at war to see peace assume an aspect of permanence.” The same went for Roosevelt, who secretly met with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941 and drafted the Atlantic Charter — which would eventually serve as a template for the U.N. Charter. Bush, who’d served as U.N. ambassador and CIA director in the 1970s, embodied the pragmatic internationalism that guided U.S. strategy throughout the second half of the 20th century.
The United States is still the world’s strongest country, but it is governed by a president who disdains rather than seeks out international partnership. “America First,” in name and in practice, is antithetical to building international order. Trump insists that “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony” and says he is “skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down.” He has regrettably made good on his 2016 pledge: “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”
Trump’s stubborn unilateralism is certainly an important part of the story. But had the raw materials been available — an existing coalition and the prospect of a clear end to the crisis — even Trump may have opted for a more collective response, especially since his reelection rides on his handling of the pandemic. They were not; this moment does not lend itself to global realignment the way earlier crises did. Indeed, the world seems to be headed toward growing division and national self-reliance.
For now, the best hope for jump-starting global cooperation on the pandemic is Trump’s defeat in November. Following in the footsteps of Wilson and Roosevelt, a few Democrats in Congress are already doing some planning. The stakes go well beyond developing a vaccine and sharing vital medical equipment. If nothing else, the pandemic underscores that we live in an irreversibly interdependent world that can be effectively managed only through common effort. Whether the task is fighting disease, preventing war or battling climate change, the coronavirus should serve as an urgent wake-up call for a new era of international teamwork.