On Sunday, Pope Francis echoed Guterres’s call, tweeting his hope that “our joint fight against the #COVID-19 pandemic bring everyone to recognize the great need to reinforce brotherly and sisterly bonds.”
In geopolitical terms, though, such fraternal goodwill isn’t really on display. In Libya, Yemen and Syria, hostilities between various warring parties endured through the week. Within the European Union, the governments of Germany and the Netherlands balked at demands made by France, Italy, Portugal and Spain that the bloc issue joint bonds to help finance fiscal stimulus on the continent, raising more uncertainty about Europe’s unity as various countries squabble over the movement of goods and medical supplies amid the crisis.
Possibly the biggest clash amid the pandemic is the blame game playing out between China and the United States. After a phone call Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump appeared to tone down his angry rhetoric toward China. But a slight change of atmospherics won’t stem the groundswell of antipathy toward Beijing that has built up in Washington, while nationalist jingoism and anti-U. S. conspiracy theories have proliferated in Chinese state media.
The reality is that neither side has acquitted itself well during the crisis. China’s propaganda efforts to cast its response to the outbreak as a model for the rest of the world are falling somewhat flat, with scrutiny mounting over the credibility of China’s reported numbers of infections and deaths. Its soft-power outreach to other parts of the world, particularly Europe, is starting to look more soft than powerful: A number of governments have had to throw out or recall Chinese-sent medical supplies because of concerns over defects.
Meanwhile, the United States has become the epicenter of the pandemic, with the most reported cases in the world, and the grim likelihood that things are going to get considerably worse in the country’s major cities. New reporting has shed even more light on the administration’s dawdling and inattention in the early weeks of the outbreak, missteps that could cost thousands of lives. Trump has appeared to fixate more on his personal squabbles with state governors and the high television ratings racked up during his news conferences than what his administration can do to steer the world through the pandemic.
“Diplomacy and global leadership are long-standing attributes of American power. Trump risks squandering both,” wrote Brett McGurk, who was formerly the Trump administration’s top civilian official in the fight against the Islamic State. “In recent days, his administration reportedly pleaded with South Korea for essential supplies even after spending a year shaking down Seoul for billions of dollars to retain American forces there. The bill for these shortsighted policies is coming due.”
In the ledger of great-power competition, there’s also accounting to be done for Xi’s China. “This disaster is a great clarifier,” wrote commentator Kapil Komireddi. “From London to Washington, it has exposed the malign incompetence of major Western governments. It has also shattered every supposition on which the ascent of China was premised.”
What are those suppositions? According to Komireddi, these include the liberal delusion that making concessions to Beijing’s ruthlessly authoritarian regime and helping integrate it into the global economy would speed its own political evolution toward multiparty democracy. Then there’s the toll of globalization, which saw China consolidate its grip on global manufacturing and supply chains over the past decades — arguably at the expense of stable working-class jobs in Western economies.
“After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. locked itself into a self-wounding trade relationship with China,” he wrote. “Advanced economies, underwriting Beijing’s rise by incinerating the jobs that supported their own working classes, scattered the seeds of explosive discontent at home to export material prosperity to a regime that converted it into crude power to wield against its own benefactors.”
China will try to press its advantage in the coming months. “If the pandemic results in a global recession and the United States fails to manage international recovery efforts, economic and political power may both shift further in Beijing’s favor,” wrote Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the United States remains absent without leave, China may take the crisis as an opportunity to start setting new rules according to its own global governance vision, displacing Washington from future ordering efforts.”
But that opportunism is tethered, principally, to Trump’s indifference at the wheel. “China’s chief asset in its pursuit of global leadership — in the face of the coronavirus and more broadly — is the perceived inadequacy and inward focus of U.S. policy,” Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The ultimate success of China’s pursuit, therefore, will depend as much on what happens in Washington as on what happens in Beijing.”
“The current moment is one of powerful nationalist impulses around the world in ever-higher tension with the inescapable reality of globalization,” Julian Gewirtz of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs wrote in a piece pointing to the overwhelming need for U.S.-China cooperation in the coronavirus battle. “Nationalist leaders in the United States and China want to pretend that they do not need the other. But any effective strategy must face the reality that crises spawned by transnational threats will require the ability to work together.”