The thing about a crisis—a real one, rather than a confected one—is that it exposes realities for what they are, as opposed to how the political class would wish to present them, either to their own people or the world at large. The uncomfortable truth about the current coronavirus crisis is that much of the complex web of national and global institutions established to deal with global pandemics and economic implosions has failed.
To be fair to those in leadership today, not since the Spanish flu or the second world war has the world had to contend with semi-synchronous public-health and economic crises, including the physical working arrangements of those having to manage it.
Even so, national and global economic responses have been late, often tepid and disjointed. Governments have scrambled to limit mass unemployment, but the same attention has not been paid to the global dimensions of the crisis. It took France, not America, to convene a G7 summit. It took Saudi Arabia, not America, to summon the G20. Neither produced a co-ordinated, global economic-stimulus strategy. Nor did they impose a moratorium on protectionist measures despite the fact that a tariff explosion to “protect” critical national supply lines is likely to prolong and deepen the recession. Despite the pandemic’s self-evident threat to international peace and security, the UN could not agree even to convene an emergency session of the Security Council until early April.
The tragedy is that much of the current crisis was avoidable. The key machinery to handle global public-health and economic responses was already in place. But for various reasons, it was not mobilised—or not mobilised early enough to remain ahead of the curve. In part, this is because China’s authoritarian political model, however effective in eventually locking the country down, discouraged the early and transparent recognition of the threat, despite the “failsafe” reporting systems put in place after the SARS pandemic. Also, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been underfunded for decades as America and others put their resources elsewhere and ignored repeated warnings to strengthen its powers. Now, under Donald Trump, America has turned the WHO into a convenient scapegoat for its own domestic failings.
More broadly, nationalist movements worldwide have found it convenient to bludgeon the legitimacy of multilateral institutions. Mr Trump, with his “America First” battle-cry, in effect abandoned America’s global leadership role for the first time since 1945. Normally, America would have teamed up with China to manage the crisis through a joint task-force established under the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. But that machinery has also fallen into disuse. Instead, the administration began kicking China when it was down. Normally, however imperfectly, America would also have mobilised the world. This time, in America’s absence, nobody did. Welcome to Ian Bremmer’s brave new world of G-Zero.
So what will change once this crisis is finally over? For America, if President Trump is re-elected it is difficult to see any improvement. A victory would further entrench his nativist, screw-the-rest-of-the-world approach where it’s everyone for themselves—a new international law of the jungle. National borders would become tighter. Protectionism would become the global norm rather than the exception, oblivious to the lessons of the 1930s. Global output could actually continue to shrink.
Moreover, America would increasingly withdraw from the multilateral institutions that it created in the 1940s at Bretton Woods and San Francisco, or else render them impotent. That would turn the UN, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Bank (although probably not the International Monetary Fund) into Potemkin villages—a bit like the League of Nations’ curious decision to continue meeting after the German invasion of Poland, then France and then Russia.
If the Democrats win, they would need to marshal the domestic political will to sustain a new, pragmatic, Rooseveltian internationalism. They would need to re-convince the American public of the enduring lessons of Versailles and Pearl Harbour: that national interests are enhanced, not undermined, by leading an effective multilateral system.
This would need to be accompanied by major, substantive reform and re-investment to create a more effective multilateral system. It cannot simply be a return to the failed practices of the past with the continued triumph of process over outcome. Where logjams occur, President Biden should fully harness the G20 (which came into its own in 2008, under George W. Bush, a Republican) to smash through on pandemic management, climate change, trade reform and global macroeconomic management. 2020 represents the “Last Chance Saloon” for American global leadership.
China, too, is divided between nationalists and globalists. Some Chinese officials have crudely sought to blame the American military for the outbreak in Wuhan. Others have tried to keep open the lines of global collaboration. Beijing’s hardheads know the coronavirus has compounded the damage to China’s economy from earlier domestic policy settings hostile to the private sector, and from the trade war with America. The virus will result in China’s worst economic performance since the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
China’s global standing has also taken a big hit. The idea that China could step into the breach left by Mr Trump by comprehensively providing the global public goods now needed (such as global economic and financial leadership, reform of the WTO, enhanced WHO independence or radical climate-change action) remains fanciful. China will continue exploiting tactically any political vacuum left by the Americans. But it is simply inconsistent with Beijing’s political playbook, as well as China’s perception of its still-limited national capabilities, for it to assume sweeping global leadership or drive an effective multilateral order that was not simply a direct expression of China’s own national interests and hierarchical values. And that leaves to one side the likely reactions from the rest of the world, both developed and developing, against any direct assertion of Chinese global leadership.
Given that Sino-American relations are beyond the control of any of us, what can the rest of the world do? A core group of constructive powers among the G20 should act to reform, fund, and politically defend the central institutions of global governance for the post-covid era. These include the WHO, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (given uncertainty around the global food supply), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (given the as-yet unknown impact on population movements) and the WTO.
This effort should be led by Germany, France, the European Union, Japan, Canada and possibly Britain (assuming Boris Johnson genuinely believes in a “global Britain”). They could be joined by others, such as Singapore, committed to maintaining an effective multilateral order as a global public good in its own right, rather than as a vehicle for the realisation of narrow national interests. They could start by issuing an immediate joint statement that together they will now fill the funding gap left by the lunatic decision by Mr Trump to axe America’s financial contributions to the WHO. They should also stipulate that this funding is contingent on the implementation of a post-crisis reform programme to enhance the WHO’s regulatory powers and statutory independence. However flawed the WHO may be, under international treaty it is the only global entity empowered to build immediate public-health capacity in poor countries in the event of a pandemic. And that’s where the virus is headed next.
Let’s call these constructive powers, at least to start with, the Multilateral 7 or the “M7”. They should become the collective intellectual, policy and political secretariat of this multilateral rescue mission—if you like, its combined planning and operations staff. They should pool the diplomatic and financial resources necessary to advance unapologetically an agenda of keeping as much of the current multilateral system as functional as possible for as long as possible, until global geopolitics achieves a new equilibrium. Indeed, they could become the thin blue line that, for the interim at least, protects us against an increasingly anarchic world.
First published by The Economist on April 15.