How will this novel coronavirus change world politics in the years to come? This century has seen three crises in its first two decades. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 did not kill very many people, but terrorism is like theater in which the shock of horror can create disproportionate effects on the global agenda. American foreign policy was profoundly distorted by panic choices that led to long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second shock, the financial crisis of August/September 2008 brought on the Great Recession which has long lasting effects on the rise of populism in democracies and strengthening of autocratic movements in many counties. China’s successful stimulus package led many to predict that it would become the world’s economic leader. Both crises set the world on the wrong path.
The initial responses to the third crisis of this century also went down the wrong path. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US president Donald Trump started with denial and misinformation. Crucial time for testing and containment was wasted, and the opportunity for international cooperation was squandered. Instead, after costly national lockdowns, the two countries engaged in propaganda battles. China blamed the American military for the presence of the virus in Wuhan, and Trump spoke about the “China virus”. Yet a virus could not care less about the nationality of the humans it kills. Humanity will not succeed without some degree of international cooperation. Weapons and walls cannot solve the problem.
All leaders have a responsibility to put their own country’s interests first. The important moral choice is how broadly or narrowly they choose to define those interests. Both the US and China, the first and second largest economies, responded to Covid-19 with an inclination toward short-term, zero-sum, competitive interpretations, with too little attention to institutions and cooperation. As I show in my new book, “Do Morals Matter?”, Trump has interpreted “America First” narrowly, stepping back from the long-term, enlightened self-interest that marked the American approach designed by FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower after 1945. One has to hope this would change if the November election leads to Trump’s replacement.
Attacks by new viruses may come in waves, and the second wave in the 1918 flu pandemic was more lethal than the first. We must be prepared for a multi-year battle. That will require sharing information, developing and producing therapies and vaccines, preparing, manufacturing and distributing medical supplies and equipment. It is quite possible that there will be seasonal surges of the virus between the northern and southern hemispheres. When the North thinks it has a respite, the virus (or a mutation) may fill a Southern reservoir only to spill northward with the change of seasons. If we define our national interest broadly, we can help ourselves as well as help others.
As Henry Kissinger has recently argued, leaders must choose a path of cooperation that leads toward international resilience. Instead of competitive propaganda, leaders should articulate the importance of “power with” rather than “over” others, and set up bilateral and multilateral frameworks to enhance cooperation. Rich countries should realize that new waves of Covid-19 will affect poorer states that are less able to cope, and that such a Third World reservoir will hurt everyone. Both for self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the US, China, Europe and Japan, the world’s largest economies should lead the G20 in generous contributions to a major new UN Covid-19 fund like a Marshall Plan that is open to all countries. In the democracies, many people may complain about the idea of caring for foreigners when there is such pain at home. That is where moral leadership is important, explaining that the national interest can be an enlightened self-interest rather than a narrow self-interest.
If we choose this policy, Covid-19 may provide a path to a better world. If we continue on the current path, the new virus will simply accelerate existing trends towards nationalistic populism and authoritarian uses of technology. Perhaps it will not be too late to choose a new path at the end of this fateful year, but the world is running out of time.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.”