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President Donald Trump's coronavirus response has reinforced strategic competition, rather than galvanizing a new global order. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen to a briefing about the coronavirus at the White House in Washington, March 31, 2020 (AP photo by Alex Brandon).

Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Won’t Lead to a New World Order

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Rather than introducing a new world order, the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are reinforcing recent trends of strategic competition among the United States, Europe and China.

As the potential magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear in March, there was a lot of immediate speculation about just what its impact would be. Many of those initial predictions announced a radically transformed world order. A triumphant China, some declared, would capitalize on its success in containing the outbreak to emerge as the new global leader.

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A closer look at the subsequent responses to the pandemic by governments around the world suggests that the coronavirus has actually served to highlight or confirm developments that had already been on display, some for decades and others for at least the past several years. Absent a sea change in government responses at the multilateral level, the pandemic is unlikely to transform the international order so much as reinforce these current trends.

America’s unwillingness to lead a globally coordinated response to this crisis should come as no surprise under the current administration. President Donald Trump has never hidden his contempt and disdain for multilateralism. To the contrary, he has taken great pride in declaring that the U.S. is no longer in the business of delivering public goods, like leadership in a time of crisis.

More surprisingly, COVID-19 has highlighted the degree to which that unwillingness to lead has now metastasized into an inability to do so. Trump has made declarative offers of U.S. assistance to North Korea, and more recently to Italy, France and Spain. But these are simply for public consumption. The truth is that due to his administration’s incompetence, it has not even been able to provide full federal assistance to states across the country yet.

It is important to underline that this impotence is the result of a collective decision, taken democratically, to shed state capacity. American voters elected as president a man who had given clear signs he was ill-equipped for the job and who has spent almost every day in office removing any remaining doubt. How comfortable they are with the consequences of that choice—a federal government that resembles a failed state in its response to the pandemic—will determine whether or not the abdication of global leadership is a temporary condition for both America and the world.

Another unsurprising takeaway from the early stages of the pandemic is the European Union’s inability to lead a European response to it, much less a global one. Instead, EU member states initially acted alone and without coordination or solidarity. As the immediate panic subsided, national governments did manage to coordinate a more collective response with travel bans at the EU level. Brussels also suspended rules capping budget deficits and national debt to allow countries to offer sizable economic rescue packages. But the EU has yet to agree to issue collective debt instruments, which would guarantee liquidity for its weakest members, due to opposition from Germany and the Netherlands. And whatever aid and assistance has been delivered to member states in need has been on a bilateral basis.

Absent a sea change in government responses at the multilateral level, the pandemic is unlikely to transform the international order so much as reinforce current trends.

Europe’s difficulties are due partly to the particularities of the coronavirus pandemic, which targets a capacity—public health—that is not in the EU’s institutional purview. That was similarly the case with the European debt crisis in 2009 and the refugee crisis in 2015. Both times, the result was years of equivocation as the crises escalated and ultimately outran policymakers’ attempts to contain them. European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have forcefully advocated for an ambitious vision of the EU as a third pole of power alongside the U.S. and China as the world enters a more competitive phase of great power relations. But the long-term impacts of the EU’s previous failures, whether the rise of euroskeptic extremist parties or the fraying of European solidarity, continue to hamper the EU’s ability to project its leadership in Europe, let alone the world.

As for China, the initial predictions that it would emerge from the pandemic atop a realigned global order are looking premature. In all fairness, there have already been many twists and turns since reports first emerged of a coronavirus outbreak in China. After being condemned for initially ignoring and covering up the spread of the virus, China was lauded for implementing draconian measures to shut down the city of Wuhan and its surrounding province, the center of the outbreak, which appeared to contain it. Beijing then used a series of high-profile humanitarian aid packages to European and African countries to lay claim to a role usually occupied by the U.S. when it comes to disaster response and relief.

But subsequent developments have undermined whatever benefits China might have hoped to accrue from its humanitarian gestures. In an effort to deflect blame for having bungled their initial response, Chinese officials have pushed conspiracy theories, amplified in state-run media, blaming the origin of the virus on the U.S. military. Meanwhile, multiple reports across Europe suggest that much of the medical equipment China either donated or sold, including masks but also test kits, was faulty and unreliable. Most recently, new reporting has raised questions about both the extent of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, as well as the veracity of the Chinese government’s reporting on current cases.

For reasons of pragmatism at a time of urgent need, states in both developed Europe and the developing Global South will continue to welcome Chinese aid. But nothing about Beijing’s handling of the pandemic suggests they will be eager to line up behind Chinese leadership of a new global order in its aftermath. Moreover, there is still no indication that China aspires to such an outcome.

As a result, as Rod Lyons wrote for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Strategist website, the current crisis will likely reinforce recent trends of strategic competition among the U.S., Europe and China, rather than radically alter them. But if so, it has become an odd sort of competition, where the various participants all seek advantage relative to one another, but are either unwilling to provide global leadership, unable to, or both.

The global spread of COVID-19 is sadly still in its early stages, but that also means there is time to jumpstart efforts toward a multilateral response once the initial wave of the crisis peaks in Europe and the U.S. in the coming weeks. A collective response will be especially important when it comes to helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries and populations weather the storm. The current competition among governments for scarce medical supplies, and perhaps even treatments and vaccines, is understandable given the initial panic and trauma caused by the pandemic. But the best and perhaps only hope against a threat of such global dimensions as the coronavirus is an equally global response.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday.

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