Conflict and Leadership
COVID19 Aggravates Great Power Competition

US international behavior in response to COVID19 is consistent with the foreign policy patterns of Trump’s “America First” nationalism: disdain for, and retreat from, global institutions and agreements, creating a vacuum, and more fraying of international institutions, writes Valdai Club expert Robert Manning.

Since 430 BC, when a plague killed thousands in Athens, altering the course of the Peloponnesian wars, pandemics have often been inflection points in history. Will COVID19, which has already collapsed the world economy, prove to be such a pivotal moment in a world of renewed Great Power competition?

There is simply no comparison with previous epidemics this century in terms of the scope, scale, or global impact. Previous pandemics this century – SARS, HIN1, Avian flu, MERS and Ebola – were more regional in scope, none so pervasively global. COVID19 is also unique in its devastating shutdown of much of the world economy. The closest analogy to the current pandemic is the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 which killed an estimated 50 million. The COVID19 economic consequences appear more ominous than the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Surveying how each major power – US, China, and Russia – has responded to the pandemic, how their respective responses impacted global perceptions of each actor; their respective international behavior during the pandemic and the impact on the comprehensive national strength of each, offers rough indicators of what geopolitical futures are likely.

Three possible scenarios come to mind: one where China recovers first and advances a Sino-centric world; a second scenario mainly intensifies current trends – more fragmentation, nationalism and geopolitical competition; and a third where the gravity of defeating the pandemic and restarting the global economy incentivizes renewed global cooperation and a revised multilateralism. These are not mutually exclusive, and there are variations with, for example, some elements of global cooperation, yet continued fragmentation and strategic competition.

Disappointing Performances

Governments understandably tend to be overwhelmed by unexpected catastrophic events. To date, the behavior of the major powers, both in regard to internal COVID19 responses and external behavior has been primarily that of inward- looking nationalisms and protectionism. It does not inspire confidence. The US and China, both driven by domestic political imperatives, appear to be in a race to the bottom, awash in mutual recriminations and conspiracy theories blaming each other, with bilateral ties in a downward spiral. Russia appears focused on its internal situation.

With 4% of the world population, the US accounts for roughly 30% of global COVID19 cases.

Much of the world is puzzled at the disjointed US response, as the nation that half a century ago put a man on the moon, struggles to produce masks and testkits.

Despite intelligence warnings in early January, Trump denied the severity of the crisis for seven weeks. Now, he largely follows medical advice, but tragically, lacks a national testing plan and has suggested fraudulent miracle cures and stumbled in mobilizing a federal government response, instead, telling US Governors to do it. In a recent essay, Indian author Arundhati Roy expressed a widespread dismay:

“We follow the statistics and hear the stories of overwhelmed hospitals in the US, of underpaid, overworked nurses having to make masks out of garbage bin liners and old raincoats, risking everything to bring succour to the sick. About states being forced to bid against each other for ventilators, about doctors’ dilemmas over which patient should get one and which left to die. And we think to ourselves, “My God! This is America!”

Since 1945, the US has been the leading military, economic, and technological power. When there was a global crisis, the world most often looked to Washington. US soft power has been based on a well-earned reputation as a pragmatic, problem-solving, economically and technologically innovative global actor, despite its share of mistakes.

Well before the coronavirus, however, policy failures like those of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis, began to corrode US stature and credibility. However, during previous global health crises, for example, SARS under the George W. Bush administration, and Ebola under Obama, the US actively led global efforts. In sharp contrast, the US declined to lead a global COVID19 response, including halting funds for the WHO and rejecting the WHO Action Plan. Nor has the US proposed G7 or G20 coordinated action plans.

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US international behavior in response to COVID19 is consistent with the foreign policy patterns of Trump’s “America First” nationalism: disdain for, and retreat from, global institutions and agreements, creating a vacuum, and more fraying of international institutions. Absent active global coordination, both defeating COVID19 and restarting the global economy will be unnecessarily more problematic.

China has sought to step into the vacuum of multilateral leadership that US actions have created – for example, announcing a $30 million contribution to the WHO days after the US withdrew funding. But Beijing’s own actions may be having a boomerang effect. The origin of COVID19 in Wuhan, and an initial three weeks of denial after the late December outbreak, suppressing doctors such as Li Wenliang who sought to warn and begin containment is a serious vulnerability. Though Beijing’s delayed response has since efficiently contained the outbreak and China is starting to return to business as usual, there is anger both inside China and globally that early transparency likely would have reduced the spread of the virus in China and around the globe.

That may be one reason why China has aggressively tried to rewrite the COVID19 narrative to erase opprobrium. Regardless of motivation, from planeloads of masks, protective gear and ventilators to the US, doctors and medical aid to China has provided substantial assistance to Spain, Italy, Serbia in Europe, Pakistan, Latin America and Africa, Beijing has won its share of praise from its “mask diplomacy,” particularly in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. But Beijing’s efforts have also backfired as some of its medical goods – such as $20million worth of testkits purchased by the UK – have been defective. Beijing has seen angry responses and conspiracy theories about its intentions from Nigeria and other African states, as well as feuds with senior Brazilian officials. Beijing’s heavy-handed effort to suppress on EU report on COVID19 has drawn ire in Europe.

Beijing’s persistent quest to rewrite the narrative may be rooted in domestic concerns. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy has rested primarily on its remarkable economic performance since 1980 and on nationalism. But the pandemic led to -6.8% growth in the first quarter, the worst record since the Qing Dynasty. This, in addition to popular disquiet over the CCP response to COVID19, may pose a challenge to CCP legitimacy.

While the US is distracted by COVID19, Beijing has also opportunistically pursued what it calls “asserting sovereignty,” in recent efforts to erode Hong Kong autonomy, to disrupt Malay and Vietnamese oil development and impose its claims on disputed territories in the South China Sea, and with April aircraft carrier group drills near Taiwan.

Russia, where COVID19 has not yet peaked as of May, has reported more than 145,000 cases, more than China has reported, but has responded with more discipline than the US, conducting more than 4 million tests and enforcing a lockdown. Moscow has made modest efforts to send aid to the US, Italy and Serbia and has backed WHO and G20 efforts, but there have been few discernible changes in its foreign policy. However, the collapse of oil prices with an economy that has grown only 1% annually over the past decade portends increased hardship for Russians and perhaps political difficulties ahead for Vladimir Putin.

Net Assessment

How will the current malaise affect great power competition and the global balance of power? It is difficult to see any zero-sum gain for either the US, China, or Russia, nor a path for the best-case cooperative scenario. Dependence on Chinese supply chains – particularly for medical goods – seem to have reinforced US hostility and efforts to decouple the world’s two largest economies. The US rejection of leadership or cooperative response plans has further alienated Europe and disappointed Asians. China’s gambit in the South China Sea poses a still unappreciated challenge to US reliability as security guarantor and may be a new flashpoint in US-China relations. One indicator of whether US-Russia ties stabilize will be the fate of New START and the Open Skies treaty, both of which are out of favor in Washington.

It is premature to draw conclusions, but based on current pandemic behavior, COVID19 appears less a hinge of history than a cataclysmic event rendering most likely Scenario number 2: an acceleration of current trends of populist nationalism, fragmentation, and increasingly unrestrained great power competition.

The wild card, however, is the November US elections. If Trump loses and Joe Biden wins the result would not be a return to the status quo ante, but a reversal of “America First”, and a halting move toward a more restrained version of post-WW2 US internationalism. Trump’s policies by Executive Order (e.g. exit Paris Accord, Iran nuclear deal WHO, New START) would likely be reversed. But US populism will not disappear. Current China policy is bipartisan, as is skepticism about free trade. It would be an opportunity to stabilize US-Russian relations, though success would be problematic.

If there is a Black Swan it would likely be the result of COVID19 recurrences leading nervous government to enhanced global efforts to develop universal vaccines and treatments and a deep depression that would incentivize global financial cooperation in a manner similar to that of 2008-09 with enhanced roles for the IMF and multilateral development banks.

In the interim, however, it would probably be a mistake to bet against Scenario #2. The historic analogy that comes to mind is the pre-WW1 period as detailed in Christopher Clarke’s magnificent work, Sleepwalkers.
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