How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected global perceptions about the transformation of the liberal international order? Over the past year, we have seen a number of analytical pieces by researchers and policymakers declaring the current pandemic a critical turning point in international relations, one which marks the end of the US-led liberal international order and the ushering in of a more multipolar and decentered world, where states struggle to cope with the transnational changes, face rising nationalism, and must manage the economic shocks of sudden economic de-globalization.
As always when analyzing current events, it is important to be cautious and to place events into an analytical and historical perspective. As I have argued with my co-author Daniel Nexon (here, here), the US-led liberal international order has been unravelling for some time, prior to the pandemic and well before the presidency of Donald Trump. Global governance is becoming more contested and multipolar, small states are increasingly hedging their bets by seeking public and private goods from patrons other than the United States and its allies, and new transitional movements are contesting the liberal values and norms associated with US-led global leadership. COVID-19 has served to accelerate many of these trends, but also underscored some important global perceptions about shortcomings of US leadership.
The Trump Administration’s public response to the pandemic has insisted the Chinese origins of the virus in an effort to deflect blame onto Beijing for the outbreak, while withdrawing US funding from the WHO and maintaining that the US response compares favorably with other part of the world in areas like testing, national mobilization or fatality rates. In fact, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers, as of November 30th the United States had suffered the most COVID-related deaths (266,873) and was ranked 13th for most deaths at 81.57 per 100,000 people (a case fatality of 2.0%).
Survey data from the Pew Research Center’s 2020 Global Attitudes Survey suggest that global public opinion about US leadership during the crisis is highly critical and unfavorable of the US response. Dramatic findings, based on telephone surveys across 13 major countries, were released in September and captured in the headline “U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country has Handled Coronavirus Badly.” The main finding of the surveys is that America’s reputation has declined badly, especially among allies and partners, reaching record lows that even exceed the low post of March 2003 (prior to US military action in Iraq), including in the UK, France, Japan, Canada and Australia.
At fault is a broad perception that the United States has dealt poorly with the pandemic, both as a matter of international leadership and of domestic policy competence- just 15% of those surveyed believed that the United States had “done a good job” dealing with the virus outbreak. Further, without exception, all publics surveyed ranked the US response to the pandemic lowest among their own country, the World Health Organization (WHO), the EU and China. The findings seem to confirm a sense that the pandemic marks an important inflection point in global perceptions about the changing nature of world order and the relative decline of America.
Of course, some might argue that global public opinion is volatile and often depends on the personality of the President. During the 2000s, in the wake of George W. Bush’s military action in Iraq, US global unpopularity also reached lows, only to subsequently recover in most countries during the Obama Administration. Moreover, the “Trump Effect”– where attitudes are capturing the unpopularity of an inward-facing US president who openly rejects multilateralism– may be strongly influencing these ratings. The only notable exception to this trend is that Trump made substantial gains in popularity among respondents who identify as members of among populist right-wing movements. Still, whereas Bush’s low unpopularity across the world was seemingly driven by his controversial and aggressive foreign policy actions, Trump’s low approval ratings appear to be tied to global perceptions of US incompetence in managing the outbreak and open hostility to multilateral cooperation.
Does this mean that the COVID-19 global pandemic has irrecoverably weakened US prestige and credibility as a global hegemon? The answer is actually more complicated than these data about US reputation initially suggest.
First, although we might expect that declining perceptions about the United States would automatically increase the standing of the closest global emerging power, in this case China, survey results released just a few weeks later by Pew suggest that unfavorable views of China have also hit historical highs. In most of the 14 surveyed countries, negative views of China have reached 12-year highs, with three-quarters or more of those surveyed expressing negative views and older people more likely to express negative views than respondents under 30.
Most respondents believe that China has “done a bad job” handling the pandemic, although better than the United States. Disapproval of China’s handling of the pandemic is accompanied by a striking lack of confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership, which has also dramatically declined over the course of the pandemic.
The result? Both Trump and Xi are strikingly unpopular in some of the major surveyed European countries. For example, In Germany, where 89% of respondents expressed no confidence in Trump, 78% maintainer no confidence in Xi. In sum, while geopolitics is often zero-sum, the COVID crisis appears to have significantly undermined the reputation and standing of both the United States and, its closest competitor.
Second, the second wave of the pandemic appears to be hitting European countries hard Whereas over the summer, when the pandemic raged in the United States, Europe appeared to have gotten infection rates under control and proceeded with phased re-openings, in recent weeks infection rates have climbed to record highs and many European countries have, once again, imposed lockdown measures. In other words, US ineffectiveness does not seem particularly globally exceptional anymore in the midst of this new wave.
Third, it now appears likely that the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will, beginning in January 2021, mount more of a sustained, centrally coordinated and high-profile public campaign to control the pandemic as well as make a point of visibility resuming international cooperation on global public health issues. The prospects of the widespread distribution of vaccines in the Spring of 2021, especially if disbursed relatively quickly and competently, may further rehabilitate the US’s reputation. Still, intense polarization within the US domestic political system may generate intense local opposition against any new federally mandated measures, especially from Republican-controlled governors and legislatures, even in states where the virus has been surging.
In sum, the global pandemic has taken a significant toll on perceptions about America’s competence and global leadership. These challenges will endure beyond the current Trump administration and are tied to a broader erosion of the US-led liberal international order. At the same time, survey findings suggest that no clear geopolitical “winner” has emerged in the COVID era crisis. So, although the US-led international order continues to unravel, what replaces it remains far from clear.