The coronavirus crisis is a tragedy still in its first act; the full breadth and depth of its carnage are as yet unknowable. What is clear is that COVID-19 will cast a long shadow over the world. In the coming months, someone or some country will define the international order for years, perhaps decades, to come. While others may want only to look inward, the United States must lead the world through this grim future to the other side of the pandemic.
First, there are worrying trends to overcome. Global institutions already have absorbed damage from which it will be difficult to recover. The European Union, or EU, has taken a body blow. With the organization unable to generate a coordinated response, member countries are taking their own paths and some will be crushed by debt. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization harmed its reputation by uncritically accepting China’s official line on the virus. As internationalism recedes, more states may look inward.
It’s already happening for some citizens. Facing economic and social dislocation, the cross-border spread of the virus has increased nationalist fervor in many parts of the world. Collapsing supply-chains for things like medical equipment will increase reliance on domestic production, a change that some are cheering on. Political populism already on the rise in Europe and the United States will continue to spread, leaving a leadership void as the world struggles with recovery.
Getting back to normal will take time. Anxiety around the infectious diseases may linger for years, creating risk-aversion in many societies. People may shun large-scale public events and travel long after the pandemic subsides. The potentially months-long global depression ahead will magnify income disparities, social and racial inequality, and government incompetence. Pre-COVID trends, like automation replacing manual labor, will face new challenges from nationalist movements.
What does this mean for America’s competition with its rivals? Russia, China, Iran, and terrorists will take advantage of all these trends by spreading disinformation intended to widen social divisions and undermine democracy in the West and its institutions.
Some leaders will use the crisis to strengthen internal control. Last month Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán established an “omnipotence” law allowing him to take virtually any action without parliamentary approval, in perpetuity. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the country’s Law and Justice Party, is forcing the country’s May presidential election, giving remarkable advantages to his party’s candidate, incumbent Andrzej Duda. What remains is an election with a virtually guaranteed outcome.
All such trends will feed off one another. Those who blame the United States, the EU, and Western governments for failing to plan appropriately will louden against those who blame China. The consequences of unemployment will push populations throughout the world into crippling debt. Given the horrific scale of deaths still to come, more people will look for someone to blame for their sudden financial and emotional woes.
That should concern policymakers because national recovery here is interdependent; if even one major country remains afflicted by coronavirus, it will remain a threat to the world. An approach to recovery that prioritizes sovereign states acting unilaterally instead of in international cooperation will only prolong the suffering for all and threaten international order.
The state that stands to benefit most in that outcome is China, where the COVID-19 virus originated and whose leaders suppressed doctors and independent voices to worsen its spread. Across the pandemic response, the United States is already in a race against China. President Xi Jinping understands this is an opportunity to accumulate even more global influence that will be critical for decades. Beijing is already capitalizing on its position, waging information warfare to discredit the United States, and offering expertise and medical equipment to states in the virus’ throes, including many traditional American allies in Europe.
Countering China’s influence will require U.S. leaders willing to re-embrace the international community and reengage with alliances. But preventing a China-dominated world will require much more — a global economic and humanitarian effort on the scale that exceeds that of the coordinated 2007-2008 financial meltdown recovery. Something grand, certainly. A United States effort to lead the world back from coronavirus must be tangible: a major Marshall Plan-type program that focuses on turning the world back out to trade, compete, and travel, with a plan for financial liquidity, and partnered in the development of vaccines. It would go a long way to reasserting American leadership.
This pandemic comes at a time of disturbing trends, including the rise of populism, climate change, water scarcity, an increase in civil wars, and the proliferation of new and potentially transformative technology. They all could bring significant changes to the global order, some welcome. But the spread of the novel coronavirus is a catastrophe of our systems. The United States must be prepared to lead the world that emerges in its wake. To do so, Americans must shed their recent isolationist impulses and re-embrace internationalism.
Col. Joe Buccino is a soldier and resident student at the U.S. Army War College. Previously he has served as a Pentagon spokesman and spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.