While the U.S. and the world continue to deal with the spread of the new coronavirus disease COVID-19, responses to it may prove to be a dress rehearsal for dealing with an even worse threat: climate change. COVID-19 may be short-lived but climate change can be catastrophic. As one recent headline in the New Yorker read, it’s “the one war that the human species can’t lose.”
Both cases pose critical challenges to both domestic politics and global relationships. The requirement is for cooperation to triumph over beggar-thy-neighbor responses which, in the case of the global response to climate change, have so far been the rule.
In more than one country, the COVID-19 crisis is already having a negative political impact. That is so partly because of the disease’s nature: how it spreads, its intensity, and its morbidity seem, at least to the general public, to be almost totally unpredictable, and fears are further enhanced by pervasive media coverage.
One direct product of the spreading coronavirus disease is the rise of internal political stresses, which began in China. After a slow start, the crisis response by Chinese leaders has been intense, including the building in Wuhan of two fully functioning 1000-bed hospitals in ten days. But the Chinese response is not just out of human concerns. As other authoritarian countries have learned, failure to deal with threats to populations from natural disasters and other man-made catastrophes can affect their political control. For example, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in the Soviet Union is widely credited in helping to weaken the Kremlin’s monopoly of power. While China has greater control over its population than the Soviet Union ever did, challenges to Beijing’s authority cannot be ruled out as a motivating factor in its response to Covid-19.
In the United States, as well, the coronavirus crisis quickly became enmeshed in domestic politics. President Trump even called it a Democratic “hoax,” betraying a gross failure of presidential responsibility. If the COVID-19 crisis continues, how it will play out in this year’s electoral season is anybody’s guess, but if Trump does not show more awareness and decisive response than he has so far done, it will set a terrible precedent for the society-wide cooperation, including shared sacrifice, required to cope with the existential threat of climate change.
External conflict risks
There is also an international, conflict-related dimension. China’s response to COVID-19 was not just — or even primarily — about potential risks to rulers in Beijing, but to Its economic and political relations with the outside world. It has taken a hit for its inability to respond immediately to a major natural disaster at home with global impact. China is facing at least short-term risks to its perceived reliability as a trading partner and its progress toward becoming the world’s number one economy, where an “envy factor” was already in play. Even if the crisis soon passes, there can be longer-term damage to global economic interdependence that is a key underpinning of China’s economy (as well as almost everyone else’s). Disruption of some supply chains, to which much of the world is vulnerable, is already happening. From China’s perspective, there is also the possibility that offshore customers will look for longer-term alternatives. Some already have been doing so, not just to get cheaper prices, but also to try lessening vulnerability to China’s regional political and security ambitions.
This dovetails with growing competition between the United States and China, as the former is losing its global edge in more than one area, while U.S.-Chinese tensions have intensified, to the point that some Americans see an emerging cold war. Washington and Beijing have so far not taken the necessary steps to keep political and security tensions from escalating, including serious strategic dialogue and military confidence-building measures. It is unlikely but possible for there to be some form of military confrontation, if only by accident, as in the South China Seas. Certainly, suspicions and bad blood generated by the COVID-19 crisis and its negative impact on the global economy have not helped promote peaceful adaption of this critical great-power relationship.
Iran in the crosshairs
Regarding possible conflict, Iran is immediately significant. The spread of the virus there, making it second only to China (along with Northern Italy, popular with Chinese tourists), was a natural function of international travel, especially to Iran’s holy city of Qom. (Saudi Arabia has closed its holy shrines to visitors from other countries.) For some partisans trying to squeeze Iran economically into changing its approach to the outside world, the COVID-19 outbreak may be just desserts, except for the fact that its spread from Iran (as from other countries) is inevitable and others will also suffer.
This past week, the New York Times proclaimed in a headline that Iran has emerged as a worldwide threat, while noting that “Iran’s economy has been strangled by sanctions.” That’s the rub. The U.S. effort to cripple Iran’s economy — despite formal exemption from sanctions for parts of its health sector — is limiting Iran’s efforts to contain COVID-19, with potential blowback on the U.S. and others supportive of U.S. sanctions. Washington has only this past week authorized some coronavirus sanctions relief, which contrasts with more robust U.S. aid provided following the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran.
The U.S. response (so far limited) does not mean that the chance of war with Iran has gone down, especially when flanked by continued increase of already-draconian economic pressures, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated to Congress this past week. What the U.S. does now regarding Iran’s COVID-19 crisis will also impact Washington’s effort to separate the Iranian people from the clerical establishment, as well as any prospects for reducing U.S.-Iranian confrontation. Missing the opportunity to show a positive American face to the Iranian people and thus reduce risk of open conflict would be against U.S. security interests.
Some other countries that are affected either by U.S. economic sanctions, military conflicts (as in the Middle East), or homegrown limits to healthcare systems may join the list of threats to containing the coronavirus. Simple self-interest argues for economically more developed countries to provide help. Further, the generally popular American desire for the United States to continue being a global leader, plus Americans’ traditional role as a compassionate people, argues for it to help others deal with the COVID-19 crisis, regardless of the nature of bilateral relations. This has long been standard U.S. practice.
Dress rehearsal for climate change
Finally, an important impact of the COVID-19 crisis may prove to be as dress rehearsal for an even greater threat: climate change. Failures so far in global responses to climate change underscore insufficient willingness by governments and industry to “get it,” with terminal consequences if attitudes and actions do not change almost instantly. Genuine international cooperation is so far grossly inadequate. Too much ignorance and rejection of what is now obvious still prevail. With potentially tragic consequences, the U.S. president continues to be Denier-in-Chief, the functional equivalent of Britain’s Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s. At issue is whether Trump and other climate change deniers will derive the right lessons from COVID-19 as climate change becomes the most serious threat ever to human survival. As deadly as it is, the spreading coronavirus disease is also a timely warning. How nations respond to the current crisis, notably creating new habits of working together to meet a common global challenge, is a critical test of their collective ability to meet an even more elemental threat.