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COVID-19 and the health of the global order

Even as the United States struggles with the disease, some countries’ relative success reveals the resilience of the global system.

Analysis | Washington Politics

State and local officials in the United States are restoring restrictions, or considering new ones, to contain the spread of the coronavirus. So far, it is not working. The United States has now surpassed 4 million confirmed cases, and is averaging over 70,000 new cases every day. Last week, President Trump admitted that the situation would "probably, unfortunately get worse before it gets better.”

Others are struggling, too. The World Health Organization reported on July 24 that the world recorded over 284,000 new cases, the most in a single day, and 9,753 new COVID-related fatalities, the highest increase since April.

But the news isn’t all bad. Among many of America’s European and Asian allies, people are warily emerging from the shadow of the deadly pandemic. The fact that these countries are containing COVID-19, despite America’s obvious struggles to do so, could be a hopeful sign for the future. Indeed, once the dust settles, and we emerge from our six-feet-of-separation, we might all take pride in their success.  

For example, American Major League Baseball opened a 60-game season this past weekend, but the teams of South Korea’s baseball league (KBO) have been playing since April. This was possible because South Korea quickly got a handle on the disease. The WHO’s report for July 26 pointed to just 58 new cases there over a 24-hour period. Fewer than 300 South Koreans have died from the disease. By contrast, 14 players and staff from MLB’s Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19 this week, a development that might put the entire season on the line.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Washington Post observed that the fact that a “German lake district town is embroiled in a heated debate about nude swimming” was a hopeful sign of a return to “the banalities of pre-coronavirus summers.” Thomas Held, a pro-nudist council member in the town of Lychen thought the keen interest in his fight against swimming trunks “very strange” given that “there are so many other things” to be worried about. But apparently not COVID-19.

Global peace and prosperity once was so fragile that it had to be sustained by threats and coercion by a single nation — the American hegemon. Now, the world has many capable actors willing to sustain the system.

Indeed, a resilient order should have always been our object. A multiplicity of actors brings many different approaches to common challenges. Not every tool is equally useful against every problem. Americans spent dollars on F-35 fighter planes and Navy aircraft carriers, which might prove useful in a war with China. South Koreans spent won, and Germans spent Deutsch marks, and later euros, on an excellent universal health system plus contact tracers and personal protective equipment, which were more crucial in the war against an invisible pathogen.

Just as U.S. allies and partners are leading the way on how to protect the health of their citizens against coronavirus, they are doing the same for a post-World War II order based on global trade and respect for national sovereignty.

The U.S. government often employs punitive sanctions to try to compel others’ to follow its lead, even though such trade restrictions rarely succeed in causing targeted states to abandon their foreign policy goals. Such moves have accelerated under the Trump administration, which tends to view trade as a zero-sum game.

But while the U.S. under Trump has imposed tariffs on much of the rest of the world, the European Union has negotiated trade deals with Japan, Vietnam, Mexico, and Mercosur, the political and economic bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, plus several other associate members.   

In recent years, more U.S. allies and partners are pushing back on America’s arbitrary restrictions and overuse of sanctions, and they are doing so by pointing approvingly to the very rules and norms that U.S. policymakers once had to force on them. 

For example, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened those working on oil pipeline projects with Russia to “[g]et out now, or risk the consequences,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief responded swiftly and decisively. Such companies were “carrying out legitimate business,” Josep Borell explained in a statement, and “the extraterritorial application of sanctions [were] contrary to international law.”

“European policies,” Borell continued, “should be determined here in Europe, not by third countries.”

Some in the United States may be annoyed by such statements from U.S. allies and partners, but they should see this as a great achievement for U.S. policy. Such resistance is a sign that others are able to define their core interests, and willing to take measures to preserve them.

That was not always the case. Countries in Europe and Asia once looked to the United States to defend them from danger. Americans also played an instrumental role in the post-war economic recovery, often by breaking apart the preferential trading systems that declining imperial powers had imposed on their colonial subjects.

But over the ensuing three quarters of a century, dozens of empowered nation-states have emerged, and they are now in a stronger position to sustain the order that allowed them to prosper. They have also built closer political and cultural ties with each other; these connections advance the cause of peace, prosperity, and human rights. Despite Brexit and continued tensions within Europe over a range of issues, the 27 members of the European Union recently reached an agreement on a €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund and a seven-year €1.074 trillion budget.

To be sure, a far more resilient world, one no longer wholly dependent upon a single state to uphold it, still faces serious challenges.

The most obvious of these is the global pandemic. A resort to vaccine nationalism, in which one or more states horde a potential cure developed within their borders, and prevents others from accessing it, would be an early sign of the order’s fragility. Such moves would also prolong the disease, exposing more people to harm over a longer period.  

There is also a threat to liberal democracy and human rights. Political leaders will surely wield the threat of the virus to attack their enemies at home and hold onto power. Nicolas Maduro is doing that in Venezuela, with his government calling returning refugees a “biological weapon.” Viktor Orban in Hungary, a U.S. NATO ally, imposed a draconian rule by decree in late March — and seems prepared to do so again.

Over the longer term, the danger posed by the proliferation of new weapons, or other transnational threats like climate change, cries out for global cooperation. Such cooperation has grown more difficult, but would be impossible if the world divides into factions under a Sino-U.S. cold war. Lastly, the risk of conflict — either from miscalculation or the breakdown of conventional deterrence — remains ever-present.

For the moment, however, Americans should be grateful that others are leading the way on effective methods for containing the spread of the coronavirus. A willingness to learn from others’ relative successes, and follow their lead, would surely save lives and hasten the economic recovery.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a press conference at parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Monday, June 8, 2020. Ardern says she did a little dance when she found out that there was no longer any active cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand. (AAP Image/Daniel Hicks)
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