Could the Coronavirus Pandemic Revive International Cooperation?

World Politics Review, 29.06.2020
Stewart Patrick, académico del Council on Foreign Relations

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with G-7 leaders during a videoconference on the coronavirus pandemic, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Gonzalo Fuentes/AP Images).

When does a global catastrophe stimulate a revival of international cooperation, rather than accelerate fragmentation and disorder? When does a crisis become a turning point in international relations, rather than just augur more of the same? These questions loom large in the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest shock to world politics and the global economy since 1945. While history provides no definitive answers, it hints at three preconditions for resurrecting international cooperation from the ashes: new thinking, enlightened leadership and a favorable distribution of power.

It was in reaction to World War II, and the economic chaos that preceded it, that the United States laid plans for an open, rules-based postwar international system. The political and economic foundations for this liberal and cooperative world order were set during wartime conferences at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., and in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The former produced plans for the United Nations, a new global body to promote peace and security, endorsed by 50 nations in San Francisco on June 26, 1945—75 years ago last Friday. The latter created two new multilateral institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to promote financial stability, wartime recovery and global development. Although negotiations for an International Trade Organization failed, a new multilateral trading system emerged through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later became the World Trade Organization.

Not all global catastrophes have such a fortunate resolution. The great slaughter of World War I resulted in a peace at once Carthaginian and inconclusive: harsh enough to embitter Germany but not so severe as to prevent its resurgence. The League of Nations, created in 1919 to deter and punish aggressors, failed to do either and faded into irrelevance as fascism and militarism ran rampant in the 1930s. Likewise, the Great Depression elicited little international cooperation, as the world’s most powerful economies adopted a slew of discriminatory, protectionist and beggar-thy-neighbor policies, typified by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in the United States in 1930 and the British system of Imperial Preference established in 1932. The London Economic Conference of 1933 intended to stabilize the world economy but failed thanks to U.S. intransigence. The resulting economic fragmentation prolonged the global slump and poisoned international diplomacy.

COVID-19 is no world war, but its casualties are heavy and growing. Globally, the pandemic has already infected 10 million people and killed more than 500,000—both likely gross undercounts—and is poised to afflict many more. The economic fallout has been calamitous. Last week, the IMF predicted global GDP would contract by 4.9 percent in 2020, with 95 percent of countries experiencing a fall in per capita income, and that the recovery would be slow and bumpy. The outlook for trade is more dire still. On June 22, the WTO estimated that trade in global merchandise would drop by an unprecedented 18.5 percent this year.

As complex global supply chains seize up, political leaders face mounting pressure to abandon globalization for self-sufficiency. This is particularly true for the $2 trillion annual trade in medical products, which is equivalent to 5 percent of all merchandise trade. The U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, considers American dependence on foreign sources of medical supplies a “strategic vulnerability.” Since the pandemic began, dozens of governments have imposed tariffs and quotas on imports and bans on exports of critical materials. The contrast with the global financial crisis is depressing. Back in 2008 and 2009, G-20 nations exercised commendable restraint in limiting protectionism. Today, as in the 1930s, nationalist forces are responding to a global economic crisis by erecting trade barriers.

As in the interwar period, geopolitical frictions are also undercutting international cooperation. Tensions between the United States and China were running high well before the pandemic, thanks to deepening strategic competition in Asia, accelerating technological competition, an ongoing trade war and Chinese human rights abuses. That strategic rivalry has now spilled over into global health, blocking decisive action on COVID-19 within the U.N. Security Council, preventing the G-20 from orchestrating an economic recovery and even dividing Western allies within the G-7. The chaotic response has exposed what can happen when the multilateral system fails.

Given current trends, the prospects for a revival of international cooperation would seem grim. Still, crises are ripe with opportunity. History suggests that renewed multilateralism will depend on three things: new ideas, enlightened leadership and a favorable global balance of power.

Global crises tend to discredit the ideas associated with recent policy failures and open minds to new ways of thinking. Ongoing global disorder could lead to a sweeping repudiation of hyper-nationalism, protectionism and populism, if they come to be seen as short-sighted and counterproductive, as they were in the 1930s. It is not enough to fight something with nothing, however. Advocates of a renewed multilateralism, beginning with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, must spell out explicitly what a new and improved model of cooperation would look like. They must explain how their positive-sum vision of U.S. foreign policy and the world, and the policy innovations they propose, will reduce great-powers frictions, deliver the shared prosperity that has long eluded the global economy and finally address the climate catastrophe that threatens life on Earth. A mere return to pre-Trump liberal shibboleths will not cut it.

Beyond bold new ideas, a revival of multilateralism will require enlightened leadership, particularly from the United States. The post-1945 international order was not simply a function of American power. It reflected the conscious choice of successive U.S. administrations to exercise, embed and indeed constrain that power within multilateral institutions in which other countries could expect to benefit. It was this broad U.S. commitment to an open, consensual international order that accounted for that system’s resilience, legitimacy and adaptability. Nothing of this sort will reemerge so long as Donald Trump remains in the White House. It will be up to Biden, with the support of a new Congress, to reinvest in a cooperative international order and restore decency to U.S. foreign policy.

Finally, the United States cannot do this alone. A cooperative global order can only emerge and endure if it rests on a preponderance of global power. Even at America’s early postwar zenith, U.S. leadership required followers for its cooperative schemes to bear fruit. That is more true than ever, given the ongoing diffusion of power to other nations as well as nonstate actors that have become indispensable in addressing global problems from pandemic disease to climate change. The challenge before a potential future Biden administration, to borrow a term from Soviet strategists, will be to promote a positive global “correlation of forces,” by rallying state and nonstate actors behind a renewed vision for an open world that is more attractive and forward-looking than what authoritarian powers and populist regimes have on offer. One obvious step in this direction would be for Biden to throw America’s weight behind the “Alliance for Multilateralism” proposed by France and Germany.

Should he capture the presidency, Biden’s first order of global business will be to mobilize the world to defeat the stubborn COVID-19 pandemic. If the United States can succeed in this daunting venture, it might yet revive a new era of multilateral cooperation.

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