The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced destructive nationalism, but it has also highlighted the necessity of international collaboration. Global-minded citizens—starting in the United States—must now push their governments to cooperate and support multilateral institutions.
The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into a dangerous state of disequilibrium, in which the siren call of populist nationalism and the clear, compelling necessity of global cooperation and collective action are locked in (literally) mortal combat. Sadly, nationalism is winning so far. But global-minded citizens everywhere can, and must, fight back—starting in the United States.
In the decades following World War II, America played the role of (mostly) benign global hegemon. Its economic and military supremacy gave it a clear interest in establishing and maintaining the rules of the game for international cooperation and collective action. For that reason, the US took the lead in establishing institutions such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (formerly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).
But with US power and influence now waning, at least relative to China, President Donald Trump’s administration has reverted to isolationism. With minimal domestic political pushback, Trump has introduced aggressive anti-immigration measures, pursued a trade war with China, and refused to collaborate with G7 allies and the G20 to address the pandemic’s economic fallout.
With the US missing in action on global collective action, other governments have felt emboldened to adopt similar beggar-thy-neighbor responses to the virus, such as restricting exports of food and face masks, and rushing to capture the intellectual property and profits of an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to freeze US funding for the WHO in the midst of the pandemic is less important financially than as a symbolic expression of his “America First” doctrine. The irony for America is that Trump’s spit-in-the-world’s-face anti-globalism is mirrored in deepening polarization at home, where the pandemic is exposing and amplifying pre-existing inequalities.
Unfortunately, there is currently nowhere else to look for international leadership. The post-Brexit European Union is itself struggling with inward-looking nationalism among its member states, and has been unable to agree on even modest burden-sharing to accommodate refugees. And the bloc remains deadlocked on the question of issuing joint “coronabonds” to help rescue its own economies in the current crisis.
China under President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, lacks the instinct and international credibility needed to drive global cooperation. To be sure, China is grasping at a leadership role. It has joined other G20 creditors in suspending low-income countries’ debt service to all official bilateral creditors–among whom China is one of the biggest and most expensive, owing to its Belt and Road Initiative—and has pledged $2 billion to the WHO. But at the same time, China is exploiting the pandemic by flexing its muscles in Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Its positive steps are more about competing with the US than about encouraging international collaboration.
The kneejerk nationalist response to the pandemic is not surprising. Although the coronavirus, like climate change, knows no borders, most people identify themselves as citizens of their own country. We are almost all nationalists at heart—or patriots, if you prefer.
Moreover, it is hard to imagine an alternative to the current international order based on sovereign states. Historians generally view the creation of the current state system as a key contributor to a less violent world in which more people lead better lives than ever before. Indeed, the economist Dani Rodrik has argued that the nation-state is a prerequisite for liberal democracy, and democracy could not possibly work at the global level.
At the same time, however, the pandemic has reminded us that we are heavily dependent on cooperation among states. Such cooperation can be explicit, as with trade agreements, or implicit, such as in managing global financial risk or meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Today, a failure to collaborate in tackling COVID-19 will threaten all of us, because everyone is vulnerable to the virus until no one is.
Likewise, combating the destructive nationalism personified by Trump requires that good citizens of every country push their governments to cooperate and support multilateral institutions, and work to capture the benefits of adhering to agreed international rules and norms. In this century, as never before, such efforts would be in the interest of all countries and their citizens.
Fortunately, identifying primarily as a citizen of one’s own country does not exclude identifying also as a global citizen. In the late 2000s, for example, more than 80% of survey respondents in 17 developed countries agreed that they had “a moral responsibility to work to reduce hunger and severe poverty in poor countries.”
We all benefit from the work of the WHO, the IMF, the G7, and the G20, and when these organizations falter, it is not their weakness we should blame, but rather the failure of their most powerful member countries to keep them strong. And just as the pandemic is creating a sense of solidarity among US citizens, it can teach people everywhere to make the mental leap beyond their national borders and embrace the idea of global solidarity.
US citizens must take the lead in this effort. Americans are accustomed to seeing their government lead during global crises—as President George W. Bush’s administration did in combating AIDS, and as Barack Obama’s administration did in tackling the global financial crisis and the Ebola epidemic. They must now demand that the Trump administration combat the pandemic with a strategy that balances America’s national interests with its indispensable international reach and capacity.
The US is no longer the global hegemon, but its leadership is still the world’s best option in the current crisis. If ever there was a time to put that proposition to the test, it is now.
Note: this blog originally appeared as an op-ed on Project Syndicate here.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.