The US could lead the world with a new Covid Fund

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It could be a geopolitical turning point

Joseph S Nye Jr (CTGA, Offord University Photo)

Massachusetts, USA, July 5, 2020

Will the Covid-19 pandemic change or accelerate pre-existing global trends?

Many commentators predict the end of the era of globalisation that prospered under US leadership since 1945. Some see a turning point at which China surpasses the United States as a global power.

Certainly, there will be major changes in many economic and social dimensions of world politics, but humility is in order.

One must be wary of assuming that big causes have predictable big effects.

For example, the 1918-1919 flu pandemic killed more people than World War I, yet the major global changes were a consequence of the war, not the disease.

Unstoppable transnational effects

Globalisation, defined as interdependence across continents, is the result of changes in the technologies of transportation and communication which are unlikely to stop.

Some aspects of economic globalisation such as trade will be curtailed, but while economic globalisation is influenced by the laws of governments, other aspects of globalisation such as pandemics and climate change are determined by the laws of biology and physics.

Walls, weapons, and tariffs do not stop their transnational effects.

Thus far, American foreign policy has responded by denial and blaming others rather than taking the lead on international cooperation.

Medical version of Marshall Plan

On a speculative counterfactual, imagine an American administration taking its cue from the post-1945 US presidents I describe in ‘Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.’ For example, the United States could launch a massive Covid-19 Aid Programme, a medical version of the Marshall Plan.

Instead of competing in propaganda, leaders could articulate the importance of power with rather than over others and set up bilateral and multilateral frameworks to enhance cooperation.

Recurrent waves of Covid-19 will affect poorer countries less able to cope and a developing-world reservoir will hurt everyone if it spills northward in a seasonal resurgence.

The second wave

In 1918, the second wave of the pandemic killed more people than the first.

Both for self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the United States could lead the G20 in generous contributions to a major new Covid-19 Fund that is open to all poor countries.

If a US President were to choose such cooperative and soft-power-enhancing policies, it might create a geopolitical turning point to a better world.

More likely, however, the new coronavirus will simply accelerate existing trends toward nationalist populism, authoritarianism, and tense relations between the United States and China. 

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus. The above article appeared in the Harvard Gazette.

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