If COVID-19 is indeed the crisis of the century (and the century is only a fifth of its way through yet), it is bound to leave generational memories in its wake. The last major global upheaval, the World War 2, upended the mighty British Empire and cemented America’s status as a non-colonizing global superpower. Will the coronavirus flip the established order and herald something new?
Early evidence suggests that COVID-19 is accruing gains for China and losses for America so far as global leadership is concerned. The biological crisis has affected both countries hard, but their responses differ. Regardless of mixed signals early on, the speed with which China has controlled the virus and jumpstarted its economy has left other countries in awe. The Chinese governance model works.
Meanwhile, America, towards which the democratic world is looking for guidance, is fumbling royally in its approach to contain the crisis. While China is now providing assistance to other countries, the US federal government has been unable to meet demands of its hard-hit states like New York and California. Donald Trump’s patience with “experts” has now worn thin, his rhetoric now intent on saving economy than lives.
Back when Donald Trump, the reality TV star, was elected in 2016, some Chinese commentators had noted that it was a sharp contrast with the Chinese meritocratic governance model that prized competence. If this crisis has exposed the dysfunction and divisiveness in American democracy like never before, then it’s a propaganda win for the Chinese governance model that quickly got a grip.
The crisis has also led to US further turning inwards. The way EU travel ban was announced without taking European leaders into confidence left a bad taste in an already fraught alliance. Instead of leading a global initiative to find the cure, Trump talked up taking over a promising German company (CureVac) so that US could be the first to inoculate its population.
It also didn’t help its image when America tightened sanctions on Iran, at a time when prior sanctions were biting hard amid the massive outbreak in that country. The extraordinarily-harsh measure of America cutting its aid to Afghanistan over the peace-talk impasse also hasn’t gone unnoticed, again at a time when the critically aid-dependent Kabul needs more resources to combat the crisis.
Contrast this with China’s government and its billionaires who are sending aid to countries around the world, sharing early experience and helping meet global medical demand by putting factories back on. The assistance seems directed especially at European Union, partly because it is the pandemic epicenter. It is also because absence of American leadership will be felt the most in Europe.
It is true that Asian democracies like South Korea and Japan have also done well to contain the crisis, but the lack of guidance from America amid reassuring signals from China are getting more attention. It is anybody’s guess how a post-corona world will look like and how the post-WW2 concept of “multilateralism” will endure. But it is not looking good for Pax Americana at the moment.