How to Build a (Slightly) Better World after the Pandemic

The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the distance between the type of world order Americans and people around the globe might like to attain and the type of world order that they actually have. This is a common feature of great global crises—they illuminate the gap between what is desirable and what actually exists.

The current pandemic shows us that strengthened multilateral cooperation will be essential to managing transnational crises in the future. The problem, unfortunately, is that a dramatically more cooperative global order is unlikely to materialize anytime soon. If anything, the trends seem to be pointing in the other direction right now. The best way to improve the condition of the international system after coronavirus is to work toward a slightly improved multilateralism. That goal may not sound particularly inspiring given the havoc that coronavirus is causing, but it has the virtue of actually being achievable.

The world’s current crisis writes former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, illuminates “a lesson we should have learned long ago: that, to thrive, people of every nationality must combine strengths.”.[1] Indeed, it is hardly surprising that so many observers have called for a new and improved multilateralism since the crisis began, because coronavirus reminds us that many of the common clichés about an interconnected, interdependent world are really true. Economic shocks rarely respect borders. Outbreaks of a deadly disease may begin in one country, but they rarely end there. International action and international organizations are vital to addressing common challenges; not even a superpower can thrive, physically or economically, in a world that is consumed by poverty or disease.

Alas, it is easier to identify the need for a new multilateralism than to see how it would actually come about. A central pillar of any new multilateralism would presumably be improved relations between America and China. But the coronavirus crisis has instead led to an escalation in tensions between the world’s two leading powers. Opinion polls show that Americans of both parties are hardening in their views of China; they are increasingly convinced that the Communist Party of China presents a tangible threat to their health and wellbeing.[2]

Similarly, it is all well and good to say that coronavirus has revealed the importance of healthy international institutions. Yet the pandemic has also shown Americans, and citizens of democracies around the world, how Beijing has sought to influence and distort the functioning of supposedly apolitical bodies like the World Health Organization. When Americans look at the WTO, they do not see a neutral technocracy. They see an institution that has been corrupted by an authoritarian power.

Additionally, the crisis has exacerbated strains within the democratic world. U.S.-European relations have been roiled by fears of zero-sum competition for vaccines. The frayed political relations between the Trump administration and America’s European allies have been starkly apparent and resulted in a striking lack of meaningful diplomatic or economic coordination. Meanwhile, although America’s performance in tackling the coronavirus at home hasn’t been as awful as the president’s rhetoric makes it sound, it certainly hasn’t inspired a great deal of confidence in the U.S. competence and leadership, either.

Then there is the state of the world economy. For years, American officials argued that economic integration would pave the way for deeper global cooperation. Yet there will be a degree of de-globalization after this crisis, as countries seek to limit the risks of diseases crossing their borders or of competitors controlling their access to critical medical supplies.[3] Finally, while coronavirus has led some observers to tout the logic of a global community, it has also reminded us of just how important American unilateral power is.[4] After all, it was the Federal Reserve—not the World Bank or IMF—that kept the global economy functioning in March and April by aggressively employing its financial firepower.[5]

It is true, then, that the world will need more and better global cooperation in coping with pandemics and other transnational threats. But there will be strict limits to what is possible. The best approach is to aim for a modestly improved multilateralism, one that isn’t blind to challenging geopolitical realities but still enhances the world’s ability to respond to the crises of the future. Five essential principles define this approach.

First, and perhaps counterintuitively, the U.S. must get its own house in order. Since the critical element of global politics is the nation-state, any sort of impressive global action begins with the power, will, and initiative of individual countries. Since World War II, no country or global actor has been more effective than the United States in generating collective action on difficult issues. From the Marshall Plan to the 2008 financial crisis, America’s initiative and power have been the bedrock of constructive multilateral diplomacy.

This doesn’t justify the Trump administration’s seemingly indifferent stance toward international cooperation on coronavirus or any other issue; it doesn’t make it smart to sabotage a G-7 meeting in hopes of making a point about what the virus should be called.[6] It does mean that there will only the weakest foundation for constructive global cooperation in the future if America doesn’t find a way of preserving its power and self-confidence through the current crisis. Mitigating the harm caused by the contagion within the U.S., and supporting the domestic economy until a recovery takes hold, is critical not just for the wellbeing of Americans but for all of those who have come to rely on U.S. power and leadership.

Second, the heart of the existing international order—and a centerpiece of any functioning multilateralism—is America’s network of alliances and partnerships. In the wake of this crisis, the United States must reinvest in that network. Smart strategists tend to diplomatic and political relationships with their friends when things are calm so that those relationships are strong and ready when tested.[7] The Trump administration has pursued the opposite agenda. Although it deserves some credit for pushing allies in Europe and other regions to contribute more to the common defense, it has too often pursued that agenda in a gratuitously provocative and insulting way. In doing so, it has spent down the credibility and trust that America has built over decades—and that it serves as the lubricant for collective action when a crisis comes. It is all but certain that grave challenges—military, economic, epidemiological—will test the international system in the future. America will fare best in managing those challenges if it fortifies its relations with the countries that most closely align with its political traditions and its view of the world.

Here, U.S.-Europe relations are arguably the key. For all the talk about the Pacific century, the transatlantic partnership is still the greatest agglomeration of democratic power in the world. Absent close cooperation between America and its European allies, few challenging global problems will be solved satisfactorily. Re-consecrating the transatlantic relationship will thus be paramount, and it will require action from both sides. The United States should deescalate the ongoing trade tensions with the European Union, stop picking political fights with democratic allies, and realize that its interests are best served by a strong European community rather than a weak and fragmented one. The European allies, for their part, can take a stronger line against China economically and geopolitically—as individual countries, and also in multilateral forums such as NATO and the EU—in addition to continuing to rebuild the military capabilities needed to defend the continent’s eastern flank against Russia. If the EU wants to be taken seriously on the international stage, it has to show that it is capable of meaningful geopolitical action. Additionally, the advent of a new administration in the United States will almost certainly be necessary, if not sufficient, condition for improved transatlantic cooperation.

Third, a marginally enhanced multilateralism requires being engaged but tough in global institutions. It is true that coronavirus reminds us of the constructive role that institutions like the WHO can play in promoting information-sharing and collective action against transnational challenges. If the United States were to permanently withdraw its funding for the WHO, as the Trump administration has said it might, that would be a serious, unforced error.

Yet realism compels us to acknowledge that the WHO and other such bodies are not working as well as they might, in part because they have been compromised by a Chinese government that cares less about good global governance as we might define it than about increasing its influence overseas and solidifying its power at home.[8] Such institutions can still have an important part in tackling global crises in the future, but first, there will be required a concerted offensive, on the part of America and other democracies (particularly but not exclusively in Europe), to combat this Chinese approach. Here some credit is due to the Trump administration. It was a mistake for the United States to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council and other organizations, which has served mainly to strengthen Chinese influence. It is a mistake to hollow out institutions such as the WTO from the inside. But the State Department has recently undertaken a needed diplomatic campaign to roll back Chinese influence in international bodies that quietly but profoundly shape how well the international order works.[9]

The fourth component of this approach will be globalization that is more selective in some ways and deeper in others. Rumors of globalization’s death have circulated many times before, and those rumors have so far proven exaggerated. What is clear, however, is that the world economy will not simply revert to its state pre-coronavirus. America and other countries will want larger stockpiles of medical supplies and other critical goods, rather than relying on just-in-time supply chains that can be disrupted by crises; they will reexamine areas in which economic integration has made them uncomfortably if not unacceptably reliant on geopolitical competitors. Borders will probably remain harder and more restrictive than they were before the crisis began.

But there will also be countervailing tendencies, toward more globalization rather than less. If the United States pursues a degree of economic de-coupling from China, for example, it will need to increase its integration with friendly democracies if it hopes to save the efficiency and innovation that free trade and globalization foster. The counterpart to less globalization with one’s rivals, in other words, is more globalization with one’s friends. Here, again, there are opportunities for the transatlantic partnership—for example, to deepen cooperation on developing alternatives to Chinese 5G technology, as a way of avoiding dependence on a dangerous authoritarian power.

Finally, adversaries will need better ways of separating competition from cooperation. There is no doubt that the U.S.-China relationship is spiraling downward: The two countries are now eyeing each other not just as rivals but as potential enemies. Competition is not antithetical to a functioning international system: Indeed, America must vigorously contest unhealthy expressions of Chinese power, simply because an autocratic, predatory party-state can never lead a truly cooperative world order.

Yet there remain many transnational issues—of which the current pandemic is only one example—on which international cooperation is essential. And the chances of addressing those issues effectively will be minimal or nonexistent unless Washington and Beijing can find ways of segregating the various parts of their relationship—of pursuing cooperation in some areas even while struggling sharply in others.

With respect to curbing climate change, for instance, it would be a mistake to make geopolitical concessions to Beijing in hopes of winning Chinese cooperation on this issue. Yet it is hard to imagine any constructive agenda to address climate change that does not feature some Sino-American collaboration. Indeed, it is doubly important that the U.S. take positive action in this area, if only because so many of its European allies and friends view climate change as a defining, indeed existential, danger.

Fortunately, the task of compartmentalizing cooperation is not as hopeless as it may seem. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow carved out areas of cooperation within an unforgiving global struggle. Both countries had an interest in preventing the rampant spread of nuclear weapons, so both countries pressured their allies to join the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Both countries had an interest in eradicating smallpox, so they worked together to crush that disease.[10]

Admittedly, that latter episode also shows how tricky it is to cooperate with authoritarian regimes: The Soviets were simultaneously undertaking a secret campaign to weaponize smallpox as part of their extensive, undeclared bioweapons program.[11] So any cooperation with China will be limited and transactional and will come with the need for continued vigilance. The goal is an incremental improvement in addressing common dangers, not the transformation of a deeply competitive relationship.

Will pursuing a strategy based on these five principles reverse or negate the troubling tendencies that have emerged in international politics in recent years? Probably not. It seems like that the pandemic will cause great-power rivalry not simply to persist but to intensify. Resurgent authoritarianism will pose severe tests for America, its allies, and an international system that has increasingly come to reflect democratic values. International organizations will never be truly apolitical; they will continue to be arenas for competition as well as for collective action. America and its friends cannot close their eyes to the existence of a more challenging, more conflict-prone world.

What they ought to do, rather, is pursue a modestly better multilateralism—a strategy that accepts these constraints, that enhances the world’s capacity for meeting transnational threats, but that does not undermine America’s ability to simultaneously hold its own against dangerous geopolitical and ideological disruptions. That won’t lead to a transformed world. But it might lead to a slightly better one—and it is a goal that is actually achievable in an international environment that won’t become easier to navigate anytime soon.