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Coronavirus: A vacuum of global leadership

The United States has historically taken a lead during international crises

17 min read

International cooperation has been found wanting in a time of global pandemic. With the United States retreating from its leadership role, and countries gripped by domestic health concerns, who can take control? Sebastian Whale reports

Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, was the first to raise the alarm. He had noticed cases of a virus that had symptoms akin to those seen in the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS. 

On 30 December 2019, Wenliang messaged fellow doctors in a group chat about the virus. He advised his colleagues that they must wear protective clothing to avoid getting infected themselves. 

Wenliang was made to sign a letter in the Public Security Bureau four days later in which he was accused of making false comments that had “severely disturbed the social order”. “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice – is that understood?” the letter said. Wenliang signed: “Yes, I do.” He was one of eight people being investigated by Chinese police for spreading rumours.

On the final day of 2019, the Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organisation to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province with a population of 11 million people. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where many cases originated, was closed on New Year’s Day. A recurrence of SARS, which killed more than 770 people between 2002 and 2003, was later ruled out. On 7 January, the WHO announced that a new virus had been identified, 2019-nCoV. A 61-year-old man was the first confirmed death from Covid-19, the disease that develops from the virus. He had died of heart failure on the evening of 9 January.

WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak

The first case outside of China was reported in Thailand on 13 January. Over subsequent days, the US, Nepal, France, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan also confirmed instances of coronavirus.

Wuhan, Xiantao and Chibi, three cities within the Hubei province, were placed under effective quarantine on 23 January. Though a Chinese expert confirmed human-to-human transmission, the WHO said the outbreak did not yet amount to an international emergency, and said there was no evidence the virus was spreading between humans outside of China. Officials in Wuhan had initially insisted that only those who came into contact with infected animals could catch the virus.

A week later, the messaging changed. The death toll in China had risen to 170, with more than 7,700 reported cases in 31 provinces. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, announced a global emergency. “This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” he said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

New cases were confirmed in India, Philippines, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan and the UAE. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who had since contracted the virus, died aged 34. “We profoundly regret and mourn this death,” the Wuhan City central hospital said in a statement.

On 11 March, the WHO declared the outbreak a global pandemic. More than 200 countries have now reported cases of coronavirus.

The ruling Communist Party of China has come in for heavy criticism. Many accuse the country of seeking to cover up the extent of the outbreak by failing to report early cases and underreporting the number of those who have died or were infected.

The WHO, a UN agency, has also faced questions about its handling of the crisis, with critics arguing it was too deferential to the Chinese early on. “The Chinese are just trying to pretend it’s nothing to do with them and the World Health Organisation is too close to the Chinese,” says Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London.

Right from its inception, the crisis has illustrated a profound lack of international cooperation. While this was illustrated by China’s propensity to cover up the truth, subsequent decisions taken by institutions and the countries that comprise them have left a vacuum of leadership. A global health crisis has been met with national, not international, responses.

In November 2008, George Robertson, the former secretary general of Nato, and the late Paddy Ashdown published an interim report on national security in the 21st Century. Titled ‘Shared Destinies: security in a globalised world’, the IPPR report recommended the creation of a National Security Council, an idea adopted later by David Cameron. 

On page 88 of the document, Robertson and Ashdown reviewed the risk of pandemic disease. “The UK must expect and be ready to deal with this in the years ahead,” they wrote. It cited a Cabinet Office report of August of that year, which set out a National Risk Register. “Topping this list was the threat of pandemic influenza, both in terms of relative likelihood and relative impact,” they noted.  

A study by the Department of Health, cited in the report, warned that a pandemic influenza could infect up to half of the UK population, and cause between 50,000 and 750,000 deaths over and above the usual mortality rate. “Acute Respiratory Infections… are considered to be particularly damaging in terms of public health impact because not only are they fast-moving and highly infectious, but many carriers of ARIs do not develop symptoms severe enough to be reported to local health authorities, allowing extensive and undetected transmission in a very short time period,” Robertson and Ashdown wrote.

They concluded: “It is clear that global and national health security policy must be afforded elevated status by policymakers concerned with security and public safety.”

One of the worrying things at the moment is that there is so little international cooperation

Lord Robertson, who describes the report as “quite prescient”, says not much attention was paid to the section on pandemics. “We were not alone. This report of ours led to David Cameron’s government introducing the idea of a National Security Council. They lifted that bit of our report straight out and implemented it, while other bits were ignored,” he says.

“What we were talking about were recommendations that had not only to do with the domestic situation, but also the international situation,” Lord Robertson continues.

“One of the worrying things at the moment is that there is so little international cooperation. The financial crisis of 2008 led the G20 to take pretty immediate collective action. We saved the international financial situation. But that simply isn’t happening this time.”

The financial crisis prompted the finest moment of Gordon Brown’s premiership, as he corralled global leaders to take action by recapitalising their banks. This was no mean feat, given the initial reaction of many of his contemporaries. “It’s up to each country to clean up its own shit,” Angela Merkel was reported as saying at a Paris summit.

Though no two economies are the same, an international solution was agreed to the financial crash. For some, this coordinating effort can and must be emulated to deal with the current crisis. Brown himself, along with more than 100 former presidents and prime ministers, recently called for a G20 taskforce to help coordinate the international response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

But Lord Ricketts, the UK’s former National Security Advisor and an ex-ambassador to France, draws a distinction between the events. “The two are different in the sense that a global financial crisis was very much one where either the global banking system took action together, central banks acted together, or the whole thing would have collapsed,” he says. “A health crisis can be a more zero-sum crisis, in the sense that if you have more ventilators and somebody else has less, you’re not going to necessarily want to share them because you don’t want more of your own people dying. So there’s a finite resource of incredibly precious things, which, therefore, becomes more zero-sum.”

As a result, there is more risk of “protectionist reactions” than in a financial crisis, “where either everybody cooperated together or everybody suffered together”, he continues. “A pandemic makes international cooperation more difficult… but, at the same time, more necessary because viruses know no boundaries. That’s the central dilemma.”

What we’re seeing is really the result of the lack of American leadership

For many international crises in the past, the world has looked to the United States of America for leadership. George W Bush launched the President’s Malaria Initiative in 2005, which in 2017 was reported by the New York Times as having saved the lives of nearly two million children in Africa. In the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Barack Obama deployed troops and medical personnel to affected countries, which included Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. 

“This time, not only did [America] not provide leadership for the US itself, but it didn’t provide global leadership,” says Elisabeth Braw, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “It has been a disjointed response and I think what we’re seeing is really the result of the lack of American leadership.”

Donald Trump has shown little interest in taking on the mantle. Instead, the US president has periodically referred to the disease as the “Chinese virus”. After the first confirmed case in the US emerged on 20 January, he appeared to underplay the situation by saying “we have it totally under control”. After seeing the US stock market collapse, he said easing lockdown measures by Easter would be a “beautiful timeline”. The United States now has the highest number of cases and recorded deaths of any country from coronavirus.

In place of global leadership, Trump has often sought to wage war with the American media and leaders at state level who critique the federal government’s response.

“We’re used to the Americans coming forward; they’ve got the resources, they’ve got the science, they’ve got the international networks, they’re the ones who historically have dealt with this,” says Sir Lawrence Freedman. “Trump clearly has no interest whatsoever. Also, he has no credibility. So, it’s pretty poor.” 

He adds: “Most people are just hoping that… Biden replaces Trump in November and we can have a proper American administration again.”

Baroness Joyce Anelay, a Conservative peer and former Foriegn Office minister who chairs the International Relations Committee in the Lords, says “there were already signs of concern” pre-Trump. “I’ve been concerned by the way in which they’ve gone back to a pre-Second World War view of being detached from internationalism. It’s not just Trump, he says it very clearly, but it’s not just him,” she says.

In recent days, Donald Trump announced a halt in funding for the WHO, which he argued had “failed in its basic duty” in responding to the crisis. Previously, he had claimed the organisation was too “China centric”. Bill Gates, a major funder for the organisation, said the move was “as dangerous as it sounds”.

While American leadership retreats, China has tried to fill the void. Chinese companies have been selling protective equipment such as face masks to European countries. In March, it emerged that thousands of these devices were below standard or defective, according to Spanish, Turkish and Dutch authorities. 

Most notably, China was on hand to help the Italians, who had suffered the worst initial outbreak in Europe. Russia too sent across military doctors and nurses to help with the response in Italy. Elisabeth Braw argues the countries took advantage of the “selfishness” illustrated by EU member states.  “Not a single [EU] country felt like doing the right thing. They were all concerned about coronavirus spreading in their own countries… That was a stupid mistake which has cost the EU so much credibility,” she says.

“China stepped in and essentially signed a commercial deal with Italy and then presented itself as a good samaritan, which was really extremely disingenuous,” she continues. “Whatever we think of US actions in the past, what China is doing is definitely not the positive role that the US has played in crises.”

The failure of EU member states to lend assistance at Italy’s hour of need could have geopolitical ramifications. “China and Russia both are interested in undermining Nato and the European Union. Their focus is different but they want a weaker West,” says Braw. “Italy is a founding member of Nato, a founding member of the European Union, a key member of both of those organisations or alliances, and for Italy now to essentially develop more affection for Russia and China, that is a very dangerous situation.”

To avoid a repeat, Braw advocates a strengthening of EU institutions to compel countries to act. “The European Commission, I think, should have many more executive powers – not on a day-to-day basis – but in a crisis it should be able to tell member states what to do so that they don’t revert to this instinctive, impulsive selfishness.”

She adds: “The reality is the world needs stronger global organisations if we’re not going to have the US take the lead and essentially get other countries behind it in doing what’s right in crises like these. Who is going to do it? Not the WHO, not Nato, and certainly not the European Union in its current set up.”

The UK Government too was accused of damaging self-interest, with charges laid of prioritising Brexit over the nation’s health after officials initially said Britain would not participate in an EU joint procurement scheme to purchase ventilators and other equipment necessary for treating coronavirus. The UK missed the deadline to join, with the Government arguing it did not receive an invitation from the European Commission in time. “That is a real issue that needs real scrutiny when Parliament is back,” notes national security expert Lord Ricketts. 

Concerns are now growing about an outbreak in other continents, and the geopolitical opportunities that will present for Russia and China. Speaking to me in March, Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Defence select committee, sounded alarm about the virus spreading to countries in Africa. “What happens when those countries [ have an outbreak]? Does Britain step in as we have done in the past as when Ebola struck? How is that going to work? If we don’t, then other countries might.”

One of the unique attributes of the pandemic is that some leaders have, at various points, been temporarily incapacitated or restricted. Justin Trudeau, the Candian prime minister, was forced to self-isolate after his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, contracted coronavirus after an event in London. Most notably, Boris Johnson spent three nights in intensive care after testing positive for Covid-19. He is recovering at Chequers, the countryside residence of the Prime Minister.

At a global level, there are calls for the UK to take up the space left behind by the United States. “I believe we should,” says Lord Robertson, the former Nato general secretary. “One of the things we do well as a country is our convening power, bringing people together. Lancaster House agreements have almost become a trademark. We should be taking a lead. Now that we’re in the eye of the storm here, all the more reason for why we should say ‘let’s learn from this and deal with it internationally.’”

Baroness Anelay agrees that the UK should take the initiative. “[The UK] has a lot of respect around the world, the Foreign Office diplomats have very good relationships around the world… There is a huge experience here that can be used to show how you can work for the future once, of course, everyone has got to the point of being able to get through the pandemic.” 

Nationalists and populists have enjoyed their fair share of electoral success in the years following the financial crash. But from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro, the leaders who have thrived in the aftermath of that unprecedented global crisis are now facing one of their own. The future shape of international co-operation could depend largely on whether these leaders and their ideologies emerge from the crisis strengthened or weakened. 

This crisis is going to put more emphasis back on competence, experts, good governance, and less on populism and campaigning and policy by slogan

“I don’t think it’s been good for the populists,” says Sir Lawrence Freedman. “A lot of them have handled it badly… In response to our politicians, the more technocratic types like [Rishi] Sunak and [Matt] Hancock have come over better and more credible because they’re on top of the numbers. You want to know details.”

Baroness Anelay says: “If you are in a world where nothing seems safe, you can actually then reflect and think, ‘I want something that I’m familiar with’. People who wear suits, whether they’re male or female, may, therefore, appear to be the ones you’re going to trust if you stick to their principles.”

“The impact on populism is going to be important,” Lord Ricketts adds. “This is a crisis about governing, a crisis about mobilising the whole of society to deal with this. And so this crisis is going to put more emphasis back on competence, experts, good governance, and less on populism and campaigning and policy by slogan.”

But with states around the world tightening or closing borders and deploying draconian powers, he fears the crisis could also entrench “nationalist urges”, and strengthen those who argue “that you’re better off looking after your own country and protecting what you can do for your own citizens rather than sharing it”. 

“That is a real risk,” he says. “I think that’s the wrong conclusion. But it may take some time to persuade people that the right conclusion from this crisis is more cooperation, not less.” 

All of which will pose tough questions for international organisations that have been found wanting by this crisis, he adds. “How that is adjusted and wound back as the pandemic crisis eases is a real question. Does the state hang on to a lot of extra powers over its citizens? Does this weaken international organisations which seem to have been hopeless at the moment of extreme crisis? I think that is the wrong conclusion, but you may need to investigate and invent new forms of international cooperation to take account of the lessons we have learned.”

However this crisis develops, there is a broad agreement that the international bodies created in the aftermath of the Second World War – including the UN and Nato – are long overdue a revamp to make them relevant to the modern world.

Lord Robertson says new protocols must be established urgently: “If this pandemic had been created as a consequence of malicious action, rather than by nature, then what are the rules? How do we deal with this? We need to step up and we need either to create new institutions or revitalise a lot of the existing organisations.” 

Baroness Anelay says reform can only be achieved if there is “international will”. “The UN has been talking about its need to reform over many years and it’s done some back office reforms. But it’s always come up against the unwillingness of the superpowers,” she says, adding that the current Security Council set up – whereby permanent seats are guaranteed for the Big Five of the UK, the US, France, China and Russia – no longer reflects the multi-polar world. 

Many experts hope that as countries deal with the domestic outbreaks of coronavirus, they will then come together to form a global response and learn the lessons from the pandemic. “The next horror coming down the line, the international system needs to be better organised for it, but it’s not by [implementing] nationalist policies that we can do that,” says Lord Ricketts.

While there has been little by way of international leaders acting multilaterally, behind the scenes officials are said to be sharing key scientific and medical data. “Those sort of networks I’m sure are very active,” says Lord Ricketts. “At the level of the experts, there will be lots of international cooperation.”

Contrastingly, the profound lack of international cooperation at a political level has shown how much the world has changed in a comparatively short period of time since the financial crisis. For many who value the fundamental tenets of internationalism, or cling to hope that countries will unite after a period of unprecedented crisis, these are nervous times. 

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