One of the puzzling aspects of the global Coronavirus pandemic has been the absence of an international accord to grapple with the greatest challenge since the Second World War.
After the global financial crisis of 2008-9, world leaders agreed to devise solutions – US presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy brought the world’s major economies together to work on a global solution using the strength of the G20.
This time, there has been little concerted action. The United Nations Security Council is once more toothless, strangled by the veto powers of the five permanent members -Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.
The G20 has been quiescent and even the G7 has been missing in action, other than a series of telephone calls by the current chairman, President Donald Trump.
The World Health Organisation has performed a clearing-house role, uttered brave statements and initiated a review into how the Coronavirus pandemic was handled – but has not demonstrated the sort of drive and energy displayed during the Ebola crisis.
Trump is the missing link.
Back in 2008, Bush and Obama recognised the US had to lead the world using all of its power and resources to prevent a great recession from becoming a great Depression. Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has denigrated the world’s leading multilateral forums, other than chatting amiably with Russia’s President Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Un Jong.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, former US diplomat and undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns says the US – throughout its history – has been fortunate to have visionary, charismatic leadership at times of great crisis. Among them: George Washington during the Revolution, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II.
“Trump, unfortunately, has not proved himself to be anywhere close to such a leader. His character drives him to divide rather than to unite at home.
“His ‘America first’ foreign policy instincts drive him to act alone in the world rather than in concert with others. He seems incapable of imagining that the United States might be made stronger and more effective by confronting a crisis in lockstep with its allies and partners.
“He has initiated no significant international action. And he has dramatically weakened many of the federal agencies that would normally lead the global response to such a crisis: the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense which he very unwisely disbanded in 2018.
“Is it any wonder that the institutions of government he routinely derides, and has starved for funds and leadership, would prove so catastrophically unprepared?”
Burns suggests Trump still has time. He should call together a G-20 leaders’ steering group to focus on the health and economic challenges ahead. Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to start, should begin meetings via teleconference to discuss how to blunt both the health and economic impacts.
This leadership group should meet weekly if necessary, to assess progress and resolve the inevitable disputes and misunderstandings of such a massive global undertaking.
They should appoint and empower trusted senior cabinet-level officials to meet daily to identify the roadblocks in the international response; to resolve practical problems impeding relief efforts; and to partner on long-term plans that can ultimately bring the crisis to an end.
Any other recent American president would have confronted the crisis much more urgently from the start.
The priority would have been at home, of course. But both Obama and Bush, like many presidents before them, would have also understood the need for an all-out global effort, led by the United States and its allies, to confront the threat together. It is not too late, Burns says.
All very well, but over the last month the Administration in Washington DC has fired broadside after broadside at China, from the head of the FBI to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from human rights, to Hong Kong, espionage and intellectual theft (with a couple of convenient court cases). Trump himself has categorised the Covid-19 virus variously as “kung flu” or “Wuhan Flu” – none of which endears him to Beijing.