Coronavirus: Global giants stumble while agile nations inspire
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Coronavirus: Global giants stumble while agile nations inspire

Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove writes on the ways COVID-19 will alter some of the patterns of international life. Originally published in The Australian.

We don’t know what will happen next with the coronavirus pandemic. We can’t predict which way the curve will bend in the future. We can only see through a glass, darkly.


But we do know that COVID-19 will alter some of the patterns of international life. Even now, when we are still at the start of this thing, we can discern some changes.


First, the nation is back. This is a global crisis, but we have all turned inwards, not outwards. We are tuning in to speeches by our national leaders. We are resolving to make things for ourselves, in our own countries. We are changing some aspects of our national politics – for example, the establishment of a national cabinet here in Australia – in ways that will have lasting effects.


Second, the state is back. Governments are intervening in national economies and central banks are wading into financial markets. Conservative politicians in Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere are introducing extensive new payments to their citizens. Companies may be nationalised. Government debt is up; individual liberties are down, in some countries at least. Emergency powers are being instituted that will survive the current emergency.


Third, Davos Man has coronavirus. Globalisation has lost its gloss. Borders are closed and travel is banned. The dream of European integration has been dented. The World Health Organization has been compromised. No one is looking to the United Nations headquarters in New York for solutions – or for hope.


And yet, international cooperation has never been more important. None of humanity’s greatest problems are susceptible to purely national solutions.


We all sense this. Never before have we been so alert to best practice and policy innovation abroad, whether it is a testing program or an economic stimulus. We are all looking to learn lessons from other countries.


A vaccine will not be found without international scientific cooperation. International travel cannot restart without new protocols. A financial crisis of some kind is inevitable without effective international coordination.


Fifth, the United States, which was already self-isolating under the presidency of Donald Trump, is now seriously unwell.


The world is facing a global health crisis and a global economic crisis, and our last line of defence is The Donald.


Forget global leadership: Washington’s response to the virus has been hopeless. The President has flailed around: slow to act, inconsistent and self-absorbed. The White House now estimates that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans may die; some expert estimates are much higher than this. Vice President Mike Pence has compared the US trajectory to that of Italy.


We are accustomed to the United States being the epicentre of global power, not the epicentre of global disease. In November’s presidential election, the United States will either course-correct or crash.


Sixth, China has also tested positive. Don’t believe Beijing’s propaganda. The same authoritarian system that checked the spread of the virus was also responsible for covering it up for months and allowing it to disperse from Wuhan to the world. The baroque lies being told by party officials – the US military invented corona! – reveal the anxiety in Zhongnanhai. Once the world saw China as a source of capital, labour and innovation. Now it is a source of sickness.


When the crisis is finally over, with armies of dead and a battered global economy, does anyone believe China will go blameless?


Seventh, if the US and China are both unwell, Europe is in intensive care. Even before this crisis, Europe had been weakened by financial crises and Middle Eastern wars. When European leaders came upon an unpleasant scene they were, like the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, content to pass by on the other side.


The devastation wrought by corona in the heart of Europe is shocking. This experience has undermined Europe’s coherence and exposed its frailties as a global player. It is sad to see some European leaders toadying to Beijing.


Eighth, corona will make the poor poorer. Social distancing is largely a prerogative of the rich. Most citizens of the global south can’t work from home and don’t have clean water to wash their hands, so the virus will probably spread widely. Underfunded health systems may be overwhelmed. The public finances of many developing states are also weak. Without international assistance, they will be in trouble.


Ninth, the climate will continue to change. The radical measures taken by national governments to ‘flatten the curve’ – including emptying out cities and stripping aeroplanes from the sky – will reduce carbon emissions. But governments are already straining to unpick those restrictions; when they do, emissions will snap back. The difficulty of imposing social distancing in many countries must also undermine confidence that the world will take collective action in response to climate change – an issue that is just as important as COVID-19, but less urgent.


The final point is a positive one. Leadership and inspiration in this crisis have come from countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. The coronavirus performance of the superpowers has been unimpressive; but smaller, more agile countries, with rational politicians and effective bureaucracies, have done better.


Middle powers such as Australia have an interest in supporting international health, security and prosperity, and capability to do so. Perhaps in the future we will see more coalitions of the competent.


Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions