Midlife crisis in global relations exposed by COVID-19

The lack of significant cooperation on issues related to global health is worrying and dangerously damaging

  
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland June 16, 2021. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland June 16, 2021. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS

Since the emergence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the world has begun to realize that any organization or country that would like to harm another can simply create a virus such as this one and immediately paralyze the entire planet. This means governments worldwide have woken up to a new reality, in which they are totally unprotected against this form of global threat. This is why health security should become one of the highest priorities for security and defense policies around the world, parallel in importance to terrorism and arms control.

As one reflects on the national and global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the leading powers have all created their own vaccines. In addition, we can observe that global organizations are supporting some strategies and agendas for local, national, regional and global leaders. However, this is a very quiet and timid response to such a massive threat.

When we observe the US, the world’s leading power, for example, one can see that, with the exception of the public announcements regarding the vaccination plan, the Biden administration is not leading any kind of noteworthy global solutions campaign. It is also not dealing with the question of how the world can prepare for the next pandemic. The same goes for the EU. The world is waiting for some vision or suggestions regarding what we can do to increase global preparedness and avoid or tackle similar threats in the future.

In the first instance, this seems to be very negligent of the global leaders and it leaves people everywhere extremely vulnerable, especially while the question of the precise origin of the virus remains unanswered. On this issue, only partial evidence has been attained and we are yet to know the answer to the burning question of whether the creation of COVID-19 was perhaps intentional.

Global cooperation seems to be at an all-time low. For example, there are enormous inequalities in the availability of vaccines in poor countries compared to rich countries. The US and EU are internally divided, while the historical problem of a lack of cooperation between the superpowers — China and Russia on the one hand and the EU and the US on the other — is still there and is even growing.

For better or worse, there is a connection between good political and economic cooperation and efforts to find solutions to global health issues. It is clear that countries with close economic and political ties cooperate more with each other on a greater variety of issues — and the opposite is also true. Indeed, once you have problems in the fields of economics and politics, cooperation in the field of global health suffers. The growing tensions between China and the US make cooperation on issues such as COVID-19 an unfulfilled dream. This is one of the main reasons why the global governance institutions are failing to ensure the world’s preparedness plans for the next pandemic.

The last resort of kings has traditionally been war, while the first resort of leaders today should always be diplomacy and cooperation. This is especially the case now, when conflicts are dominating the international agenda and fragmentation is deepening within the countries of the West. Rifts between progressives and conservatives are weakening Western societies, while the growing power of Russia and China is adding to the precariousness of the current situation.

The world is once again facing the beginnings of a bipolar world and all its associated dangers. The problems of the past are influencing new issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of cooperating, defense agencies are very suspicious of other countries and feel that “the other side” is using global health as a weapon to influence others. Therefore, cooperation in this field is suffering.

The billions of dollars that Western societies are now paying out because of the pandemic is still just a fraction of what they will need to invest in the future to avoid similar cases. The cost of such investments is also much higher than the cost of programs that could have been initiated a long time ago to support sustainable development in Africa and other under-developed regions of the world, as well as programs that could bring Russia closer to the West.

The West is now in a vulnerable situation, with China emerging as the global superpower and Western nations seemingly at a loss as to how to respond. It won’t help to have another cold war between Russia and the US. It won’t help for the Democrats and Republicans to fight each other and block each other’s policies.

COVID-19 has revealed a midlife crisis in international relations, and the lesson learned is the same now as it was 20 or even 2,000 years ago: Cooperation and diplomacy are the cheapest and fastest solutions to every global challenge. In the current situation, where so many grave mistakes have been made and so many trillions lost, collaboration is the only way. The alternative is too damaging and too expensive to contemplate.

The biggest challenge today is to find some kind of sustainable way to bring together countries that have different political and societal systems and different cultures. Global health issues can serve as a basis for this cooperation — in other words, it can all start here.

  • Mark C. Donfried is director general at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
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