For nearly a century, or at least three-quarters of one, the United States has embraced a leadership role in the international arena. From World War II well into the post-Cold War era, the US, as the primary architect of the world order, charted the global rules we are familiar with today. Notwithstanding several serious blotches – the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Iraq invasion (being some of the more glaring examples), the US has tried maintaining an international rules-based order in the world. Whether it always abided by its principles is a debate for another day. On the whole, the US has remained the most preeminent player in international politics.
It is perhaps the moments of crises that assesses best what leadership is made of. After all, it is in a storm that the mettle of the captain is tested. The coronavirus is one such crisis that requires the captain to steer the ship. Since the outbreak, the world has plunged into the chaos of some sorts, bringing life to a halt and economies to a decline, yet the global leader is nowhere to be seen.
Is US backtracking on pledges?
The US leadership initially remained dismissive of the virus and tried to downplay its severity. It was more concerned with why it should be called the Chinese or Wuhan virus. The US then leapt into a form of isolationism of its own, even taking measures as far and wide as the travel ban on twenty-six of its European compatriots.
To some extent, the US demonstrated a little generosity, but it was no match to the severity of the pandemic. The US delivered stretchers and medical supplies to the Italian province of Lombardy, where coronavirus struck hard. They also committed to sending 17 tonnes worth of medical equipment and an additional $100 million to China. Or at least they said they would.
However, in a puzzling reversal of events, the US modified the recipient of the $100 million in later statements, claiming the aid would go to other high-risk countries, as well as multilateral institutions like the WHO and the UNHCR. China did not receive a single dollar from the US and delivery of the pledged donations has remained largely invisible. The response of the US is in stark contrast to its proactive response in the outbreak of the Ebola virus. This illustrates that the traditional leadership role of the US has weakened in the great game of global influence.
— Voice of America (@VOANews) April 20, 2020
Truth is, the US has struggled to manage the outbreak within its borders and is on the path to becoming the most endemic country. The supreme leader of Iran said he would not accept if the US had help to offer. “Spend it on yourselves,” he said. This underscores that little expectations have been pinned on the US in assisting other countries in this pandemic.
China’s generous assistance
As the US is absent from its global role, there seems to be a new captain at the helm of affairs. China’s unprecedented public health response to the coronavirus epidemic and its leadership role is being hailed by the WHO as extraordinary, and rightfully so. China wasted no time in placing nearly sixty million people under lockdown in Hubei province alone. In under a week, China completed the construction of two new hospitals in Wuhan, the city at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak.
China’s global conscience has awakened because it either senses a power vacuum or because it is acting for the greater good of humanity. The optimist in me hopes for the latter. Through outbound investment and medical assistance, China has reached out to many countries, from Tanzania to Samoa to the Philippines.
— Ministry of Health, Ghana (@mohgovgh) April 6, 2020
Early on, the Chinese government pledged aid to as many as 82 countries, and dispatch after dispatch, China has sent planeloads of medical equipment, ranging from protection suits to surgical masks to test kits. It has sent medical advisory teams to countries like Laos and Italy. Aside from Chinese government efforts, Chinese philanthropists such as Jack Ma, and technological giants like Huawei, have chipped in relief efforts, particularly for countries hard-hit on the African continent. China has also extended full support to Pakistan, sending as many as 12,000 testing kits, 300,000 masks, and 10,000 protective suits. Overall, China’s contribution is being globally recognized.
US abdication of International leadership
For some, China cannot take a leadership role. They have been blamed for raising public health hazards for the rest of the world by reopening its wet markets, something that was pledged to have been closed following the outbreak of SARS. For others, China’s rise was a long time coming and has it has been predicted as a contender for global leadership, slowly inching the world towards multipolarity. Some believe China has displayed even more leadership abilities during this pandemic and is in a better position to captain the ship, a role long fulfilled by the US, in the past.
As China aspires to build its geopolitical clout, one wonders why the US is relinquishing many of its roles and responsibilities as a global leader. Perhaps, the US does so deliberately. From renouncing the Paris accord, abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the Trump Administration has unwound decades of US leadership. Could the response to the pandemic be yet another telling reminder that the US is abdicating its privileged position of leadership?
Should we ask ourselves, have we hit an inflexion point in the international system, where the US is weakening its traditional leadership role abroad at the same time that rising powers like China have proactively increased support for other nations. It is refreshing to see China take the wheel, and contribute to solving global problems, particularly when solidarity and cooperation is in short supply. And so, as the ship sways to and fro through the unsettling and vicious storm, we find ourselves all asking the same thing – who’s the captain of the post-pandemic world?
Maheen Ahmad is an Erasmus scholar currently associated with the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.