Ever since the rise and consolidation of nation-states in the late 17th century, international affairs have been dominated by rivalries among the great powers of the day. For much of this era that competition was between European powers, notably Britain, France, Germany and Russia. By the mid-20th century, contests between the United States and Russia (Soviet Union) and now China have become the central themes. But the current pandemic underlines a profound change that has been gathering force over the last few decades — the growing potency of threats that are international and global. Call them transnational.
Throughout history, the one true transnational threat was disease, from the recurring scourge of bubonic plague to smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera and malaria. Natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were local or regional events. A massive seismic disaster might strike central Asia in the 1500s and Europeans would hear of it months or even years later. News traveled slowly and people even more so. If you were a European villager in the Middle Ages, you would probably live your entire life without leaving your community except, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to a nearby religious shrine.
Contrast this with the world we now know capsulized in the term globalization. Commerce is international, not just autos or soybeans, but everything from toys, to wine, to avocados. Information moves instantaneously across borders and oceans. People travel constantly, including to what were once considered remote, exotic and even inaccessible places. The movement of people is not confined to international air travel. Tens and hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees are on the move seeking a better life somewhere else away from conflict, abuse and poverty. Many of them are seeking an imagined Shangri-La — Europe. They come from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Near East, North Africa, Eritrea and beyond. In the Western Hemisphere, the Shangri-La is America, and they travel north attempting to enter California or Arizona.
The most profound and far-reaching changes are occurring in physical processes that sustain life — climate and the composition of the atmosphere. As the planet heats up at an accelerating rate, one of the effects is on agriculture and fisheries. The very food supply that sustains large human populations is now under threat as droughts and floods destroy once productive farmland. One recent study indicates that 30 percent or more of the world’s population will find themselves living in regions that have become too hot for human habitation without pervasive air-conditioning. Don’t expect those people to sit quietly and suffer and die. They will start to move, and they will know where they want to go because modern media have provided them with visions of a far better life in Britain and Florida. If modern travel and transport have knit the world together, cyber/digital technologies have made far-flung places intimately knowable. At the same time relentless human pressure on natural areas, including the daily despoliation of the Amazon rain forest, will release hitherto unknown pathogens into human communities. COVID-19 follows several precursors including SARS, MERS, Ebola and others. We can be sure that more are coming; pandemics that were once terrible and rare are becoming terrible and common.
What does all this mean for international affairs and foreign policy? An obvious response is to match new transnational challenges with transnational remedies. We already have an array of international institutions that were created to manage just these sorts of challenge. They include the financial entities like the IMF and World Bank established to manage stresses on the international economy. They include the World Health Organization, which was created, in part, to respond to international epidemics. The list includes international refugee organizations, the World Food Program and many others — all buttressed by a plethora of nongovernmental charitable organizations that have arisen over recent decades — think Doctors Without Borders. In the case of climate change, a special purpose vehicle was created by international agreement in the form of the Paris Climate Accords. An intelligent, pragmatic reaction to the rise of transnational threats would be to greatly strengthen these institutions to enable an effective international response in the form of coordinated international programs — many of them on a massive scale to match the magnitude of the challenge. In recent days, we have seen Europe initiate an international effort to coordinate and fund the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. This week, the WTO convened a virtual assembly of 194 countries to strengthen responses to the pandemic.
In an alternate universe, we would imagine and expect the United States to be leading all these initiatives — and the world would expect exactly that. But none of this is happening. The current administration has taken U.S. policy in a radically different direction. Instead of joining the international effort to develop a vaccine, the United States has boycotted the program. Instead of increased support for the WTO, the United States has cut its existing funding. [China has pledged $2 billion to the WTO in a deliberate contrast]. U.S. borders have been closed and military budgets ramped up. None of this helps control the pandemic. Nevertheless, if a U.S. go-it-alone approach reflected a clearly thought-out strategy and, if the resulting programs were well-led and scientifically informed, we could imagine the United States producing benefits both for itself and the planet as a whole.
But this is not happening either. Instead, we have had from the White House a graphic display of chaos, incompetence and confusion — matched with presidential bravado, boasts, misinformation and outright lies. It is not at all pretty — and there is a price to be paid. The price is a rapid diminution in international respect for America and, with it, international capabilities to marshal resources and expertise at a time when both are desperately needed in this new era of transnational threats.