By Sam Gibson, Transatlantic Analyst
Apart from exacting disastrous economic, political, and human costs, the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated transatlantic tensions and thrown into question the global preeminence of the transatlantic community’s leadership. While countries across the world have struggled to manage the virus, Europe and the United States have fumbled in their responses to the escalating pandemic. Worse still, the virus itself has compounded existing tensions in the partnership, sowing distrust and making cooperation and collaboration among neighbors and allies more difficult. The virus has also called into question the capacity of Western-style democracies to cope with challenges like the coronavirus. Rather than letting this crisis contribute to further transatlantic drifting and decoupling, leaders and policymakers should use this as an opportunity to establish new linkages for cooperation and reimagine the domain and scope of global, multilateral cooperation and global public health.
The novel coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, have irrevocably altered the ways that states and governments engage with public health, with political and economic policy, and with one another. The disease first emerged in the Wuhan region of China, spreading rapidly despite the Chinese government adopting aggressive measures to contain it. Global cases are nearing seven million, with over 400,000 deaths. Cases in the United States currently sit at over two million with over 100,000 recorded deaths and no clear indication of declining case growth. While some countries appear to have weathered the worst of the curve, such as New Zealand, others – such as Brazil and Haiti, whose governments have struggled to cope or outright ignored the dangers of the pandemic – face an escalating catastrophe.
The crisis has also wreaked economic havoc across the world. Unemployment in the United States has skyrocketed to historic levels while a divided federal government has bickered over how to respond. In Europe, the crisis has imperiled already weak economies and reignited old tensions and battle lines about fiscal support to struggling, indebted member states. All of this threatens to undo the hard-fought, slow recovery of the Eurozone and European Union member states’ economies. Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission and titan of European politics, warned of the “mortal danger” that the virus crisis poses to the Union should EU leaders be unable to act together to stave off economic ruin.
The virus has not only presented major challenges to national governments and the European Union, but has also strained cooperation among allies – especially among the transatlantic community and alliance. Early on in the crisis, President Trump’s unilateral declaration of a travel ban on flights emanating from Europe irked his allies, who apparently had not been consulted prior to the announcement. Trump lobbed accusations against European governments over their perceived mishandling of the virus and criticized the EU for “fail[ing] to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China.” Trump’s scapegoating of the European Union as a “boogeyman” for the virus earned him the scorn and ire of European leaders, who saw in it a bald-faced attempt to deflect blame for an escalating crisis at home. Perhaps most egregiously, stories emerged that alleged the Trump administration had attempted to poach the exclusive rights to a possible vaccine from a German company. While the facts of these stories were not officially confirmed, the attention and outrage they provoked among Europeans are emblematic of wider “transatlantic distrust” that characterizes the current moment.
For their part, European governments’ hasty decisions to shut borders with their neighbors has put the future and viability of the freedom of travel into question. The EU stumbled haltingly toward collective action, with the more frugal member states (the Netherlands, Sweden, etc.) dragging their feet on sorely-needed EU-level stimulus and debt relief initiatives. The EU has also levelled criticism against the US decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization over perceived Chinese bias and alleged improprieties in reporting. French President Emmanuel Macron, in calling for collective action, called the coronavirus Europe’s “moment of truth” – rhetoric that echoes and recalls his very public project and ambition to secure European sovereignty and independence – with an eye to China and Russia, but also the United States. While the US response has not inspired confidence, the European response to the virus has also cast doubt on the bloc’s international leadership capacity.
In all, the coronavirus crisis has resulted not only in economic devastation, political chaos, and incalculable human costs, but also the further exacerbation of transatlantic tensions and a breakdown of global multilateral cooperation. To move forward from this crisis in any meaningful fashion, policymakers will have to find creative solutions to the long-lasting and devastating effects this virus has already caused.
It is clear that the coronavirus crisis and its ensuing economic and political implications have already exacerbated transatlantic tensions. The coronavirus crisis may further contribute to decoupling between the US and Europe, as US diplomatic, scientific, and political leadership is called into question. European leaders and audiences have watched as the US administration flirts with pseudoscience, downplays the severity of the virus, and viciously scapegoats foreign governments as it seeks to manage the soaring case load in the country. The evasive and defensive posture of the US government hardly inspires confidence for European and international audiences coping with an unprecedented global disaster and in desperate need of confident leadership and sustained cooperation. The Chinese government’s apparent success in stemming the growth of the virus has also lent credence to its strong, centralized state apparatuses, throwing doubt on the ability of pluralistic, open, and largely transparent societies to cope with a crisis like the coronavirus – which may necessitate decisive and drastic government action.
At the same time, alternatives may be arising for Europe. China has made moves to boost its image and reputation in Europe as a responsible global power, delivering shipments of masks, ventilators, and sorely-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to virus-stricken European countries. China has also dispatched teams of doctors to Italy and other countries. China’s so-called “mask diplomacy” – projecting its soft power as a capable, dependably global player – has shortcomings however. Many shipments of PPE turned out to be faulty and for all of the press attention they received, they overshadowed real, material support sourced from other countries; namely fellow European member states.
While global, multilateral cooperation appears to have collapsed, the populist leadership of the United States has discredited itself as it has proven unable to respond to the very real, undeniable, scientific crisis it faces. The virus will necessitate further cooperation across multiple levels of governance, a high degree of creativity, and a renewed commitment to the transatlantic partnership.
1. Transatlantic PPE sourcing and virus research
Absent decisive national leadership, European countries and US states should collaborate on sourcing badly-needed PPE to the extent possible. The European Commission already adopted such a scheme to tackle the overlapping and shared need to source PPE to combat the coronavirus. The procurement plans put forward by the Commission allowed certain European states to avoid the shortage that struck the UK. A transatlantic scheme in the future could yield similar successes. In a New York Times opinion piece, historian Jamie Martin argued for such a step, proposing that countries should empower international institutions to pool resources and create a networked supply system similar to what was done by the Allies during World War I. In a similar vein, transatlantic research should be facilitated and supported, rather than letting research into the virus and a potential vaccine be bogged down by borders, distrust, or legal and logistical challenges.
2. Reimagine global multilateral public health
While the US decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization was criticized across the European continent and the world, the coronavirus crisis may offer a rare chance to reimagine global public health. The WHO’s controversial decisions in reporting and releasing COVID-19 information, and perceived bias toward the Chinese government, has not gone entirely unnoticed in Europe. Rather than merely levying criticism against the United States for its withdrawal of funding, European governments should use this opportunity to push for reform and imaginative new approaches to global public health and multilateral governance. Such reform can address American concerns about Chinese influence in the WHO without sacrificing international institutions outright. Some have suggested overhauling the WHO’s governance and legal structures and mechanisms, for instance, to provide better oversight and leadership. Moreover, as largely open, transparent societies, the United States and Europe face similar challenges in addressing public health crises – challenges not necessarily shared by China, Russia, or others. The transatlantic community should become an engine and laboratory for creative solutions on how open, democratic societies can meet the public health challenges of the future. The model of open democracies and liberal societies can be upheld and reaffirmed through renewed, imaginative partnerships and cooperation.
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