Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Between Enemies and Adversaries: Winning the Battle against COVID-19 and the War for a Liberal World Order

As the nation navigates this pandemic, we would do well to remember who is an enemy and who is an adversary. China is not the enemy; COVID-19 is. China is, however, an adversary, which is a subtle, yet important difference, and the U.S. response to the pandemic would be wise to be clear about this distinction and the nuances.

An enemy is an entity you battle to vanquish. To utterly defeat. An adversary is a challenger or rival with whom you compete and possibly, if the situation entails, collaborate for mutual benefit. History can be instructive here. The Nazis in WWII were our enemies, their abiding philosophy of fascism, racial fanaticism, and inevitable territorial expansion was anathema to our own values of liberty, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence. The Soviet Union, at the time, was an ideological adversary, to be sure, but FDR along with Churchill were able to make common cause with them to defeat the Nazis. Though we will invariably continue to compete with China in the years and decades ahead, as we eventually did with the Soviets during the Cold War, we should make common cause with them now to defeat our common enemy—COVID-19—while at the same time continuing to demonstrate the superiority of our vision and values to the rest of the global community.

Our government can and should cooperate with its Chinese counterpart to address the many daunting dimensions of the pandemic—health, economic, logistical—to find common solutions. China represents a productive powerhouse that can crank out personal protective equipment and ventilators at a rate unequaled by most if not all other countries, but it should be accountable for the quality of the products they produce, some of which has been found to be faulty. Moreover, if the Chinese government is willing to donate these desperately-needed items to developing countries, we should encourage this and collaborate with them to ensure that these nations have the supplies and equipment needed to successfully tackle the immensity of the threat heading their way. But make no mistake, we should be right there with them, ensuring the production, quality, delivery, and use of these materials and making sure that the countries in question know who is unconditionally supporting them both during the crisis and after it passes.

This pandemic has brought us to a critical inflection point in world history. Many scholars and pundits have observed that the world will likely be fundamentally different in its wake. The ascension of democracies since the end of World War II and particularly since the end of the Cold War is under threat. A new model of smart, technocratic authoritarianism, spear-headed by the Chinese government, has challenged its primacy. Tragically, the current American leadership is the least equipped to deal with the present crisis than any administration in recent memory. It has bungled the response at every turn, failing to provide a coherent national strategy and shirking the international leadership that has been the hallmark of the U.S. in the post-Cold War world. And because of this vacuum, China has stepped into the void in our absence to push its philosophy and pursue its hegemony.

China now offers a competing vision of competence mixed with compliance. The Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine is in full swing, arguing that their autocratic system ensured a more effective, efficient response to the pandemic. But the CCP’s vision under Xi Jinping is an increasingly totalitarian one. Domestically, it is a vision of a surveillance state, controlled and manipulated by the government and reinforced through technology. Abroad, it is a surreptitious but expansionist power that extracts arm-and-a-leg concessions for aid and loans. The Chinese government always takes its pound of flesh, as they have in Ecuador, Sri Lanka, and numerous other countries. China is a state intolerant of criticism, freedom of expression, or freedom of religion that has sent at least one million of its own citizens to re-education camps in Xinjiang. This is not a philosophy that we in the democratic world should allow to go unchecked, but now is not the time for open conflict; now is the time for wary collaboration.

The United States, the once-undisputed leader of the New World Order in the wake of the Cold War, must again find its voice, its courage, and its humanity to help lead the world through this crisis. It must do so by collaborating with its traditional allies and cooperating with its erstwhile antagonists. The U.S. should become the arsenal of recovery, in particular for developing countries that will be hardest hit by the pandemic. We should mass-produce first the necessary supplies and later, once we have hopefully found it, the vaccine for the millions in the Global South who will invariably need our help. We should do this because it is the right and humane thing to do. Because democracies care about the well-being of people in other societies, be they under democratic or authoritarian rule. We should let our example do the talking. Show that our philosophy is superior economically, politically, and morally (as we did in the Cold War) by producing the needed supplies, giving them without condition, and doing it not for political gain but humanitarian gain. Because if we do not do this, the Chinese government will step into the leadership void and push their more cynical, less representative, and less humane vision of governance and society.

Our true foe right now—a spreading pandemic that threatens to take millions of lives around the world—is an enemy less tangible than China but no less real. And, as in past global crises, our nation is again hesitant to lend its considerable talents, expertise, and might to the rest of the world. We cannot and should not ignore the world around us. As with the Ebola response under President Obama, the U.S. can and should be at the vanguard of these efforts, planning and leading the response. We should offer generous aid packages to the rest of the world, knowing that this gift will be repaid to us many-fold in the future.

We should use our unrivaled military to provide logistical assistance, as we have in past crises. The U.S. may well want to consider a joint-Marshall Plan for healthcare in the developing world, along with its OECD allies. These are extraordinary times that demand an extraordinary response. Because mass infection in developing countries like India, Nigeria, and Brazil, in a hyper-connected world, begets reinfection in the developed world. We should fully fund the WHO, recognizing that for all of its many faults, it is an organization that saves lives and is uniquely positioned to coordinate a global response. And we should work with the Chinese government to help other countries, while recognizing that we will remain in a competition for ideas and hegemony that will pick up where it left off once the crisis has passed. This is how we win the battle against the pandemic and the war for democracy and liberal values.