Column: The pandemic makes the world more dangerous

Construction by China at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is a source of regional dispute.
Construction by China at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is a source of regional dispute.
(Philippine armed forces)

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 202,000 lives and thrown the global economy into chaos.

It’s making the world more dangerous, too.

In the Middle East, Iranian gunboats have harassed U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, and Iranian-backed militias have attacked U.S. bases in Iraq.

In the race to get masks, other medical equipment from China to combat the coronavirus, competitors outpaced the U.S., which lacked a coordinated plan.

April 23, 2020


In Asia, China has continued its drive to take control of the South China Sea, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and sending an oil survey ship into Malaysian waters.

North Korea, which hates to be overlooked, has fired off missiles and remained strangely silent about rumors that its leader, Kim Jong Un, was dead or dying.

Even Russia, with its own surge of coronavirus cases, has resumed buzzing U.S. and NATO aircraft over the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.

“You’re definitely seeing a time when these countries see an opening to do things that we would normally combat instantly — both rhetorically and perhaps militarily — when we’re off-balance,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.

“I’m sure they all consider us not only distracted, but militarily less adroit right now than we normally would be,” he said in a recent podcast.

Not surprisingly, Trump administration officials insist they’re not distracted, although the nation’s medical and economic catastrophes have understandably taken most of their attention.


President Trump responded to Iran’s recent actions with a bellicose tweet, saying he had instructed the Navy “to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”

Pentagon officials said a tweet is not an order, and they have not changed their rules of engagement, which allow U.S. ships to fire in self-defense.

The Navy said it sent three warships into the South China Sea to reinforce freedom of navigation, a long-standing Pentagon mission in the resource-rich, strategically crucial region.

But only one country has an aircraft carrier operating in the western Pacific now, and it’s China. The two U.S. carriers in the region were confined to port after crew members were stricken with COVID-19: the Theodore Roosevelt in Guam and the Ronald Reagan in Japan.

With the contagion spreading on land and sea, the economy in free fall and unrelenting chaos in the White House, why would anyone be distracted?

The long-term effects of the pandemic look even more alarming: a global depression that could persist for years, more failed states and unremitting big-power competition.

China has been trying to win friends and escape blame for the novel coronavirus’ origin by doling out aid and medical supplies in an effort so heavy-handed it has created a backlash in some countries.

But don’t take any comfort in that. America’s shambolic response to the crisis has put a huge dent in our global image as a competent cutting-edge nation.

The United States and China “are two extremes, neither of which can be a model for Europe,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told local reporters, an extraordinary statement from a U.S. ally that American democracy looks no better than Chinese authoritarianism.

Now add one more problem: a global leadership vacuum. Unlike during most major international crises of the postwar world, this time the U.S. president has gone missing.

“This is the first post-American crisis of our time. There’s no U.S. leadership,” Thomas C. Wright, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, told me. “The administration isn’t engaging with its allies except to worry about whether China is making gains.”

Normally the Group of 7 big industrial democracies would coordinate solutions to the pandemic and efforts to speed an economic recovery.

But under this year’s G-7 chairman, one Donald J. Trump, that’s not happening.

The president has held two video meetings with his G-7 colleagues — but he’s been the odd man out, asking the others to join him in calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” and saying he would halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. They declined.

If our battle with COVID-19 lasts much longer, our economy will likely recover more slowly than those of South Korea, Japan or Germany, all of which have managed the pandemic more successfully.

And in a global recession compounded by mounting disorder, everybody loses.

“The longer the pandemic goes on, the more the world will change,” Wright warned. “The real risk is that a long crisis will eviscerate international cooperation … and leave a more anarchic world.”

How bad can it get? Foreign policy scholars compare this moment to two critical periods in the last century.

After World War II ended in 1945, the United States, the only major power with its economy intact, led a massive recovery effort, producing decades of relative peace and prosperity not only for itself and its European allies, but for its defeated enemies, Germany and Japan.

After World War I ended in 1918, with an influenza pandemic similar to the coronavirus, no joint recovery effort was launched. Nations went their own way, embracing nationalist politics and protectionist economics, and the next global cataclysm soon followed.

This moment, alas, looks more like 1918, a time when the United States withdrew from the world and international disorder increased. And we know how well that turned out.