The Elliott School of International Affairs hosted a discussion on how the COVID-19 pandemic defined the current state of international leadership Wednesday.
Thomas Wright – the director of the Center on the United States and Europe in the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank – explained how the United States and China drove the international community’s COVID-19 response and how to improve pandemic handling worldwide in his new book, “Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order.” Nicholas Anderson, an assistant professor of international affairs, moderated the virtual book talk.
Wright said the pandemic impacted global relationships and highlighted how multiple nations were unprepared for the public health emergency.
“This is a unique moment where we had a truly global crisis with a total lack of international leadership with populist nationalist leaders and authoritarian leaders in power in much of the world,” he said at the event.
Wright said when news of COVID-19 first broke in early January 2020, U.S. officials were more alarmed than European officials because they received advanced notice of the public health threat from infectious disease experts like Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. He said former President Donald Trump was encouraged to prepare the United States and its economy for the pandemic, but he decided otherwise to avoid public panic and preserve his chances at winning the 2020 presidential election.
He said Trump’s handling of COVID-19 was “hugely” damaging during the early months of the pandemic, as he spread disinformation, distrusted authority and neglected the power of the federal government to boost nationwide response efforts.
“I think that early period is just interesting for people to understand just where they were and why they ended up where they ended up,” Wright said.
He said China became more secretive in its handling of the pandemic, as doctors stopped sharing information about the virus’ outbreak. Wright said China’s resistance to international cooperation through its more assertive foreign policy heightened its global rivalry with the United States during the pandemic.
“We think there’s a case to be made that 2020 is to the U.S.-China relationship like how 1947 was the U.S.-Soviet relationship,” he said. “It unfolded in the same way the Cold War unfolded in the Mediterranean initially, but the origin story is important and how it started over a pandemic, a transnational issue.”
Wright said the world’s major powers should collaborate when dealing with international crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. He said while a few solutions to COVID-19 response issues include studying pandemic preparedness and increasing transparency in international relationships, his book proposes a new solution – creating a backup plan between nations through reforms to the World Health Organization.
He said nations would organize themselves into groups that provide public goods and set higher standards for international unification in future pandemics to formalize the backup plan.
“I think at the moment we’re in a place where the easy answer is ‘Let’s reform policies to make it more effective,’” he said. “The thing that people are worried about is that the reforms may not fly, and that’s sort of the issue.”