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How the West Failed the Rest in the COVID-19 Pandemic

There is renewed discussion in some corners of the world about the decline of the West. Does that mean China is poised to lead?

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How the West Failed the Rest in the COVID-19 Pandemic
Credit: Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen

For at least half a century, the West — led by the United States — has been viewed by most developing countries as an example to emulate. “The power of example works only when it is an example of power,” to borrow the words of Samuel P. Huntington. The West has led the world in nearly every crucial aspect of national well-being: political stability, economic development, educational achievement, social welfare, public health, technological innovation, and military power.

The “example of power” generates widespread expectations of responsibility and leadership in global governance, and the West has mostly committed itself to meeting those expectations. It established a dense network of international organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, which have evolved to be the underpinnings of the widely celebrated liberal international order. It has been the most powerful champion of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and the responsibility to protect. It has changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people through humanitarian relief, poverty reduction, and foreign aid. It once stood at the forefront of combating climate change.

Admittedly, the West’s record on global governance is far from perfect. It arguably demonstrated neither responsibility nor leadership in the invasions of Iraq and Libya, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the global financial crisis, to name just the most recent examples. Nevertheless, on balance the West has shouldered more responsibility and provided more leadership than any other group of countries.

In international politics — just as in domestic politics — the law of expectations usually matters much more than objective indicators of power. Underperformance generates disappointment and doubt, as illustrated by U.S. foreign policy in the inter-war period. Over-performance engenders admiration and support, as in the case of China’s military campaign during the Korean War. The former undermines authority and legitimacy at home and abroad, while the latter enhances them. Thus the predominant role of the West in global governance hinges as much on its power as on its ability to meet — oftentimes outperform — the expectations of the rest.

The current global public health crisis, the worst of its kind since 1918, amply illustrates the law of expectations. Caused by a novel coronavirus disease that was later designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as COVID-19, the global pandemic has infected over a million people worldwide and caused thousands of deaths. Many governments have imposed stay-at-home rules and closed borders, bringing much of global economy to a grinding halt.

The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, a city in central China that has over 10 million residents. To prevent its spread, the Chinese government imposed a lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, a drastic measure that initially caused much controversy within and outside China. In hindsight, it turns out to have been the single most important decision in the global fight against COVID-19. According to one estimate, the lockdown prevented more than 700,000 Chinese from being infected. Meanwhile, Chinese officials have been in close touch with their counterparts at the WHO and other foreign governments.

As the Chinese government was waging an unprecedented nationwide campaign against the novel coronavirus, most Western governments apparently did little to brace themselves for a similar public health crisis, nor did they seem interested in reaching out to China for its valuable experiences in combating COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, when faced with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in their own borders, these governments appeared poorly prepared. Their authority and legitimacy seem to have suffered considerably from underperformance, while those of Beijing apparently have been significantly enhanced due to its overperformance.

The United States, in particular, is widely perceived to be conspicuous in the global fight against COVID-19 for its lack of responsibility and leadership. As the leader of the West, the world’s only superpower, and the self-designated “indispensable nation,” the United States embroiled itself in a war of words with Beijing in March over what is the appropriate name to call the virus. A long list of U.S. officials have been much more concerned with blaming China for the global pandemic than with leading the American people — as well as the West and the rest — in combating the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, the Trump administration failed to take precautionary steps early on that could have effectively mitigated the spread of COVID-19 within the United States.

In light of the glaring gap between international expectations and the actual performance of the West, there is renewed discussion in some corners of the world about the decline of the West in general and the decline of America in particular. Implicit in these declinist predictions is the assumption that China will soon replace the United States as the new role model of responsibility and leadership.

The problem with these declinist predictions, which should sound like music to the ears of many Chinese, is that they are probably too early. There were many waves of American declinism before, and America’s relative power vis-à-vis the rest certainly has declined, but the fundamental sources of American (and Western) power — institutional, technological, cultural, and educational — remain largely unchallenged. Undoubtedly, America’s authority and legitimacy have been seriously damaged by the Trump administration’s “denial and dysfunction” in the current global public health crisis, but a new generation of leaders might quickly restore American responsibility and leadership in global governance.

Above all, leadership in global governance requires the combination of performance (broadly shared prosperity and security), procedures (multilateral institutions), and principles (values), as pointed out by David Lake, a professor of political science at the University of California, Sand Diego. Thus it will take much more than a global pandemic to disqualify the West — or qualify the rest — for global leadership. In the face of a common threat that recognizes no national boundary, it is imperative that the West and the rest work together, instead of competing to score political points at home and abroad. Neither can afford to deal with the global pandemic and its devastating aftermath without extensive cooperation from the other.