Hub Dialogue: Thomas Wright thinks 2020 was an alarming lesson on how the world deals with crisis

A computer screen shows images of Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump as a currency trader works at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Ahn Young-joon/AP photo.

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Thomas Wright, the author of  Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order, which is in stores today.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

Thomas Wright is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

He and his co-author, Colin Kahl, have recently published a new book, Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order, which has been described as “the most definitive account of the overall global impact of COVID-19 and the political shock waves it will have on the US and the world order in the 21st Century.”

We’re honoured to have Tom with us today to speak about the book and some of its extraordinary insights. Thanks for joining me.

Thomas Wright

Thanks for having me.

Sean Speer

Your book is a deep journalistic dive into the behind-the-scenes politics and policymaking of the global response to COVID-19. You and your co-author have unearthed so many fascinating insights and stories about the whole pandemic experience. What’s the one thing you discovered that surprised you the most?

Thomas Wright

The thing that really struck me and my co-author, Colin Kahl, was how geopolitical rivalries really clipped any possibility for international cooperation in response to the pandemic. This is the first global crisis since the 1930s to occur in a world dominated by nationalism, nationalist leaders, and geopolitical rivalry. Unlike 2008-09, when the world came together to deal with the global financial crisis, this time around many world leaders weren’t even on speaking terms, let alone, cooperating on a coordinated response. So, in this sense, 2020 was an interesting yet alarming glimpse at how the world deals with a global crisis without any clear international leadership.

Sean Speer

You describe that absence of international leadership as a “great power failing.” Is the lack of leadership in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic a sign of things to come? If so, what do you think the pandemic tells us about the risks of an ongoing leadership vacuum in the event of another global pandemic or a different kind of global crisis?

Thomas Wright

I think it should make us pretty worried. If you go through the different sort of actors, they reveal different things.

Start with China. China had put in place reforms after the SARS epidemic of 2002-2004. Nobody expected them to repeat that experience. These reforms were meant to be more transparent and more cooperative with other countries in the event of another public health emergency. But when COVID-19 hit, all of that really melted away. They went back to an even worse version of the previous epidemic and refused to share vital information with the international community.

There’s really no prospect of Xi Jinping’s China committing credibly to higher levels of transparency for future pandemics. They don’t see this really as the failing on their part.

Then we had the United States, of course, with former President Trump leading its pandemic response. Some American political and policy leaders have chalked up the country’s poor performance just to him. But that’s too simple of an explanation. There were major failings across the U.S. system of government, including at the state level.

You also saw a similar absence of leadership in other countries. No one seemed capable of filing the vacuum. Even the European Union was completely caught unaware by this, and in some ways, they were behind United States in terms of realizing the gravity of the situation. The member states started the pandemic competing amongst each other for critical medical supplies. They did eventually get their act together over the course of the pandemic in Summer 2020, which may give some hope that they may be better prepared the next time. But I don’t think you can say the whole situation was a good moment for the European Union.

I think across the board, then, there were serious issues. The pandemic experience – particularly the leadership vacuum that it exposed – should make us concerned about the future.

Sean Speer

You’ve previously described COVID-19 as the fourth major geopolitical shock in many decades. To what extent was the pandemic a catalyst for the end of the international order versus an accelerant of a pre-existing set of cumulative trends?

Thomas Wright

I think it was both. The pandemic affected and accelerated geopolitical rivalry and vice versa. It was in effect both a cause and an effect.

The pandemic was arguably worse than it would have been had China been cooperating with the international community, or had the United States been providing traditional leadership as it has in previous global crises.

But at the same time the pandemic then affected the shape of geopolitical rivalry. We used to think that these transnational threats tend to pull us together and now increasingly they’re just providing new flashpoints for the broader geopolitical competition that’s currently underway.

I think that at this stage we need to ask, “How do we prepare for future crises?” based on the acknowledgement that the world’s not going to fundamentally change. Assuming that we will continue to not have the level of cooperation that there’s been in the past, what’s our backup plan? If we end up with a future pandemic and there’s another “America First” president, and Xi Jinping is still in power in China and hasn’t changed his ways, what do we do with that? I think that’s the question we need to ask.

Sean Speer

What are the key takeaways for the World Health Organization itself? What institutional reforms should the WHO pursue based on the COVID-19 experience?

Thomas Wright

The WHO is really stuck. In the beginning at the pandemic, on the one hand, they had Xi Jinping, and on the other hand, they had Donald Trump. Their answer to this conundrum was very different than what the WHO had done with SARS.

With SARS, the former director general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, criticized China publicly in order to shame them into cooperating. This actually worked at that time since the Chinese felt that a lack of action and cooperation would backfire.

It didn’t turn out this way during the COVID-19 pandemic. Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised China effusively, even when it was undeserved, in the hopes that it would spur practical cooperation, even if was a little but not nearly enough. I think this really demonstrates how the WHO struggled in this era of geopolitical rivalry.

Many people have recommended and supported different types of reforms, and there’s even general agreement on the ones that should be introduced – ranging from much greater levels of transparency, to more authority for the WHO to enact measures to try to compel countries to live up to their responsibilities under the International Health Regulations.

The problem is that any realistic assessment of what’s doable will lead one to conclude that it’s very unlikely that anyone will agree to those reforms. So, it’s just not enough to say we should want new and different authorities for the WHO. China is not going to agree. If they haven’t agreed to an investigation of COVID-19’s origins, they’re not going to accept ongoing investigations into laboratories or other new powers for the WHO. Maybe even the United States wouldn’t agree. It’s very problematic.

So, what we conclude in the book is that while we should work for reforms to the WHO that are in full engagement with China and others, there must also be a back-up plan: what we call a global alliance for pandemic preparedness. This would involve like-minded countries committing to doing much more to provide global public goods in the areas of health and pandemic preparedness, even if that means spending a lot more on vaccines, diagnostics and testing. Those countries would also agree to a much higher level of standards of transparency and rapid response that they would undertake in the event of a future pandemic, regardless of whether the WHO goes along with it or not. The idea is that this would bolster the WHO, not undermine it, because they will be empowered by the membership of this alliance, including, the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan, and so on, and because it would be a back-up plan of sorts, if universal cooperation once again broke down.

Sean Speer

Do you think that China’s global ambitions will ultimately be advantaged by the aftermath of the pandemic or diminished?

Thomas Wright

I think it’s a bit of a strategic calamity for them. They’ve emerged from the immediacy of the crisis due in part to a combination of stringent measures and basic state competence but ultimately this whole experience is a tremendous failing on their part.

I think the pandemic has damaged their soft power, and I think it’s also created a response internationally that has provided reasons for countries to push back, because of the way in which the Chinese have acted and behaved. All of that is a big strategic problem for them.

I think it also raises real questions even about their future direction. The country essentially remains closed to the rest of the world. They say they’ll reopen next year. Will they? It’s hard to tell whether that will happen or if Xi Jinping will see reducing China’s ties to the rest of the world as advantageous for him.

The pandemic has really set them on a certain direction, and I don’t think that it’s a particularly good road for them to go down. But they definitely do feel, as far as we can tell, fairly confident and even triumphant after 2020, in terms of suppressing the virus compared to what they saw as a subpar response in the West.

Sean Speer

Canada increasingly finds itself stuck in the middle of a great power rivalry between its first and second largest trading partners. The consequences of that have manifested in various ways including the unlawful detention of two Canadians in China, the increasing unreliability of our bilateral relationship with the United States and so on.

If you were advising Canadian policymakers about how best to navigate the new world that the book outlines, what would your advice be? How should Canada position itself if we are indeed on the cusp of the end of the international order?

Thomas Wright

It’s a great question. I think Canada has a very strong interest in a robust response by like-minded countries on doing more to provide global public goods, especially in pandemic preparedness, but also in a number of other areas. We are currently coming up short at the G7.

Take global vaccinations. There were 870 million vaccines committed to developing countries, but that’s much less than even 10 percent of the estimated 11 billion vaccines that are required, according by the WHO. I worried that there’s was a lack of urgency, particularly in the United States and the EU, possibly because of the size and significance of the affected countries. So, I think that Canada, Australia, Japan, and others have a vital role to play in underscoring these issues and stepping up to the mark.

One other point on China: Canada has had a very grueling experience with China over the last few years. There is a shared interest amongst democracies to stand up for the freedom of speech, the right to be able to criticize, for human rights and other things. I think Canada and Australia must also have the right not to be coerced by a larger power. Canada has an extremely important role in shaping how we affirm and the get control of the situation, and don’t allow it to deteriorate further.

Sean Speer

Thank you so much for your insights today from your new book, with co-author Colin Kahl, Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order. We’ve been honoured to speak to you today.

Thomas Wright

Thank you. The pleasure has been all mine.

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