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The U.S. and China Are Both Failing the Global Leadership Test

Howard W. French Wednesday, July 21, 2021

For just about anyone who spends time thinking about the future of the world, the fast-unfolding competition between the United States and China looms as one of the most important issues shaping both expectations and uncertainty over the near and medium term.

The rivalry between these two countries, which boast the biggest economies and most powerful militaries in the world, is ostensibly over global leadership. The international crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, however, has revealed another darker reality: Where it counts most—meaning for the well-being of the largest numbers of people in the world—there is no real leadership competition. What the ongoing crisis has revealed, instead, are the stark limitations of each of these global giants’ political systems and, above all, their fundamental selfishness.

COVID-19 is currently running nearly out of control in countries as diverse and far-flung as Indonesia and Myanmar, Serbia and Jordan, Cuba and Peru. It is also on the rise in several countries in Africa, with its 1.4 billion people. Even worse, there is a near-certainty that in many of that continent’s 54 countries, official statistics are likely to be highly incomplete, helping conceal the true gravity of their public health crises.

It is true that African public health systems are often chronically underfunded, but it would be hard to find a better reflection of the shocking failure of global leadership than in the astonishingly low numbers of vaccine doses distributed so far to African countries. Only 1 percent of the continent’s people have been vaccinated thus far, and in the best-case projections, international vaccine supplies will raise that number to no more than 7 percent by October.

The pitiful state of vaccine supply for the continent is, on the one hand, sadly predictable, given that Africa has long and routinely been treated as an afterthought by global powers. Over the past decade and more, the continent was used by China as an advertisement for its growing capacity to provide global public goods, and by leaders in the United States—going back at least as far as Hillary Clinton when she served as secretary of state for former President Barack Obama—as a case study of the purported dangers of Chinese engagement. Seen in this light, the lamentable global response to the pandemic there is much more damning. 

In fact, China and the United States have merely pretended to compete in Africa, talking past each other, mostly focusing on securing regime allegiance in the case of the former, and on virtue signaling over human rights, democracy and transparency in the case of the latter, while both largely ignoring the most basic needs and preoccupations of the continent’s peoples. These include such seemingly prosaic, but nonetheless crucial things as secure access to food, clean water, dependable and affordable electricity, and education, as well as, of course, freedom from widespread preventable diseases, otherwise known as public health.

The consequences of the near-complete abdication of global leadership in fighting COVID-19, though, go far beyond Africa and beyond even the most direct manifestations of the disease. According to the joint findings of five United Nations agencies, 2.37 billion people—nearly a third of the world’s population—suffered from inadequate nutrition last year as a result of the pandemic, with the largest number, 418 million people, living in Asia. 

But just as the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the lack of political will and preparedness of the world’s two leading powers to address the most urgent needs of the moment, it has also laid bare some of the deepest institutional and political infirmities of the two would-be global leaders. 

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare some of the deepest institutional and political infirmities of the two would-be global leaders.

Given its constitutional federalism and, more particularly, the strong and continuing conservative penchant for states’ rights—an enduring legacy of American slavery that is seldom acknowledged—the United States was completely unable to implement or even articulate a smart, early national response to the pandemic based on universal measures like mask mandates and social distancing.

Instead of employing these and other common-sense public health interventions, the country instead defaulted to another characteristically American reflex: its near-religious faith in high tech and an associated belief in the virtually unlimited potential of money-fueled big science.

This admittedly led to the development of highly effective vaccines in record time, a feat that was all the more remarkable given that the Pfizer and Moderna shots were based on previously unproven technologies. But these breakthroughs came only after the virus was allowed to run rampant for more than a year, causing the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans.

China, of course, also invested big in a crash vaccine program, eager to win a share of the prestige from tech prowess that global powers have jostled for at least since the beginnings of the space race during the Cold War. The country’s true colors, though, were revealed by deeper instincts involving systematic social control. This allowed it to hermetically seal off the original coronavirus outbreak’s epicenter in Wuhan, a city of 10 million people; impose restrictions on the movements of the rest of the country’s vast population; use social media to track the disease irrespective of privacy concerns; and mandate testing on a breathtaking scale.

Whatever one makes of its politics, China’s achievement with this approach was at least as impressive as America’s vaccine rollout, and if one goes by preventing deaths domestically, even more so. Ultimately, however, it may also prove to have been just as flawed. America remains trapped in crisis by the libertarian resistance to getting vaccinated by a substantial minority of its population. Having favored an approach based on closing the country off, China, on the other hand, may find it hard to reopen anytime soon

Both countries, meanwhile, continue to fall terribly short of what the world needs from such wealthy and powerful would-be global leaders. Both have been stingy, slow and, going by appearances, driven by political motives in the distribution of vaccines. The Biden administration briefly tried to distinguish itself from China in this regard, saying that politics would play no role in deciding where to ship doses, but it seems nonetheless to have prioritized friends.

How else to explain its recent focus on supplying Taiwan, for example, or its failure to share vaccines with states with which it has tensions, from Iran and North Korea to a COVID-ravaged Cuba next door? Every day, the spread of more virulent strains, like the delta variant, make the folly of this approach more obvious.

The actions of Washington and Beijing in fighting the COVID-19 crisis operate on another level as a surrogate for the broader failure of the current pretenders to world leadership to act with sufficient energy, dispatch and selflessness in response to the biggest problems facing humanity. Think global warming, for example, where the debates in both China and the United States are still strongly colored by calculations of national interest and sacrifice, as opposed to wider human needs amid an obvious emergency.

The former says that it cannot be expected to meet the same standards of radical decarbonization as richer countries because its mad dash toward national wealth and global power is still young by comparison with the West. In the United States, meanwhile, Republican politicians, among others, resist efforts to greatly reduce emissions, saying doing so will unfairly cost Americans and give a free ride to the Chinese.

When one looks around more widely, whether it is COVID-19 or the gathering climate catastrophe, one cannot escape the grim reality that there are no other great contenders to help the world meet the moment of new and grave global crisis. Europe has seemed almost entirely inwardly focused, and some of its leading countries, most notably Germany, have resisted lifting patent protections on vaccine technologies that could help increase availability and lower costs. India, if anything, is even more self-centered on climate policy than China. 

For a generation now, many international affairs thinkers have projected their hopes on India’s emergence as a democratic and non-Western superpower that could promote the interests of the Global South or, according to some visions, help balance an increasingly authoritarian China. Neither prospect has ever seemed more unlikely than they do right now.

Briefly, at least, India was also looked to as a potential leader on vaccine manufacturing and distribution, but that effort collapsed amid technical glitches and the takeoff of the pandemic there, where the death toll may be 10 times bigger than the official figures suggest.

Welcome, in other words, to our truly rudderless world.

Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of five books, including “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World,” which will be published in October.

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