Commentary / Japan | Commentary

How the U.S. and its allies should prepare for the post-COVID-19 world

by Satohiro Akimoto

Contributing Writer

As countries reopen their economies from the COVID-19-induced lockdown, searching for the “new normal” has been a fashionable exercise of the mind.

Many intuitively sensed that the post-COVID-19 world would be fundamentally different. Thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari and Jacques Attali talk about what the future may hold, and have been attracting global media attention as many observers continue to stay home wondering what the future has in store for them.

Harari argues that there are two sets of binary choices to make going forward. One is a choice between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, the other is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

The bestselling historian and philosopher presents a grand, utopian view that if we chose citizen empowerment over totalitarian surveillance, and global solidarity over nationalist isolation, it will be “a victory not only against the coronavirus but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail mankind in the 21st century.”

French writer Attali states that the fundamental frameworks of the current world order — the market economy and democracy — are being endangered. He points out the importance of countries maintaining a balance between self-reliance and international solidarity, saying the world can’t rely on China for all of the facial masks it needs.

He concludes that “altruism” and “positivism” hold the key in the post-COVID-19 world, and says that the globe's economies must change from weapons production to what he calls “life industries,” such as food, health, education, culture, research, innovation and digital.

Their views on democracy, internationalism, altruism and “life industry” are certainly inspiring.

The problem is that their arguments are made with broad strokes from 30,000 feet in the sky, and are detached from realities on the ground. They present an ideal world, but they don’t provide a path to get there.

When the two thinkers argue that such a dichotomy would play out in the post-COVID-19 world, it is clear to the readers and observers that they have the rivalry between the United States and China in mind.

Two political ideas — democracy and internationalism — as both Harari and Attali point out, are surely crucial to think about in the post-COVID-19 world, especially as the U.S. and China have entered full-fledged strategic competition.

But the strategic competition between the two nations is not as binary as Harari and Attali frame it. It certainly is fundamentally different from the strategic struggle between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers were in an all-out competition. The Americans and the Soviets disagreed and fought over everything from political ideology, military might and economic prowess to technological advancement, territorial claims and international supremacy.

But the current strategic competition between the U.S. and China is different. The two powers have been clashing over China’s expansion of territorial claims and increased economic influence around the world. On top of that, the Trump administration is blaming China for causing the COVID-19 crisis by being the source of the virus, not being forthcoming in sharing information and not introducing adequate measures to prevent the virus from spreading.

Yet the two competitors have strong economic ties, which sets the U.S.-China rivalry apart from the Cold War struggle between the East and the West. Simply put, for many Americans, their prosperity is directly connected to China’s economic fortunes. While China’s aggressive behavior in the military and security realms are very problematic, the U.S. can’t afford to lose China because of the economic ties, in addition to the fact that consequences of an all-out war are unimaginably devastating. This mutually beneficial economic element creates a dilemma in forming a unified policy toward China.

In 2014, former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon proposed a mixture of strategic reassurances in key military and security areas and strategic resolve in protecting vital national interest of the U.S. and its allies in dealing with China. This seems like a reasonable policy stance based on Steinberg’s experience in dealing with China in the early Obama administration. However, since the publication of their book, strategic assurance has become weakened and strategic resolve has become unclear in Washington.

As a result, the U.S. currently does not have a grand policy on how to strategically manage the relationship with China on all fronts. The current U.S. leadership seems to be inwardly focused, distracted with the COVID-19 crisis, revitalizing economic activities, the upcoming election, and diminished in the international community.

The free and open world needs the U.S., which champions collective solutions to common problems of the world, based on universal values, such as freedom, democracy, market and rule of law.

After all, the bipolarity of the U.S. and China is asymmetrical.

China certainly has augmented its military power and economic influence in Asia. In some ways, China may have surpassed the U.S. in parts of the region. Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense, recently admitted that “when you move into Indo-Pacific theater, which is China’s backyard, they’re always going to be able to field more quantity than us.”

However, even if America’s superpower status may appear diminished, it still remains the only country that possesses overall power superior to China, including its ability to call on allies based on universal values. Beijing — which does not have true friends or allies — can hardly make that claim.

The ways in which China has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis have revealed much about itself. To start, China has not been forthcoming in sharing information. Furthermore, it has administered strong internal control to contain the virus, raising human rights concerns. It also sought to expand its diplomatic and security sphere of influence around the globe amid the crisis. Lastly, it has increased control over production and distribution of critical medical equipment and machinery on a global scale.

The U.S. and its allies, including Japan, should take the crisis as opportunity to construct a joint approach to China. This is the way to connect Harari and Attali’s ideas with the reality of the world.

First, as liberal democratic values have come under assault in recent years, the U.S. and its allies need to reconfirm that common values like freedom, democracy, markets and the rule of law are the foundation for the alliance. It is this centrality of the values in human lives that is unique to the liberal world alliance. The Cold War was a battle of ideologies, but as the U.S. and its allies came out victorious, these values were taken for granted and not constantly promoted as the most important connecting tissue of the alliance.

It is therefore unfortunate that U.S. President Donald Trump has shown little interest in connecting with the allies based on the importance of values.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which has been supported by Americans across racial, ethnic, generational and regional lines, is quickly spreading as an anti-racism movement around the world. The recent statement by James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, has offered some hope in this regard. He said that “returning to the original path of our founding ideals” is key for the U.S. to again be “admired and respected at home and abroad,” demonstrating that the U.S. and its allies can reconnect based on commonly shared humanity.

Second, the U.S. must re-establish its leadership role. The G7 summit in Washington, which has been postponed to September at the earliest, is critically important in this respect. Trump, who has shown little interest in engaging the international community, seems to show interest in assuming a leadership position as the host this time.

According to the White House, Trump wants to bring in traditional allies, along with countries affected by COVID-19, such as Australia, South Korea and India, to the G7 meeting to talk about the future of China. The United Kingdom has also proposed a plan to transform the G7 into the “D-10” by adding those same three democracies. The way in which the U.S. holds the G7 meeting in the fall will send a clear signal on what kind of leadership role it will play in the international community.

Third, the U.S. and its allies need to strengthen international institutions, which have been weakened in recent years. The COVID-19 crisis — a global crisis — requires global solutions.

While a recent virtual meeting of the World Health Organization ended in a stalemate between the U.S. and China, the roles of international institutions are more important than ever in mending disruptions caused by COVID-19. As major donors to international organizations, the U.S. and Japan have particularly important roles to play here.

Fourth, the U.S. and its allies should view China as a partner on global issues. While there are many conflicting interests between China on one hand and the U.S. and its allies on the other hand, there are also global issues that involve common interests, such as tackling pandemics and climate change.

Lastly, the U.S. and its allies should focus on economic recovery and preventing further spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, as it will have a detrimental impact on whether the alliance can protect its fundamental values. After all, economic power is the foundation of robust national security.

Envisioning a post-COVID-19 world itself is a great challenge, but the U.S. and its allies can and should see it as an opportunity to shape that future.

Satohiro Akimoto is Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

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