Global Ethics Review: COVID-19 & International Relations, Part Two

March 23, 2021

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Review. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council, the world's catalyst for ethical action. 

In this podcast series, we'll be connecting Carnegie Council's work and current events with our senior fellows, senior staff, and friends of our organization. You'll hear from leading experts on artificial intelligence and technology, migration, climate change governance, and U.S. foreign policy and global engagement. 

Last week, in Part One of our look at the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on international affairs, I talked with Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal and Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev. We discussed cooperation versus competition, the status of China, and some other broad topics. In this episode, we'll be focusing largely on the United States. You'll hear more clips from some Spring 2020 Carnegie Council podcasts and the rest of my interviews with Rosenthal and Gvosdev. 

This first clip is from a podcast recorded in mid-May 2020. Gvosdev and I spoke with Damjan Krnjević Mišković, director of policy research and publications at Azerbaijan's ADA University. They discussed the question of leadership and the pandemic and what comes after. 

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Moving forward the question is, what sort of leaders are we looking for? What sort of leaders can emerge that will have trust both from their populations and then can become or be seen as global leaders?

What's interesting is that people often say, "Well, the leader of the free world is Chancellor Angela Merkel," that Germany has to pick up some of this, but of course Germany's response during the COVID-19 crisis in terms of European solidarity wasn't particularly exemplary. She is also a lame duck. She's on her way out, and who replaces her at the heart of Europe is not clear.

People then say: "Well, what about Emmanuel Macron? Is he a figure that can move forward?" His problem is that he is not immune from the populist wave inside France. He still largely is a political figure on the force of his own personality rather than a really strong, dedicated party movement, and he could be swept away at some point in elections.

The question then is, does the democratic system produce the types of leaders now that are going to be willing to gain trust but also push back against the populist wave? That I think is an open question, even within the American context. People will say, "Well, a President Joe Biden will be likely to do things differently," except with his rhetoric on China he's trying in some ways to out-Trump Trump. He is making some of the same appeals about competition and decoupling and China is a threat, and so on.

Even if we have an electoral change here—and I think Damjan has already alluded to this—is that once other countries have seen that a significant part of the United States electorate and political system is willing to turn its back on allies and willing to turn its back on institutions, even if Joe Biden says, "Look, we're coming back, we're restoring," you've set the precedent and you've set the idea that the United States has done this once and can do it again. Therefore Europeans and others might say: "We now have to hedge. We have to hedge against the United States. We have to keep ties open to China. We have to keep ties open to Russia. We have to be prepared that the United States is not going to exercise leadership at some point in the future." Does this mean Europe has to consolidate more within itself? A lot of things, I think, are left undecided.

Again, this idea that somehow one election in the United States in November of 2020 is going to magically change all of these trends and return us to 2016 or 2008 or 2000 or 1992 and everything is going to be fine and we're going to move forward, I think is wishful thinking.

DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: I want to jump in about Emmanuel Macron. France may or may not be a great power, but there are a number of indications that Macron at least has some populist tendencies. On the other hand, he gave an interview to the Financial Times recently, and he said something that I thought was quite thoughtful actually. He quoted Adam Smith. He talked about economics as a "moral science." There aren't that many leaders, whether they're populist or not, who can make that argument.

The point was that Europe is first a political project and an economic project second, and because it's a political project first there's a fundamental notion of solidarity, and then the economic argument is derivative from the political argument. In that context he talked economics being a moral science.

The problem is that economics may be a moral science, but economics is at the end of the day about having the resources that you need to do the stuff that you want to do, both internally and beyond your own borders. The money that is being spent just to serve as a bridge now, just to prevent fundamental economic collapse—Dark Ages economic collapse—is unprecedented. So you're going to have to keep spending more money for the recovery.

When you think about what that means in terms of the conduct of foreign policy, given that we have great-power populism it's unclear that you're going to follow the logical move, which is to deescalate. If you don't have enough resources at your disposal and you've got all this stuff happening in the world—from Syria to Libya to Afghanistan, you name it, climate change, sustainable development, all these things, some of which require significant multilateral cooperation and probably even heightened multilateral cooperation, which isn't happening—the question is, are leaders in the world going to come together and say, "Okay, we have our differences, and we're not suggesting that we should solve them, but let's just put them on pause while we recover our economies." That would be the logical thing to do, and it would probably be the moral and ethical thing to do. But it's unlikely that that's going to happen.

When COVID-19 goes away or when it's brought under control, all of this other stuff that nobody's talking about because they're focusing on death in the context of their domestic situations because of the pandemic, all of these conflicts are still there. They're still unresolved. There is still not enough cooperation. There is no leadership.

So you're going to have, it seems to me, a situation in the months ahead where the potential for the harnessing of additional resources, whether they're military or economic or whatever, is going to decrease significantly. Yet the belligerence and the rivalries are still going to be there, and that's going to create significantly greater potential for instability and for—I don't know how else to put it—completely random events and a level of unpredictability that no one has seen for a long time.

ALEX WOODSON: With Biden now in office, I talked to Gvosdev and Rosenthal about what has exactly changed and how the U.S. and its allies can move forward.

Here's Joel Rosenthal:

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I do think President Biden has done a good job reestablishing the role of the United States in if not leading, then certainly being what used to be called the "first among equals" in the global community of playing our role, which as the second-largest economy in the world is a considerable role and since World War II a historic role in helping to forge collective action to meet collective threats. He has to thread the needle right now in that he cannot just say, "America is the leader, we're back," in a sense, and expect everybody to fall into line. On the other hand, he needs to show in a real way that we are well intentioned in terms of forging alliances to meet collective threats. The obvious things are rejoining the Paris climate agreement, the signal of wanting to rejoin the Iran deal, and so on.

Given the fact that we are two months in, signals have been sent, words have been said, some actions have been taken, and he is trying I think to project a strong sense of direction, a sense of clarity, a sense of purpose, but also a sense of humility. Two months in it is where I would have hoped it would be.

ALEX WOODSON: Do other countries look at something like the $1.9 trillion stimulus deal and say, "Okay, America is getting serious now?" I know we passed deals when Trump was in office as well, but do the allies see something like the stimulus deal and are they heartened by something like that? Do they see that and think, America is back on the right track, or is that just something for American internal politics to think about?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's a great question. As the rest of the world looks at America right now, my guess is, and this is just a guess, that what they are seeing is, first and foremost, the development and distribution of the vaccines happening at a very rapid pace. It seems to me what has happened is that we got off to a slow start in the sense—and we continue to have some issues with the distribution, but we seem to be getting over those quite rapidly, and within the next few weeks, certainly within the next two months, we will be way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of the availability of a vaccine and the ability to distribute it to the American people.

It is reminiscent of World War II, I suppose, where the United States got off to a very slow start and had some trouble getting going, but once it got going it had the means of production, the will, and the ability to produce. I think that does speak well of the United States in the sense of its ability to react and to respond in ways that again may not have the efficiency of a centrally controlled government like China, but on the other hand in the longer run it makes more people better off in that sense. My guess is that this will reflect well on the United States.

In terms of the stimulus plan, boy, there are a lot of questions about that, but I think there is every reason to be at this point somewhat optimistic that it will provide a good bridge from the pandemic economic to the post-pandemic economy and then we are into a new era.

ALEX WOODSON: And here's more of my talk with Nick Gvosdev. We talked a bit more specifically about the changing role of the United States after four years of Trump.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Certainly there is a honeymoon period. Even among countries that have adversarial relations with the United States, there is a welcomeness as to the predictability and professionalism of the Biden administration. For example, this is something that you will hear from Moscow, where there is no illusion that U.S.-Russia relations are anywhere in any type of optimal situation, but at least you are dealing with an administration which does not have mixed messaging or where you are talking to a U.S. official and then you are checking Twitter to see if that position has been contradicted or changed, and maybe the position has been changed again. So there is a predictability from the Biden administration that I think countries welcome.

In theory, what the Biden administration is proposing should be attractive to a number of friends and partners in terms of working together, strengthening cooperation, strengthening supply chains, and working together in areas of technology, energy, climate change, and health security with an eye that these can also be drivers for domestic economic growth in both the United States and in partner countries. All of that is very ambitious. It is a good vision that he is laying out.

He is incorporating some of the themes that we identified in the Carnegie Council reports on global engagement, where he is at least explicitly saying that it is not turning the clock back and that he is looking forward for cooperation but cooperation with an eye to regenerating America's institutions, regenerating its economy, regenerating its position of leadership, shifting more with using climate as a way to try to build these ties, and even to navigate with countries with whom we are likely to have adversarial relations, such as China, where there are common interests around climate and energy which could help to mitigate competition between Beijing and Washington. In the early months it is all there.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. How does this get mediated in terms of the bureaucracy? How does it get mediated in terms of what Congress chooses to support or not to support? I think other countries will look at what has happened with the COVID-19 relief bill and perhaps think that a president who made a $1.9 trillion opening bid and got $1.9 trillion through Congress suggests that perhaps he will be able to navigate through the legislative thicket and be able to get some of these things through.

On the other hand, we already have a few storm clouds on the horizon: Our European partners do not see eye to eye with us on China; Germany does not see eye to eye with us on Russia policy; and we have an unsettled situation in the Middle East with regard to Iran and with regard to changing our relationship with Saudi Arabia. So we will see how this plays out over the long run.

The other thing too—and I will just end on this last point—is that the Biden administration in its first major public statement about foreign affairs paid close attention to Africa and to Latin America beyond the perfunctory phrases that we are used to hearing in U.S. national security declarations. But having said it, the question will be: Is there really going to be more of an engagement with the Global South under the Biden administration than certainly under the last administration but also in the Obama, Bush, and Clinton years as well? That I think is a question for us to keep an eye on and perhaps revisit in a year's time.

ALEX WOODSON: Do you get the sense that the United States' allies—Western Europe, maybe Latin America, Africa, some of these countries that you mentioned—are still looking to the United States to be a leader? One thing you talked about in some of the clips I sent along was that after four years of Trump was: Can the United States be trusted anymore? We can't go back to 2016. What are the expectations that the allies have of the United States right now with the Biden Administration in place?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think you hit the nail on the head, that our allies and partners around the world are a little leery now. They have seen that the United States can wobble. They have seen that the United States can turn inward, that the United States can become a lot more nakedly transactional in foreign policy, and that is worrying to countries that were used to the idea of a United States that offered alliance and partnership on relatively easy terms.

On the other hand, they are also aware that they can no longer ignore U.S. domestic politics as a factor in foreign policy, and to the extent that there is economic anxiety inside the United States, that will play a role in the future. I think the way the Biden team has been very upfront about that should be reassuring in the sense that it is straight talk.

Look. I think most countries, given a choice, would prefer to have a relationship with the United States. That doesn't mean that they are going to give the United States a blank check. Again, going back to our relationship with Germany, it is very clear that, even though she is wrapping up her term in office, Angela Merkel is making it clear that leadership does not mean that the United States leads and everyone blindly follows and that there are going to be negotiations. I think that partners are going to hedge a bit against the United States.

Looking at our own domestic politics, it is unclear what will happen in midterm elections in 2022 or what could happen in the presidential election in 2024. Other countries will want to have partnership relations with the United States, but they are going to want to hedge. They are going to want to have some backups in case something happens again.

There is an ethical component to this, which I think is important. It is not just naked realpolitik or amoral transactionalism at work. It goes back to this question of: Who is owed what, and why is someone owed something? I think that for a number of years—and this comes out of the experience of the 1990s—the United States could afford to act on the world stage in a way that other partners assumed that the United States would be happy writing what were relatively blank checks, got used to that, and did not necessarily feel that burden sharing or other such things was an absolute necessity. So people always paid lip service to it—"Yes, we should do more"—but if the United States was willing to pay the bills, you did not have other countries necessarily rushing to grab the check.

I think now there is a realization that if you are a country that likes what the Biden administration is doing, you may feel that you need to be a bit more proactive in sometimes reaching for the metaphorical "check" in order to bolster the Biden position so that in 2024 this type of internationalism that the Biden team exemplifies does not run up against a narrative challenge from a challenger saying: "Why aren't you taking care of your own? Why are Americans paying bills for others, and Americans perhaps are in need?" I think you are going to see that moving forward.

ALEX WOODSON: Finally, to look at the big picture, it's hard to grasp how historic this last year has been. With over 500,000 deaths, the U.S. has endured a catastrophe and it has been changed forever. 

Our last day at the Carnegie Council office was March 12, 2020. It was the day after Trump issued a haphazard European travel ban and the NBA shut down due to a player testing positive for COVID-19. Those two events made it clear that the next weeks and possibly months and years would be very different. When Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency for New York City on March 12, Carnegie Council decided it was time to work from home. A year later, I've been to the office once, something I never imagined. 

The week after we closed our office, Gvosdev and I discussed this new world on a podcast. I asked him if there was any episode in history that compares with our current situation.  

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Not to overblow it, but really to look at what we were experiencing a century ago in the aftermath of World War I. Obviously there was a pandemic that occurred at the end of the war, the Spanish influenza outbreak, but also the idea that within a few short years because of the impact of World War I and of all of these changes, how much the world shifted.

There is an excellent book that I just finished reading, called Crucible: The Long End of the Great War and the Birth of a New World, 1917–1924. It looks at this period from the end of 1917 to 1924 and to realize the amount of change that had occurred in the world—changes in governments, changes in international order, changes in domestic societies, the technological change, the birth of mass communication in the early 1920s, the emergence of revolutionary movements on both the right and the left, the fact that all of these pillars of society that in 1913 appeared to be so unshakable 10 years later have all—the landmarks have changed, in some cases beyond recognition.

One of the things I was telling my students in 2019 was that I felt we were on the verge of another shift, that in 1989, 30 years before, we had the fall of the Berlin Wall, and look at all of the change that brought in. You started 1989 thinking the world was one way, and by the end of 1989 the world looked very different. I think we are moving into something where in 2019–2020 the world looked one way, and later on this year it may look like something very different.

ALEX WOODSON: A year later, Gvosdev and I reflected on this podcast.

Just to wrap up, I wanted to bring it back to the first podcast that we did after the pandemic hit New York and we started working from home rather than from our New York office. It was a very different world then. We were not using Zoom. We were not wearing masks. March 2020 is going to be a time that we all have a lot of different thoughts and feelings about for the rest of our lives.

It was interesting that you saw this very clearly at that time. I asked you what a historical comparison was that you could make, and you said the 1919 Spanish flu, end of World War I, huge changes in the world order. A year later, what do you think of that comparison? Does that still hold for you?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think it does. I think we will speak of an era ending and a new era starting. Whether we use 3/20, partly because for different people there is a different date in February or March when it really hit home. For me it happened to be March 13 because that is when I began to have the cascade of cancelations, what people thought might just be postponements, for things that turned out never to be rescheduled, and then it was "don't come in." Let's assume that the shorthand is 3/20. We went from 9/11 to 3/20. That was an era. Yes, we are moving into a newer period, where institutions are being reshaped.

Let's say we are doing this five years from now. Let's reconvene in 2026. My guess is we are going to have throughout the world, even potentially in Russia and China, and certainly in Western Europe, Africa, Latin America, and almost certainly in the United States as well, a whole cadre of new faces in government, in politics, and perhaps in business. We could be on the cusp of some very major changes in how we obtain energy, how our vehicles are being powered, and whether or not we see the use of climate and energy funds as perhaps stimulus spending, but does that create new industries? Again, after the Spanish flu and after 1919, the technological shift that the radio and automobiles brought first to the United States and then around the world so that people lived very differently in 1926 than they were living in 1918 or 1917.

I still believe that we are going to look back the same way, that we will adapt to certain new normals just as we did after 9/11. Air travel has a very clear before and after for anyone who remembers flying pre-9/11. You have very clear dividing lines in your mind as to a before-and-after period, and the same thing here. How we work, how we congregate, where people choose to live are all in flux now, and we have had this situation long enough for new normals to perhaps begin to develop. That will lead to changes.

Those changes in turn—bringing it back to what we do as ethics in international affairs—not to put too much of a Marxist spin on it, but as we change our economic way of living and our way of producing value, of necessity our political institutions shift to take that into account, our sense of obligations changes, our sense of what we owe and what we are owed changes, and our sense of how we connect to other people changes.

The pandemic has done wonders, for instance, in really disrupting geographic proximity as a basis for community and replacing it with virtual proximity, and that has implications. If you are now having people regularly communicating in a meaningful fashion without having to be geographically proximate, without me and you having to sit in the same physical space in order to have this conversation, and you take that a thousand times, a million times, you change those connectivities, you are going to reorder the community, and as you reorder the community the ethics of the community are reordered, the politics of the community are reordered, and you end up with something different.

ALEX WOODSON: Finally, here's Joel Rosenthal, with his take on comparisons to 1919 and some more thoughts on the Biden administration. 

JOEL ROSENTHAL: When I think of 1919 I think beyond just the Spanish flu and the pandemic now. I am thinking more about the end of World War I. From an international relations point of view this was the high mark of Wilsonianism and the idea of the creation of a League of Nations. This was not evolutionary but really revolutionary at the time, the idea of international law and organization becoming formalized at this time, and Wilson taking a hard run at that and then not making it.

When I compare the timeframes, what is interesting to me is that I don't see an analogue to Wilson right now. There isn't a really strong internationalist, institutionalist response to the pandemic. There is not. We are devolving into vaccine nationalism and increasing fragmentation as far as I can tell. In that sense, 1919 was different. There was that impulse to reorganize in a sense.

But some of the similarities are there, and you see it in the politics. There are reactionary elements in our society, and you do get the feeling that as we move out of the pandemic that we are going to see radical changes in work and radical changes in society. We are seeing this in the social unrest that we see over issues of race and class, whether it was the social unrest in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020, and we see it in various elements of work, of home life, of society, and of culture. I think 1919 also had that element to it, that it was a moment of change politically, socially, and economically. There is that feeling that we are living through something like that now.

ALEX WOODSON: It is interesting to bring up Woodrow Wilson and to think about Joe Biden. There is not much of a comparison there.

Just thinking about Joe Biden as a president, it has been such a change from Donald Trump to have this man in the office who has his head down and is doing the work. Whether you like him or not, I think that is what is really needed right now. But at the same time we don't really have a sense of what kind of president he is going to be. Just an interesting thought.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yes. I think what the president has told us is that what's important to him is unity in this country. He comes in at a very polarized moment. I think one of his organizing principles is to move ahead the agenda that he believes in and that the Party believes in, but he really is seeking to unify the country. That I think is a kind of cardinal virtue for him and the kind of presidency he wants to have.

The other was—this may be a little bit high-minded—that he said he wanted to "restore the soul of America," so let's see what he means by that. I think what he means is a certain sense of decency, of empathy, and of solidarity, if you will. I don't know. This needs to be filled in. But again, I think this was his signature in terms of the kind of president he wants to be.

When we look in terms of international relations, again as you say, no Woodrow Wilson. On the other hand, his moment is different. Let's see what he is able to muster in terms of the use of American power, in terms of reorganizing alliances and perhaps organizing new alliances to meet collective threats. That does seem to be the moment that we are in, and the collective threats are not hard to imagine because they are right here with us, the pandemic being probably the first. Climate may be 1-A, and then issues like the migration crisis and some other political issues that are quite urgent. Again, open question. We'll see. 

But I do think that in terms of intent President Biden has made his intentions clear. He has certainly formed an administration that is consistent with that. Other presidents have been more ecumenical, if you will, a "team of rivals" and such, and putting together cabinets and leadership groups that are quite different or represent different views. I think that President Biden has been very consistent in his appointments and in his direction. My own view is that he has been very clear in intent. We will see how he performs.

ALEX WOODSON: Thanks to our guests Nikolas Gvosdev and Joel Rosenthal. For more, please go to carnegiecouncil.org or follow us on twitter @CarnegieCouncil

Thanks for listening and stay safe and healthy. 

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