The Triple Crisis Shaking the World


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More than just a public-health disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic is a history-defining event with far-reaching implications for the global distribution of wealth and power. With economies in free-fall and geopolitical tensions rising, there can be no return to normal: the past is passed, and only the future counts now.

BERLIN – The COVID-19 pandemic is entering its second phase as countries gradually reopen their economies and loosen or even revoke strict social-distancing measures. Yet, barring the arrival of an effective, universally available therapy or vaccine, the transition back to “normal” will be more aspirational than real. Worse, it risks triggering a second wave of infections at the local and regional level, and possibly on a much larger scale.

True, political decision-makers, health-care providers, scientists, and the general public have learned a great deal from the experience of the first wave. Though a second wave of infections seems highly probable, it will play out differently than the first wave. Rather than a full-scale lockdown that brings economic and social life to a standstill, the response will rely mainly on strict but targeted rules for social distancing, face masks, telecommuting, video conferencing, and so forth. But, depending on the next wave’s intensity, local or regional lockdowns may still be deemed necessary in the most extreme cases.

Much like the first wave of the pandemic, the next phase will involve a trio of simultaneous crises. To the risk of new infections getting out of control and spreading globally once again must be added the ongoing economic and social fallout and an escalating geopolitical bust-up. The global economy is already in a deep recession that will not be quickly or easily overcome. And this, along with the pandemic, will factor into the intensifying Sino-American rivalry, particularly in the months leading up to the United States’ presidential election in November.

As if this combination of health, socioeconomic, and geopolitical upheavals were not destabilizing enough, one also cannot ignore the Trump factor. If US President Donald Trump were to win a second four-year term, the current global chaos would escalate dramatically, whereas a victory for his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, would at least bring greater stability.

The stakes in the US presidential election could scarcely be higher. Given the world’s mounting crises, it is no exaggeration to say that humanity is approaching an historic crossroads. The full extent of the economic recession probably will not become apparent until this fall and winter, when it will most likely come as another shock, because the world is no longer accustomed to such dramatic contractions. Both psychologically and in real terms, we are accustomed to continuous growth.

Will richer countries in the West and Asia be able to deal with a deep, widespread, prolonged recession or even depression? Even if trillions of dollars in stimulus spending proves sufficient to offset a full collapse, the question will be what comes next.

In the worst scenario (which is not impossible), Trump is re-elected, the second wave of the pandemic is global, economies continue to crash, and the new cold war in East Asia turns hot. But even if one does not assume the worst, the triple crisis will usher in a new era, requiring that national political and economic systems and multilateral institutions be rebuilt. Even in the best-case scenario, there can be no return to the status quo ante. The past has passed; only the future counts now.

We should harbor no illusions about what might and should come next. The crises triggered by the pandemic are so deep and far-reaching that they inevitably will lead to a radical redistribution of power and wealth at the global level. The societies that have prepared for this outcome by mustering the necessary energy, know-how, and investments will be among the winners; those that fail to see what is coming will find themselves among the losers.

After all, long before the pandemic, the world was already undergoing a transition to the digital age, with far-reaching implications for the value of traditional technologies, legacy industries, and the distribution of global power and wealth. Moreover, an even greater global crisis is already fully visible on the horizon. The consequences of runaway climate change will be far graver than anything we have ever seen, and there will be no chance of a vaccine to solve that problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic thus marks a real turning point. For centuries, we have relied on a system of political economy comprising sovereign egoistical nation-states, industries (both under capitalism and socialism) that run on fossil fuels, and the consumption of finite natural resources. This system is quickly reaching its limits, making fundamental change unavoidable.
The task now is to learn as much as we can from the first wave of the triple crisis. For Europe, which seemed to have fallen far behind economically and geopolitically, this moment represents an unexpected opportunity to address its obvious shortcomings. Europe has the political values (democracy, rule of law, and social equality), technical know-how, and investment power to act decisively in the interest of its own principles and goals, as well as those of humanity more generally. The only question is what Europeans are waiting for.

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Trump Cuts U.S. Ties With World Health Organization Amid Pandemic

Democrats and NGOs slammed the White House decision, saying the U.S. president was ceding influence to China and further undercutting the coronavirus response.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks at reporters asking questions as he returns to the Oval Office after delivering a statement on China at the White House May 29, 2020 in Washington, DC.

On May 19, U.S. President Donald Trump gave the World Health Organization an ultimatum: Start implementing reforms in 30 days or else the United States would halt funding for the international body. But 11 days after the pronouncement, Trump pulled the trigger anyway, abruptly declaring on Friday the United States would be “terminating” its relationship with WHO and cutting off the institution from any U.S. cash.

The move culminates months of growing U.S. anger with the international organization against the backdrop of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing. It also throws into question the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. global health funding at the peak of a global pandemic.

Trump Cuts U.S. Ties With World Health Organization Amid…
Democrats and NGOs slammed the White House decision, saying the U.S. president was ceding influence to China and…

“We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engaged with them directly, but they have refused to act,” Trump said in a press conference on Friday. “Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.”

Top Trump officials and Republican allies in Congress have criticized WHO for being too friendly with China and providing cover for Beijing in the wake of its initial cover-up and mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

But the announcement also drew swift condemnation from public health experts, who said it would undercut WHO’s ability to address the pandemic just as its spread in the developing world picks up. “This is the most counterproductive move in the middle of a world health crisis,” said Megan Doherty, a senior director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps and a former White House National Security Council director for North Africa during the Obama administration. “In places with poor health infrastructure that don’t have an existing strong presence, this is creating a gap that we can’t fill.”

Other experts fear the decision will threaten the fate of other public health and vaccination programs around the world, beyond the current pandemic. “What it will do is rupture global vaccine programs, polio eradication, Ebola response, and a thousand other global health tasks that the U.S. relies on WHO to deliver,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior U.S. aid official now with the Center for Global Development.

Democratic lawmakers slammed the move, asserting Trump was scapegoating the WHO to cover up his administration’s own failings in the domestic pandemic response. This week, the U.S. coronavirus death toll reached a grim milestone, surpassing 100,000.

“Not wanting to take responsibility as the deaths continue to mount, he blames others,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “WHO could have been more assertive with China and declared a global health emergency sooner, but it is performing an essential function and needs our strong support, especially now.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the move would only hasten the rise of Chinese influence in international institutions. “The big winner today is the Chinese government,” he said. “They will now leap into the void created by the United States withdrawal from the WHO, and seek to become the world’s go-to power for global health. China will now write the global public health rules, not the United States. What a nightmare.”

Trump’s speech on Friday was centered on hammering China as the war of words between the two rival powers heats up. He rebuked China’s plan to impose a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong, declaring the territory no longer autonomous from Beijing and revoking Hong Kong’s special trade and economic status with the United States.

His announcement on the WHO also leaves more questions than answers—including questions the administration hasn’t even sorted through internally yet, according to several officials familiar with the matter. It was not immediately clear whether the United States “terminating” its relationship with the WHO meant it was legally withdrawing from the institution. Trump also gave no additional details on how the United States would reallocate its nearly $450 million a year in annual funding to WHO to other public health programs.
The decision appeared to have taken the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva and the world health agency by surprise, several diplomats told Foreign Policy. “I don’t think anybody knew. Nobody ever knows what Trump is going to do,” said Ilona Kickbusch, a global health scholar with Chatham House, a think tank. “You have a president who needs to deflect attention from other problems and WHO seems to be the right organization [to target] right now.”

If WHO is completely cut off from U.S. funding—making up 15 percent of the institution’s budget—it’s largest funder will become not another major global power, but rather the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (China only contributes about 0.21 percent of the budget, around $40 million.)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been a leading critic of WHO, using his agency’s podium and conservative talk shows as a bully pulpit to batter the world body as the pandemic continues to spread worldwide. The former Kansas congressman accused WHO of protecting the Chinese government and failing to help provide samples of the virus from where it originated in Wuhan, China.

“When I see whether it’s the left-wing media or Democrats saying, ‘Well gosh, if you all would just cooperate with the World Health Organization,’ I am astounded,” Pompeo said in an interview with the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro earlier this month. “They failed us. It’s not the first time the WHO has failed the world in the time of a pandemic. You can’t go back to business as usual; we’ve got to fix it.”

Despite the criticisms coming from Washington, U.S. efforts to influence the direction of WHO appear to have fallen flat. Trump’s announcement on Friday follows weeks of efforts by his ambassador to the Geneva-based organization, Andrew Bremberg, to prod WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus into taking a tougher line with China. This includes an unsuccessful U.S. push at an annual WHO meeting this month to get the institution to open an investigation into the origins of the virus in China and invite Taiwan back into the health agency as an observer. China ardently opposes Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, seeing it as a sign of Taiwan’s sovereignty from Beijing.



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