“Everyone has a plan,” the celebrated American boxer Mike Tyson once famously quipped. “Until you get punched in the face,” he continued. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a massive punch to our world, leaving nearly two million dead, some 500 million jobless and a devastating toll of rising poverty, business bankruptcy and social unrest. It’s been quite a punch.
How we respond to this punch will shape the world for the next generation and beyond. In moments of crisis like this, the world’s leading powers should step up, partly because the world needs them and partly because it remains in their interest to do so.
US President-elect Joe Biden often says that “America is back”. He has noted that “we’re at the head table once again” and “the world does not organise itself”. By this, he means the United States has returned to the global stage not as an “America First” superpower wielding tariffs and threats and disrupting established norms and institutions, but as a multilateral partner intent on rebuilding alliances.
Biden has said that he plans to return the US to the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office, and convene a climate meeting with heads of state in his first 100 days. While this sort of talk certainly calms much shattered nerves in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, it fails to tackle the biggest – and existential problem – facing our world today: the post Covid-19 global economic carnage.
Many of Biden’s top foreign-policy advisors have often lamented America’s “lost standing” in the world. Often, that lost standing was sharpest in the salons of Paris and conference halls of Davos. For the some-85 per cent of the population who live outside the Western world and its elite echo chambers, there is little time to lament America’s lost standing. They are too busy trying to make a living in our highly disruptive, fast-paced world. Their attitude is: “If America can help, great. If not, can you please get out of the way so I can feed my family?”
The Covid-19 pandemic tore through the lives of everyone, with the pain especially acute in the developing world. The World Bank estimates that between 88 million and 114 million people have fallen into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic – the first rise in extreme poverty numbers since 1990. The World Bank also warns of “a lost decade” ahead as growth forecast numbers tick downward as the pandemic “shrapnel” – lost productivity, business bankruptcy, rising debt levels, diminished tax bases – remains lodged in economies worldwide.
To truly show that “America is back”, Biden should take leadership on post-Covid 19 economic recovery worldwide. Yes, much recovery is needed in the US, and a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan is in the works, but singularly focusing on recovery in the US smacks of an “America First” agenda, rather than an “America is back” one.
What the world needs desperately is a multilateral global economic recovery initiative, and here is where the US can lead. It will be important to note, however, that the US may be at the head table, as Biden says, but it’s not the only one. A look at 2019 development aid assistance figures puts the US at number two worldwide, behind China. A look at the top 10 aid donors of the past year reveals that seven of them are close US allies (minus China, of course). Germany, Britain, Japan and France make that list, as does the United Arab Emirates – the 7th largest donor worldwide, and the largest per capita donor globally. The UAE has also been a Covid-19 humanitarian relief leader, with aid shipments going to Italy, Iran and far beyond.
One of Biden’s first calls when he enters office should be to President Xi Jinping of China and other major aid donors. On the agenda should be a global economic recovery initiative. Washington should also urge Beijing to consider seriously lowering or wiping out the massive debts several poor countries have accrued to China over the past decade – debts that are crippling their recoveries.
Biden is off to a good start by nominating a high-profile figure, Samantha Power, a former US ambassador to the UN, to head the relatively low-profile US Agency for International Development (USAID). He also elevated the post of USAID administrator to the US national security council – an acknowledgement that development assistance should be elevated to the highest table of foreign policymaking. While this minor bit of US bureaucratic news is a good sign, it remains to be seen if the US will keep its eye on the ball on development assistance, or will it remain consumed in its own domestic flames.
For much of the world, America’s political unrest and divisions have become something of a distant soap opera. Far too many people are far too busy trying to recover their lives and livelihoods to bother too much with what happens next to Donald Trump. If, as Biden says, America is back, the best way to show it would be through sustained, innovative leadership in tackling the biggest problem we all face: the post-pandemic economic carnage dragging down the world – especially among the most vulnerable.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the “New Silk Road Monitor.”
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