American boxer Mike Tyson once famously quipped: “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has been a massive punch to our world, leaving nearly 2 million dead and some 500 million jobless, along with a devastating toll of rising poverty, business bankruptcy and social unrest. It has been quite a punch.
How we respond 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 of the table once again,” and “the world does not organize itself.” By this, he means the US 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 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 shattered nerves in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, it fails to tackle the biggest — and most existential — problem facing our world today: The post COVID-19 global economic carnage.
Many of Biden’s top foreign policy advisers have often lamented America’s “lost standing” in the world. That lost standing was perhaps felt sharpest in the salons of Paris and conference halls of Davos. For the 85-odd percent of the world’s population who live outside the Western world and its elite echo chambers, however, 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 while 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 the worldwide post-COVID-19 economic recovery. Yes, much recovery is needed in the US and a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan is in the works, but singularly focusing on recovery at home smacks of an “America First” agenda.
What the world desperately needs 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 of the table, as Biden says, but it is not the only one that can sit there. The 2019 development aid assistance figures put the US at No. 2 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, the UK, Japan and France make that list, as does, surprisingly, the UAE, which is the seventh-largest donor worldwide and the largest per capita. 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, followed by the 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 has made a good start by nominating a high-profile figure, former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, to head the relatively low-profile US Agency for International Development (USAID). He will also elevate the post of USAID administrator to the US National Security Council — an acknowledgement that development assistance should be at the highest level of foreign policymaking. While this minor bit of 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 remain consumed by 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 the world down — especially its most vulnerable people.