US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have different ideas about the direction the world order. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Change is the only constant in the world. Believing that the US will remain a global leader for all time contradicts this universal truth. With the pandemic, the future of world order came to light once again. Its cause is Beijing’s efficiency in curbing the contagion and Washington’s incompetence to deal with it.

There are probabilities that are making the rounds: the US will falter as a global leader and China will lead. There is a middle path also: the one where neither Washington nor Beijing is the prominent global leader and the international system operates as what we may term “bi-multipolar.” 

Global order has been in transition

The debate over a US decline gained traction in the post-Cold War era when Washington was in the ecstasy of its “unipolar moment.” In the late 1990s, Samuel P Huntington contested the very notion of America’s “unipolarity” when the US actually became the sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The international system was not “unipolar” but rather, as Huntington put forward, it was “uni-multipolar,” where America was a dominant player working in a cluster of other major powers. He predicted that with the turn of a new century, the world would become increasingly multipolar.

In the pre-pandemic times, the West was said to be on the verge of either a great crisis or a fundamental transformation. The US-architected liberal order, predicted John Ikenberry, was going through a transition. According to Charles Kupchan, an unexpected clash between US and Europe was imminent.

Within a few years of his presidency, Donald Trump undid America’s decades-old partnerships. Declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization obsolete; withdrawing US support from UNESCO and pulling out of the Paris climate treatyabandoning America’s Asian and European allies are some of the highlights of his tenure.

By taking such drastic action, he not only eroded the trust in US-Europe partnership but also jolted the bedrock liberal values of world order. Trump’s clumsy response to the Covid-19 pandemic is only a continuation of his perilous and transactional record.   

America’s bungling response

Both the US government and the media took refuge in criticizing China’s response to Covid-19, while the global health crisis kept knocking at America’s door. Despite having been previously aware of the possibility and gravity of a pandemic outbreak, President Trump handled the issue in his Trumpian manner. Denying outright that the pandemic could hit the nation badly, he kept repeating that “we have it totally under control.”

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar warned the president of the disease morphing into a pandemic. While the pandemic was on Washington’s horizon, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that “the virus will be good for the US economy.” Amid the calls for a forceful response to the emerging pandemic, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held back, citing economic constraints.

As the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a “public health emergency,” Trump kept busy hosting a campaign rally in Iowa. Thousands of people attended the rally while Trump claimed again, “We have it very well under control.” He gave false promises that the number of new coronavirus cases would go down and stated that “a virus is like a miracle, it will disappear.” Ever the populist, Trump ignored all the omens and hosted rallies in other states as well.

Liberal institutions fail to deliver

Beset by denial and dysfunction, the US soon began to be engulfed in crisis. The most unfortunate moment came when the graveyards in New York had no space for the dead and mass graves had to dig up.

A country whose institutions failed to curb calamity at home cannot deliver on the global front. As Henry Kissinger rightly observed, the US flourished and prospered because it developed institutions that can predict a calamity, avert its fallout, and fix what is broken. However, this is not the case now. Leaving the United Nations leaderless in the midst of a global health crisis amd accusing the WHO of bias toward China are some of the ominous signposts. Nonetheless, these will help map the future of the liberal world order.

Is China taking lead?

Delivering medical facilities, coordinating with other nations and calling for global cooperation has been China’s response so far – laudable, yet not enough to make China a “prominent global leader.” Its economy has been China’s trump card, but now, when the pandemic is making everything uncertain, it cannot lend much financial support to the West. At least, not on the scale that it did during the global financial crisis of 2008.

Beijing is neither ready nor willing to shoulder global responsibilities. On the other hand, the US is rapidly undermining its role as a global leader by making mistake after mistake. This is the dilemma that has halted the machinery of the liberal world order.

Under the guise of global cooperation, it was America that shouldered the responsibilities of a world order. Liberty, equality and fraternity in the form of international cooperation was the image of that global superpower.

Beijing has not been able to steal the American charm so far. The US stands as an emblem of human rights and liberties, while China does not. Washington offers, as Michael Green and Eva Mediores have noted, the long-cherished vision of security and prosperity. Beijing is not even close to doing so.

Future of world order

The US has become inefficient, but not irrelevant. It will continue to stay relevant after the pandemic is over. The post-pandemic world order is not going to change dramatically. It will pick up from where it left off.

The international institutions will be broken, but as Washington holds expertise and experience in its hands, and Beijing the finances and the will to cooperate, they will fix the broken world. With this scenario in mind, there arises a question: Is the world heading toward “bi-multipolarity”? 

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal is Lecturer in International Relations department of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad (NUML). He holds an MS degree in International Cooperation from Yonsei University, Seoul, an MSc in international relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and an MA in English from NUML.