If ever the modern world faced a "perfect storm," this is it. The combination of a deadly and highly infectious virus, an emerging worldwide economic depression, the collapse of global governance, and an absence of a coordinated and effective international response--all have contributed to a tragedy of historic magnitude, one that will not be easily overcome. While quarantines and self-isolation have helped mitigate the crisis, few believe that these measures alone can solve it, let alone provide a roadmap for the future.
How this storm will end remains unknown, beyond the virtual certainty that the world will eventually weather it. Eventually, a satisfactory remedy will emerge through some combination of vaccines, improved treatment methods, social distancing, and new mechanisms of international trade. Exactly when and how this solution will be arrived at is difficult, if not impossible, to predict. But it is clear that the internecine political feuding that has consumed America and diverted its attention from dangerous threats must come to a halt. The costs have been enormous.
At the same time, the general approach of governments around the world of narrowly defining their priorities created a climate and context in which the virus emerged and in which necessary precautions were ignored. Ending the pandemic requires effective responses, both individual and collective, from key political and economic powers such as the United States, China, the European Union, Russia, Great Britain, and Saudi Arabia. For any broad solutions to emerge to combat the coronavirus and to prepare the world for similar challenges in the future, we must first explore why and how this unprecedented medical, political, and economic threat developed.
One lesson we should learn is the primacy of sovereign states. The notion that sovereignty is outdated is itself outdated. It is patently obvious that the pandemic is prompting governments to focus on their national interests first. Only on that basis can they then seek to engage in international cooperation. However, the governments of the great powers should acknowledge their collective culpability for failing to identify global priorities and instead taking imprudent steps that diverted attention from issues of major global concern in favor of non-essential and outright cavalier pursuits. Even less justifiable was the near destruction of the international system designed to create and enforce a rules-based mechanism of international trade, and the weaponization of global commerce by states to promote their unilateral interests, subjective values, or domestic political ambitions. Institutions like the un, World Trade Organization, and World Health Organization (who) are not a panacea for world ills. But they can provide useful, if limited, signals ahead of trouble and serve as shock absorbers for international disagreements. As Henry Kissinger has eloquently expressed in the Wall Street Journal, "No country, not even the U.S., can in a purely national effort overcome the virus. Addressing the necessities of the moment must ultimately be coupled with a global collaborative vision and program. If we cannot do both in tandem, we will face the worst of each."
It is not as though we couldn't have seen this coming. In the past twenty years alone, there were three major global outbreaks of deadly viruses: SARS from 2002-2004, HINI in 2009-2010, and Ebola from 2013-2016. None of these outbreaks created the type of global devastation we currently face, as these viruses lacked the specific combination of lethality, ease of transfer, delayed manifestation of symptoms, and the lack of vaccines and widespread testing infrastructure which allowed the coronavirus to thrive. But each epidemic made clear the prospect for global disaster.
In a globally connected world with increasingly interdependent economies and an unprecedented high-speed flow of both people and goods across the world, it did not require an excessive imagination to foresee the risk of a future pandemic. Indeed, international bodies such as the World Health Organization, non-profits such as the...