At a time when international collaboration on the COVID-19 crisis is urgently needed, countries are mostly going it alone. We’re debating the relative merits of the Singaporean, South Korean, and German models vs. the Swedish, Danish, or at the extreme, the Chinese. Countries are racing to be the first to develop a vaccine, not necessarily to share it, but instead to treat their own citizens first.
The coronavirus crisis has taught us three painful lessons. First, pandemics precipitate much more than a global health catastrophe. Second, countries can’t go it alone—we are deeply interdependent. Third, even though pandemics have been anticipated for many years, we are profoundly unprepared for this crisis and the ripple effects across the system (not to mention the situation deteriorating further if critical infrastructure like the internet or the electric grid crashed or were sabotaged).
Why, then, are we not coming together to solve this challenge under the leadership of a single country or multilateral organization?
Beyond the role played by the World Health Organization, which has been a leading public health voice during the pandemic, the United Nations does not have the authority or wherewithal to convene countries to manage the numerous societal challenges in health, education, the economy, global supply chains, trade, critical infrastructure, and others. The United States once had that authority, but it has withdrawn from its traditional global leadership role to pursue President Trump’s mantra of “America First.”
We believe it is time to remind the world of a recent, highly successful, ad hoc coalition that rapidly brought dozens of countries together to defeat a global threat. Within just a few months after the so-called Islamic State’s or ISIL’s militias captured much of Syria and Iraq in 2014, President Obama had established a Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Through Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, the United States assembled a coalition of more than 60 states, which grew to more than 80 partners. The Coalition formed various working groups to focus on military, economic, informational, and other soft power strategies to defeat ISIL. By early 2019, the Coalition had defeated ISIL militarily in Iraq and Syria, though its work remains unfinished, in part due to President Trump’s indifference to the Coalition and its achievements.
The overall lesson is that coalitions can deliver effective results when backed by committed leadership. Coalitions can pool resources, create synergies, generate new opportunities, and accelerate outcomes. But of all the advantages that accrue from these kinds of coalitions, perhaps the three most important are: they leverage global talent and inspire innovation; they create habits of global cooperation; and they create visions of shared purpose, interests, and values.
It is difficult to imagine President Trump mounting such a coalition to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, and it is equally difficult to imagine the world welcoming his leadership. Nevertheless, the world would readily embrace a U.S.-led counter-COVID-19 coalition in the same manner it welcomed the counter-ISIL one, if it were genuinely collaborative and committed. We were pleased to see that Brett McGurk, former special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIL, came to a similar conclusion.
This is not a Republican versus Democratic issue: we contend that any other president would have undertaken such an effort. One need only recall that President George H.W. Bush assembled a momentous coalition that successfully pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in early 1991. Bush “41” showed us how to lead a global response team “from the front.”
To better prepare for the next crisis, we will need to do far more than stockpile masks and respirators. We need a fundamental re-think of our global architecture for anticipating, planning, managing, and mitigating these complex, interconnected threats. And we must build resilience across the entire system to absorb such shocks and still hold together.
As bad as it has been, coronavirus is really a dress rehearsal for the next crisis, which could take the shape of a far more deadly pandemic or any other Black Sky Hazard, or synchronous failures in which one crisis causes others in a downward cascade (e.g., massive floods bursting toxic waste storage facilities). The United States could provide such leadership, but to be truly effective and have global legitimacy, it should be an international organization. One option is a UN Plus model, that could incorporate not just states but also non-state actors, including the private sector. Disasters too often lead states to huddle inside their borders, or exercise authoritarian control. To combat that sort of reaction, we need a coherent community of democracies that maintains the partnerships and commitments to the global order upon which future coalitions can be built.
Despite the zero-sum behavior of so many global leaders during this crisis, scientists from around the world are collaborating at breakneck speed across virtual open borders, sharing vital information to develop vaccines and drugs to treat and ultimately cure this virus. It would be beneficial to humanity—today and tomorrow‑if governments could do the same. The United States should recognize the challenge and opportunity of this reality and lead again.
General John R. Allen is President of the Brookings Institution and previously was the first Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. General Allen served in, commanded, or led five international coalitions. Dr Karin von Hippel is Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute and previously served as Chief of Staff to General Allen in his role as Envoy.