By Doyle McManus
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 228,000 lives and thrown the global economy into chaos. It’s making the world more dangerous, too.
In the Middle East, Iranian gunboats have harassed US warships in the Arabian Gulf, and Iranian-backed militias have attacked US bases in Iraq.
After World War I ended in 1918, with an influenza pandemic similar to the coronavirus, no joint recovery effort was launched. Nations went their own way, embracing nationalist politics and protectionist economics, and the next global cataclysm soon followed.
In Asia, China has continued its drive to take control of the South China Sea, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and sending an oil survey ship into Malaysian waters. North Korea, which hates to be overlooked, has fired off missiles and remained strangely silent about rumours that its leader, Kim Jong UN, was dying.
Even Russia, with its own surge of coronavirus cases, has resumed buzzing US and Nato aircraft over the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.
A distracted world
“You’re definitely seeing a time when these countries see an opening to do things that we would normally combat instantly — both rhetorically and perhaps militarily — when we’re off-balance,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.
“I’m sure they all consider us not only distracted, but militarily less adroit right now than we normally would be,” he said in a recent podcast.
Not surprisingly, Trump administration officials insist they’re not distracted, although the nation’s medical and economic catastrophes have understandably taken most of their attention.
President Donald Trump responded to Iran’s recent actions with a bellicose tweet, saying he had instructed the Navy “to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” Pentagon officials said a tweet is not an order, and they have not changed their rules of engagement, which allow US ships to fire in self-defence.
The US Navy recently said it sent three warships into the South China Sea to reinforce freedom of navigation, a long-standing Pentagon mission in the resource-rich, strategically crucial region.
But only one country has an aircraft carrier operating in the western Pacific now, and it’s China. The two US carriers in the region were confined to port after crew members were stricken with COVID-19: the Theodore Roosevelt in Guam and the Ronald Reagan in Japan.
With the contagion spreading on land and sea, the economy in free fall and unrelenting chaos in the White House, why would anyone be distracted?
The long-term effects of the pandemic look even more alarming: a global depression that could persist for years, more failed states and unremitting big-power competition.
China has been trying to win friends and escape blame for the novel coronavirus’ origin by doling out aid and medical supplies in an effort so heavy-handed it has created a backlash in some countries. But don’t take any comfort in that. America’s shambolic response to the crisis has put a huge dent in its global image as a competent cutting-edge nation.
The United States and China “are two extremes, neither of which can be a model for Europe,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told local reporters, an extraordinary statement from a US ally that American democracy looks no better than Chinese authoritarianism.
Now add one more problem: a global leadership vacuum. Unlike during most major international crises of the postwar world, this time the US president has gone missing. –GN