We are experiencing a painful introduction to anti-globalism and its consequences.
By David Frum | The Atlantic | March 27, 2020
To fight a pandemic, governments are erecting barriers to the movement of people and goods unlike anything seen since the end of World War II. In some ways, the new barriers are even tighter. America’s borders with Canada and Mexico remained open during the war, but they are closed now.
These interventions have been introduced as temporary measures. Globalization is suspended only for the duration, governments insist. But if we are not very careful now, during the crisis, the duration will extend itself indefinitely.
In the crisis, even the ideal of global cooperation is dying. The Trump administration did not consult with European allies—if allies remains the right word—before effectively suspending transatlantic air travel. The German government accused the Trump administration of trying to gain exclusive rights to Germany’s vaccine research, again without consultation. France and Germany forbade the export of protective medical gear to Italy. Hungary and Poland unilaterally closed their borders.
Back in January, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business of a silver lining to the epidemic: “It will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” he said. What we are in fact seeing is a collapse of world trade on a pace and scale never before seen in peacetime. Shanghai, the world’s largest port, suffered a 20 percent drop in traffic in the single month of February compared with the previous year. America’s largest port, Long Beach, suffered an 11 percent decline in February. And March is poised to be much, much worse than February.
During the crisis, it’s hard to think of the long term. But during a crisis is precisely when you must think of the long term—otherwise, we may stumble into a future of perpetual national selfishness. Against the short-term preference of so many of today’s national governments, it’s vital to keep in mind the future we should want: the fastest possible return to open trade, travel, and investment.
“The future does not belong to globalists,” President Trump declared at the United Nations back in September 2019. We are now experiencing a painful introduction to anti-globalism and its consequences. Autarky—national self-sufficiency—was an ideal of the authoritarians of the 1930s. It failed then, and it is failing again now. This pandemic is daily proving that border guards and travel restrictions are futile protections against pathogens. Post-coronavirus, the world will need stronger international organizations and closer international cooperation.
As so often, the worst offender against the ideals of global cooperation has been the government of China. Before the crisis, China manufactured half of the world’s medical masks. China has expanded production since December, but hoarded its supply and banned exports. China’s cover-up of the outbreak of the disease cost other countries—even countries governed by more responsible leaders than the United States at the moment—precious days and weeks of preparation. Through December, Chinese police harassed and detained doctors who shared information about the virus. China had mapped the virus by January 2, 2020, but did not publish that information until January 9. As late as January 14, China insisted to the World Health Organization that the disease could not be spread from one human to another—information that the Chinese authorities knew to be false. It was the next day, January 15, that the first person is known to have departed Wuhan for the United States carrying the disease.
But China found ready imitators. The European Union also embargoed exports of medical gear, cutting African nations off from their previous suppliers. With characteristic self-harm, the United States under President Trump had already embargoed itself. As Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics has written, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese medical products in early 2018 and more in 2019. Higher prices on imported equipment resulted in lower purchases and depleted inventories. Reluctance to “buy Chinese” may partly explain why the Trump administration ignored advice to increase stockpiles of protective gear well in advance of any crisis.
The risk is huge that today’s emergency measures will harden into tomorrow’s institutionalized rules: enduring barriers to travel, trade, and investment. Countries may decide they dare not rely on imported medical equipment, or imported antibiotics and vaccines, or other people’s air carriers. Soon we may revert to the day when each country tried to do as much as possible for itself, regardless of cost and rationality.
A fenced-off world will be a poorer world. But the economic costs are the least of the dangers ahead. A fenced-off world will also be a more mutually suspicious world, a world more prone to conflict. Perversely, it will also be a world more exposed to pandemic disease, because a fenced-off world will also be a world of diminished cooperation and censored information. If China had been a freer country, the ruling regime would not have been able to suppress the news of the outbreak as long as it did. Free and independent media are among the most important tools of disease prevention. Yet in the direction we are moving, authoritarian governments are trying to use the pandemic to assert greater control over the media. Trump obviously would like to do so, if he could.
Compare and contrast the coronavirus pandemic with the Ebola eruption of 2014. The 2014 Ebola outbreak is thought by experts to have originated with a bat bite in the West African country of Guinea. The World Health Organization declared an outbreak on March 23, 2014. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deployed teams to West Africa in July. The outbreak was swiftly limited; by September 2015 it was almost entirely eradicated.
Ebola is not as contagious as the coronavirus. But it was different in another way, too. It first appeared in countries that are small, poor, and dependent on international help. It simply was not feasible for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to defy the rest of the world in the way that China defied the world with the coronavirus.
The novel coronavirus appeared in China in early December. The disease was raging virulently by end of December. Yet only in January did China agree to admit international medical teams into the country—and not until early February did China honor that promise. Although Chinese scientists had successfully mapped the virus by early January, they delayed sharing their information with the world for a week.
China is simply too big and too powerful to be constrained by any other country, even the United States. But it’s not so big and so powerful as to evade all constraint entirely. If the United States could have acted jointly with the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Australia, and other partners, that assemblage of states might have swayed China. If, for example, all those countries had cut their air links to China when China began stiffing the WHO in mid-December, that might have shocked China into more cooperative action. But the pressure would only have worked if it was multilateral. And the only way a multilateral group of nations can act fast is if they have their multinational organization in place in advance.
Instead, the only multilateral health organization is the World Health Organization. The WHO is an agency of the United Nations, thoroughly contaminated by the usual UN vices: over-bureaucracy, overspending, over-deference to corrupt and dictatorial regimes. In 2017, the WHO named the former Zimbabwean ruler-for-life Robert Mugabe a “goodwill ambassador.” Even as China brushed off the WHO in December and January, the WHO’s director general obsequiously praised China’s cooperation and transparency.
But of course, there was no multilateral response. The Trump administration has poisoned American relationships with almost every historical U.S. ally, to the point where it’s a question whether these relationships can still meaningfully be described as alliances at all. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceives of leadership as barking orders at other countries, and then complaining on Fox News when his orders are disregarded. The American approach to the coronavirus has been nearly as dishonest and selfish as China’s own. Trump-led America is not even trying to cooperate with former partners; by now, it’s doubtful that the former partners would trust an offer of cooperation if it were extended.
Trump and his media partners at Fox News have recently pivoted from denying the crisis to blaming it on China. They want Americans to call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Their motive is obvious: to shift blame from a negligent president onto sinister foreigners. (Trump and Fox’s preference for “Chinese virus” over “China virus” subtly shifts the blame from the state of China to Chinese people, including people of Chinese descent living in the United States.)
At any given moment, the world is either moving forward to cooperation, trade, and peace, or regressing toward protectionism, isolation, and conflict. We have experienced cooperation and know its benefits. We have experienced isolationism and have suffered its miseries. The circumstances may change. The choice does not. Let’s choose wisely.
Let’s also face facts. To convert our choices into reality, we must take into account the adverse truths revealed by the present crisis.
Here are three of them: The paranoia and secretiveness of the rulers of China horribly worsened the pandemic, and the Western world’s dependence on China for medical supplies made Western countries more vulnerable to the pandemic when it escaped China.
The Trump administration wants to exploit the first of these facts as a political excuse for its own indifference and incompetence. It hopes to use the second as a justification for its inward turn and its selfish economic policies.
Trump’s bad use of facts does not, however, alter the facts. They are facts—and if you want to build a better world than Trump intends for you, you must yourself account for those facts in your plans.
So we must face the first of these facts. The West cannot change China. China is too big, and too strong. The West should wish those Chinese people, including many in Hong Kong, who seek a freer future for China, well. But as they wish them well, Western countries need to keep in mind that the present Chinese state is not like the former Soviet Union. It is not as aggressive, not as expansionary, and not as ideological. The Chinese state is more dangerous for the harm it incubates inside itself than for the harm it schemes against others. China’s currency manipulations and predatory trade policies were adopted to protect the state from its own people; they are only incidentally harmful to others. The same is true of China’s pandemic cover-up: That was an act of regime self-preservation. The harm to the rest of the world was collateral damage, not a malign plot.
But we must also face the second of these facts. When the West bought cheaply from China, it did so to help itself. If a Chinese-made antibiotic costs 50 cents a unit, and a locally made antibiotic costs $1, that difference liberates 50 cents for other important purposes. Substituting $1 antibiotics for 50-cent antibiotics may create jobs, as the Trump administration promises. But those jobs will be bought at the expense of severe consequences just beyond the frame of vision.
The difference between the insecure Chinese antibiotic and a more secure alternative can, however, be shrunk. The more widely we trade in medical goods with nations other than China, the better the price of those goods will become, even if we do not rely on China. “Made in USA” will cost a lot more. “Made in the NAFTA zone” will cost less. “Made in the NAFTA zone, the European Union, the UK, Japan, Australia, or other trustworthy Indo-Pacific nations” will cost less than that. By widening the zone of non-China medical sourcing beyond “America First” to a billion-person market of proven and trusted partners, we can capture almost all the benefits of secure supply at significantly lower cost in wasted resources. We can then use some of the saved resources to create stockpiles in advance of the next crisis—as the Trump administration was urged, but neglected, to do.
Finally, here is the third fact to face. The concept of globalization joins together many forms of international connection: trade, investment, health, the environment, travel, and immigration. Some of these are more difficult for democracies to accept than others, most especially mass immigration. Some of these are less essential than others, again, especially mass immigration. To revive and preserve the most essential forms of international cooperation, wise leaders should recognize that mass immigration belongs to its own political category. If we are to return rapidly to international cooperation and trade, mass immigration must be treated differently.
The lesson of the present crisis is exactly the opposite of the “America First” approach urged by the Trump administration. It is the need to lower barriers between trusted partners, to build stronger international health organizations outside the moribund structure of the United Nations, to encourage European unity as the U.S. did from 1946 until 2016, and to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership jettisoned by Trump. Instead of reviling China—or, worse, stoking bigotry against people of Chinese descent—we should work around China, not only on medical safety but on climate change and other issues, too. We need more transnational agreements, not fewer; wider zones of trust, not narrower.
If we build a world of trust that’s efficient and attractive enough, we may find that we can inspire better behavior from China too. Great nations do not react well to threats, and they react even worse to insults and name-calling of the empty Trumpian kind. But they do sometimes respond to positive incentives. Just as the European Union sways would-be members to act more democratically and liberally in order to join, so a partnership of trusted partners in global health might inspire better behavior in China.
The Chinese state, by virtue of its size and power, is inherently a problem, a challenge, a rival. In the early part of his administration, Trump treated the Chinese state as an adversary. Now, in political desperation, Trump is treating the Chinese nation as a racial menace. Soon, we may find that Trump has goaded it into outright enmity. Meanwhile, Trump is alienating former friends—and pushing many of them in China’s direction. Trump seeks to taint the United States with his own lonely malice, making of us a friendless giant in conflict with other giants as friendless as we.
Amid the devastation of the Second World War, Secretary of State Cordell Hull looked backward at the path to ruin. “Nationalism,” he said, “run riot between the last war and this war, defeated all attempts to carry out indispensable measures of international economic and political action, encouraged and facilitated the rise of dictators, and drove the world straight toward the present war.”
Hull was 70 when he spoke those words—old by the standards of his time. Some of the younger New Dealers dismissed him as an anachronism. His ideas about free trade, they said, should be consigned to the dead past, not the exciting new future of national planning and state control. The old man was right, though, and the bright young New Dealers were wrong. Hull’s memory of how things had been proved the opposite of reactionary. Adapted to the new conditions of the postwar world, the old ideas delivered even more abundant prosperity and an even more secure peace than they had before.
We need Cordell Hulls for our time. Instead, our present leadership is hurtling us toward a future in which nations will self-isolate and self-quarantine, producing similarly miserable consequences for themselves collectively as today’s pandemic imposes on us as individuals. A better future is possible. But it won’t happen on its own, and it certainly won’t be achieved by this administration—which also chooses the worst option without understanding the menu or the prices.
DAVID FRUM is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.Connect