The Great Game of the 21st century is upon us and as ever it’s a scramble for resources. This time, though, the thirst is not for land or diamonds or gold. Personal protective equipment has become the oil of the contemporary moment: desperately needed by a world that is strafed by coronavirus. Britain has its own urgent PPE supply problems. But what about the broader international struggle? The answer to this question offers the clearest glimpse of how our post-pandemic global politics is likely to look.
At the top of this scramble stands China. Ahead of the curve (for obvious reasons), it imported about 2.5 billion healthcare items between 24 January and 29 February, thereby denying vital equipment to other countries. Now Beijing forces many of the states it bought the equipment from to buy it back, often at bloated prices. Now Beijing plays God, deciding which countries will benefit from its ‘largess’ and which will not. And now Beijing, knowing how badly the world needs these masks and gloves and ventilators, grandstands internationally without shame.
In the United States, Donald Trump spent weeks actually refusing to accept that any of this was happening. Instead he declared that he wanted the country open for business by Easter. His attitude cost Americans dearly. With insufficient PPE to hand, Washington is doing anything it can to source the stuff. Just recently it redirected back for its own use, that is to stay it stole, 200,000 masks bound for Germany: a move the Germans accurately described as ‘modern piracy’.
Washington now can’t even supply its own states. Trump recently told governors to source their own ventilators and other equipment. The federal government, he said, is ‘not a shipping clerk.’ Things are so bad that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was forced to tweet out a plea for help: ‘NYS has a critical need for PPE including gloves, gowns & masks. We need companies to be creative to supply the crucial gear our healthcare workers need. NY will pay a premium and offer funding.’ It was an astonishing tweet from the man who governs the centre of US financial might.
The EU, meanwhile, is in schism once more as the Southern states accuse their Northern neighbours of not doing enough to help. Not only have the Northern states, led by Germany, refused to alleviate their woes by mutualising their debt, they also, at least reportedly, initially blocked the export of medical supplies to fellow member states in need. So much for bloc solidarity. Last month, the Italian ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari criticised the EU response and asked it (read its key states) to do more. Things have improved. But the memories will linger. The bitterness will calcify.
Forget trade wars and Eurobonds, climate change and human rights, it has taken the struggle for PPE to drive home the true configuration of global politics. Forget diplomacy’s genteel rhetoric; forget the performative utterances of social media. When politicians’ backs are to the wall, when their countries face near-unprecedented health threats, only then does what really animates them become clear.
And the reality is stark. Neither wealth nor a welcoming international order has reformed Beijing. Xi Jinping’s Communist party may mouth the platitudes of liberalism, but the state is as aggressive and expansionist as it was during the Cold War. The United States is drowning in a coronavirus catastrophe brought about by Trump’s initial refusal to take it seriously. Its federal government will emerge from the pandemic weakened – if not legally then morally. Once again, the EU has shown that in crisis it goes to war with itself. Forget the talk of a great coming together to battle the virus: this is the reality. These are the faultlines along which the world is divided, these are the battle formations of our future.
There are lessons here should we choose to heed them. What is happening in the EU makes it clear we were right to leave; it is dysfunctional. We must maintain good relations without compromising our political break from it when Brexit negotiations finally resume. China is not our friend. If we were ever foolish enough to believe it was, this delusion must surely now be banished for good. We must, as a matter of urgency, re-evaluate our supply chains. It’s a matter of national security. The 5G contract must be scrapped: it will be tough, but it is necessary. And finally, the United States will soon be in need of friends, the government must make sure Britain is high among them. Washington may be at sea under Trump, but, like all things, he will pass.
The new post-corona world is slowly emerging. Only once we see it clearly can we finally do what needs to be done; and only then can we finally start on the tough but necessary task of moving on from this most global of tragedies.