The United States, China, and the great values game
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Global crises inevitably raise questions of global leadership. As the world confronts a dramatically changing climate, a pandemic, a global economic recession, and an ongoing refugee crisis, it seeks competent leaders that both model best behavior and bear a greater share of the burden in responding to these challenges. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world came calling, both superpowers, the United States and China, fell short. The United States flailed helplessly, unable to overcome a lack of presidential leadership, a partisan divide, and a broken health care system.1 On the global stage, the United States abdicated leadership in spectacular fashion. Its moves to divert personal protective equipment (PPE) away from other countries,2 as well as its suspension of funding and subsequent move to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO),3 served as defining and devastating symbols of the Trump administration’s “America First” mantra. China, in contrast, sought to grasp the mantle of global leadership. It provided material and technical support for much of the world and pledged significant assistance to meet the challenge of future pandemics. Its response was marred, however, by both a lack of transparency and accountability that enabled the virus to spread within China and abroad and its self-aggrandizing and coercive diplomacy.4 Moreover, any hope that the two powers would together step up to coordinate a global response was quickly quashed by the efforts of each to offload blame onto the other. The WHO also failed its mandate to array the world’s resources to ensure the timely and transparent transmission of best policy options and practices in combating the pandemic.5 The triumph belonged to the middle and large powers, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany, who boasted competent leaders and resilient systems. They managed to arrest the spread of the virus at home and offer assistance to others in need. Nonetheless, they lacked the heft and reach to lead globally in a sustained manner.
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