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6 May 2020updated 11 May 2020 12:54pm

The global race for a coronavirus vaccine exposes a new reality: this is now a G-Minus Two world

The US and China are not merely failing to provide global leadership, they are obstructing the cause of multilateralism.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The London Summit of 2 April 2009 is often cited as a turning point in histories of the financial crisis. It was the moment when G20 leaders came together and agreed economic support and new financial regulations under the leadership of UK prime minister Gordon Brown.

If the current crisis were going to have a similar moment it would have been 24 April, when the World Health Organisation (WHO), Emmanuel Macron – probably the nearest equivalent to a 2009-vintage Brown figure today – and others hosted a virtual summit to lay out a path to a vaccine that could be shared throughout the world. “We’re facing a common threat, which we can only defeat with a common approach,” WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Yet two particularly important parties were missing. “I hope we’ll manage to reconcile around this joint initiative both China and the US,” added Macron pointedly.

They were also largely missing on 4 May, when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen gathered some 40 global leaders for an online summit. Donors pledged $8bn towards securing a genuinely global vaccine. But again, the two giants were missing. China participated in a low-key manner, sending its ambassador to the EU where most were represented by heads of government. And the US federal government was entirely absent.

Though as many as 90 possible vaccines are being investigated, even optimistic predictions suggest that it will take 12 to 18 months to find one. Then there is the question of producing billions of doses, which could take much longer.

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The nascent quest for a vaccine against Covid-19 will go in one of two directions. It might, and should, be an exercise in multilateralism: countries contributing their financial and scientific resources so that the most vulnerable people worldwide can be protected as fast as possible, irrespective of where they live. Or it might be the very opposite: a race between countries to get exclusive control of a vaccine that can be used to inoculate domestic populations first, and thus gain an advantage over others in reopening societies and economies, and then used for geopolitical leverage. This would be a world of bitter and perhaps violent conflicts and closed borders, as governments stepped in to shield mostly vaccinated populations from unvaccinated ones.

There is also a third possible outcome in which no vaccine is found and we simply have to learn to live with both the virus and a permanent spectre of lockdowns, focusing instead on antiviral drugs.

But for now, early indications suggest that it is the second world that is most likely. In March a German newspaper reported that Donald Trump had sought to buy exclusive rights to any vaccine produced by CureVac, a German pharmaceutical firm (the firm denied the claims). Now the US absence from the recent global talks, and its decision to cut funding to the WHO, are fuelling fears that Trump will seek an “America First” vaccine.

China pays more lip service to the international order but it too seems reluctant to join in with the transnational efforts and keen to use its medical advantages to geopolitical ends, as its heavily publicised donations of equipment and masks show. The most advanced Chinese vaccine, the first in the world to move into trials on real patients, is being produced in partnership with a branch of the People’s Liberation Army – not known as a beacon of multilateralism.

There’s a deft phrase to sum up this environment, one coined in a book by the US political scientist Ian Bremmer in 2011: the G-Zero world. Bremmer’s argument then was that the world was shifting not to a new form of leadership, neither G2 (US and China), G7 nor G20, but to a “G0” vacuum. The leaderless response to the coronavirus crisis confirms his prescience.

Yet the reality may actually be even more gloomy than Bremmer asserts. G-Zero implies a world in which major powers such as the US and China do not step up and provide the leadership that their size and power would warrant. But that was arguably the case in 2009 as well; it was, after all, the London Summit, not the Washington Summit or the Beijing Summit. Even over the course of the Syrian crisis, the US, under the Obama presidency, was largely passive. Those were years of merely underpowered Chinese and American roles in the world.

The race for a vaccine may indicate that we are entering a new period where the two giants are not just reticent in the multilateral order, but actively detrimental to it. Consider the two recent summits. The first was also skipped by Russia and India. The second saw a rival summit led by India, of the Non-Aligned Movement of 120 developing economies, clash with Von der Leyen’s spendathon.

Both the US and China are insecure; both are distracted by internal tensions and threats; both continue to nurture their international alliances (in my new World Review email last week I wrote of the growing prominence of the “Indo-Pacific” alliance of the US, Japan, Australia and India) but treat them as zero-sum games. With both obviously striking out on their own paths, it is harder for the remaining world powers to coalesce around a single forum. More than that: it encourages other powers to pull up the drawbridge too. Nationalism is infectious.

So we don’t live in a G-Zero World. We live in a world in which the two major powers are so hesitant and inward-looking that they are not just absent but exercise a chilling effect on global relations. It’s not G0, or G2, or G20, or G7, but G-2. Welcome to the G-Minus Two world. 

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain