The coronavirus that now poses a dire threat to public health and to the world economy is so dangerous partly because it is novel—a new harm that our bodies and our governments must learn to face. But it is also a reminder of a lesson we should have learned long ago: that, to thrive, people of every nationality must combine strengths. We have been taught this lesson over and over again through history, only to forget when our tribal instincts resurface and wisdom is lost.
There is something childish about the belief that, in our era, one can be safe behind a wall, a moat or even an ocean. The principal threats we face, even beyond pandemic disease, do not respect boundaries. They include rogue governments, terrorists, cyber warriors, the uncontrolled spread of advanced weapons, multinational criminal networks and environmental catastrophe. These perils cannot be defeated by any country acting alone, and any country would be foolish to try.
It was for good reason, then, that world leaders strove in decades past to establish regional and global mechanisms to spur development, prevent war, promote health, regulate trade and prosecute crimes against humanity. The institutions created were often overly bureaucratic, plagued by politics and less efficient that one might hope. However, they have also helped us to resolve dangerous conflicts and to make unprecedented gains in, among other missions, alleviating poverty, expanding literacy and containing the ravages of communicable diseases from polio and yellow fever to HIV/AIDS and Ebola.
This record is worth reflecting on at a time when the largest and most powerful national governments are not prioritizing the improvement of our capacity for international cooperation. That includes the idea’s traditional champion: the United States. From its first months, the Trump Administration has claimed that, “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” and two of Trump’s top advisers wrote in 2017. The President himself, when addressing the United Nations, has celebrated the right of every state to pursue its own interests in its own way, exercising sovereignty exactly as its leaders see fit and thereby creating “a more beautiful world.” In his vocabulary, “patriots” and “globalists” are on opposite ends of the spectrum—corresponding, respectively, to “right-minded” and “softheaded.”
In such thinking, Trump is not alone. Hyper-nationalist leaders across the globe seem determined to ignore the awareness of interdependence that was—in the last century—drummed into our minds at a nearly unbearable cost. Such leaders go beyond the expression of legitimate national pride into jingoism, which is defined as an over-enthusiastic insistence on the superiority of a particular culture or country. Self-regard—often driven by insecurity or a sense of past grievance—is inflated into feelings that are disdainful of others. In the process, recognition of the need to cooperate with those outside one’s own group is blurred.
The language of jingoism is often employed by power-seeking politicians fishing for popular support. They lace the water with bait that many among us find hard to resist. They tell us how wonderful we are and how poorly we have been treated. They heap praise on our values and customs. They tell us that we are great and so we cheer, wave flags and don the appropriate hats. From there, it is a small step to the conclusion that we don’t need anyone else, provided our leaders are strong and willing, when necessary, to push others around.
In the 1930s, jingoism enjoyed its golden age. As the League of Nations began to fall apart, Japan invaded Manchuria, Italy overran Ethiopia, and Germany annexed Austria, attacked Czechoslovakia and joined the Soviet Union in carving up Poland. The ensuing slaughter continued until 1945, when World War II ended and the horrors of the Holocaust were finally exposed.
That was 75 years ago—long enough, evidently, for our collective memory to slip. In the past two decades, jingoism has returned and spread in the manner of a contagious disease. Instead of highlighting the need for global teamwork, the doctrine of “every nation for itself” has taken hold on matters involving oil prices, trade, refugees, climate change, the regulation of communications technology and more. The deficit in cross-border diplomacy is evident in Libya, Yemen, Syria and terror-plagued Central Africa. The Trump Administration—as inept as it is boastful—has loosened the shackles on Iran’s nuclear program and failed to stop North Korea’s. In Latin America, hardline leaders from both the left and the right threaten to haul the region back to the days when autocrats ruled, and democrats were routinely jailed.
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There is a real danger that, pushed by jingoist politicians and their too-eager followers, our future will be defined by clashes that could have been avoided and problems that might have been remedied through cooperative action. Look around: where are the leaders who will remind us of our mutual obligations and shared fate? In Moscow? Beijing? London? Rome? Paris? New Delhi? Ankara? In Berlin, Chancellor Merkel is on the way out. That leaves Washington.
In the United States, pundits are fond of declaring, every four years, that the next election is the most important since George Washington put away his hair powder. This time around is no different. I can’t be sure what historians will ultimately say about the balloting in 2020. I do know that a huge gap has opened between what the international community needs and the patchy, underfunded, under-energized reality now in place. The size of this gap represents a failure on the part of leaders on every continent who would rather win cheap cheers at home than run the political risk of tackling hard problems abroad. But it reflects, as well, a vacuum at the top that only the United States can fill.
In the present crisis, for example, imagine a President who had led from the beginning, who promoted an emergency containment strategy worldwide, who invested generously in medical research—a President who treated the pandemic as a shared challenge, not a competition.
This peculiar and troubled spring, as we sit at home for longer periods than usual, let us think about what the coronavirus is telling us and consider with care the choices we face. We can learn from history, or we can repeat history. We can embrace our international responsibilities or try and go it alone. We can settle for the leadership we have endured these past few years or, when we vote this year, look for a President who understands how inseparable America’s fate is from that of the world.
Albright is a former U.S. Secretary of State and author of the upcoming book Hell and Other Destinations