Leaders around the world, including President Donald Trump, are increasingly referring to their response to the novel coronavirus in terms of “war” against an unseen enemy. It is a truism that in times of conflict it’s good to have allies, and better to have established means by which to coordinate decision-making. Such insight motivated Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and (later) Joseph Stalin, through a series of political declarations, wartime summits, and high-level meetings during and after World War II, to establish what became the United Nations.
Within the UN system, maintenance of international peace and security falls to the Security Council, a 15-member body dominated by its five permanent, veto-wielding members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Given COVID-19’s obvious risk to global security, one would think the so-called P-5 members would have immediately taken up much-needed action to address the outbreak. Instead, nothing of the sort happened.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. The Council’s lack of action in the face of the outbreak speaks volumes about the impact of the Trump Administration’s “America First” foreign policy and widespread mistrust among the world’s geopolitical heavyweights. The inaction is also reflective of the fact that China happens to occupy the rotating presidency of the Council this month. More on that in a moment.
Regardless of the reason for the inaction though, it’s a massive mistake, and one that Council members can rectify, if (and it’s a big “if”) they can summon the political will.
Declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a threat to international peace and security and using the Security Council as a means to rally and coordinate a global response is not without precedent. In 2014, the United States led efforts to achieve a groundbreaking resolution that accomplished just that (an effort I was proud to have played a small role in as a staffer to then-U.S. Permanent Representative Samantha Power). Though we’ll never know for sure, the ensuing global response kickstarted by the United States likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more.
The COVID-19 pandemic is vastly different and in many respects more challenging than the 2014 Ebola outbreak, to be sure. But the drastically different response of governments to coordinated action driven by the Security Council speaks as much to changes in global leadership as it does to epidemiological factors.
The Chinese government has shamelessly shown little interest in using the procedural advantage that comes with holding the Council presidency to put the issue before the body. When asked earlier this month whether his government intended to have the Council discuss COVID-19, China’s ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun deflected, suggesting the issue was better addressed through UN bodies focused on public health.
China, like Russia, has historically sought to limit any expansion of the Security Council’s remit, seeing such growth as a threat to its sovereignty. In this instance, the Chinese government is likely also wary of how a Security Council session will impact its carefully crafted narrative of a superpower aiding the global response, rather than an authoritarian state whose need to control free expression likely exacerbated the outbreak. To their credit, Chinese officials have dispatched medical expertise and much-needed aid to countries around the world. But they have also sought to misdirect blame via disinformation, with, among other things, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently alleging via Twitter (one of many media outlets and platforms banned in China) that the U.S. Army “brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”
For its part, the U.S. government, reflecting Trump’s disdain for multilateral cooperation and embrace of disease denialism, has shown no appetite to assume its historical leadership role. Trump’s consistently false and confusing statements regarding the pandemic have undercut both public health experts and the general public’s understanding of how to appropriately respond. His administration has struggled to anticipate and coordinate America’s domestic response, likely at the cost of lives and economic well-being, and doesn’t seem either prepared or inclined to organize and lead a rational international response.
Mirroring and feeding Chinese propaganda, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear focused on using the crisis to push their own anti-China narrative. Pompeo’s consistent use of the phrase “Wuhan virus”—alongside Trump’s slightly less geographically sophisticated sobriquet “Chinese virus”—appears intended to place blame on Beijing in the least diplomatic, least effective, and among the most bigoted ways possible.
However unlikely given this diplomatic trajectory, both the United States and China would benefit from taking a deep breath and resetting public health cooperation through the UN. The Security Council is the place to start. Many millions of lives depend on it.
What would a Security Council resolution on COVID-19 accomplish?
From a public messaging standpoint, such a document would constitute a political commitment from several of the world’s most important governments to fight the outbreak in a coordinated, mutually effective manner.
More tangibly, the world desperately needs a senior-level, international mechanism staffed by diplomats and public health experts empowered to maintain a framework for the sourcing and equitable distribution of global goods.
These goods—trained health care workers, masks and other personal protective equipment, ventilators and other medical supplies, and eventually, we hope, therapeutic treatments and vaccines—are in short supply and staggeringly high demand. While many preexisting bodies and fora—the G-7, G-20, World Health Organization (WHO), and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) among them—each have a role to play in the world’s reaction to the pandemic, none is particularly well equipped to handle the many logistically-complex and politically-charged decisions required to minimize human suffering and maximize effective response.
That’s where the Security Council should come in.
Alone among multilateral institutions, the Council’s resolutions carry the force of international law. A Council resolution could thus create such a coordinating mechanism, establish its mandate and basic structure, and signal seriousness of purpose to governments and other stakeholders. It could task the mechanism with coordinating global goods production, growing and coordinating supply chains, facilitating sharing of vaccine-related and other medical research, and routing supplies to where they are most needed. It could direct that mechanism participants from each country have “special envoy” status or other access to the highest-level decision-makers and scientific experts in their respective governments. And it could likewise delineate a shared commitment to protecting vulnerable communities like the homeless and refugees, mitigating impact in conflict and crisis settings, and protecting freedom of expression and other civil liberties vital to an effective response.
All of this would take political will. That’s a commodity as seemingly lacking in today’s world as ventilators, and perhaps even more precious. The fact that world leaders have yet to establish a standing international coordination function to share information and best practices, help route goods to areas of most need, and organize mitigation efforts in areas as of yet minimally exposed to the disease should rightly be seen as an international scandal. There will be plenty of time to assign blame. Now is the time to act.
[Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in Christine Bell, “COVID-19 and Violent Conflict: Responding to Predictable Unpredictability,” March 24, 2020]