subramanian19_FILIPPO MONTEFORTEAFP via Getty Images_EUflagdeath Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

The Threat of Enfeebled Great Powers

In today's G-minus-2 world, both the United States and China are providing bad leadership. By further weakening the internal cohesion of the world’s leading powers, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to leave the world even more rudderless, unstable, and conflict-prone.

CAMBRIDGE – The COVID-19 crisis augurs three watersheds: the end of Europe’s integration project, the end of a united, functional America, and the end of the implicit social compact between the Chinese state and its citizens. As a result, all three powers will emerge from the pandemic internally weakened, undermining their ability to provide global leadership.

Start with Europe. As with the 2010-12 eurozone crisis, the bloc’s fault line today runs through Italy. Drained over decades of dynamism and fiscally fragile, it is too big for Europe to save and too big to let fail. During the pandemic, Italians have felt abandoned by their European partners at a moment of existential crisis, creating fertile ground for populist politicians to exploit. The images of Bergamo’s COVID-19 victims being carried in body bags by military convoy to their anonymous, unaccompanied burials, will long remain etched in the Italian collective psyche.

Meanwhile, when addressing how to help pandemic-stricken member states, the European Union’s technocratic, ostrich-like elites lapse into the institutional alphabet soup – ECB, ESM, OMT, MFF, and PEPP – that has become their default language. The continent’s leaders have faltered and dithered, from European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde’s apparent gaffe in March – when she said that the ECB was “not here to close spreads” between member states’ borrowing costs – to the bickering over debt mutualization and COVID-19 rescue funds and the reluctant, grudging incrementalism of the latest agreement. And, even when limited progress is made, Germany’s instinct of conservative virtue – exemplified most recently by the Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling on ECB actions – invariably vitiates the spirit of integration.

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