No predictions, but once in a while it is useful to imagine the news getting better. Look beyond the summer and two potentially game-changing events come into view. Scientists tell us a vaccine and/or treatment for Covid-19 could map a pathway out of the pandemic. As to the second possibility, my friends in the foreign policy community have taken a vow of silence. Whisper it ever so quietly, but the US may choose a new president.
Much of the world is now coming out of coronavirus lockdowns, but the recovery will remain patchy and hesitant until we have much greater certainty that Covid-19 can be permanently suppressed. The present danger is that anything resembling a return to normal life will herald a second wave of infections in the autumn. Epidemiologists think some resurgence is inevitable. The question is one of scale. As long as there is uncertainty, business will hold back from the full-throated investment needed for a strong recovery.
The critical ingredient for a sustained upturn is confidence. By removing future risk, a vaccine — or the firm promise of one within, say, a year — would transform the outlook. A treatment that greatly reduced mortality rates would go a long way in the same direction. The grim picture painted at present by most economic forecasters rests on an assumption that the virus will hang around indefinitely. With the prospect of complete suppression, the economic bounceback would probably be much stronger than that seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
As willing as they are to speculate about each and every step towards a vaccine, politicians and policymakers beyond America’s shores are conspicuously silent about what, in the absence of the pandemic, was to have been the geopolitical event of 2020. Barring a handful of autocrats, friends and allies of the US are mostly behind the Democratic candidate Joe Biden. A second presidential victory for Donald Trump, European leaders are heard to murmur, would be a catastrophe for the democratic community of nations we commonly call the west. But most of them got the result badly wrong in 2016. To predict that US voters will now throw out Mr Trump would be to tempt fate.
Yet the polls suggest Mr Biden has a more than 50:50 chance of winning the White House. Mr Trump has fallen back on his base, the economy will struggle to return to robust growth in the months before the election and Covid-19 could well claim many more American lives. Circumstances could change, but it would be reckless to ignore the real possibility that Mr Trump will be swept away in an avalanche of angry tweets.
A Biden victory would not of itself change the world. Intense Sino-American rivalry, strategic as much as economic, cannot be wished away. The Middle East is a long way from peace. Russia’s Vladimir Putin shows few signs of abandoning his revanchism. The stresses and strains of globalisation and inequality will continue to feed the fires of populism. The fabric of multilateralism has been badly torn at the very moment it is needed to confront the existential threat of global warming. These are challenges beyond ready solution by even the most benign American leadership.
Never mind. After the capriciousness of Mr Trump, the simple fact of a president who values alliances, is ready to return the US to the Paris climate change agreement and wants to strengthen rather than pull down the west’s open, liberal order would be a considerable advance. It would revive the opportunity lost to Mr Trump’s belligerent unilateralism. That democracy is in retreat around the world reflects in significant measure the disdain of the leader of the world’s most powerful democratic nation.
So this is no time for America’s friends to sit on their hands. Instead, they should be thinking hard about how they could be partners in the effort to restore a rules-based international system — an order that would be rejected most likely by China and Russia, but one vital to preserve the democratic values on which the security and prosperity of the west depend.
Mr Biden, we know, is a firm supporter of Nato. His election would be the moment for the alliance’s European members to make good on their promises to contribute more to the alliance. The Democratic candidate likewise has indicated that he would wish to rescue the international nuclear accord with Iran. What can Europe do to persuade Tehran to meet the understandable concerns of many Americans?
Beyond such regional concerns European governments, along with allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, have a role to play in crafting a broad western strategy towards China that combines necessary engagement with Beijing with a robust defence of western interests and values. Mr Trump’s fulminations, sanctions and threats have given Europeans an excuse to dodge the hard choices.
The unipolar moment — that brief period after the end of the cold war when it seemed the US could reshape the world as it wished — has gone forever. But Mr Trump’s presidency has shown the destructive potential of an American retreat from international leadership. The offer allies make to a President Biden should be one of partnership. Of course, Mr Trump might yet win. But, in that case, all bets are off.