Most people find competition exciting. We are constantly organizing individual and team competitions, with rankings and winners and prizes. We do it by city, by college, and by country. An upset by an underdog can be particularly thrilling, but nothing beats seeing the top two go head to head: The biggest and the best fighting it out for supremacy. It could be chess, it could be gymnastics, it could be football. Whatever it is, it is great entertainment.
Foreign policy is prone to the same human instincts. Countries around the world are “competing” for supremacy. Which one is the wealthiest? Which one has the strongest military? Which has the most influence? Who is number one?
For decades, the United States and the Soviet Union were battling it out on many fronts. It kept the foreign policy community occupied, and the people of each nation following closely, if a bit tensely. After the Cold War ended, Radical Islamic Terrorism was eventually put forward as the new rival for the United States to take on, but it did not live up to the hype and (many) people eventually decided to move on.
Now there seems to be a true rival out there: China, with its growing economic and military power. At long last, there is Great Power Competition again!
But a dose of reality has just set in, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. As it turns out, if we are looking for rivals to fight, there are much more powerful ones out there. We could pick a country to compete with, but do we really need to? Nature itself is giving us plenty of competition.
There were plagues and flus in the past, but they seemed so distant, and the more recent ones never quite landed their punches. Ebola, SARS, MERS, mad cow disease, etc., got us worried, but all sputtered out before causing too much damage in the United States.
Now COVID-19 is showing us the reality of these threats, with upward sloping curves of sickness and death. And let’s be honest with ourselves: it could be a lot worse. An even more deadly virus is sure to come along at some point.
The lesson from all this for the foreign policy community is that there is no need to construct a competition with other countries: There are plenty of life or death competitions already out there. Instead of picking out other nations as rivals that we need to beat, what we should be doing is cooperating in a fight against external (i.e. outside of humanity) threats.
Let’s beat COVID-19 together, and then start preparing for the next virus. What are all the communicable diseases that might attack humanity? Let’s map out all the possibilities and start preparing now.
There are also natural disasters. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and, every now and then, asteroids hitting the earth. Against, let’s spend time working together in preparation for these sorts of problems.
One flaw in this suggestion is that it’s hard to come up with rankings. With a U.S.-China Great Power Competition, we could put together charts showing how many battleships each country has and how much each country’s GDP has grown since 2001. That’s harder with nature. Perhaps we can rank the threats, as the Colbert Report used to do with the ThreatDown?
More seriously, what we should do is push the foreign policy community to focus more on these external threats. In particular, we should shift funding away from Great Power Competition towards threats from nature. To help brand the effort, we could give it a name: Global Pandemic Cooperation, for example, offers a smooth transition. People’s interest follows the money, and if there are jobs in the area of pandemic prevention, more people will pursue that field instead of conflict‐oriented ones. (Of course, there are real threats from other countries, but thinking of them as a Great Power Competition tends to harm rather than help in addressing them).
We all want the excitement of competition, but we have learned something these past few weeks. As much fun as it can be to build up a rivalry in your head with a sports team in another city or with a far off country, there are more serious threats out there and if we don’t address them properly we will have to stay inside for months and we might even die. That means it’s time to stop worrying about country rankings for a while and work together to stay alive.