COVID-19 is a common enemy of humanity, yet states have still failed to work together in curbing the rampant spread of the virus. The perils of anarchy, the failure of global governance and the tragedy of great power rivalries explain why the world is feckless in coping with the pandemic. It is time for the United States and China to think about how to cooperate and lead the war on COVID-19.

Anarchy is a distinct feature of international relations. The absence of an overarching authority above states leads to self-interest as the rational behaviour for all states. COVID-19 is the apotheosis of anarchy. After the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, the predominant reaction of the world was to distance itself from China by imposing travel restrictions and shutting down borders with China. States made self-interested actions to protect themselves from the virus, but this did not stop the eventual outbreak of a pandemic.

Distrust hinders effective cooperation among states in fighting the pandemic. China started to blame countries that restricted travel with the country, while the United States saw an opportunity to urge manufacturing industries and related businesses to withdraw from China and return home. This zero-sum mentality and self-interest-driven behaviour undermines global cooperation, even in the face of a virus that is a common ‘enemy against humanity’.

International organisations have so far failed to rise to the occasion in fighting the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has functioned as a ‘clearing house’ to offer the most authoritative information but has no power to extract information nor to enforce regulations in any country. What it can do is to issue health advice to the world based on the information voluntarily provided by member states. The anarchic nature of international politics encourages self-interested behaviour that leads to the WHO’s warnings and advice being largely ignored by many countries.

Please click here to read the full “International anarchy and failure to cope with COVID-19” article originally published at East Asia Forum written by Griffith Asia Institute Researcher, Professor Kai He.