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How Will Coronavirus Pandemic Change The Way We See The World?


Ambassador Richard Haass has learned something about the world. He served in the State Department for many years, advised Secretary of State Colin Powell and now leads a think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. Haass thinks many Americans are not taught that much about the wider world.

RICHARD HAASS: You can graduate from virtually any university or high school in this country and not take a course about the world. If you watch the nightly news, you know, international topics are pretty rare. So for all sorts of reasons, people don't know a lot about the world. And at a time in this pandemic brings it home in spades that the world is more important than ever.

INSKEEP: Haass has authored a book called "The World: A Brief Introduction." It offers everything from a short history of the nation state to analysis of the current liberal world order. This book does arrive as world institutions face an unprecedented test. The World Health Organization, for example, faces harsh criticism for its performance from the United States.

HAASS: International organizations are never stronger than the major powers are willing to let them be. The major powers essentially have to approve the staffing. They have to provide the resources. So anyone who operates in the orbit of the United Nations essentially has to tread carefully. So the WHO has been wary, to say the least, of doing anything that might offend China and the United States. And others are simply able to push back.

One of the questions coming out of this is, will the major powers and others be prepared to strengthen the machinery of global health, either through reforming the WHO or building some other wrap-around type organizations in order to make up this gap?

INSKEEP: Just tracking public statements of some government officials, you get a sense that people in the corridors of power are thinking about the pandemic as something that could, in some way, change the world or create an opportunity to change the world order the way that happened after World War II. Do you see that?

HAASS: I wish I did, Steve. But the honest answer is, I don't. World War II was the last enormous disruption that gave birth to a phase of creativity. I doubt we'll see one now. Indeed, what we're probably going to see is a situation where countries look inward, where resources are needed to stimulate domestic economies, where, say, the relationship between the two most powerful countries of this year, the United States and China, is in worse shape than ever. So it's very hard to see this as a moment of international institution-building.

INSKEEP: Are there long-term implications for the reputation and the prestige of the United States that the United States would turn out to be the country with the most cases and the most deaths up to now?

HAASS: I think there are long-term implications. A important part of a country's influence in the world is not simply what it does, but it's what it is. It's the example it sets. So we influence others, say, to become more democratic when they see the vibrancy of our democracy. It's hard to imagine that anyone around the world will see how we are performing in the face of this challenge and say, we want to be more like the United States.

So I think what's going to happen is our standing will fall because of our performance. We've then exacerbated that by, say, our refusal to join in this European-led initiative to pool resources to come up with a vaccine. We've essentially opted out of global enterprise there. So all things being equal - both by our example and by our behavior, I think the footprint, the influence of the United States in the world will diminish as a result of this crisis.

INSKEEP: I want to come back to your original thesis, that you wish Americans better understood the world. Would you go so far as to argue that if Americans writ large better understood the world, and if their leaders, therefore, were more responsive to the world, that we would not be in quite such a mess?

HAASS: I would be prepared to say that. I think if you have a citizenry that's better informed, they will build expectations. They will vote for people and let those people know, here's what we believe needs to be done. A more informed citizenry will also be less vulnerable to being misled. So if someone says, we ought to do X, when, in fact, we ought to do Y, they can push back. The world is going to keep changing. And how it affects us is also going to keep changing. And we've got to keep up with it.

INSKEEP: You know, one other thing occurs to me, Richard. You've spent your life, obviously, learning about the world, engaging yourself with the world. But when you sat down to try to boil it down to a book and get some basic understanding to people, was there something that you, yourself, learned that you didn't quite grasp at the beginning?

HAASS: (Laughter) This is different than any book I've ever written. But, yeah, if I had to make one big learning for me - I'd spent most of my career in traditional thinking about international relations. And the biggest dynamic in modern history of the last few hundred years was great power relations and competition. But I actually think we're at a different period of history.

Well, while that continues, what's really new and different about this era - and it didn't sink in until I wrote this book - was that the dominant and even defining issues of this moment in history may not be great power competition, though, that will obviously continue, but may be these global challenges like pandemics, like climate change, like cyberspace. And that is what will probably define this era of history far more than the more familiar great power competition.

INSKEEP: Richard Haass is the author of "The World: A Brief Introduction." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.