• The Global Stress Test

  • Speaking to a virtual convening hosted by the Atlantic Council last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu compared the COVID-19 global pandemic to an exercise stress test that monitors heart rates, blood pressure and breathing. This moment in time, he said, is “the ultimate stress test for the entire world. It has revealed our vulnerabilities, it has also shown our strengths.” 

    The conjured images of a bionic-looking man hooked up to gadgets and gizmos briskly walking on a treadmill aside, his point is well taken. With each spike in infections and deaths our blood pressure rises. With every day the market ticks up we breathe a sigh of relief and every day it dips down we gasp in horror. But beyond the immediate impacts to public health (a stress we were ill-prepared to address) there lies a broader question: Can our global heart handle the unintended stresses of broken alliances, electoral mayhem and geopolitical uncertainty that are being exacerbated in our coronavirus world?

    The European Union’s vulnerabilities could be the first to answer that question. In late January, the United Kingdom officially began its transition away from the continental pact, creating additional financial stresses for the 27-member economic alliance. Then in late February, days prior to the global lockdown, Turkey opened their border to allow migrants unhindered passage across the Aegean to Greece, putting great strain on an already tenuous situation. As a result of these inherent fiscal and migratory vulnerabilities, pleas for help from Italy were met with deaf ears, calling into question the long-term stability of the alliance.

    But where is Europe’s strength? The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, long struggling to redefine its mission in a world without a Cold War, may have stumbled upon an opportunity to provide lasting value to its members (which now number 30 following the late March ascension of North Macedonia) in the EU-created vacuum. The military alliance has mobilized to make medical deliveries in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Poland, among other nations, while continuing to monitor NATO operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Eastern Europe. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance needed to “project strength” in the face of the virus and he wasn’t kidding. 

    Then there are the two sides of electoral stresses. 

    Chile, Bolivia, France and Britain are among 47 countries, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, that have postponed voting or canceled elections altogether. As a result, the Chilean president was handed a free pass to postpone a referendum on a new constitution demanded by his citizens, the tenure of the interim president of Bolivia was extended and all elections in Hungary have been suspended as a result of President Viktor Orban’s coronavirus-inspired move to declare an indefinite state of emergency that gives him unlimited power until he decides otherwise.

    South Korea, on the other hand, released a stress valve by flawlessly executing a socially distanced election full of strict protocols dutifully adhered to by the 66.2% of the voting public that cast a vote – the highest percentage of participation since 1992 – proving authoritarian subterfuge is not the only option. 

    And, of course, there is the stressful struggle for global supremacy. China’s long game plans to overtake the United States as the world’s superpower, or at least find itself on equal footing, is taking a beating. At least in Africa.  According to a report in POLITICO, multiple African ambassadors cried foul over China’s forcible removal of African laborers from their temporary Chinese homes in the name of compulsory COVID-19 testing. After years of showering countries in Africa with infrastructure investment, China’s relationship with the recipients of its largess is clearly brittle enough to lead to a “diplomatic showdown” that could cause “lasting damage.”

    But in other places, like Serbia, the Chinese regime is flexing its muscle and being welcomed with open arms in their years-long effort to win friends and influence countries through unvarnished bribery and extortion. To them, a virus knows no bounds, and a crisis, even one of China’s own making, is a chance to show strength while they mitigate vulnerability one continent south. 

    All of these moments, some hopeful and some not, offer a hazy glimpse into an uncertain future. The greatest strength of the post-World War II era was our collective ability to work toward shared goals of peace and prosperity. Europe, for instance, is inching ever closer to being whole and free and millions have been lifted from poverty into the middle class the world over. This unified strength of allies helping allies is what we need to weather the storm. 

    Conversely, our vulnerabilities exposed hard truths about the fragility of our global order and how simple it could be for an authoritarian leader to take advantage of a crisis. Nationalism for the sake of patriotic pride in one’s nation is standing in the way of global progress to destroy the virus and rebuild our economies and our lives. As the Turkish foreign minister said, we either “confine ourselves within our borders and negate what we have achieved in the last century, or we will prevail together with more cooperation and solidarity.”

    The vulnerabilities revealed by this global stress test warn us of what to avoid, and the strengths provide a blueprint for what to do. 

    Is anyone listening? 

    Pete Seat is a vice president with Bose Public Affairs Group in Indianapolis. He is also an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow and author of the 2014 book, “The War on Millennials.”