Butterfly Effect: The Unlikely Faces of a Global Virus Response: MBS, Xi and Modi - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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For three of the world's most controversial politicians, the coronavirus is an opportunity to burnish credentials as leaders of a coordinated global response — one the U.S. appears unwilling to drive.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Campaigning for the 2008 U.S. presidential elections was in full swing, and George W. Bush’s legacy was a dartboard Democrats, led by Barack Obama, were relentlessly aiming at.

Yet as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression rapidly spread around the world, there was one thing Bush and Obama — who would succeed him as president — agreed on: the need for the U.S. to lead a coordinated global response. America got not just the West but China, India and other fast-growing major economies on board for a collective response through the G20.

Twelve years on, we’re in the middle of a presidential election cycle again as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. But this time, an unlikely cast of characters is stepping into the shoes of the U.S. in portraying themselves as the leaders of the global response: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Each of these three leaders has faced intense international criticism in recent months over their authoritarian policies. But with U.S. President Donald Trump pointing fingers at his domestic political rivals, and the EU trapped in internal bickering, MBS — as the Saudi crown prince is widely known — Modi and Xi are using the pandemic to try to recast their global images.

MBS, whom U.S. intelligence agencies hold responsible for the brutal killing of dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, is in fact using the very institution Bush and Obama helped elevate: the G20. On Monday, Saudi Arabia, the G20 chair this year, hosted a virtual meeting of the finance ministers and central bank governors of the world’s 20 largest economies. And on Thursday, MBS led the heads of government of the G20 nations — including Trump, Xi and Modi — in a virtual summit on the virus.

Meanwhile, Modi — who proposed the idea of a virtual G20 meeting to MBS — last week called together the leaders of all South Asian nations on a videoconference to forge a regional response to the virus. The Indian leader’s controversial move to bring a law that discriminates against Muslim migrants seeking naturalized citizenship has upset some of the country’s neighbors, particularly Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The virus is serving as his vehicle to once again project the image of a leader concerned about the entire region — at the meeting, he announced a $10 million fund to fight the pandemic in South Asia. For his own country, Modi on Tuesday announced a 21-day national lockdown.  

And China isn’t only supplying aid to multiple virus-hit European nations such as Italy and France. Xi is also playing a multilateral game. Last weekend, China led a virtual meeting of health officials from 10 South Asian and Eurasian nations and followed that up by promising those neighbors masks and medical supplies.

What about the U.S.? Trump has so far not called for an emergency virtual meeting even of the G7 — the most advanced Western nations, all close U.S. allies ravaged by the coronavirus.

The contrast with 2008 couldn’t be more stark. The perpetual talk of America’s decline was reaching a crescendo amid the economic downturn. Yet instead of taking an America-versus-the-rest approach, the U.S. under Bush and then Obama consciously opened up even further to a multilateral solution to the crisis — which, by spreading across the world, had in effect become a financial pandemic.

Ten days after the Nov. 4, 2008, election that Obama won, Bush hosted the first ever summit of G20 leaders in Washington. Bush’s unilateralism in the preceding years — most of all, with the war in Iraq — meant he wasn’t the most popular figure in global diplomacy. But by calling the Washington summit, the outgoing president was acknowledging a new reality: that the world’s most powerful nation alone couldn’t fix the financial crisis and that it would need Europe, China, India and others to act collectively to get the global economy back on its feet.

Obama, who shared that recognition, built on Bush’s initial efforts. Between 2009 and 2011, the G20 met and coordinated regularly, their central banks unitedly pumping money into their economies, strengthening regulations and offering stimulus packages to industries that needed them. That collective action also reassured markets everywhere — from New York and London to Shanghai and Mumbai — that better days lay ahead.

And by forging a multilateral response that worked, the U.S. maintained its global leadership.

It’s unclear whether leaders like MBS, Modi or even China’s Xi can play the role Obama did in 2009. Trump could still change course, starting by supporting a G20-led response.   

Without the U.S. fully on board, no coordinated global response to the virus and the resulting economic slowdown is likely to succeed. But in the battle of perceptions, three of the world’s most controversial political figures will have won — their tattered reputations masked by a veneer of global leadership. And the West will be to blame.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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