The surreal atmosphere of the
Covid-19 pandemic calls to
mind how I felt as a young
man in the 84th Infantry Division
during the Battle of the Bulge. Now,
as in late 1944, there is a sense of
inchoate danger, aimed not at any
particular person, but striking randomly
and with devastation. But
there is an important difference between
that faraway time and ours.
American endurance then was fortified
by an ultimate national purpose.
Now, in a divided country, efficient
and farsighted government is
necessary to overcome obstacles unprecedented
in magnitude and
global scope. Sustaining the public
trust is crucial to social solidarity,
to the relation of societies with each
other, and to international peace
and stability.

Nations cohere and flourish on
the belief that their institutions can
foresee calamity, arrest its impact
and restore stability. When the
Covid-19 pandemic is over, many
countries’ institutions will be perceived
as having failed. Whether
this judgment is objectively fair is
irrelevant. The reality is the world
will never be the same after the coronavirus.
To argue now about the
past only makes it harder to do
what has to be done.

The coronavirus has struck with
unprecedented scale and ferocity. Its
spread is exponential: U.S. cases are
doubling every fifth day. At this
writing, there is no cure. Medical
supplies are insufficient to cope
with the widening waves of cases.
Intensive-care units are on the
verge, and beyond, of being overwhelmed.
Testing is inadequate to
the task of identifying the extent of
infection, much less reversing its
spread. A successful vaccine could
be 12 to 18 months away.

The U.S. administration has done
a solid job in avoiding immediate
catastrophe. The ultimate test will
be whether the virus’s spread can
be arrested and then reversed in a
manner and at a scale that maintains
public confidence in Americans’
ability to govern themselves.
The crisis effort, however vast and
necessary, must not crowd out the
urgent task of launching a parallel
enterprise for the transition to the
post-coronavirus order.

Leaders are dealing with the crisis
on a largely national basis, but
the virus’s society-dissolving effects
do not recognize borders. While the
assault on human health will—hopefully—
be temporary, the political
and economic upheaval it has unleashed
could last for generations.
No country, not even the U.S., can in
a purely national effort overcome
the virus. Addressing the necessities
of the moment must ultimately be
coupled with a global collaborative
vision and program. If we cannot do
both in tandem, we will face the
worst of each.

Drawing lessons from the development
of the Marshall Plan and the
Manhattan Project, the U.S. is
obliged to undertake a major effort
in three domains. First, shore up
global resilience to infectious disease.
Triumphs of medical science
like the polio vaccine and the eradication
of smallpox, or the emerging
statistical-technical marvel of medical
diagnosis through artificial intelligence,
have lulled us into a dangerous
complacency. We need to
develop new techniques and technologies
for infection control and
commensurate vaccines across large
populations. Cities, states and regions
must consistently prepare to
protect their people from pandemics
through stockpiling, cooperative
planning and exploration at the
frontiers of science.

Second, strive to heal the
wounds to the world economy.
Global leaders have learned important
lessons from the 2008 financial
crisis. The current economic crisis
is more complex: The contraction
unleashed by the coronavirus is, in
its speed and global scale, unlike
anything ever known in history. And
necessary public-health measures
such as social distancing and closing
schools and businesses are contributing
to the economic pain. Programs
should also seek to
ameliorate the effects of impending
chaos on the world’s most vulnerable

Third, safeguard the principles of
the liberal world order. The founding
legend of modern government is
a walled city protected by powerful
rulers, sometimes despotic, other
times benevolent, yet always strong
enough to protect the people from
an external enemy. Enlightenment
thinkers reframed this concept, arguing
that the purpose of the legitimate
state is to provide for the fundamental
needs of the people:
security, order, economic well-being,
and justice. Individuals cannot
secure these things on their own.
The pandemic has prompted an
anachronism, a revival of the walled
city in an age when prosperity depends
on global trade and movement
of people.

The world’s democracies need to
defend and sustain their Enlightenment
values. A global retreat from
balancing power with legitimacy
will cause the social contract to disintegrate
both domestically and internationally.
Yet this millennial issue
of legitimacy and power cannot
be settled simultaneously with the
effort to overcome the Covid-19
plague. Restraint is necessary on all
sides—in both domestic politics and
international diplomacy. Priorities
must be established.

We went on from the Battle of
the Bulge into a world of growing
prosperity and enhanced human
dignity. Now, we live an epochal period.
The historic challenge for leaders
is to manage the crisis while
building the future. Failure could set
the world on fire.

Wall Street Journal (United States)