A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part II: Nationalism over Liberalism

(Note: Forty years ago this month, I finished reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden.” I wrote him a long letter. He wrote back and asked me two questions. The first: “What would be necessary to make the reader [of a possible book on international relations] consider not just what is best for one nation or power group in a single nation, but for the human species as a whole? I never answered him; this is Part II of my answer. Part I was published in the Newport Daily News on July 25. This was originally published in the Newport Daily News on July 27, 2020.)

To see how these theories of realism and liberalism stand up, let’s look at how the U.S. and China are acting during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has been the world’s only genuine superpower, though it has been buffeted by challenges such as the attacks on 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, and now the Coronavirus Pandemic. China’s power and influence have been rising during this same period.

Amid the pandemic, liberalism theory would suggest that these two powers would think not just of their own people but, in your words, think “for the human species as a whole.” The theory would predict that they would combine their efforts to save lives across the globe, which has seen virtually every country struck by the virus. At this writing, there have been almost 14 million cases and 590,000 deaths. In the U.S., there have been 3.5 million cases with 138,000 deaths.

But while the U.S. and China have cooperated at times over the past six months, both countries now appear to be acting according to political realism and not political liberalism.

Rather than open and robust cooperation in addressing the pandemic, there is increasing tension over trade, technology, and China’s punitive measures against Hong Kong and its Xinjiang region. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, stated recently that the US has worsened relations to their lowest level since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 1979. He stated: “The current China policy of the United States is based on ill-informed strategic miscalculation and is fraught with emotions and whims and McCarthyist bigotry.”

Liberalism theory would also suggest that the World Health Organization (WHO), the responsible United Nations agency, would provide some leadership and coordination in the pandemic and that states would cooperate with it for the common good. However, the U.S. has not done so. On May 18, President Donald Trump, in a letter to the director general of the WHO, accused it of an “alarming” dependence on China. It stated: “It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world.”

Early this month the U.S. formally notified the WHO that it will withdraw from it, ending its 72-year membership, a move which critics believe will hamper international efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than open and aggressive medical cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and China to develop a vaccine, on May 14 the U.S. accused Chinese hackers of targeting American universities, pharmaceutical and other health-related firms to steal intellectual property related to coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and testing. The U.S. government alert stated: “The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.”

All this does not portend well for your hope of international cooperation among states for the good of the human species rather than confrontation and competition. States remain the most important actors in the world political system, and they control the majority of the means of violence. They are led by humans who perceive and misperceive, trust and mistrust, and in situations where the intentions of other states are shadowy, they put the interests of their state first.

Since the global scourges of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and now the coronavirus have yet to lead to an over-riding concern for the human species, as you wished for, perhaps the only answer may come from outer space, in the field close to your heart—extraterrestrial life. If aliens invade, as in the films “Independence Day” and “War of the Worlds,” perhaps then states would finally unite to save the human species.

 (Note: Stay tuned for Part III.)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

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