International relations and the pandemic
Most Americans are preoccupied with challenges close to home, like the effects of COVID-19 on their families and communities. But, U.S .relations with world powers undoubtedly impacts how major issues are handled.
“The state of cooperation internationally is [currently] very, very poor,” said Zoellick. “And so whether it's US-China confrontation, trade frictions, some of the challenges in developing worlds, you frankly have less resiliency in a world of unknown shocks.”
Power agrees that cooperation is an important element. “I think there's no secret that there needs to be a mix of competition, confrontation and collaboration,” said Power. “In all three domains, US leverage will be dramatically enhanced if we have stronger alliances. Right now, the Trans-Atlantic relationship is fraying.”
Power feels that the US’ relationships with many other nations “have become very transactional.” However, fighting the pandemic is an area that will require cross-border cooperation, she pointed out. “There are going to be major questions of distribution, irrespective of who actually comes up with a vaccine. That kind of coordination between the two super powers [US and China] is going to be indispensable.”
“The phenomenon of globalization is not going away,” said Zoellick, “whether it's biological security, whether it's environmental questions, whether it's international economic issues, whether it's sort of proliferation questions. What we have seen is a breakdown in risk and the rules and the governance of those issues.” He added that the US traditionally played a role in trying to shape that future but has recently taken a protectionist respond-and-pull-back approach, creating uncertainty in the overall environment.
Power and Zoellick both see the US now as a deal-maker as opposed to an international organizer, but they disagree on the implications. Power, who had first-hand experience with the Ebola outbreak during her time at the UN, said that other countries taking on larger global leadership roles as a result of this development could prove to be a healthy change over time.
“After decades of always expecting the US to be mobilizing coalitions, galvanizing them, whether in ISIS or on climate in the Paris context [referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change] or on Ebola, there is a recognition that democracies need to get on with it. And so you have seen countries like Germany, Canada, France step up and put in place an infrastructure that can be tapped when vaccines are available to ensure that it's not just rich countries that get access. Arguably, [there has been] far too much dependence on US leadership.”
“The United States cannot do this alone, and we don't need to do it alone,” added Zoellick. “During and after the Cold War, we were most effective when we built partners. And that is an advantage the United States has if we think about treating others with respect, how to build coalitions, trying to figure out what we could add and sort of push others along in the process.”
Confidence and the economy
Domestically, small and medium-sized businesses across the country have been impacted by the economic shutdowns put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Restoring confidence to rehire employees and grow their businesses will be top of mind for business owners as they vote for the next President of the United States.
Burns believes that government-supported infrastructure programs would help rebuild confidence. “[We need] a set of policies—the tax policies or vaccine rollout policies—that allow these companies to feel a level of predictability and confidence as they go forward. I think if we can start to turn some of the idle work to building up an infrastructure to get people actually engaged in building the country again that would be very helpful. It has nothing to do with policy, per se, but I think it has a lot to do with what the country needs, which is to get people back to work and feeling confident.”
Zoellick described the economic recovery as potentially K-shaped. “The top arm of the K is if you're active in the technology world, good in the digital space, in equity markets. But, it's important to realize that that lower leg is for…small and medium-sized enterprises that don't have the digital connectivity. [This includes] workers in the retail sector, particularly women. We're going to need a way to try to support them so that we have actually a broad-based recovery and you start to repair some of these societal divisions.”
Business leaders and social change
In addition to international relations and the economy, a focus on injustice has emerged in 2020. When it comes to positively impacting social change, Burns said that CEOs of larger companies play a critical role. “I think that absolutely business leaders have a fundamental responsibility to have a voice, particularly in areas that are broad-based on equality or justice. After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I received literally in the tens, you know, 30, 40 calls from CEOs all over the place asking for insights or help. And this is good. This is a knowledge that they have to be part of the solution in not only their places of work, but the communities of which their employees work in, how policing is done, how education is delivered. CEOs realize now that they can't sit on the sidelines.”