In what seems like a blink of the eye, the coronavirus has uprooted and deracinated nearly every sense of normalcy that could possibly exist. A pathogen that up until a few weeks ago was both out of sight and out of mind is now quite the opposite. It’s evolved into a global pandemic that knows no borders, expresses no predilection, and holds no political or national affiliations. COVID-19 has changed every fabric of our society. It’s changed the way we do business, the way we interact with loved ones, and it might change the course of Russia-U.S. relations.
That’s because a few weeks ago, Russia did something that was quite remarkable. It sent over a planeload of humanitarian aid to help the United States, who has by all metrics been hit especially hard by this pandemic. More than 500,000 Americans have been infected and of those infected, more than 23,000 have lost their lives. At the same time, another 16 million Americans have been forced to file for unemployment — which is proof that the disease is victimizing far more than just those who have been infected.
What’s remarkable isn’t the fact that Russia helped a fellow superpower in need or that it has helped a country that has traditionally led the world in providing other countries with much-needed humanitarian aid. No, what’s remarkable is that Russia decided to lend a helping hand to the same country that has for years treated it as an enemy — the same country that has waged an economic war of sanctions, and in doing so, caused enormous suffering for ordinary Russians. What Moscow did was something that we don’t see very often in both personal relations or international relations. Russia put people over politics and turned the other cheek to the United States in an extraordinary act of goodwill that we should all learn from.
Now the moral of this story isn’t that Russians are saints, pure and true as the driven snow or worthy of our unabated exaltation. Nor is anyone arguing that Americans are the morally flawed reprobates of this story, who have, as a matter of destiny, reaped the suffering that their government has sown across the world. That is not the argument nor should it be inferred.
What we should take away from this episode in Russia-U.S. relations is three things.
First, Russia and the United States are not predestined to be mortal enemies. For one thing, enemies typically don’t help enemies — which suggests that Russia, by sending over humanitarian aid, doesn’t view Washington as an enemy. The coronavirus, like other major issues, demonstrates that the two countries are natural allies that through partnership and reconciliation can achieve almost anything. In the current crisis, Russians and Americans are obviously united by their humanity — Washington’s war with COVID-19 is inseparable from Moscow’s war with the virus — but we are also united by much more than just 23 chromosomes.
Take another example brought on by the present pandemic. In mid-April, the United States and Russia collaborated on an unprecedented oil output deal that brought together more than 20 countries and convinced them to commit to collectively withhold 9.7 million barrels of oil a day. Now it’s too early to tell, but that deal could have effectively safeguarded the global oil market from total collapse. That’s because up until that deal was agreed upon, Moscow and their counterparts in Saudi Arabia were engaged in an all-out price war that facilitated a 65% quarterly fall in the price of oil. After both countries failed to reach an agreement on production levels in early March, Saudi Arabia initiated the 2020 oil war by increasing its production output and flooding the market with cheap oil. Russia was forced to respond in kind or risk losing billions in revenue. The trajectory of that oil-price dispute was clearly unsustainable and it was a major reason why oil prices dipped into negative territory this past week.
Had the United States and Russia not teamed up in organizing a multinational agreement on oil production, the global economy would likely be in even more minacious territory right now. The global economy is currently far from stable, but what this episode shows us is that Russian and American collaboration can have a stabilizing effect - and that doesn’t just go for matters involving oil. Whether it’s arms control, fighting terrorism, climate change, or ensuring economic stability across the world — the two sides simply need to engage in dialogue to find common ground and that common ground will likely lead to stabilizing solutions that make the world better, brighter, and more secure.
Secondly, this might be what some call a black swan moment — though it might be too soon and too optimistic to know for sure. The black swan is a metaphor that describes “a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable than it was.” It’s no secret that Russian-American relations have been stuck in a state of hostility, deteriorating at a slow but consistent pace. If that was to suddenly change, then it would be both unpredictable and carry a massive impact on the rest of the world. Experts and Russia-watchers would most certainly conjure books and think pieces to explain it all away, but at the end of the day, it would still be an inexplicable turn for the best.
And last but not least, this chapter in human history should teach us above all to extend more goodwill to one another. Because in times like these, goodwill to one another is the most valuable currency that we have. John Donne, an English poet and scholar, once wrote that “no man is an island.” The same is true for superpowers. No superpower is self-sufficient or immune from tragedies like the coronavirus. No superpower is an island, shut-off from the world. We need our neighbors across the world as much as they need us. That’s why goodwill must prevail, both today and tomorrow.
And ironically, the company that manufactured the medical equipment that was sent over as humanitarian aid is actually an entity sanctioned by the United States. Obviously American policymakers have their own reasons for sanctioning a medical manufacturer that exports ventilators and reasonable minds can disagree on whether or not those explanations are valid.
Nonetheless, we should remember the principle of goodwill, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” COVID-19 is a chapter in human history that will not be forgotten. It’s important that our goodwill towards one another is, likewise, not forgotten.
This article was originally published with the Russian International Affairs Council.