NEW YORK: It is a natural human impulse, and a political one, to turn inward when threatened by a crisis that appears beyond our control.
The world is facing several such forces at once: food shortages, inflation, the persistence of Covid and the effects of global warming.
Taken together, they threaten the stability and prosperity of nations around the world. That threat could hasten the retreat that many countries are already making away from globalisation and international cooperation.
This is the wrong lesson to draw. Covid, climate change and now the spectre of a global food crisis show clearly that the world’s problems are intimately linked, as are solutions.
The power of cooperation has been on display in the coordinated response to Russia’s aggression. More cooperation, not less, is required to navigate a path forward through other crises.
That’s true even for inflation, an acute problem that Americans, like people in so many other countries, look to their national governments to solve.
Inflation is higher than at any other time since the early 1980s, meaning that many people can’t afford to keep buying the same goods and services.
Republicans have sought to put the blame for rising prices on the federal government, for overstimulating the domestic economy with relief funds in response to the pandemic, and economic analysts generally agree this has played a role.
The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, which is charged with keeping inflation under control, was initially slow to respond. But it is now moving urgently to cool demand for goods and services by raising borrowing costs. On Wednesday, the Fed raised its benchmark interest rate by 0.75 percentage points, an unusually large jump.
High inflation in other developed economies underscores that the rise in prices is a global phenomenon, one that is caused in large part by global disruptions in the flow of oil, food and other goods. As the Fed squeezes demand, the Biden administration can ease the economic pain by working to expand the availability of goods and services. Some of the obstacles are domestic: America needs to get serious about building more housing, for example, the single largest expense for most American families.
Others are global: The White House needs to put its shoulder to the work of expanding the global production of energy, through encouraging the near-term extraction of fossil fuels and by investing in the development of sustainable sources of energy. We also have called for President Joe Biden to end his blanket tariffs on imports from China, a move the administration is reportedly considering.
The United States can help itself and the rest of the world by working with other nations — especially the countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia that are most at risk — to address a major impending food crisis. Shortages are already acute in parts of Africa, and some of the reasons are well known: the extreme weather of climate change, the economic ravages of COVID-19, the inequality of resources. But a new and devastating problem has been created by Russia’s cruel war on Ukraine.
Ukraine is the fourth-largest exporter of grain and seeds in the world, mostly corn and wheat, but with its ports either occupied or blockaded by Russia, its ability to ship its grain has been sharply reduced. It is essential to get the Ukrainian grain moving. Much of it normally goes to developing countries facing the worst food shortages, and Ukrainian silos have to be emptied to make room for grain about to be harvested.
Add a host of other war-related factors — sanctions on Belarus and Russia that have curbed the world’s supply of a key fertilizer, potash; granaries destroyed by Russian shelling; countries like India cutting off most wheat exports to make sure, understandably, that their own needs are met — and it becomes evident that Vladimir Putin’s war is having devastating repercussions on food supplies and prices far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
As is so often the case, it is the poorest countries that suffer the sharpest blow, and history shows that hunger can quickly turn lethal. Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Yemen are already feeling the pain of food shortages, The Washington Post notes; rising prices have set off protests in Argentina, Indonesia, Tunisia and Sri Lanka, among other countries.
The largest constraint to the export of Ukrainian grain is the country’s inability to use its primary Black Sea port, Odesa. Ukraine has instead tried to ship its grain by road, rail and river, but these methods fall far short of what would be exported through Ukrainian ports. Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was exporting an average of 3.5 million tons of grain per month. That fell to 300,000 tons in March and went up to a little more than 1 million tons in April.
Odesa could handle the volume, and it is still under Ukrainian control. The problem is the warships and mines blocking shipping. Russia has indicated that it is prepared to open a secure channel out of Odesa, but it would expect the lifting of some sanctions in exchange. The United States and its allies have resisted lifting any sanctions; Ukrainians say Russia cannot be trusted.
Time is fast running out. The winter wheat is ripe, and about 25 million tons of grain, according to United Nations estimates, in Ukraine could rot if it isn’t exported soon. Even an immediate agreement to clear the way to Odesa would require weeks to arrange a large flotilla willing to take the risk of entering a war zone and pay for the necessary insurance and escort. Using NATO ships could create the danger of a direct confrontation with Russian warships, which the Western allies have been intent on avoiding.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has said that “there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertilizer produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets, despite the war.” He suggested, in effect, that the United States and Europe relax the existing sanctions on Russian and Belarusian agriculture exports in exchange for letting Ukrainian grain flow unimpeded to the world.
International trust and cooperation are in desperately short supply, but it’s the only way out of any of these intertwined crises. The Biden administration should see this moment as a critical one for America’s leadership in the world and step up to meet it.