2020 – Systems failure in the global village

by Dec 30, 2020

As 2020 comes to a close the remarkable point is how things have unravelled in our interconnected village.  Centre stage is of course Covid19 which is buffeting all corners but other factors have also hit us. Covid19 has cast a shadow on everything we do all over the world, with health, economies, relationships within and between countries and the latest development, new strains of the virus, causing borders being slammed shut.  Systems failure has occurred partly because in the case of Covid19, nature is to blame, but its occurrence and spread have a lot to do with society and politics.  Other forms of turbulence are entirely to do with homo sapiens and our failures, notably failures in the key drivers in our global village, namely, America, Europe and China. As noted in my previous reports, China and America bear the brunt of the blame for the pandemic, the former where it started for not being open about it and both for playing it down, America for not using its (super power status) resources, notably its enormous technological capacity to quell the pandemic as it did with the Ebola pandemic a few years earlier.  In our global village developments in the key drivers play prominent roles in shaping the lives of all of us and significant failures have made 2020 a difficult and perverse year with tougher times ahead unless there are realignments in the body politiques, leaderships and policies.

Four years ago America elected a man who is totally unfit to lead the super power, a decision that has had enormous adverse repercussions for the country and world.  These repercussions, which were evident in Trump’s campaign and subsequently, evolved into the series of nightmare scenarios.  He was only interested in America and only the 40% of Americans who support him, laying waste to the country and the world through his myopic “vision”, incompetence and lack of interest in the job other than promoting the Trump brand.   

This situation is the ultimate system failure at several levels, posing questions on how America got to such a state.  How can America elect such a man as president?  How can the majority of Republicans, including highly educated, intelligent and experienced (Republican) leaders dismiss the will of the people, accept unverified statements (lies) about the recent presidential election results and countenance the continuation of his leadership and/or his re-election in 2024?   Systems failure includes Trump’s assault on democracy (constant lies, impeachment, attacks on the press, judiciary etc.) throughout his reign, his rejection of defeat and failure to implement a seamless transfer of power in the country that has played a pivotal role in the development of the modern democratic process, has a robust democratic infrastructure (independent press, judiciary and bureaucracy) and promoted democracy around the world.  Another level of system failure is the fact that the country that leads the world in terms of medical science and innovation, notably, leading universities and the majority of prizes won by its scientists, total spend and proportion of its GDP on health can have the worst Covid19 record.  It is perverse that the country that has the leading economy and leading economists (and universities) can have the worst economic meltdown – under Obama the US came out of the recession faster and stronger than most other advanced economies and played the leading role in suppressing the Ebola epidemic.  It is perverse that the most technologically advanced country, with the leading technology brands would have been so comprehensibly infiltrated (hacked), presumably by a technological minion under Trump’s watch, an issue he has ignored as he did when bounties were placed on US soldiers in Afghanistan.  Trump has even disagreed with his officials, including his Secretary of State on the perpetrators of the hack.  

The other key driver in the global village, Europe, has also demonstrated systems failure, notably Brexit, issues with  its latest budget relating to the rule of law (democracy) in some member states, (Poland and Hungary) and Covid19 where it has the second worse record. The departure of the UK from the European Union (EU) project this year demonstrates a significant system failure, a divorce by a leading member, willing to forego the benefits of the largest and richest club in the world, even though both sides are hailing the recent agreement because it avoids the feared tariffs.  That “success” may be illusory because the EU is losing a major player; economists have forecasted a slower economic growth initially for both the UK and the EU; there will be costly bureaucratic hurdles; the deal has rather skimpy details on the services sector which make up the bulk of the GDP and trade between both parties and; no doubt there will be commercial and government preferential treatments on both sides that will in effect amount to non-tariff barriers to trade.  As noted in a previous paper of mine, the EU will be losing a country that played a significant role in pushing for a more liberal union with regards to the economy and democracy in the face of moves by countries that are inclined to more illiberal tendencies.  Finally as a significant net contributor to the EU budget the coffers are thinner with the UK’s departure. The EU needs to examine how Brexit came about and how it can avoid other members from following suit. 

The EU has also had a major issue in finalising its budget because it included democratic riders aimed at preventing members from moving towards authoritarianism as Poland and Hungary have been trending.  While the club started off as a move to integrate the economies of Europe, a major underlying theme was the development of a body that would be an antidote to fascism which led to the Second World War and subsequently communist authoritarian rule.  Since its inception political and judicial measures have reinforced that theme. Interestingly, the EU welcomed central and east  European countries which were keen to move out of the authoritarian grip of the Soviet Union, showered them (and continue to do so) with huge subsidies and other economic benefits.  In the last few years Poland and Hungary have taken sharp turns to the right, away from the democratic premise that underpin the EU.  While the impasse has been moved over to the EU’s top court, with both parties claiming victory, the issue has not been resolved. The question is how can countries that came out of the yoke of authoritarian Soviet rule join a liberal democratic club which they have benefited from immensely veer towards right-wing authoritarianism?  How can they be made to realign to the liberal democratic norms that underpin the club?

The covid19 pandemic has impacted Europe very hard, second to the US in terms of total number of infections and deaths per capita despite having some of the best health infrastructure and total and per capita health expenditure, with the Italy, UK and France leading in terms of deaths and infections.  The question is how did covid19 hit Europe so hard given this remarkable health resource and track record?

China, the super-power in waiting has demonstrated system failure in two aspects, namely, covid19 and Hong Kong.  Covid19 started in the country and could have been contained at an early stage and not allowed to spread to the rest of the world if the country had been open about it and allowed its scientists to take the leading and appropriate measures at the onset.  As we go to press the country has jailed the trail blazing journalist Zhang Zhan for her critical reports on covid19 in Wuhan in February 2019.  China has enacted draconian laws relating to Hong Kong and encouraged and/or ordered Hong Kong authorities to take measures against democratic activists in the territory.  For a country that prides itself as in control of the vagaries of life including health its handling of covid19 represents system failure. The question is how can China expect to take the mantle of super-power status when it has demonstrated such ineptness in handling a pandemic with regards to its spread within the country but even more important across the globe in a situation where it plays an increasing role as the key global player on a variety of fronts?   For a country that has been positioning itself as calm and grown up, able and willing to take global leadership in the face of the Trump turbulence and chaos China’s handling of both issues represents system failure.  On Hong Kong, the question is how can China expect to win over the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the world when it has taken such a ham-fisted approach, particularly as this is in contravention of the “one country two system” pledge it gave to the UK when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty?   

It is in the interest of these key drivers and the world that system failures are resolved. In the US the Republican Party must move away from Trumpism, a populist concept without coherence or logic, and return to normalcy.  This means a move away from the populist dogma, antipathy towards democracy and rule of law, conspiracy theories, lies, aversion to science and the unhealthy antagonism towards the rest of the world that Trump has championed, and return to its traditional path of free trade, the rule of law and democracy, cooperation with other democratic countries and the promotion of democratic ideals. Somehow the Republican Party must find ways to deter, at an early (primaries) stage, the likes of an unqualified demagogue like Trump ever becoming a candidate for the highest position.  This may sound undemocratic but Trump’s rise and actions in office are out of synch with the foundations of the country, an assault on the democratic process which may have been the result of what could be characterised as a Manchurian plant.  He bludgeoned his way into leadership position by spewing hate, insults and falsehoods. He publicly called for foreign help in accessing Hilary Clinton’s emails and refused to provide his tax and financial statements which some observers have noted would have shown that he is beholden to foreign backers.  In office he has repeatedly sided with a foreign adversary, even contradicting his own officials, notably most recently, his refusal to accept the conclusions of intelligence officials and his secretary of state that Russia was responsible for the most comprehensive hacking of US government departments and top corporate brands.  Trump’s rise and governance can be viewed as America democratic infrastructure being hacked, files corrupted and repositioned to render the country impotent, fractious and weak, not great.  Under Trump America has a leader who is absent, at war not just with the Democratic Party but also with the country’s democratic norms while  foreign adversaries have wreaked havoc on its digital infrastructure which underpins governance and business in the 21st century.  The system needs to be overhauled and repositioned, hopefully Biden with the support of the Democratic and Republican leadership can recognise, accept and take the relevant measures for the benefit of America and the world.

 It is not an easy task as Trump won 74 million votes, is still supported by 90% of Republicans and the majority of Republican members of the house of representative are still backing dubious claims that the “election was stolen”.  To cap it all, Trump’s National Economic Council Director, Larry Kudlow has announced he is setting up a policy group to promote Trumpism, namely, “the legacy and consequences …ensure those ideas continue and are defended”  and Trump is considering running in 2024. This bizarre development e is reflection of its two key backers, Kudlow and former Trump Energy Secretary, Rick Perry.  Kudlow who presided over the worst economic record in modern times, inheriting a healthy growing economy from Obama and exiting with much higher unemployment, plummeting economic growth and national debt that has ballooned not just because of covid19 (a Trump legacy) but also tax give-aways to the rich and corporations, has praised Janet Yellen and Jared Bernstein, Biden’s Treasury Secretary and member of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) respectively. Absent from the praise is Cecilia Rouse Biden’s chair of the CEA who will replace Kudlow, it just happens that unlike the other two, Rouse who holds a PHD from Harvard University, currently dean at Princeton University and has served in that body under Presidents Clinton and Obama is unlike the other two Black.  Rick Perry former Trump Energy Secretary, as presidential candidate could not remember the (Energy) department he had vowed to eliminate when interviewed by the media. As Energy Secretary even though he caused a lot of damage he was stymied because of his inability to overcome the roadblocks Obama and previous administrations had put in place to protect the environment. He had repudiated Trumpism as “a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition.” The leading torch bearers of Trumpism are therefore incompetents, somebody who like Trump obviously does not believe in diversity (as far as Blacks are concerned because he supports a woman and an ideological foe acknowledging his difference with Bernstein who he noted was left-wing) and a turn-coat who had correctly predicted the damage Trump would cause.

The EU has taken a hit with Brexit and it must make sure that other countries do not follow suit which means a fine balancing act of enhancing cohesion but also avoiding measures that makes members yearn for their sovereignty.  The key factor in the UK leaving was the feeling that its sovereignty had been emasculated, a crucial issue for a proud nation that had ruled a quarter of the world and always felt not quite European, frequently called upon to sort out problems of the continent and then removing the drawbridge over the moat (English channel), a luxury that the continentals don’t have.  The EU will no doubt constantly review new UK’s new trade agreements and take actions to ensure that they are broadly align to standards that it holds dear and do not make the club unfairly uncompetitive.

The troubling authoritarian trends in Poland and Hungary need to be addressed with firm opposition, particularly from leading states and net contributors to the EU budget. Unlike the UK, Poland and Hungary and other countries that have exhibited authoritarian tendencies lately are generally net beneficiaries of the largess of EU paymasters.  The liberal democratic ideals and policies do not only protect the group from authoritarian trends but also showcase and promote liberal democratic norms around the world. If those countries that are trending towards the authoritarian path want to play hard ball, then the alternative for them, being kicked out of the club is dismal, being shut off from the huge market, subsidies and having to revert to the embrace of Russia is not exactly enticing.  The UK is unlikely to veer away from the liberal democratic norms it has always championed.  

Covid19 has hit Europe hard and it could have done better through the centre of excellence concept and better coordination.  In the case of the former, it would have helped if the measures and infrastructure of countries that have done very well in Europe and beyond had been adopted and with open borders, if there had been better coordination and cooperation among member states.     

China’s march towards the premier super power status it craves requires a change of course.  While it can be argued that the disciplined approach of Mao rescued that proud country from the humiliation and ravages it endured in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, it has got to this remarkable stage over the last four decades, poised to take that mantle by liberalising its markets.  It is getting to the stage where it needs to apply a similar approach on the political front.  This means a more open forum on health issues and allowing its scientists to take the lead if a similar incident was to occur – this is one of several covid19 type diseases that have originated from that country.  The country also needs to take a more open approach to Hong Kong and other areas because at this stage, soft power will be far more productive as it marches towards the global leadership it craves.  Other countries will feel less threatened and supportive, and this does not mean just being bought off but rather aspiring to follow the path China has blazed, by most accounts a phenomenal feat.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant of Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO) www.oxfordmemo.co.uk