Ironies, dysfunction and distressing trends

by Aug 16, 2020

2020 is a watershed in many ways, Covid19, mayhem on a global scale in health, economies, widespread protests and geo-political shifts.  These disturbing trends play out within a background of a plethora of ironies verging on the perverse. Dysfunctions in major powers and global institutions have been highlighted and indeed have exacerbated the problems.  Post 2020 in many ways heralds some distressing trends.

Covid-19 has spread around the world like wildfire, reaching all corners, because of the failure of early warning systems, lack of suitable equipment, inadequate health infrastructures, inappropriate policies and political and underlying socio-economic issues; in short this is systems failure, with the most devastating impact in countries where dysfunctions are most acute.  While much progress has been made in the country, China, where it started and in many other countries, there have been renewed spikes in many of them and Covid-19 will be with us until a vaccine is found.  The mayhem in the world owes a lot to the dysfunctions in the two super-powers who are key drivers in global affairs, namely, the USA and China. The US as a result of its political dysfunctions elected a leader, Trump, who is totally unqualified in terms of experience, intellect, strategic vision and temperament for the role of US president and the global leadership that role has traditionally bestowed on its holder in addressing the myriad of issues we face.  The opaque political and decision making process in China has been found wanting in dealing with Covid-19 and other global issues this new kid in the global super-power space faces.  The European Union the largest economic unit has yet to translate its clout into the portent and cohesive political force to play its rightful role on global issues.   Developments in other power centres cast dark clouds in in the world.

The effects of the virus on economies around the world has been devastating, with lock downs resulting in severe reductions in production, employment and trade everywhere; in the US the latest decline in quarterly GDP, 33%, was the worst in that country’s history.  China’s ground-breaking 30-year economic growth has taken a huge hit and Europe which had just about recovered from the great recession has been severely damaged, posting huge declines in its GDP.  While these health and economic ravages have been playing out all over the world, the senseless murder of a Black man in America ignited calls for end long simmering racial injustice that have resulted in protests all over America and among supporters world-wide. And then there is the heightened global tension between China and the US, which had been playing out ever since Trump took office but which he is using to divert attention from his failures in dealing with the pandemic, a collapsing economy and poll numbers. Thrown into this smorgasbord is China’s power-grab in Hong Kong, revoking the territory’s autonomy, notably its independent judiciary.

In these turbulent times, the ironies are striking, foremost of which is the fact that the US, the most powerful country is the hardest hit by Covid-19, accounting for a quarter of Covid-19 infections and the largest number of deaths even though it accounts for only 4% of the world’s population. This record on Covid-19 is particularly striking given the fact that the US not only spends the highest amount on health in absolute terms but also the highest level on health as a percentage of its total economy(GDP) among leading economies.   Trump’s mantra that he is the best person to fix the economy has been debunked. Trump, who came to power to assert the US’s hegemony has seriously weakened the country’s brand and in fact made the US into a laughing stock, because of his disastrous handling of Covid-19 and a myriad of other blunders; nobody would have imagined that a US leader would go in front of the world and suggest injecting disinfectant as a cure for Covid-19.  Perversely, in the middle of the pandemic, he is leading efforts to dismantle Obamacare, the healthcare system set up by Obama which extended healthcare to millions and, is now needed by the millions thrown out of work by the pandemic. The country is wracked with widespread protests and political ultra-partisanship, caused or fuelled by Trump and his enablers in his party.  He has bungled the Black Lives matter protests, sending federal law enforcement officials into cities to prevent lawful and primarily peaceful protests, despite the objection of local and state officials. He has strongly opposed efforts to dismantle relics of the confederacy, an unpopular position among the majority of Americans who object to symbols glorifying slavery; throughout his reign he has taken actions and made statements considered racists, stoking racial divisions.   On the international front, he has had a fractious relationship with allies and has been led by the nose by Russia.  Trump, the wannabe strongman took no action when informed that Russia had paid bounties for the killing of American soldiers and did not even raise the issue in a recent conversation with the Russian president.  This is in sharp contrast to his bellicose actions and statements towards China. While Tump’s America is not a failed state, it is a failed super-power in terms of its domestic woes and failed global leadership.  America which traditionally promoted democracy, fee press, judiciary and elections is no more that beacon under Trump.  As we go to press, Trump is taking measures to hinder the democratic process, opposing voting by mail and funding for the postal services; he has admitted publicly that his denial of funding for the postal service will supress voting by mail. Voting by mail is essential in a pandemic and Trump’s opposition to the process demonstrates his fear of the electorate.

China which should have been the main beneficiary of Trump’s blunders has failed to rise to the occasion.  Much of the world still blames the country for the way it handled the outbreak of the pandemic  and have been critical of its cosy relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO) which gave China a pass rather than being more assertive and critical of the country in its handling of Covid-19.    China’s continued aggressive stance on territorial issues in the South China Sea, altercations with India in the Himalayas and the power grab in Honk Kong have raised concerns in many countries and seriously hindered its long standing objective of bringing Taiwan under its control.  The budding super-power has therefore failed to make use of the opportunity offered by an inept American administration.  At a time when it could have earned kudos as Mr Nice in the face of Mr Incompetent/Nasty (Trump) it has squandered that opportunity.   As the country’s leverage grows in leaps and bounds in all areas, it has not developed the robust debate within its governing structure to deal with new complex issues.    The coterie of cadres with absolute authority that was adequate in a weak and isolated country has not coped with the demands of an emerging super-power

Covid-19 highlighted the lack of effective control by WHO – it relies on reports by national governments – in pinpointing outbreaks and launching remedial actions. That deficiency combined with a much interconnected world resulted in a very fast spread of the virus rather than the rapid dissemination of information to curb its spread.  A global pandemic in an increasingly interconnected world arrived at a time when China,  the new super-power with tentacles around the globe failed to act because its opaque decision making process was at variance with its  new role, combined with its myopic nationalism;  when the institution that should play a crucial role, the WHO, proved ineffective as a global early warning beacon; when the most powerful country, the USA, is ruled by an inept president, who is hostile to transnational organisations, cooperation and instead is hell bent on destroying such organisations and picks a fight with the budding super-power where the disease originated from, a very toxic scenario –  Trump constantly refers to Covid-19 as the “China virus”. This is indeed global systems failure on a monumental scale.

The pandemic and economic disarray are playing out within the background of turbulent and in some ways conflicting trends, namely, rising nationalism, authoritarianism and geo-political shifts, within a background of globalisation in terms of politics, economics (trade and supply chains) and travel.  Given these interconnections, nationalistic rumblings and naked power-plays are at variance with the appropriate solutions for pandemics and other global challenges.  Although much of this can definitely be blamed on Trump, it is not the full story.  China’s handling of the pandemic was no doubt partly to save face, which combined with its power play, its silk road project and grandiose economic blueprint which plans for that country’s development and dominance in cutting edge fields such as Artificial Intelligence etic suggests a country gearing for world dominance, major shifts in geo-politics in its favour.  Trump has been assaulting the post second world war military alliance (NATO) and the fee trade principles that US had championed, showing a marked preference for authoritarian rule at home and for regimes abroad. As the pandemic has unfolded he has extricated the US from the WHO, ignored the global push for a solution to the crisis and instead made moves to go it alone in developing and gobbling vaccines for Covid-19.   In line with the adage, never waste a crisis, Russia has heightened its nefarious activities, notably in the Middle East.    

A century ago, as the world came out of the First World War, the first global pandemic, the Spanish Flu hit the world.  Globalisation was on the rise fuelled by the technological revolution in the form of modern ships, cars, planes, global trade, telecommunication, and the media that were bringing the world closer together.  A hundred years later, these trends have accelerated, with, the digital revolution, rapid changes in industrial production and supply chains speeding up the move to a global village. A century ago, a new world power, the USA, was tepidly taking over the mantle from Great Britain.  Interestingly the new super-power had come to that role in a similar fashion as China’s march, through break-necked economic growth and industrialisation, often ironically, like China, misappropriating European technology.  Like Trump the president of the US, Woodrow Wilson was incompetent in dealing with that pandemic and a racist who implemented /encouraged/turned a blind eye to racist policies.  The Ku Klux Klan was having a heyday and many of the statues of confederate soldiers and politicians that Trump is defending were put up during or just after Wilson’s reign.  On the international front, rather than helping to build the peace process after the First World War, the US retreated into isolationism and gave birth to the America First mantra.  We are also seeing a change of global leadership, partly as China muscles its way to a leading position but also, as Trump fritters away the US’s lead.   The EU, the largest economic unit, is still, largely that, an economic arrangement, without the political muscle that its member states jealously retain; its response to the pandemic has been managed on a national basis.  

A hundred years ago saw the rise of a Corporal who penned a book and whose rise gave birth to a toxic ideology, fascism, fusing nationalism with authoritarianism.  Unlike the major alternative to Western liberal democracies, communism, it allowed for significant free market activity, making the fascist movement a potent force. He felt that victors in the war had treated Germany unfairly and was determined to make amends and put Germany in its rightful, dominant position.   Nearly a hundred years after  the demise of that rascal we are seeing the resurgence of nationalism combined with  authoritarian tendencies in Trump’s America, China, Brazil, the largest country in South America, Russia and India, with elements that echo of the corporal’s rise, namely, anger/grievance, supremacy, disregard/antipathy towards minorities and authoritarianism.  This toxic mix gave rise to the corporal’s fascist movement.  Trump’s premise is that the world has taken advantage of America, stealing its technology, closing markets to American companies and products and, allies taking a free ride on America’s military umbrella.  What he fails to take into account is that America also stole technology from Europe, it is American companies spurred by the profit motive that have shifted production abroad, America has also lost out because of underinvestment in its physical infrastructure and people in terms of training and education. American politicians, particularly Republicans, have instead invested a disproportionate amount of their budgets on the military.  China’s angst and push for world dominance are no doubt related to its humiliation in the 19th and 20th century by Western powers and Japan.  A similar pattern is building up in the other countries jostling for prominence, a toxic trend that is caused and/fuelled by developments in the two super-powers. 

The new normal does not bode well for the world as a whole. Firstly, Covid-19 is here to stay for an extended visit, the world will have to adjust to this unwelcomed guest. The dysfunctions that have accentuated the impacts of the virus could be ameliorated but are unlikely to be completely eradicated.  

In the US, hopefully, according to most polls Trump could be removed from office by voters although given his solid support among White Americans,  there is no guarantee that the country would not re-elect this totally unqualified and unfit president.  Indeed if  he is re-elected, it will be the gross manifestation of political dysfunction, a reward for failure and the country should really change its name into United White America the electoral segment that he appeals to, cares about and that polls indicate still support him strongly. His racist and America First populist mantra has developed shoots that are unlikely to be snuffed out.  We could face either of two nightmare scenarios. Scenario one is the re-election of Trump despite the destruction he has caused in terms of a  forecasted quarter of a million Cocid-19 deaths and millions of infections by election day , economic devastation, assault on democratic norms, the environment, economic inequality, strife and a diminished American brand that Trump’s rule has brought to America and the world.  Indeed his steadfast support among the 40% of the electorate, 80% of Republicans, means that his base has been completely hoodwinked and/or totally motivated by tribalism, no doubt a position reinforced by the falsehoods that are put out in his campaign literature and social media feeds that are consumed by his supporters.  In scenario 2, if defeated this year, he could be replaced by leaders like Senator Tom Cotton or the Fox news firebrand, Tucker Carlson who share his views but are much smarter operators.  Under both scenarios the disarray in the western alliance and assaults on the democratic movement around the world will take time to heal.  The rise of China and its hawkish national posture will continue.  Given these scenarios, the world will continue its march into the turbulent unknown.  Given these possibilities the world could be faced with years of a dysfunctional super-powers and God forbid if another virus or calamity comes through.

What would be a huge plus is an improvement in the political dynamics of the leading super-power, its budding rival, global institutions and the impotent supra-state, the EU.  An optimistic scenario could emerge as follows.  Hopefully after the fiasco of Trump, he and his enablers are soundly defeated in November, the political establishment institutes checks and balances to prevent totally unqualified candidates like Trump ever rising to the position he holds, the Republican party realises it can’t turn the clock of a more diverse America and reverts to its traditional world worldview.  China develops a more transparent and robust decision making process that is in line with the complexity of its new super-power role and moves to the use of more soft power.   The European Union becomes a more cohesive and assertive political force to assume the mantle it deserves; as part of that transformation, discourages the development of authoritarian moves in some of its member states, notably Poland and Hungary who are significant beneficiaries of the largess of its more liberal members.   There is a concerted fight against the seeds of fascism that are sprouting around the globe, which would be significantly aided by these positive developments in the US and EU.  A revitalised US, cleansed of Trumpism and, a more potent liberal EU would be a strong bulwark against the dark forces of authoritarianism and fascism.  This realigned power structure can and should accept, encourage and pressure China to play the game as a mature and respected member of the global super-power fraternity. The empowerment of the WHO and other global institutions would also help.  One crucial improvement will be for the WHO to be given the authority to operate unfettered early warning systems anywhere in the world, an unlikely development unless the ultra-nationalism trends are curbed.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO)