Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘COVID’

What the world needs from Biden’s America: humility

With a few notable exceptions, such as Russia and Israel, President Joe Biden – partly by dint of simply not being Donald Trump – will be widely welcomed on the international stage. 

America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia who have had to take four years of abuse and having their interests undermined by the Trump administration will be particularly relieved to see tomorrow’s inauguration of Joseph R Biden as the 46th President of the United States.

Even China’s leaders, while not expecting Biden to be a push over, will probably welcome a return to greater predictability and pragmatism in Washington. 

But what the world needs to see from the US following four years of “America First” is also some humility.

Instead what we got when Biden announced his new foreign policy team on Twitter was this

While Biden acknowledges the world faces challenges which can’t be tackled without international cooperation, his emphasis is on “restoring American leadership”.

There’s no doubt Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will be a breath of fresh air after the bombast and ideologically-driven confrontation of Mike Pompeo’s tenure.

But while Blinken, who was Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, is erudite, steeped in world affairs, speaks fluent French and believes in international cooperation and the multilateral system, he is also steeped in the traditional assumption of American foreign policy practitioners that the US must – and should – always lead. He is a believer in American exceptionalism and that leaves little room for humility. 

In a 2015 speech, apparently forgetting the US’s long record of destructive military interventions, he said the world always turns to the US for leadership “because we strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilise others and to make a difference”

Last year, he told the Hudson Institute that US leadership in international institutions is essential, saying, “There is a premium still, and in some ways, even more than before, on American engagement, on American leadership”. He also argued that the world’s democracies need “leadership from the United States, playing the role that it played before, as the leader of the free world.”

This intellectual baggage makes it unlikely we are going to see a more humble US under President Biden, yet we need to.

For one thing, with its dysfunctional politics, the US foisted four years of Trump on the world and it is not churlish to expect for that alone the new administration should at least try to sound chastened.

More significantly, the world has changed from that unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s overwhelming victory in the Gulf War. China is now a serious rival and the European Union an economic powerhouse.

It is past time American leaders, Democrat or Republican, paid more than lip service to this geopolitical reality.

Biden and his new foreign policy team are right to say the world faces challenges – the COVID pandemic, the climate crisis and the rampant destruction of nature among them – that no one nation can face alone. But what the world needs is for the US to rejoin international efforts to face those challenges, not to attempt to reassert American leadership.

After all, it was that leadership since 1945 that has shaped the world we live in – with all those challenges.

The pandemic has wreaked enormous human and economic damage, but it has also presented a glimpse of what can be achieved when people work together for a common goal. The first lockdowns saw carbon emissions and pollution fall, allowing people to see that rapid improvements in air and water quality are possible. There has also been a realisation from governments, business and civil society that we as we recover from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to “build back better”, be that by making economic stimulus packages both socially just and green or by strengthening health systems.

In short, we should not just go back to business as usual and part of that means taking a more equitable and collaborative approach to international relations where countries work in partnership and no one country, however powerful, assumes it should lead.

It may be hard to be humble, but it what’s the world needs now (apologies to fans of trite American songs).

Coronavirus response: culture war victim

The measures being taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic and buy scientists time as they develop a vaccine, like efforts to control climate change before them, have fallen victim to the ongoing culture war being waged by the extreme right.

More than a million people have died as a direct result of Covid-19 and many more have been infected and left with long term damage to their organs, so you would expect efforts to control it would have widespread support.

Polling suggests that support is there, but there are also many actively opposing the measures needed to protect public health.

The protests and rhetoric calling for an end to restrictions – whether on the grounds that the economy should come first, in the name of individual liberty or because the disease is either a hoax or no worse than a mild flu – come largely from the political circles who support Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, the far right in Germany and Italy and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

When the British Conservative MP, Sir Desmond Swayne, during a debate in parliament in September, denounced being required to wear a mask to go into a shop as a “monstrous imposition” it was easy to laugh at the absurdity of his comment. Does Sir Desmond regard being required to wear clothes while in public in the same light I wondered at the time.

However, this same MP is a hard-line Brexiteer who has also said white people wearing black face is “just a bit of fun”.

What do opposition to masks, leaving the EU and belittling the significance of black face have in common?

They are all symbols to the reactionary right in the culture war that once seemed a peculiarly American conflict, but is now raging in Europe and Brazil.

When you zoom out from the day-to-day headlines and social media commentary to see the big picture, a pattern emerges.

People who are uncomfortable with many of the social and political changes that have taken place across western society in the past six decades are trying to turn the clock back.

A social revolution began in western societies in the 1960s that has seen women achieve greater equality, including access to legal, safe abortion; widespread acceptance of LGBT rights; greater acceptance of demographic changes that has seen people of colour become more fairly represented (though as Black Lives Matter shows there is a still a long way to go); as well as a wide acceptance of diversity of lifestyles.

When countries like the UK legislated for equal marriage in the past decade, for example, there was very little organised political opposition and many took that as a sign that society had changed – largely for the better.

But now it is clear that some parts of society were deeply opposed to such changes and they have rallied to the culture warriors of the right, be they Trump supporters in the US, Brexiteers in Britain – or England to be more precise – or the Bolsonaristas in Brazil who raise a phantasmagoria of communism to try to change the education curriculum to restore “traditional family values”.

These same people are now in the forefront of efforts to belittle the pandemic and oppose measures to contain it.

Many of their shibboleths are challenged by these measures – closing bars and restaurants are an attack on individual liberty, lockdowns are undermining the pursuit of wealth, the natural order – aka survival of the fittest – is being undermined by measures that put the health of the vulnerable ahead of prosperity.

While this is usually described as a culture war, given the scale and ferocity of the reactionary forces unleashed, combined with sophisticated use of up to the minute social media tactics, this could be seen as an attempted counter-revolution akin to the Counter-Reformation of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In a rational world, efforts to fight a lethal pandemic would be based on the best scientific advice and politicians would make decisions based on that counsel and the best interests of their populations.

But what is driving this wider counter-revolution is not rational for many, it is an emotional hankering for a mythologised past where everyone was heterosexual, women knew their place and white people were on top, both in their own countries and globally.

The lack of rationality motivating many who support this movement is underlined by how common conspiracy theories are among them and leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro have tried to take advantage of this. It seems many people do believe not just that Covid-19 and climate change are a hoax, but that pandemic control measures are a government plot to take away people’s freedom for good.

It is also striking how the leaders of these reactionary movements, despite mostly being from socio-economic elite themselves – Trump comes from money, Nigel Farage is a privately educated former City trader – portray themselves as victims and play on feelings of victimhood among their supporters.

2020 has been an exhausting year which is ending on a welcome note with the end of the Trump presidency, but that does not mean the attempted counter revolution will end – after all 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump

Even if we find a way to end the pandemic and Brexiteers can celebrate the UK being finally out of the EU, the reactionaries currently crying foul over masks, lockdowns and EU diktats will latch onto something else.  The Counter-Reformation culminated in the Thirty Years War – Europe’s first devastating pan European conflict.  We need to ensure the current culture war remains a battle fought with words, gifs and memes.

People photo created by prostooleh – www.freepik.com

China: the big bad dragon?

Sinophobia seems to be all the rage.

In the past year, Beijing has replaced Moscow as the main source of menace in the eyes of western politicians, news editors and media commentators.

Whether it is TikTok, Huawei, Hong Kong, the South China Sea or Taiwan, you can’t miss the narrative of the China threat.

The shift started before the COVID pandemic that almost certainly originated in China broke out, but it has accelerated rapidly since. 

US President Trump tweets regular attacks on China and used his video address to the UN General Assembly last month to portray the country as the source of all the world’s problems from COVID to Climate Change.

His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a highly provocative keynote speech in July entitled ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’ revived the rhetoric of the Cold War to argue that 50 years of American engagement with Beijing had failed, and he came closer than any American leader in many years to calling for regime change in China.

And they are not alone. Conservative British politicians have got in the act too with the Chair of the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugenhadt leading the charge.

What lies behind this?

Has the Chinese regime changed and become a growing threat or is there something else at play here?

President Trump heaping the blame China for the pandemic is clearly a poorly disguised attempt to divert American voters’ attention from the failings of his administration that has seen the virus take over 200,000 American lives.

But even before the advent of SARS-CoV2, Trump used talking up the China threat as a political tool as he tried to deliver on his campaign promise to restore American industry by pressuring US companies to bring production back home by launching a trade war with Beijing and using executive orders.

The attempt to choke the leading 5G technology company, Huawei, and the blatant attempt to force a takeover of TikTok by an American company seem to be driven less by security concerns and be more about the commercial hobbling of successful Chinese competitors.

The irony seems to be lost that this is being done by the state that Edward Snowden revealed to be using big tech to spy on huge numbers of people around the world as well as in the US.

And it is not just Trump.

Republicans and Democrats alike say China poses a growing threat and the Pentagon has shown it is keen to do its bit too by ramping up spy flights off China’s coasts – some allegedly using their transponders to disguise themselves to radar as civilian airliners, which, given airliners have been mistakenly shot down in the past, is irresponsible and dangerous. On top of this, the US Navy has reinforced its numbers and activity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims and Washington is increasing arms sales to Taiwan.

Though China is still nowhere near as powerful as the US, it is undoubtedly true that as the country has grown richer over the past few decades, it has also become stronger militarily and has used its economic heft to increase its influence in the world – as every other country, including of course the US, has done throughout history.

So no surprise there. 

It should also come as no surprise that the Chinese state is repressive and will brook no internal political challenge – whether from democracy activists or separatist movements in Tibet or Xinjiang. Human rights organisations have been trying to get western politicians to listen for years, yet only recently do they seem to have a got their attention.

The nature of the regime in Beijing has not fundamentally changed, despite the procedural changes that would allow President Xi Jinping to stay in office beyond two terms.  

What has changed is the state’s capacity for control and repression using modern information technology.

Xi’s China is also now being accused of exporting attempts to restrict freedom to other countries.

But, again, the use of what the Chinese Communist Party calls united front work to influence attitudes towards the Chinese state has always been part of its foreign policy toolkit and never went away.

There is almost a tone of nostalgia in the West these days for the era of Deng Xiaoping whose foreign policy counsel was to “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”.

But, of course, this was also the same Deng Xiaoping who ordered the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 where the army killed hundreds and ordered the ‘punitive’ invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

But one thing that has really changed in recent years and does not get talked about so much in the West, but has clearly not gone down well, is that China is no longer willing to just serve as a source of cheap consumer goods for western countries. 

China wants to move up the value chain, as economists say, and Chinese companies have become serious competitors in areas western countries long regarded as theirs, such as telecommunications and artificial intelligence.

So it looks like the US, with some of its allies in tow, has decided to try to use national security as an excuse to undermine the competition, rather than try to compete commercially.

How better to do that than portray Chinese companies as the uniquely nefarious arm of the Chinese state and label that state as communist and expansionist and throw in some Cold War language for good measure.

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