Observations of an expat: The political vacuum

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The coronavirus pandemic is a global problem. It requires cooperation at the local, regional, national and international level. Political point scoring, unilateralism and nationalism have no place in defeating Covid-19. Pandemics are no respecters of bank balances, social position and especially not borders.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Western democracies are failing to rise to the occasion, and the result could very likely be long term damage to our political system.

Ever since World War Two, the world has looked to the United States for leadership in times of crisis. Not this time. Nearly four years’ experience of Donald Trump’s isolationist unilateralism has taught us that he is congenitally incapable of forging the international consensus that is called for. Trump’s arsenal of political tactics is limited to attack, mockery and denigration. He has no strategy and the concepts of compromise and cooperation are totally absent at the personal, national and international level.

So far Trump has managed to damage the prospect of essential bipartisanship by referring to coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax”. In any national crisis it is essential to have the media on board as the vital channel of communication. The president has denounced them as peddlers of fake news and “sensationalism.” European allies were estranged by Trump’s unilateral decision to close American borders to their citizens.

But perhaps worst of all, has been the president’s treatment of China. By repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” he has alienated the one government whose experience of the pandemic could prove invaluable in stopping it.

The political vacuum created by the failings of the American president is an opportunity for the EU to fulfill its federal ambitions. In the past every problem Brussels has faced has been with calls for “more Europe.” Not this time. The Commission has decided that less Europe is better. Coordination of the crisis has been devolved to national governments who have responded by closing their borders; thus making a mockery of the Schengen Agreement. The WHO, by the way, has said that closing European borders is pointless.

The only major contribution of Brussels has been to divert $41 billion which had been set aside for EU infrastructure development to national governments. The European Central Bank has done its bit for “more Europe” by launching an $800 billion bond-buying programme to support European economies during the pandemic and aid in their recovery when it is finally over.

There is one country that has stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum—China. It may have been slow to admit is role as the source of Covid-19, but once it did, it effectively and impressively harnessed the powers of its authoritarian system to stamp out the virus. Now it is using its experience to help others. Chinese medical teams and equipment have been sent to Italy, Spain, Iran and Serbia. China is currently producing 1.6 million face masks a day as well as an increasing number of respirators and protective suits for health workers.

Beijing is making no secret of the fact that the its handling of the pandemic is an opportunity for it to favourably contrast their political system with that of the liberal West. So far, they are succeeding. That is bad for democracies.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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  • John Roffey 27th Mar '20 - 5:31pm

    With China demonstrating its efficiency and economic strength as a result of its political system and Russia demonstrating its military strength with its warplanes and warships deliberately entering UK airspace and territorial waters – these are troubling times.

    Trump is clearly the worst type of US president for such times – without either political or military experience, but whose popularity remains high at the moment – being able to give lengthy addresses directly to the US public each day. Unlikely to remain high once the death toll starts to increase significantly.

    Having pointed out Trump’s obvious flaws, Bob Dylan has released a new song of nearly 17m ‘Murder Most Foul’ relating to Kennedy’s death – in which he indicates that the US decline started following JFK’s assassination. Although long – it is in some ways mesmeric and may also appeal to non Dylan fans:

  • Thanks for posting that, John. A very deep and dark piece by Dylan.

    Brings back sad memories of 22/11/63 and what followed. But don’t forget he wrote’May you be forever young’, which I always find inspiring, especially when Pete Seeger sang it.

  • The difference between the Chinese response and the EU/US one is that the Chinese had a plan. Of course the Chinese had previous experience, but her have shared information.
    The interesting thing about the US is that it appears that states are being left to do their own thing. In China the government seems to have ensured that the internal boundary was used and they appear to have been successful.
    Of course we don’t know what makes people susceptible and what proportion of the population they represent.

  • The difference isn’t that China is taking a leadership role. It’s that China is the origin of the outbreak and it’s response is also about damage limitation. After this over what you will find is a reduction in just in time supply chains, more stock piling and a gradual attempt to localise key industries, especially those concerned with the health of nations. This has profound implications for the Chinese economy.
    Every few years we are told that the balance of cultural power is about to shift East, but the reality is China has very little impact on Western culture, whereas America and the English language do. China is the world’s sweatshop, not the new New World.

  • Peter Hirst 29th Mar '20 - 5:00pm

    There’s plenty of talk of not allowing terrorists to alter our way of life and then along comes a virus. I know it’s very different. However, once we’ve minimised exposure for the vulnerable and knowing most of us will get infected eventually we should ensure all restrictions are necessary, especially if we’re talking of over six months when people will become increasingly frustrated.

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