The tragedy of two failing superpowers

History accelerates in crises. This pandemic may not transform the world by itself, but it can accelerate the changes already underway. An ongoing change has been in relations between China, the rising superpower, and the United States, the incumbent. Being a superpower is not only about brute force, it is also about being seen as a competent and decent leader. After the victories of World War II and the Cold War, the United States was such a leader. Despite the rise of economic power, China is not. But times can change. Coronavirus can speed up the process.

Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat, has written a typically provocative book on the struggle for primacy between the two superpowers under the title provocateur Did China win? The answer, he suggests, is not yet. But it could. It is not only because of its magnitude, but also because of American mistakes, including false perceptions of Chinese reality. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from his analysis is that global influence comes mainly from his own choices. China and the United States have each made big mistakes. But the failure of the United States to create widely shared prosperity in its country and its belligerence abroad are paralyzing. The sad presidency of a malicious incompetent is a result.

The virus has now arrived, an event which is not taken into account in this book. It throws a harsh light on the skill and decency of the superpowers. He did the same for the solidarity (or lack thereof) of the EU, the efficiency of the States, the vulnerability of finances and the capacity for global cooperation. In all of this, the performance of the United States and China is of paramount importance. So what have we learned?

The new coronavirus, which causes such social and economic havoc, appeared in the Chinese province of Hubei. There is little doubt. The National Institutes of Health in the United States declare that it comes from bats. Irresponsibly and tragically, local authorities suppressed the news of the infection, delaying the response by at least three weeks. This has allowed the virus to spread around the world. Subsequently, however, the Chinese state took brutal measures, controlling the disease in Hubei and stopping its spread across China. Compared to the population, the death rate in China is very low. Both the initial suppression of bad news and the magnitude of the response are characteristics of a repressive but effective state. (See graphics.)

Total since the 100th case for the five highest countries
Highest countries with cases per million since 100th case

An effective response to the disease will have had a significant economic cost in China. But the state has encouraged employers to keep their employees, while helping companies do so. The official urban unemployment rate has increased very little. As usual, the largest group of victims is migrant labor. China can now reopen its economy, although there is a risk of second wave of the disease.

The United States has had its own forms of denial, shamefully emanating from President Donald Trump himself, as well as huge failures in ramping up testing and the provision of equipment, as has the United Kingdom. Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs wrote devastating of unwillingness and ineffectiveness on display. The infections are spreading at a frightening speed across the country. It could get worse. Italy and Spain show much worse. Yet the United States has the added disadvantage of a faulty healthcare system.

The United States, like other high-income countries, has now responded with “social distancing,” although Mr. Trump reluctantly extended it, and a budget response, worth 2 billions of dollars. Roman Frydman of New York University, argues that it is neither large enough, given the size of the US economy, nor well targeted: only a 20th of that goes to hospitals, while state and local governments are not changed. Worst of all, says veteran anti-corruption activist, Frank Vogl, is a $ 500 billion fund for large corporations that may be under the control of Mr. Trump, which is against the will of Congress.

Line graph showing total number of deaths for highest countries
Line graph: Deaths per million for the six highest countries

The basic American principles of democracy and individual freedom remain attractive to many around the world, despite the global rise of populist autocracy. The strength of its private economy could still save us all. But today, the United States is losing its reputation for elementary skill, already badly battered by its long list of futile wars and the financial crisis of 2007-2009. Parts of the government, including the Federal Reserve, remain effective for now, but who knows what would happen during a second Trump term? But the fundamental capacity of the often despised “administrative state” – the bulwark of any complex urban civilization – really matters. In these times of crisis, his absence is fatal. A government at war with science and its own machines is now very visible to everyone.

For those of us who believe in liberal democracy, these American failures hurt: they lend credence to the idea that autocracy works better. But the death of decency and competence in the main western governments matters beyond that. The arrival of the pandemic is a global moral challenge. There is a need to fight the spread of disease, manage financial shocks, stabilize the economy and help the weak. The United States must play a big role. There is no alternative to its role.

Line graph: Cumulative number of deaths, by number of days since the 10th death. Display of American states and certain sub-national regions in Italy, Spain, China, France, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

We were reminded that no man is an island during a pandemic. As Gordon Brown argues, “This crisis must result in reforms to the international architecture and a whole new level of global cooperation.” For this to happen, some states must lead. All world orders are based on cooperation between powerful states. China and the United States must not only work. They must work together, recognizing the many interests they share, while tolerating their profound differences.

If not us, who? And if not now, when?

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