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The pandemic’s big sort

Jan 05,2021 - Last updated at Jan 05,2021

PRINCETON — Political systems live on competition. Political incumbents and aspirants are constantly claiming that they can manage problems better than their rivals can. Modern wars of ideas, political projects, and systems of organisation are merely updated versions of older forms of combat.

The 2008 financial crisis is one recent example of competitive politics in action. At first, non-Americans who focused on the origins of the crisis, subprime mortgages in the United States, concluded that American capitalism had failed, and that Chinese planning or European corporatism were superior systems. But then Europe became mired in a debt crisis, allowing Americans to boast that their model was still better, owing to its system of debt mutualisation and support, which had been created in 1790 under then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has also offered grounds for competing claims of political superiority. Amid quickly changing scenarios, many political and business leaders have once again rushed to declare victory for their own system. We should be sceptical of these claims. With the exception of less populated, geographically distanced island countries like New Zealand (25 deaths), Taiwan (7 deaths), or Greenland (no deaths), no obviously superior model has yet emerged.

To be sure, China has so far appeared to be the pandemic’s winner: its economy continued to grow strongly in 2020, and was one of the only large economies to have grown at all. After imposing severe lockdowns to suppress the spread of the virus, China was able to restart economic activity and serve as a leading global supplier of products, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and pharmaceuticals, needed to deal with the pandemic.

By contrast, the European Union and the US exhibited deep dysfunctionality in the face of the pandemic. US President Donald Trump’s administration will long serve as a cautionary tale of incompetence, mendacity and corruption. Trump denied the severity of the pandemic in full knowledge of its likely impact, mostly because he saw lockdowns as a threat to the economy and thus to his re-election. When the US did act to mobilise suppliers of critical equipment, the process was permeated by cronyism, with many contracts going to insiders linked to the Trump family.

Since then, President-elect Joe Biden has faced resistance from the outgoing administration as he tries to oversee a smooth transition, and partisan squabbling over additional stimulus spending has continued, resulting in the temporary lapse in unemployment benefits in late December. Though there are now multiple approved vaccines being rolled out, distributing them as they become available will be divisive and controversial.

The US in 2020 became even more polarised, not just by the virus but also by the unequal clinical effects of COVID-19 and the lockdowns and other measures implemented to address it. The issue of systemic racism and police violence returned to the fore after the death of George Floyd in May, creating a perfect storm of social, political, and economic injustice. People of colour could not breathe because of the effect of the virus in their lungs, and because of policemen kneeling on their necks.

In his recent memoir, former president Barack Obama writes almost despondently of the US as a supposed exemplar of a multicultural and multiethnic society. The outcome of that experiment, he notes, remains deeply uncertain. The divisive legacy of Trumpism points to the need for a new founding of the American Republic.

The US has already been made twice: in the American Revolution, after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776; and then again in the 1860s and 1870s, following the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction, a process that would take at least a century to see through. Each time, only a partial accommodation was made for the foundational assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

To President Abraham Lincoln, this meant “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and he promised a “new birth of freedom”. Two and a half years earlier, at his first inauguration, he had explained that, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” It is easy to imagine Biden marshaling these same phrases in support of a third founding when his presidency begins on January 20.

The EU, meanwhile, is plagued by different worries, and is confronting risks to its integrity that are even greater than in the US. Disputes over access to PPE and vaccines will continue to polarise the bloc along national lines, and eastern and southern Europe will continue to witness the dramatic consequences of the brain drain, including of medical professionals, that has intensified over the past decade.

There are promising signs in the agreements on the next seven-year budget, a new recovery fund, dubbed Next Generation EU, and a rule-of-law mechanism that faced opposition from Hungary and Poland. But whether these developments are enough to secure European solidarity remains to be seen. The experience of the dark years after the euro crisis made it clear that there is no appetite for a centralised regime administering funds according to complex and politicised conditions. Like the US, Europe is on the cusp of its own moment of re-founding, but it will remain wracked by anxiety and uncertainty.

Still, one final element might focus minds, especially in Europe. It is tempting to think that New Zealand, Taiwan, or Greenland can simply be emulated, and it appears as though the United Kingdom is embarking on precisely such an experiment. But British leaders are pursuing a fantasy, built on the idea that by reclaiming national sovereignty, the UK can control its own destiny.

In due time, there will be ample evidence with which to compare the UK’s performance to that of others. It is all but certain that those who chose to pursue cooperation in the face of multiplying health, economic, and social problems will come out better. The UK’s woes will convince others around the world to embrace more solidarity, while producing no shortage of schadenfreude.


Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, is the author of the forthcoming “The War of Words”. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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