Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

In the US, the Second Wave Is Already Here

If the United States had quick-thinking and efficient leadership, the pandemic would have infected about 100,000 people and killed only a couple thousand. That’s the experience of South Korea, times seven to account for the difference in population.

If the United States had overwhelmed but reasonably sensible leadership, the coronavirus pandemic would have racked up somewhere near a million infections at this point and killed about 36,000 people. That’s what would have happened here if we’d had a German-style response.

Instead, as of the beginning of July, the infection rate in the United States is a world-leading 2.6 million and the death toll has topped 126,000. There are countries with worse death rates per million people, but with a couple exceptions they’re either small (like Belgium) or presided over by leaders (like Boris Johnson in the UK) as idiotic as ours.

That is tragic enough. But now comes Act Two.

If the United States had practically any administrative team other than the Trump-Pence clown show, it would have at least flattened the curve at this point, no matter how many infections and deaths had occurred during the first wave of the outbreak. Americans would then be cautiously enjoying their summers, bracing for a second wave of infections that most epidemiologists have predicted for the fall.

Instead, while Europe and much of Asia are tracking down and containing small pockets of infection that reach at most into three digits, the United States is dealing with its highest daily number of infections yet — over 40,000 a day.

Remember those early statistics about how many more tests South Korea was conducting per day compared to what the United States was doing in a week? We are currently suffering the consequences of that disparity. Every day, the United States is now adding three times the number of infections that South Korea has had during its entire outbreak.

The Trump administration’s response to the threat of a second wave is: why wait?

American Lunacy

Donald Trump doesn’t like masks. He has refused to wear them. He has ignored the advice of health officials, members of his administration, and his congressional enablers. Trump is such an outlier on the mask issue that even Dick Cheney has consented to being photographed wearing facial protection.

Astonishingly, the president said, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, that some people are wearing masks “to signal disapproval of him.” To the extent that people associate Trump with Death itself or are wearing masks so that they can live long enough to vote the Grim Reaper out of office, the president is right. The pandemic in America has indeed become all about Trump: his appalling ineptitude and sociopathic cruelty.

Masks are just the tip of the iceberg toward which the president is steering Titanic America. Trump was warned multiple times that an indoor campaign rally in the middle of a pandemic was not a good idea. A group of Tulsa citizens and businesses launched a legal effort to stop the event from happening on the grounds that it would only contribute to the ongoing spike in infections. The Oklahoma Supreme Court put the kibosh on the legal challenge.

Trump not only went ahead with the rally last month, he seemed to do everything possible to ensure that it would be a public health hazard. His advance team had eight people who tested positive with the disease. His organizers removed stickers from seats that were designed to maintain a modicum of distance between audience members. In the end, the 6,000 people who showed up were all crowded together like sardine superspreaders. Most followed their leader by not wearing masks.

Tulsa subsequently experienced a new uptick in COVID-19 cases, though it’s not clear how many can be traced back to the rally. That’s because Oklahoma has an inadequate contact tracing system.

Not content to help boost the numbers for the coronavirus in Oklahoma, Trump then went on to Arizona, where he stopped at a megachurch for a rally with student supporters. Such churches have been the epicenters of new outbreaks in Oregon, West Virginia, and Texas. At the Arizona event, neither Trump nor many of his young worshippers wore masks. Trump told them several times that the United States was “at the end of the pandemic.”

Trump has done just about everything to distract Americans from the second wave of infections engulfing us. He has deployed racism (“kung flu”) to defect responsibility. He has studiously avoided the topic of the pandemic. He has claimed that the numbers are up because of more testing (wrong).

Even the Trump administration doesn’t have Trump’s back on this one. The vice president now wears a mask and urges others to do so as well. The health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, is not reassuring in the least: “The window is closing, we have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibility,” he said recently. “We need to social distance, we need to wear our face coverings where we can’t social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

Meanwhile, many governors are demonstrating that idiocy is not the monopoly of the president.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, refuses to mandate the use of masks. Houston’s spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations has maxed out the capacity of the intensive care units at city hospitals. Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s response? He told the hospitals to stop reporting that particular statistic because it was generating negative headlines. Peekaboo: if we close our eyes, the pandemic will magically be over.

Of course, if people didn’t listen to Trump or their death-defying governors and simply stayed home, they could collectively flatten the curve. But no, many Americans have flocked to beaches, bars, churches, and dance clubs. They’ve been egged on by cheerleaders for a fast economic recovery who are either genuinely concerned about unemployment and widespread bankruptcies or fear that Trump can’t win reelection without a rapid rebound.

In some cases, the cheerleaders themselves have become victims of their own heedlessness. The head of Reopen Maryland, Tim Walters, came down with the coronavirus last week. It was not, alas, a Saul-on-the-way-to-Damascus moment: he hasn’t changed his views on reopening, wearing masks, or sharing contact information with government tracers.

Instead of getting the message, too many people are going after the messengers. The Washington Post reports that attacks on public health officials who counsel safe behavior have been particularly intense in Ohio, California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. In Colorado, according to the executive director of the Colrado Association of Local Public Health Officials, “80 percent of members had reported being threatened and more than that were at risk of termination or lost funding.”

Keep Out Americans

It is any wonder that the European Union, when contemplating the opening of borders to travelers and tourists, decided to continue to ban Americans?

This week, Europe will welcome visitors from around the world. With a few exceptions, those will not be American visitors. Who gets in instead? Rwandans, Tunisians, Uruguayans, Serbians, Moroccans, Japanese, South Koreans. Oh, and just in case you think there’s a North American bias, Canadians are welcome as well. And if China lifts its ban on European visitors, then Chinese will soon be taking their summer holidays in Paris and Rome.

If America manages to get this second wave of infections under control, Europe will reconsider. But why should Europe reconsider?

I’m reminded of those pictures of people you see posted at convenience stores — shoplifters, scam artists, stolen credit card users. Those photos are a reminder to the scofflaws not to return to the scene of the crime. Europe has posted an American flag at the passport control booths at its airports. Americans are the world’s scofflaws.

Too many Americans have proven themselves to be entirely irresponsible when it comes to the health of the community. That goes for too many public officials as well, from mayors to governors to the president himself.

So, it makes sense for the world to keep its distance, not just six feet but an entire ocean if possible. The entire country should be quarantined until we stop electing public health risks to office and, as a citizenry, start acting like adults instead of kindergartners who feel compelled to eat every marshmallow in sight rather than postpone gratification until it’s safe to indulge.

It’s not just America, of course. The virus continues to rage in Brazil, India, and South Africa. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, points out that “although many countries have made some progress, globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up. We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives, but the hard reality is that this is not even close to being over.”

In the good old days, like four years ago, the United States for all its flaws would have been at the forefront of addressing this public health emergency.

Let’s face it: we are now the public health emergency.

FPIF, July 1, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy US Foreign Policy

The Descent of America

Complaints about American decline have been commonplace since at least the Vietnam War era.

In the late 1980s, declinism experienced an upsurge with the publication of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, which warned of the dangers of imperial overstretch. Even America’s putative victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War represented only a minor lull in the chatter about the erosion of U.S. status relative to other countries, particularly a rising China.

Closer to home, meanwhile, the grumbling over America’s crumbling usually spikes around the release of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial infrastructure report card.

In 2017, the ASCE awarded America a D+ for the state of its roads, bridges, schools, parks, and public transportation. The grade was no surprise to many Americans. “This is an advanced economy?” people ask themselves as they wait for a broken-down bus, hit a pothole on the highway, turn away from the undrinkable water coming out of their taps, or drop their child at a school that’s just a few steps away from being condemned.

In U.S. schools, D is unsatisfactory but still officially passing. In terms of infrastructure, the United States teeters perilously on the edge of failure.

In the last few months, however, America has gone over the edge. The country has quickly, recklessly, impulsively entered the failure zone.

First, there’s the failure of leadership. The country has been ruled for the last three years by a corrupt, incompetent, would-be dictator who, when faced with a spate of crises, has proven spectacularly unfit for the job.

Second, there’s the failure to protect American lives. More than 100,000 people have died from the coronavirus, a level of death generally seen only in wartime.

Third, there’s the failure of the American dream. The economy has collapsed due to the coronavirus, and the unemployment rate has surged to nearly 20 percent.

Finally, there’s the chronic failure of American racism. In the last week, people have taken to the streets to protest the death of yet another African American at the hands of the police. On May 25, a police officer in Minneapolis handcuffed George Floyd on suspicion of forgery, pinned him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, and killed him. Floyd was one of over 7,500 people killed by the police since 2013.

Protestors are fed up with police profiling, targeting, and killing. But they are also outraged at the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the economic collapse on people of color. The anger is entirely understandable. “I can’t breathe” applies to victims of police violence and the coronavirus both.

The protests themselves are a sign of hope, notwithstanding the over 60,000 National Guard that have poured onto the streets in 24 states.

Also hopeful are the expressions of solidarity during these protests. Cops in a number of cities have gotten down on one knee with protestors. Several mayors, like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, have spoken truth to the power of the president. Here in Washington, the owner of a restaurant burned by looters said, “Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor. We have been through three months of being closed; we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”

And yet, if you add up the economic, political, social, and medical deficits, it’s hard to imagine calling America an advanced industrialized nation at the moment. It is extraordinary to see such a rapid loss of status in real time, as opposed to a time-lapse animation of the rise and fall of some ancient civilization. “I’ve seen this kind of violence,” a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia told The Washington Post. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse.”

The middle and upper classes may well be caught by surprise. But the current protests are a potent reminder that for a sizable portion of the American population, the country has never been advanced because they live in what Michael Harrington, nearly 60 years ago, called “the other America.”

Trump’s Racist Response

Donald Trump has always positioned himself as a law-and-order politician, even as his words and actions create disorder and violate laws.

He never possessed much if any empathy for victims of police violence. In response to George Floyd’s death, after a cursory expression of condolence, Trump quickly pivoted to deriding protesters, Democratic governors, “THUGS,” and the like. He promised that anyone who breached the White House fence would be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” He announced that he would declare the antifa movement a terrorist organization. He sounded like a minor-league dictator with his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Later, on a call with governors, he suggested that “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time — they’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” He added, “You have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time.” Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, Trump said, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Despite Trump’s calls for law and order, the far right is actually cheering on the occasional violence of the protests because it feeds into their attempts to push the country into a race riot. Militia members, white extremists, and “boogaloo bois” want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to “accelerate” the demise of liberal, multicultural America. They’ve even showed up at the protests against police violence and promoted their own violent actions online.

Militant disruptions of otherwise peaceful demonstrations ultimately advance this far-right agenda. Such violence also advances Trump’s agenda.

Following his own version of accelerationism, the president has done everything within his power to destroy the country from within, using hateful language, implementing polarizing policies, and seeming to revel in the chaos that his administration has fostered. Declaring some version of martial law to contain the chaos he has helped to create — but in reality to promote more chaos and himself as the only person to address it — may be the only hope he has at this point of gaining a second term in office.

As Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times, “Trump makes little disguise of conjuring a pre-civil rights America where white males held uncontested sway.” Ultimately, though, it’s Trump himself who wants uncontested sway, and he thinks he can crowd-surf the unrest toward that goal.

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

There’s always been an element of racism to Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

From day one, for instance, Trump favored predominantly white countries in his immigration policy, instituting a Muslim travel ban and denigrating “shithole countries” when “we should have more people from places like Norway.” He told four U.S. congresswomen — three of them born in the United States — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He relishes blaming the coronavirus outbreak on “the Chinese,” knowing full well that his conspiracy theories feed into anti-Asian sentiment.

Of course, either money or nuclear weapons can turn a “shithole” country into a friend, with Trump cozying up to Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. That’s always been Trump’s modus operandi: he is truly race-blind when it comes to the powerful.

Donald Trump didn’t suddenly introduce racism into U.S. foreign policy. As I wrote back in January 2018, “Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like ‘shitholes’ even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.” Racism is reflected in U.S. budget priorities, in the minuscule size of foreign aid programs, in the pattern of U.S. interventions, in the racial composition of the U.S. Army’s “essential workers” (otherwise known as grunts), and even in the Pentagon’s militarization of domestic policing. Trump certainly didn’t create any of these dynamics, though he has often aggravated them.

Still, the current president’s elevation of racism is not simply rhetorical. There is method to his mania.

Trump is using racism as a tool to destroy whatever lingering commitment the United States has to liberal internationalism. The latter philosophy inspired Americans to help create the United Nations, launch the Peace Corps, administer foreign aid programs, and collaborate with other countries to fight global warming. This liberal internationalism has always had its defects, from paternalism to naivete. But it’s a damn sight better than the illiberal nationalism that Trump offers as an alternative.

Trump’s deployment of racism at home and abroad cuts the legs out from under liberal internationalism. No other country can take America’s human rights rhetoric seriously. No other country can accept America’s claim to impartiality as a broker of peace deals, climate deals, any deals. First put your own house in order, they will say.

Putting our own house in order has long been the motivation of U.S. social movements. Think of the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. They have also inspired human rights movements devoted to home improvement in countries around the world. Even today, the U.S. protests against police violence have inspired nearly 15,000 people to demonstrate in Paris, 10,000 demonstrators in Amsterdam, tens of thousands in Auckland, thousands in London and Berlin and throughout Australia.

U.S. support of human rights abroad can and should be an extension of these social movements. That’s something that Trump’s racism at home and attacks on liberal internationalism abroad threaten as well.

“Let’s hope the demonstrations all over the world will help remind Washington that U.S. soft power is a unique asset, setting America apart from other great powers — from China, Russia, and even from Europe,” observes Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States. “It would be tragic if the Trump administration turned a huge opportunity for the U.S. into a moral abdication.”

Unfortunately, Trump has his own ideas of how to put the American house in order up to and including burning the house down. The antidote to Trump’s racist nationalism is not less internationalism but more: rejoining the international bodies that Trump pulled out of, reentering the accords that Trump unsigned, patiently rebuilding U.S. engagement in the world on an equal basis.

Such a re-engagement has to go hand in hand with a difficult reckoning with America’s own racism, for the inequality perpetuated domestically mirrors the inequality maintained on a global scale.

Only in this way can America stop its descent and climb back into the community of nations.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Islamophobia

New Zealand: David Confronts Two Goliaths

After the election of Donald Trump, New Zealand became the go-to option for terrified Americans fantasizing about emigration. Three years later, New Zealand has burnished its reputation as a credible refuge by successfully confronting two epidemics that continue to plague the United States—one political, the other medical.

New Zealand’s most recent success has been its handling of the coronavirus. After seven weeks of an extraordinarily stringent lockdown—closed borders, suspended in-country travel, no takeout—the government has managed to keep Covid-19 infections at 1,500, with only 21 deaths. That’s 4.3 deaths per million, compared to 246 per million in the United States. Thanks to rigorous testing and an updated contact tracing system, New Zealand has brought its active caseload to below 100 (as of this writing).

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced further steps to open the economy so that Kiwis can once again visit restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms. The borders remain effectively closed, and Ardern promises to reimpose strict controls if cases spike. But few other democratic countries can claim this kind of success with so few casualties.

New Zealand has a couple of advantages over other countries. It’s a relatively small, isolated island nation with a very low population density. It has a strong social welfare system that even its conservatives support.

Perhaps most importantly, the government and the people were tested a year ago by a different kind of outbreak. New Zealand’s effective handling of the coronavirus was prefigured by its dramatic response to a right-wing murder spree in the country’s second-largest city.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist originally from New South Wales in Australia opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring 49. The shooter advertised his far-right credentials by titling his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” which linked him to other anti-immigration extremists, including shooters in El Paso in 2019 and Pittsburgh in 2018, who believe that foreigners and immigrants are plotting to “replace” predominantly white majorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This ideology is integral to the epidemic of far-right violence that has gathered force worldwide over the last decade.

The Christchurch attacks were a surprise to many inside and outside of New Zealand. “This is an incredibly tolerant, multicultural country,” notes Paul Spoonley of Massey University in Auckland. “In an international value study, the proportion of New Zealanders who see immigrants as contributing positively to the country is probably two to four times higher that in countries in mainland Europe. To be anti-immigrant or against a particular religion is politically damaging.”

New Zealand’s current reputation for tolerance belies its history of discrimination against immigrants and the indigenous Maori. The country has also been home to a small but globally connected far-right community, which was implicated in several murders and more than 100 incidents of racist violence between 2005 and 2013.

Prior to 2019, the Muslim community repeatedly complained that the New Zealand authorities weren’t properly addressing Islamophobic threats. “It was taken quite lightly because we always believed that New Zealand was the safest place on earth, that things like that happen somewhere else,” observes Ikhlaq Kashkari, the president of the Muslim Association of New Zealand. “We were living with a false sense of security, even though we were getting more news every day from around the world about the promotion of Islamophobia.”

Christchurch itself was not immune to these trends. “When Christchurch emerged as having a problem, the defenses went up and local representatives said, ‘We’re not a racist city,’” says Rawiri Taonui, New Zealand’s first professor of indigenous studies. “There have been more racist incidents in Christchurch than pretty much anywhere in the country.”

Despite rising Islamophobia and a history of far-right organizing, the New Zealand authorities were not primed to look for a white man like the Christchurch shooter. “After 9/11, a number of people here suddenly labeled all the Muslim people of New Zealand who were living peacefully in the country as terrorists,” points out Meng Foon, New Zealand’s commissioner of race relations. “The New Zealand secret service targeted them more and, unfortunately, missed the shooter last year in Christchurch. They dropped the ball in terms of monitoring white supremacists.”

Such failures were on par with the performance of other countries. But New Zealand’s response after March 15 was something altogether different. Squarely addressing its failures, the Ardern government immediately and unequivocally responded to the Christchurch killings with an unusual combination of empathy for the victims and zero tolerance for the culture that nurtured the perpetrator’s hatred, all the while recognizing the need for cross-border coordination. As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of policy approach that paid off a year later when the coronavirus hit.

After March 15, Prime Minister Ardern demonstrated what leadership looks like. Following the example of the mayor of Christchurch, Ardern swiftly called the massacre “terrorism.” She donned a hijab and reached out to the Muslim community, refused to speak the name of the perpetrator, and introduced sweeping gun-control measures. She even went to the island of Fiji to console family members of those killed on March 15.

Ardern enjoyed broad support for these moves. Unlike in the United States, where repeated mass shootings have not led to substantial gun control, New Zealand outlawed automatic weapons “with widespread public support and universal parliamentary support (119 out of 120 MPs voted in favor),” Paul Spoonley notes. “There was some grumbling among those who go hunting that the ban had gone too far or was actioned too rapidly. Also, illegal weapons are not subject to registration and restrictions on sales. But we’re light years away from the United States.”

The government moved more forcefully to preempt right-wing violence, launching dozens of investigations into extremist groups and individuals, jailing a neo-Nazi who shared a video of the Christchurch killings, and arresting a Defense Force soldier with links to the far right. It has also pushed forward with a new effort to amend existing laws to outlaw hate speech. “If all the New Zealand government does is extend the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act, it will safely avoid curtailing free speech,” concludes Martin Cocker of Netsafe. Although such prohibitions against hate speech set New Zealand apart from countries like the United States, the state has to be careful not to simply ban unpopular opinions. “It’s very difficult to combat the kind of things we’re seeing online without creating measures that could very easily impinge on free speech,” Cocker notes.

Perhaps Ardern’s most ambitious project has been the Christchurch Call, “a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” Only two months after the shootings, New Zealand joined France in pushing for change at the international level. “They knew that they were unlikely to drive global change on social media as a country of 5 million people far away from the main political centers in the US and Europe,” observes Matthew Feldman of the Centre for the Analysis of the Right Wing. “They put white nationalism very squarely on the UN General Assembly agenda.”

The big players—Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon—all signed on to the Call, committing to develop algorithms and AI tools to quickly identify and remove hateful content from their platforms. Any Kiwi who views extremist content online is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups. The Call also inspired Australia to pass a law that criminalizes social media companies that don’t expeditiously remove “abhorrent violent material.” That’s all to the good, but it hasn’t yet detoxified the Internet. The Call, which is nonbinding, has been limited in its impact given the “lack of alignment among countries and a lack of consistent pressure on multinationals,” Martin Cocker adds. “If the Christchurch Call moved to the point of achieving consistency among countries in terms of what they demand from industry, it could continue to have some influence.”

When the Christchurch shooter pleaded guilty in late March, New Zealand was saved from the spectacle of a very public trial. “His guilty plea will likely reduce the priority of efforts to curb the far right,” Matt Nipert of The New Zealand Herald says. “My concern is that New Zealand still views him as a lone wolf, as one deranged individual, that it’s not our problem, that an Australian came here to do it. That’s true, but the problem is global. These groups operate across borders and see themselves as a brotherhood, not as citizens of a country. Someone did an analysis of who logs on to 8chan. You can’t see their identities, but you can see where they log on from, and New Zealand was very highly ranked.”

New Zealand was blindsided by the Christchurch killings last year and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this year, even though there was indeed some advance warning in both instances. Nevertheless, the Ardern government moved quickly to break the chain of infection through well-calculated, radical interventions. It showed zero tolerance by jailing right-wing extremists after March 15 and, during the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, demoting the health minister who blithely visited a beach. The government knows the battle, in both cases, is not over. It is continuing to monitor the coronavirus and right-wing extremism, because it understands that epidemics can recur.

Although the Covid-19 response has been more top-down, both efforts received overwhelming domestic support. Ardern’s approval rating rose to 51 percent a month after the Christchurch killings and has soared to 65 percent during the coronavirus crisis.

In both cases, too, New Zealand has recognized that it can’t fight these problems alone. It issued the Christchurch Call to spur international action against the spread of far-right ideology, and it has been cooperating regionally and internationally to address the coronavirus.

According to Meng Foon, the New Zealand government also learned from its initial mistake of ignoring the threat of white extremism. It was determined to make sure that its response to the coronavirus was fully inclusive. As a result, the virus has not had the kind of disproportionate impact on people of color so evident in the United States.

“I don’t think any person of color has died of Covid-19,” he notes. “Only about 4 percent of the total of those who contracted Covid-19 are Maori and Pacific Islander.”

For Ikhlaq Kashkari, the key commonality has been the quality of the social response. He chokes up when he remembers how many people came out to support mosques in the days after the Christchurch shootings. “People have gone out of their way to help each other as they did on March 15,” he says. “Our slogan here is: Stay home, stay safe, and be kind. Those three things explain it all.”

The Nation, May 25, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Is It Time to Boycott the United States?

In his infinite ignorance, Donald Trump has invited world leaders to the White House for a face-to-face meeting at the end of June.

Unlike the other countries in the G7, the United States has yet to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. One of the hotspots that the White House itself has identified is none other than Washington, DC. And because of a poorly implemented re-opening of the economy, the American South is already beginning to experience a second wave of infections — in parts of Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas – that will gather force by the end of June because Trump refuses to consider another lockdown.

Meanwhile, the president himself is reluctant to practice social distancing or even don a mask: “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it,” he said back in April. He peddles snake-oil treatments for COVID-19 that, incredibly, he swallows himself. The virus has already penetrated his inner sanctum.

As if that’s not bad enough, I wouldn’t put it past Trump to add three stops on a G7 itinerary — a nursing home, a prison, and a meat-packing plant — just to demonstrate that the United States is open for business (or to infect the world leaders that he has always despised).

Aside from French President Emanuel Macron, these world leaders have not jumped at the chance to set foot in the global epicenter of the pandemic. Naturally, they’re concerned about their own health.

Really they should be concerned about the health of American democracy. Instead of giving Donald Trump the legitimacy on the world stage that he so desperately craves, the leaders of the other G7 nations should be considering a boycott of the United States. They should threaten to sanction America as well, for that is the only language Trump understands.

The G7 has done it before — with Russia. In March 2014, after it annexed Crimea, Russia was indefinitely expelled from what was then the G8. The United States, the European Union, and several other countries also imposed economic sanctions on Moscow because of its actions in Ukraine. Most of those sanctions are still in place.

Trump hasn’t invaded and annexed any foreign territory, though he’s been eying Greenland for some time now. But under Trump, the United States has violated several international laws, unraveled numerous international agreements, and trampled on one democratic institution after another at home. He is a rogue president in a rogue party presiding over a rogue power.

As the president attempts to extend his reign of error to a second term, the international community should consider sending a message to the American people: Donald Trump is an illegitimate leader who is a threat to the planet. Mere criticism of the United States is not enough. The G7 should get the ball rolling by refusing to meet with Trump, in Washington or anywhere else.

I anticipate the Twitter backlash: Isn’t it unpatriotic for Americans to call for a boycott of their own country?

Quite the contrary. It’s proof of just how far patriotic Americans are willing to go to save our country and stop the violations of international law.

Violations at the Border

In one of the first acts of his administration, Trump issued a ban on travel to the United States from seven countries, all of them predominantly Muslim.

Federal courts almost immediately blocked the executive order. Trump reissued an almost identical travel ban. The courts blocked him a second time. Trump tried a third time, throwing in North Korea and Venezuela to obscure the intention of the order. Although the federal court system again blocked the Muslim ban, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to implement the policy as it reviewed the case. In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the ban 5-4.

Although the Supreme Court has decided by a slim margin that Trump’s action is legal in the U.S. context, his Muslim travel ban remains a violation of international law. It flouts all the UN conventions against discrimination, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also violates the Refugee Convention. Imagine the uproar if a country promoted a Christian travel ban. The United States would be first in line to apply sanctions.

But the Muslim travel ban was just the first volley in the administration’s attack on border crossers and international law.

Within a few months of taking office, the Trump administration began to tear apart migrant families. Before the courts could intervene, over 4,000 children were separated from their parents. Even worse, the administration did not track these family separations, so it couldn’t guarantee that children could reunite with their families. Even when a judge blocked the policy in June 2018, the administration continued its “zero-tolerance” policy, simply under a different name, and separated another 1,100 children from their families.

This is not just a violation of international law. It’s a moral outrage.

It’s gotten even worse. During the pandemic crisis, the administration has violated U.S. anti-trafficking laws by expelling hundreds of young people from the country. Write Nomaan Merchant and Sonia Perez in The Washington Post:

Under a 2008 anti-trafficking law and a federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, children from countries other than Canada and Mexico must have access to legal counsel and cannot be immediately deported. They are also supposed to be released to family in the U.S. or otherwise held in the least restrictive setting possible. The rules are intended to prevent children from being mistreated or falling into the hands of criminals. 

Even before the pandemic hit, the administration was violating non-refoulement laws. In July 2019, the administration changed its asylum policies to force the desperate to apply for asylum in a third country before reaching the United States.

The result has been the wholesale rejection of asylum claims. Only 1 percent of applicants under the Migrant Protection Protocols had been granted asylum through the end of January, and only two people have been granted refuge since March. According to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum-seekers can’t be returned to countries where they might face persecution.

The July 2019 action was only the latest barrier the administration has placed before asylum-seekers, all of which constitute violations of the non-refoulement principle. In November 2018, Trump attempted to block all asylum seekers from entering the United States through Mexico. A federal court ruled the policy illegal and prevented him from doing so.

This March, the administration tried again, using the pandemic as a new rationale. It generated pushback, but the administration shut down the possibility of asylum anyway. And it has started sending asylum-seekers back as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program.

Taken together, the Trump policies on immigration, refugee, and asylum policies are a massive affront to decades of patiently constructed international laws.

Targeted Assassination

So many people have been assassinated by U.S. drones that Americans have become dangerously inured to this violation of international law.

The Obama administration was responsible for the expansion of this program. But Trump has expanded even on Obama’s expansion. Worse, according to a new policy implemented last year, the administration no longer reports on the number of drone strikes and resulting civilian casualties outside of active warzones, which include Pakistan and Somalia.

Whether these drone strikes constitute a violation of international law hinges on whether they represent assassination, which is illegal, or lawful targeting in armed conflict. If the latter, they are permissible if done in self-defense or as approved by the United Nations. According to these standards, administration officials argue that the drone strikes the United States conducts in a warzone — for example, Afghanistan — are indistinguishable from more conventional aerial bombing.

But because so many U.S. drone strikes take place outside war zones where the United States is a declared combatant, international law experts like Philip Alston, former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, have concluded that they often violate international law. Alston was particularly concerned about the CIA’s role in conducting drone strikes, which the Obama administration eventually scaled back after steadily increasing them. Trump, however, has reversed Obama’s policy.

Most of Trump’s drone strikes have been quiet and anonymous, at least so far as the U.S. media is concerned. The targets have also been, for the most part, non-state actors, so-called terrorists. The assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a different matter. He was a representative of a state with which the United States is not at war. The Trump administration might consider him a “terrorist.” But according to international law, the drone strike that killed him was an assassination, no different than if a U.S. attack had taken out Iran’s president.

The Trump administration claimed that the strike was done in “self-defense,” that Soleimani was planning an attack or attacks on U.S. targets. But it did not furnish any real proof of these imminent attacks. Soleimani’s past record, however noxious, does not constitute sufficient legal rationale for assassination.

Other Trump administration military actions have also violated international law, such as the 59 Tomahawk missiles it rained down on Syria in April 2017. The administration didn’t even bother to seek UN authorization. Nor did it do so a year later when it launched another missile attack on Syria in response to the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

The Trump administration could have argued that it was protecting a civilian population from extermination. But the missile attack came before a fact-finding mission could determine whether chemical weapons had been used. In any case, neither then nor subsequently has the Trump administration seemed to care much about protecting the lives of Syrian civilians.

But these Syrian attacks point to another reason to boycott the United States: the Trump administration’s fundamental disregard for international institutions and agreements.

International Agreements Sundered

The Trump administration has been gradually ripping up the international arms control regime that has been in place for decades.

First, it stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement, which blocked the country’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Last year, it withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, a high point of U.S.-Russian efforts at arms limitation. And then, last week, it announced it would no longer participate in the Open Skies agreement, another landmark achievement to prevent accidental war that was negotiated in 1992.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to resume testing nuclear weapons, something that hasn’t happened in nearly 30 years. Technically, because the United States is not party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Trump’s action would not violate an international agreement. But if the United States were to go ahead with a test, it would put enormous stress on the CTBT, which 184 nations have signed.

The administration’s arms control policy has become positively Orwellian. Trump’s arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea, for instance, seems to believe mistakenly that he was appointed head of the Pentagon. “We know how to win these [arms] races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said in a recent videoconference. What part of “control” does he not understand?

In addition to abandoning arms control, the Trump administration has hindered efforts to control carbon emissions by trashing the Paris climate accord. It has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council. It quit UNESCO. It has threatened to leave the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

So, at what point does the international community decide that it has been attacked enough to strike back in self-defense? A boycott and economic sanctions seem more than justified given these three areas of violations: international human rights law, the laws governing the use of force, and the deliberate destruction of international agreements and institutions.

The Downsides of Boycott?

Okay, so what if the Trump administration deserves to be boycotted. That doesn’t mean that it’s strategically wise to do so.

After all, if all the globalists gang up on Trump, won’t that create a rally-around-the-president effect just in time for the November election? The very tactic designed to delegitimate Trump might end up boosting his reelection prospects.

Then there’s the perennial problem that name-and-shame tactics often don’t work with people or countries that refuse to be shamed. Virtually the entire international community agrees that the human rights situation in North Korea is abysmal. But the North Korean state doesn’t really care about the reputational damage it suffers as a result of all the official protests, UN inquiries, and grassroots campaigns. Trump seems to be similarly unshameable.

Finally, there is the challenge of collective action. The United States, despite its current difficulties, remains a powerful global actor. It’s not easy to pull together a coalition in the face of an administration determined to make deals with specific countries to destroy the unanimity required to implement a boycott and sanctions.

The first two counter-arguments are unpersuasive. At this point, nothing the international community can do will significantly alter Trump’s approval ratings. He has played his nationalism card so many times that the gambit can no longer win fresh converts. But there are still some independents and perhaps even some Republicans who would be swayed if the rest of the G7 censured the United States. These swing voters might still feel shame, too, if the international community repeatedly broadcasts the administration’s multiple violations of international law.

But let’s face it, the collective action problem is probably insurmountable. The G7 nations don’t have the guts to stand up to the United States. Trump acts with impunity, and they appease him. Thanks to the Chamberlains of the world, Trump has celebrated a Munich practically every day of his administration.

So, it’s up to popular movements to challenge Trump’s illegal actions and the international community’s appeasement of them. In developing a Boycott, Divest, Sanction campaign against the Trump administration, activists can take inspiration from the groups that worked with South Africans in the 1980s to bring down their apartheid regime.

I know, I know: everyone is hoping that Americans will solve this problem ourselves in November. But that might not happen.

So, people of the world, you’d better build your BDS box, paint “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” on the front, and stand next to it on November 3. If Trump wins on Election Day, it will be mourning in America. But let’s hope that the world doesn’t mourn: it organizes.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 27, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Death and the Economy: A Dialogue

Welcome to Chewing the Fat, our weekly talk show here at WXYZ. 

Today, we have a special treat for you — two guests who will answer the question on everyone’s mind. Should we stay at home in virtual quarantine or should we head out the front door and reopen the economy?

The coronavirus pandemic is still claiming lives — nearly a thousand a day here in the United States. But other countries, like New Zealand, have effectively eradicated the disease. There is a huge disparity within countries as well, within states, even within cities. And some countries that have loosened their quarantine restrictions, like China and South Korea, have seen fresh outbreaks of the disease.  

Meanwhile, the global economy has taken a major hit. GDP has dropped deeper and faster than at any time since the Great Depression. Unemployment here in the United States stands at 15 percent and rising. People don’t know if they’ll keep their current jobs, get their old jobs back, ever get a job again. The government can print money to keep things going, but individuals can’t do that. A lot of us just don’t know how we’re going to pay the rent or get our next meal. 

Frank Jacobs is a Texas legislator, a businessman, and a vocal advocate of re-opening the economy. Frank, you’ve been talking about the Texas Solution. Tell us about that.

Frank Jacobs: I own a chain of 15 movie theaters across this great state of Texas. We opened up five of those this last weekend. This is what I told customers. I said: Take your mask off and relax. Breathe in some great buttery popcorn smells, watch a great movie, and just enjoy some time with your family. And that’s what I’ve been saying to people all over the state as part of what I call the Texas Solution. Here in Texas —

Cassandra Jones: Are you crazy?!

That’s our other guest, Cassandra Jones, an infectious disease specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. 

Cassandra: The number of coronavirus cases is rising in your state. And that’s even before your governor declared your reopening. And you’re not testing enough in Texas, not compared to other states and not compared to what you need to be testing in order to safely reopen the economy.

Frank: Well, let me tell you that in our movie theaters, we are taking every precaution and then some. Everyone will be six feet or more away from each other. We’ll be cleaning every surface. It will be a lot safer than going to the supermarket, where people get much closer to each other. We’ll be giving my employees their jobs back and safely providing some much-needed entertainment. If you don’t want to go see a movie, hey, that’s fine. But we’re providing an option for those of us who do.

Cassandra: You’re not talking drive-ins. If someone coughs or sneezes in your enclosed movie theater, the air will circulate any potential viruses to everyone else. And you’re not taking into account all the other interactions that take place because you’re opening up your movie theaters. In the parking lot. On the sidewalks. At the gas station where people are filling up their tanks. At the restaurants where they’re eating before or after the show.

Frank: With all respect, if we don’t start opening up the economy in these small ways, then there won’t be an economy left to reopen. Our approach here in Texas is very careful.

Cassandra: Your governor acknowledges that reopening the economy is going to cause deaths. And your lieutenant governor said that “there’s more important things than living.” He was talking about basically sacrificing lives — the lives of senior citizens, of people of color, of folks with preexisting health conditions — and for what? For making sure that the stock market goes back up? When it comes to the vulnerable members of our community, your Texas Solution sounds a whole lot like the Final Solution.

Frank: Now hold on there. No one is talking about sacrificing people. It’s the opposite. We’re talking about saving lives. Making sure that people have enough money to eat, to feed their children.

Cassandra: But more people are going to die as a result of the relaxation of restrictions. That’s a fact. Suddenly all the people who got bent out of shape about how there were going to be “death panels” because of the Affordable Care Act, now they’ve basically set themselves up as a death panel, deciding on how many people are going to live or die.

Frank: No one is talking about death panels. This is the right to life. Hey, listen, nearly 40,000 people die every year on America’s highways. It’s the leading cause of death for people under the age of 55. But we don’t ban cars. Instead we improve auto safety. We come up with better and better methods of reducing the risk of going out on the roads. And it works. Back in the 1970s, more than 50,000 people a year were dying in car accidents.

Cassandra: A car accident is not an infectious disease. Our models show that, even with the necessary interventions, we’ll have well more than 100,000 deaths in this country. If we relax those controls, the difference would be an order of magnitude.

For our non-scientific listeners, you’re talking about a million, yes? A million deaths.

Cassandra: That’s correct.

Frank: Other countries have been opening up around the world. They’ve taken a sensible approach that balances medical prudence and economic risk. Take a look at Europe. We’re 29 million people in Texas. We’re nearly twice the size of the Netherlands. About 40,000 Dutch have been infected, with over 5,000 dead. But here we’ve only had a little more than a thousand deaths and fewer than 40,000 infections. And, look, the Dutch opened up their primary schools and day care centers last month.

Cassandra: The countries you’re talking about have seen a substantial reduction in the infection rate. Netherlands has cut infections from over 1,000 a day to less than 300 a day. Italy was seeing over 6,000 new infections a day back in March. They’re now under 1,000 a day. The same with Spain, with Germany. These countries have much more robust systems of testing and contact tracing than we have in the United States. We are almost completely in the dark here in this country as to the real spread of this disease. In Europe, they’re operating in a much more information-rich environment.

Frank: Hats off to those Europeans. But here in America, we can make decisions for ourselves. We don’t need the state telling us what to do. We had a fellow here in Texas at Prestige Ameritech, the last domestic mask producer, who was all ready to restart production of N-95 masks way back in January. He notified the federal government, and they just blew him off. All that bureaucracy and red tape: it’s heartbreaking. Here in Texas, we know not to depend on government. We believe more in individual responsibility.

Cassandra: Individual responsibility? How about all those students on Spring Break partying and spreading the virus? Or that party last weekend in Ft. Worth where 600 people got together to shoot off fireworks and then started shooting each other? Most Americans are taking their responsibilities very seriously by staying home. But all it takes for an infectious disease to spread is a minority of the irresponsible.

Frank: But you don’t have a plan, do you? A plan to reopen the economy? If we listened to you, we’d all starve to death at home. Millions of us! That’s the order of magnitude I’m talking about.

Cassandra: We wait until the infection rate drops substantially. We wait until we have a robust testing and tracing system in place. We wait for more effective treatments, widespread antibody tests, and, ultimately, a vaccine.

Frank: Wait. Wait. Wait. A lot of us don’t have the luxury of waiting. You have a job, Ms. Jones, that you can no doubt do from home. You are in a comfortable place where you can wait. The rest of us depend on going back to factories, to running restaurants, to building houses.

Cassandra: I’m not saying that we can’t reopen the economy. I’m saying that we have to do so responsibly.

Frank: Well, here’s something to chew on. People die because of the economy all the time. They die in workplace accidents. They die commuting to work. They die because of air pollution caused by factories and cars and energy production. Every morning we get out of bed in the morning, we are taking a risk. Living is a risk.

Cassandra: That may be true. But some folks are at greater risks than others. The counties that are disproportionately African-American account for nearly 60 percent of the coronavirus deaths. In New York City, 70 percent of the essential workers are people of color.

Frank: Here in Texas, by opening up the state, we’re actually spreading that risk around!

Cassandra: You’re spreading the risk by spreading the disease.

Frank: You liberal types are always pointing to Sweden as the model the United States should be emulating. So, what about the Swedish model of tackling this pandemic? The government is full of social democrats and Greens. All lefty types. But there’s no lockdown. You can eat out at a restaurant. The schools remain open. Sure, there are some common-sense restrictions, like no gatherings larger than 50 people and no visits to nursing homes. They’ve had more deaths than neighboring Norway, which went for a complete lockdown. But the Swedes also haven’t ruined their economy.

Cassandra: But Sweden also has a very robust testing system. And contact tracing. They have a much stronger social safety net than we have here in the United States, with paid sick leave for workers. And people there complied with the voluntary distancing recommendations. What works for Sweden won’t work for Texas. Unless you’re planning to put in place a strong social safety net and rein in some of that good ol’ boy individualism.

Armed militia members in Texas are demonstrating around the state on behalf of non-essential businesses that want to open up.

Frank: Well, we’re definitely not sheep down here in Texas. Just because the government says something doesn’t mean it’s right. And I say that as a representative of government. The bottom line is that we can’t know for sure about my plan or anyone else’s plan unless we test them. You’re all for testing, right?

Cassandra: That’s not what I meant.

Frank: Every year more than 2,000 infants die in this state. That’s twice as many lives as the coronavirus has claimed. It doesn’t make any of us happy. We’ve reduced those numbers over the last decade, but we can’t get it to zero tomorrow. Everyone says that this virus is going to be with us for a long time. So, we have to figure out a way to live with it as well.

Cassandra: Or die with it.

Frank: Well, some people are going to die. But most of the deaths in Texas have been in nursing homes, prisons, and meatpacking plants. The governor is sending surge response teams to those hotspots to contain them. It seems more sensible to me to focus attention on containing the hotspots than trying to keep everyone under house arrest.

Cassandra: You’re basically saying that old people, prisoners, and low-income workers are expendable. That’s a cruel and disgusting policy. And it’s not even effective. The virus doesn’t stay in hot zones. By opening up the state, you’re providing the virus with millions more hosts to infect. And that will mean a lot more deaths, and not just in institutional settings.

Frank: Look, the Pilgrims knew that some of them were going to die on the ships coming over here from England. The settlers of the westward expansion knew that some of them were not going to make it to California. And our soldiers knew that some of them were going to die defending democracy overseas. That’s what it means to be American. We take risks. Live free or die, right?

Cassandra: All of those people volunteered. They knew the risks. And when they took those risks, they weren’t endangering their whole community. Increasing exposure to the coronavirus is a whole different category of risk. My grandmother is not volunteering to fight overseas or drive a covered wagon across the Great Plains. But these new state directives put her at risk.

Frank: I wouldn’t recommend that your grandmother go out to see a movie any time soon. Or go to a restaurant. At-risk populations probably shouldn’t be taking the risks that you or I can take.

Cassandra: You still don’t see that these are not individual risks —

Frank: And you still don’t see the importance of individual choice —

Well, we’ve run out of time, folks. On this show and maybe in this country as well. We’re facing the greatest threat to America in a generation, in two or three generations, and we can’t figure out how to pull together and get the job done? 

This is not the America I know. But maybe the America I know just doesn’t exist anymore. 

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 13, 2020

Categories
Articles China Featured US Foreign Policy

Debunking Trump’s China Nonsense

Conspiracy theorists never let a crisis go to waste.

When something truly terrible happens, the conspiracy theorist sets to work to determine the dark, hidden forces at work behind the scenes that have produced the crisis. Some people might see God or the Devil as the prime mover behind a catastrophe. Others throw up their hands and mutter, “shit happens.”

Not conspiracy theorists. They need to find a secret human culprit, preferably someone or something that they’ve been warning about for years.

A conspiracy theorist begins with a conclusion — the Bush administration engineered the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama is a Muslim, the Democratic Party is running a child pornography ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC — and then works backward to fashion a faulty timeline that leads to that conclusion. Along the way, the theorist marshals the plausible, the implausible, and the downright ludicrous in an effort to prove a far-fetched contention. In this way, conspiracy theorists shoehorn messy reality into their simplistic worldviews.

The current pandemic presents a grand opportunity for conspiracy theorists. Go on the Internet and you’ll find a bumper crop of lunatic notions:

  • Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, one of the few sane voices coming out of the Trump administration, is actually “a Deep-State Hillary Clinton–loving stooge,” according to the right-wing American Thinker.
  • Billionaire Bill Gates helped create the coronavirus so that he could put microchips into people’s heads, argues the unshameable Trump ally Roger Stone.
  • The pandemic is just a ploy to push vaccines into people’s veins. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” writes anti-vaxxer Larry Cook. “Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.”
  • The rollout of 5G networks caused the coronavirus.

It’s bad enough to be hit by a pandemic and a massive economic downturn. Now we also have to deal with a calamitous collapse in common sense?

Still, all of these conspiracy theories pale in significance next to the crazy and dangerous propositions about China and the coronavirus coming from Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and much of the Republican Party. The other conspiracy theories circulate the Internet like bad memes, chasing their tails until they’re replaced with newer nonsense.

The Trump administration is playing a different game. Desperate to defect responsibility for its own catastrophic failures, Trump is weaponizing his China conspiracies — with considerably greater economic and geopolitical consequences.

Did the Lab Do It?

The Trump administration has made several accusations against China. It has asserted that the coronavirus was manufactured in a biological laboratory in Wuhan. It has argued that China engaged in a cover-up that allowed the virus to spread around the world. It has said that China underestimated the severity of the epidemic and hoarded medical equipment.

The administration is now preparing to take actions that will make the earlier trade war with China look like a mere disagreement among friends.

Let’s start with the various coronavirus origin theories.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, was the epicenter of the current pandemic. In that same city, both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention study coronaviruses and the bats that carry them.

For conspiracy theorists, proximity is a sufficient smoking gun. They began linking one or the other institute to the outbreak back in January 2020. At the end of January, The Washington Post was already debunking the notion that the virus was manufactured in a lab. In February, 27 prominent public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet that they and their colleagues “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”

None of that has prevented Trump and Pompeo from asserting otherwise. Pompeo said this weekend that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. He neglected to furnish any of this evidence. When reminded that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the virus was not manmade, Pompeo was forced to walk back his initial statement.

It’s possible, of course, that a sample of the virus collected in the wild accidentally escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A set of State Department cables from 2018 reported on concerns over safety standards at the institute. Lab mishaps indeed happen with disturbing frequency. In the United States, for instance, such breaches have involved anthrax, Ebola, and the plague. So, an accidental breach at a Wuhan lab is within the realm of possibility.

But scientists who have sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus maintain that it is unlike the particular bat coronavirus studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But what if scientists in Wuhan had manipulated the virus they were studying, hoping to create what they call a “gain of function”? Again, given the genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus, there’s no evidence of this kind of manipulation.

As The Washington Post concluded in its Fact Checker analysis, “The balance of the scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature — be it the Wuhan market or somewhere else. Too many unexpected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab.”

Cover-Up?

As usual, Donald Trump is accusing others of sins that he has committed in spades. The president ignored various briefings throughout January 2020 about the dangers of the coronavirus. He now claims that he only learned in late January about the disease and that these briefings stressed that it was “non-threatening.”

Given the overwhelming evidence of the earlier briefings — he ignored direct warnings from Alex Azar on January 18 and an intelligence briefing on January 23 — Trump is doing his damnedest to pretend ignorance.

Now, let’s jump ahead more than a month. If Trump had issued social distancing guidelines two weeks earlier than he did — on March 2 rather than March 16 — the death toll could have been reduced by 90 percent, according to two epidemiologists writing in The New York Times. That’s over 60,000 deaths (and rising) that should rest on the president’s conscience (if he possessed one). Of course, other politicians — like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio — should have also acted with greater urgency. But there’s no substitute for confident national leadership. And there’s no nightmare like bad national leadership.

And now, in the midst of his own dizzying attempts at covering up his own mistakes, Trump has decided to blame China for its own cover-up. “They made a mistake, they tried to cover it, like a fire,” he said at a Fox News virtual town hall over the weekend. “They couldn’t put out the fire.”

Unlike the United States, China had no advance warning that a new disease was about to strike and spread. Still, when doctors started to report a new disease in Wuhan in late December, the Chinese government reacted with its usual authoritarian approach. It tried to clamp down on the bad news. So, yes, that was a mistake. And it wouldn’t be the only one, as I noted in a column in mid-March.

But it was only three weeks between the identification of the new disease and the lockdown of Wuhan. The disease emerged at the end of December and by the third week of January, when deaths were in the low double digits and infections still in the triple digits, virtually all of Hubei province was under quarantine. In between identification and lockdown, China briefed the World Health Organization on the situation and released the genome sequence of the new disease.

And China practiced early detection and isolation, a technique that South Korea would implement even more effectively. As David Cyranoski wrote in Nature back in March:

Before the interventions, scientists estimated that each infected person passed on the coronavirus to more than two others, giving it the potential to spread rapidly. Early models of the disease’s spread, which did not factor in containment efforts, suggested that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, would infect 40% of China’s population — some 500 million people. But between 16 and 30 January, a period that included the first 7 days of the lockdown, the number of people each infected individual gave the virus to dropped to 1.05, estimates Adam Kucharski, who models infectious-disease spread at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “That was amazing,” he says.

So, China was putting out the fire with greater dispatch than most other countries. It’s one of the reasons why it has been the first country to emerge from the other side of the crisis. The rapid containment of China’s outbreak is one of the major reasons that other countries even had a chance at containing their own.

What about Homeland Security’s contention that China misrepresented the severity of the crisis in order to stock up on medical supplies? This seems unlikely. The Chinese government didn’t seem to understand the severity of the crisis in those early days. In fact, it was only later, between January 24 and February 27, that China imported “2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks, gloves and ventilators,” according to Chinese statistics.

But this was well after China was telling the world that the epidemic was serious, and it coincided with its efforts to deal with its own crisis. Was it hoarding, or was it preparing for a potential catastrophe of 500 million infected people?

Could China have done better? Absolutely. Earlier action would have even more significantly reduced the infection rate. Even the Chinese government has admitted that. “In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies,” the Politburo admitted in a report in early February, “we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks.” Trump, in contrast, has made no such admission of deficiencies.

Let’s be clear: China screwed up during one critical week at the beginning of January when it misunderstood or downplayed the risk of the new disease. But compare that with the two months of Trump dismissing the severity of COVID-19. During that period, by the way, Trump had nothing but praise for China’s handling of the crisis.

It’s not just the Trump administration that is dumping on China. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published a tendentious piece last week that mixed the factual with the fictional. He correctly notes that China silenced critics. But then adds that China “manipulated statistics to downplay the outbreak’s severity.” Follow that link and you’ll discover that China updated its statistics to account for uncounted deaths, for instance those that died at home.

Perhaps Rogin hasn’t been paying attention to the reporting in his own paper about excess U.S. deaths during the first months of the coronavirus crisis, at least some of which will ultimately be attributed to the pandemic. “The problem of undercounting coronavirus deaths is not unique to this pandemic or to the United States,” the April 27 article concluded.

China could indeed be a great deal more transparent about its statistics, the origins of the virus, and its response to the pandemic. But The Economist is off base when it asserts that “China’s opacity has allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.” The relationship between opacity and conspiracy theories is by no means so direct. Obama went to great lengths to prove his citizenship, and it did little to quiet the “birther” movement.

Many conspiracy theories are politically motivated. The Trump administration feels an urgent need to shift the blame. China could submit to a full proctological exam, and Trump would still accuse Beijing of covering its ass.

Trump on the Offensive

The United States and China have been entangled economically for decades. Trump is determined to end all that. His earlier trade sanctions have done much to untie the two economies, as suppliers and importers in both countries have looked for other partners. The battle over the world’s digital infrastructure has also sharpened competition between two IT giants.

The pandemic is providing a pretext for Trump to double down.

“We’ve been working on [reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China] over the last few years but we are now turbo-charging that initiative,” a State Department undersecretary told Reuters. Trump is also targeting scientific cooperation between the two countries. He is considering an executive order banning government pension funds from investing in Chinese companies. He signed into law the Taiwan Act in March committing Washington to push other countries to recognize Taiwan diplomatically.

The president’s more radical advisors are even pushing Trump to default on the U.S. debt to China, claiming that withholding repayment would constitute a form of reparations for the damage that China has “caused” with the coronavirus. (Ah, so calling it the “China virus” was not merely racist, it was part of building a legal case for compensation.) Since the “Spanish flu” originated in the United States, Trump may open up the United States to more court challenges than it bargained for.

“The United States would be better advised to focus on those genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game,” observes Max Boot in The Washington Post, “lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.” The Chinese ambassador to the United States brings the arguments closer to the present day. “To ask a victim for compensation is simply ridiculous,” Cui Tiankai argues. “If that made sense, then who was to compensate for the fatalities of the H1N1 flu and HIV/AIDS? Who was to pay for the huge losses caused by the 2008 financial crisis?”

Floating the nuclear option of debt default is probably just another example of Trump’s tactic of calculated overreach. He’s likely gearing up for another round of tariffs on Chinese goods, which will then seem sensible in comparison (instead of just plain insane given the circumstances). But who knows: Trump likes dramatic, unprecedented, and stupid actions.

I was never a big fan of the “adults in the room.” But realists like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis are no longer counseling caution in the administration. Instead, squawking in Trump’s ear is a flock of hawks — Pompeo, Peter Navarro, and the National Security Council’s China hand, Matt Pottinger. Trump is susceptible to man-crushing on autocrat Xi Jinping. The hawks are determined to nip that relationship in the bud.

Of course, you don’t have to be a realist to understand that an economic and diplomatic war with China at this point is a bad idea. You just have to register a modicum of brain activity. The U.S. economy is crashing. The pandemic here is far from over (despite what some governors and gun owners think). What a great time to make it even more difficult for U.S. farmers and manufacturers to survive the downturn.

It’s not as if China is weak at the moment and eager to capitulate. It has recovered from the pandemic. It has reopened its economy in a more-or-less responsible fashion. It has the financial resources to help countries that have been hobbled by the crisis. It has achieved even greater international credit in the wake of Trump’s disastrous foreign policy, for instance by upping its contribution to the WHO as Trump suspends U.S. payments.

Trump, however, knows that only a conspiracy theory (or better yet, several) can get him reelected. Compared to his previous efforts in the genre — the “birther movement,” Obama’s alleged wiretapping of his phone — this mythmaking about China has the full force of the U.S. government behind it, along with much of the pundit class, and a bunch of disgruntled allies as well.

The Republican Party, desperate to deflect attention not only from the pandemic and the economic depression but from Trump’s patent irresponsibility as well, has seized on China as an electoral “Hail Mary” pass. Republican congressional candidates are now running ads that blame China for “the Wuhan epidemic,” promise to “make China pay” for “the lies they told and the jobs they stole,” and warn, “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”

With November in their sights, Trump and the Republicans are digging themselves into a hole —  all the way to China.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 6, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Food

The Black Death Undermined Feudalism. What Does COVID-19 Mean for Capitalism?

You pay little attention to the systems of your body — circulatory, digestive, pulmonary — unless something goes wrong.

These automatic systems ordinarily go about their business, like unseen clockwork, while you think about a vexing problem at work, drink your morning cup of coffee, walk up and down stairs, and head out to your car to begin your morning commute. If you had to focus your attention on breathing, pushing blood through your veins, and metabolizing food, you’d have no time or energy to do anything else. The body abhors the micromanaging of the mind.

The same applies to the world’s markets. They whir away in the background of your life, providing loans to your business, coffee beans to your nearby supermarket, labor to build your house, gas to fill your car. You take all of these markets for granted. All you have to concern yourself with is earning enough money to gain access to these goods and services. That’s what it means to live in a modern economy. The days of hunting and gathering, of complete self-sufficiency, are long past.

And then, in a series of sickening shifts, the markets go haywire. As with a heart attack, you no longer can take the optimal performance of these systems for granted.

The coronavirus crisis has thrown the global economy into cardiac arrest, and now you are acutely aware of the very markets that you had previously just assumed would function as normal. The first indication was the precipitous drop in the stock market that took place in late February. Then, as the United States began to enter quarantine, the labor market collapsed and hundreds of millions of people were suddenly out of work. Shortages in a few key commodities — masks, ventilators, toilet paper — began to appear.

It is one of the central tenets of laissez-faire capitalism that markets behave like automatic systems, that an “invisible hand” regulates supply and demand. Market fundamentalists believe that the less the government interferes with these automatic systems, the better. They argue, to the contrary, that markets should increasingly take over government functions: a privatized post office, for instance, or Social Security accounts subjected to the stock market.

Market fundamentalists are like Christian Scientists. They refuse government intervention just as the faithful reject medical intervention. Much like God’s grace, the invisible hand operates independent of human plan.

Then something happens, like a pandemic, which tests this faith. States around the world are now spending trillions of dollars to intervene in the economy: to bail out banks, save businesses, help out the unemployed. Countries are imposing export controls on key commodities. As in wartime, governments are directing manufacturers to produce critical goods to fill an unexpected demand for greater supply.

These are emergency interventions. The market fundamentalist looks forward to the day when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, people go back to work, the stock market barrels back into bull mode, and the invisible hand, with perhaps a few Band-aids across the knuckles, returns to its job.

But some pandemics fundamentally alter the economy. In such emergencies, people realize that an economy is constructed and thus can be reconstructed. Are we now at just such a moment in world history? Will the coronavirus permanently transform the relationship between the state and the market?

Let’s take a look at three key markets — oil, food, and finance — to measure the impact of the pandemic and the prospects for transformation.

Oil

Shutterstock

In 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa offered to forgo digging for oil beneath the Yasuni national park in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community. No one took him up on the offer.

When the U.S. price of oil went below zero last week, I immediately thought of Correa’s offer. The mainstream scoffed at the Ecuadorian leader back in 2007. How on earth could you possibly propose to keep oil under the earth? The world economy runs on fossil fuels. You might as well ask your kid to keep her Halloween candy uneaten in the back of the cupboard.

Today, however, the world is glutted with oil. The global recession has radically reduced the need for oil and gas.

In the United States, transportation absorbs nearly 70 percent of oil consumption. With airplanes grounded, fewer trains and busses in operation, and highways uncongested, the demand for oil has dropped precipitously. Businesses, too, are using less energy. It’s not just oil. Companies devoted to pumping natural gas out of shale deposits are filing for bankruptcy as their market value drops precipitously: the price of a share of fracking giant Whiting Petroleum fell from $150 a couple years ago to 67 cents on March 31.

It’s gotten to the point that you almost can’t give away the stuff.

After all, if you somehow found yourself with a bunch of barrels of oil, where would you store it? Oil-storage tanks in the United State are near capacity. “Oil supertankers are looking like petroleum paparazzi, crowding the Los Angeles shoreline, either as floating storage or waiting on some kind of turn in sentiment,” Brian Sullivan writes at CNBC. “With prices higher in coming months, for now it pays to sit on oil and hope to sell it for more money down the pipeline.”

Oil-producing nations, after years of boosting their supplies, finally agreed in mid-April to cut production by 10 percent — about 10 million gallons a day. In other words, they are deciding to leave oil in the ground. Now, however, it doesn’t even qualify as a half-measure, since demand has dropped by 35 percent. The oil producers are awaiting the end of recession, when the quarantined go back to work, and everyone jumps on their transport of choice to make up for lost travel. They are awaiting a return to normal.

But the market for fossil fuels is not normal. The notion that the invisible hand will steer economies in a sustainable direction is hogwash. We are long past the moment when we should have paid Correa and everyone else to leave the oil and gas in the ground and move toward a world powered entirely by clean energy. The market treats the environment either as a commodity like any other or as an “externality” that doesn’t factor into the final price of goods and services. That is so nineteenth century.

Climate change demands an intervention into the energy markets with restrictions on production, subsidies for clean energies like solar, and government purchases of electric cars. Returning to “normal” after the pandemic is not a viable option.

Food

Shutterstock

Like the oil exporters, food producers in the United States are restricting production as well.

In Delaware and Maryland, chicken producers are euthanizing two million chickens because the processing plants don’t have enough workers. Sickness and death in these facilities, which has caused closures that are disrupting the supply chain, has prompted Trump to classify such plants as “critical infrastructure” that needs to remain open. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables are rotting in the fields in Florida because of the suspension of bulk food sales to schools, theme parks, and restaurants. The shortage of pickers — often migrant laborers whose mobility has been restricted — is complicating harvests.

Unlike oil, however, the overall demand for food remains high. The grocery business is booming. Food banks are overwhelmed by a surge unlike any in recent decades. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordinarily could swoop in and buy up surplus production — as it did for soybean growers during the trade war with China — for use in food banks and other distribution programs. But as with so many other government agencies in the Trump era, the USDA has been slow to act, despite repeated pleas from growers and governors.

The pandemic is highlighting all the problems that have long plagued the food supply. First, there is the mismatch between supply and demand. Around 820 million people globally didn’t have enough to eat in 2018, a figure that had been rising for three years in a row, and contrasts with another rising number: the 672 million obese people in the world. In the United States, fully 40 percent of food goes to waste every year. So, obviously the invisible hand does a pretty poor job of achieving market equilibrium.

Second, despite a growing movement to eat locally and seasonally, the food system still eats up a huge amount of energy. The problem lies not so much with bananas arriving by cargo ship, which is relatively efficient, but with perishable items delivered by plane. And it’s what we eat, rather than where the products come from, that matters most. “Regardless of whether you compare the footprint of foods in terms of their weight (e.g. one kilogram of cheese versus one kilogram of peas); protein content; or calories, the overall conclusion is the same,” writes Hannah Ritchie. “Plant-based foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy. In many cases a much smaller footprint.”

Third, because of economies of scale and abysmal labor practices, food in the industrialized world is too often grown by agribusiness, processed by transnational corporations, and picked or handled by workers who don’t even make close to a living wage.

Returning to this kind of food system after the pandemic fades would be truly unappetizing. The livable wage campaign must spread to the countryside, meat substitutes must get an additional lift through government and institutional purchases, and innovative programs like the Too Good to Go app in Europe — which sells extra restaurant and supermarket food at a discount — must be brought to the United States to cut down on food waste and get meals to those in need.

Finance

global-financial-crisis-capitalism-globalization-finance

Shutterstock

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 exposed the fragility and fundamental inequality of the global financial system. But all along the invisible hand has been pickpocketing poor Peter to pay prosperous Paul. Bankers, stockbrokers, and financial gurus have constructed a casino-like system that occasionally doles out a few pennies to the people playing the slots even as it enriches the house — the top 1-2 percent — at every turn.

The most outrageous part of this scheme is that the financial crisis demonstrated just how bad the financiers were at their own game. Not only did they not go to prison for illegal activities, they were with a few exceptions not even punished economically for their market failures. They were either too big, too rich, or too powerful for the government to allow them to fail.

In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten quotes a prominent investment banker at a bond fund:

“In the financial crisis, we won the war but lost the peace.” Instead of investing in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, we emphasized, via a central-bank policy of quantitative easing (what some people call printing money), the value of risk assets, like stocks. “We collectively fell in love with finance,” he said. 

After the last financial crisis, the wealthy, who are heavily invested in the stock market, did quite well, while everyone else took a hit. Explains Colin Schultz in Smithsonian magazine: “While families hovering around the average net worth lost 36 percent over the past decade — dropping from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013 — people in the top 95th percentile actually gained 14 percent in the same tumultuous period — going from $740,700 in 2003 to $834,100 in 2013.”

The Trump administration is clearly in love with finance. Even before the pandemic hit, Trump’s tax reform provided the top six U.S. banks with $32 billion in savings. That’s more than what the 2008 bank bailout provided (and remember, banks mostly paid back those earlier loans). The stock market also benefited from an unprecedented upswing in stock buybacks — $2 trillion combined in 2018 and 2019 — that enriched shareholders at the expense of workers.

The $2 trillion in initial stimulus funds that the U.S. government is providing this time around has gone to individuals (those Trump-signed checks in the mail), small businesses (except when it went to big businesses), hospitals, and unemployed workers. There’s also money for farmers, schools, food stamps, and (alas) the Pentagon. Future rounds of stimulus spending might include infrastructure, more aid to states and localities, and funds for smaller banks.

There’s not much enthusiasm, at least publicly, to bail out Wall Street. Stock buybacks were explicitly excluded from the stimulus package. Meanwhile, the stock market has begun to climb out of the basement in the last couple weeks, largely on the strength of the news of all this new money being pumped into the economy.

But just as the tax bill was a covert giveaway to financial institutions, so have been several of the administration’s pandemic responses. Quantitative easing, by which the Federal Reserve buys bonds and mortgage-backed securities, has increased the amount of liquidity available to financial institutions.

In the latest effort, the Fed announced that it will buy $500 billion in corporate bonds, but without any of the strings attached to other assistance such as limits on stock buybacks or executive compensation. The banks are even nickel and diming people by seizing stimulus check deposits to cover overdrawn accounts.

Out of a total pie of around $6 trillion in potential stimulus spending, banks and major corporations are well-placed to grab the lion’s share. Writes Nomi Prins at TomDispatch:

In the end, according to the president, that could mean $4.5 trillion in support for big banks and corporate entities versus something like $1.4 trillion for regular Americans, small businesses, hospitals, and local and state governments. That 3.5 to 1 ratio signals that, as in 2008, the Treasury and the Fed are focused on big banks and large corporations, not everyday Americans.

Invisible hand? Hardly. That’s the very visible hand of government tilting the financial markets even more in favor of the rich. As for the invisible enrichment that goes on beneath the surface, otherwise known as corruption, the Trump administration has gutted the oversight mechanisms that could bring those abuses to light.

It’s time to end America’s love affair with finance. That means, in the short term, higher taxes on the very rich, limitations on CEO pay built into all bailouts, and reviving all the reasonable proposals for reforming the financial sector that were either left out of or didn’t get full implemented in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed in the wake of the last financial crisis.

Post-Pandemic Economics

Shutterstock

The Black Death depopulated Europe, killing as much as 60 percent of the population in the middle of the fourteenth century. Feudalism depended on lots of peasants working the land to support the one percent of that era. By carrying off so many of these workers, the Black Death made a major contribution to eroding the foundations of the dominant economic system of the time.

The coronavirus will not kill anywhere near as many people as the Black Death did. But it may well contribute to exposing the failures of “free markets” and the scandal of governments intervening in the economy on behalf of this era’s one percent. The pandemic is already, thanks to huge stimulus packages, undermining the “small government” canard. A state apparatus deliberately hobbled by the Trump administration — after earlier “reforms” by both parties — did a piss-poor job of dealing with this crisis. That doesn’t bode well for dealing with the even larger challenge of climate change.

The short-term fixes described above in the oil, food, and finance sectors are necessary but insufficient. They shift the balance more toward the government and away from the “free” market. They’re not unlike the New Deal: reforming capitalism to save capitalism. But this pandemic is pointing to an even more fundamental transformation, to a new definition of economics.

The tweaking of markets to achieve optimal performance is much like the rejiggering of earth-centric models of the universe that took place in the Middle Ages. These models became more and more complex to account for new astronomical discoveries. Then along came Copernicus with a heliocentric model that accounted for all the new data. It took some time, however, for the old model to lose favor, despite its obvious failures.

The global economy remains market-centered, even though the evidence has been mounting that these markets are failing us and the planet. Tweaking this model isn’t good enough. We need a new Copernicus who will provide a new theory that fits our unfolding reality, a new environment-centered economics that can maximize not profit but the well-being of living things.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 29, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Korea

A Progressive Victory over the Coronavirus

The current pandemic has led to the postponement of elections around the world.

Over 75 countries have declared some kind of state of emergency. Several illiberal leaders, like Viktor Orban, have used the crisis to seize virtually unlimited powers. The Chinese model of full-spectrum clampdown has elicited praise across the political spectrum for its apparent effectiveness in combating the virus.

But one country has taken a very different approach.

South Korea held elections last week. Even amid a worldwide pandemic, more South Koreans went to the polls than in any parliamentary election since 1992. They weren’t turning out in protest. Rather, they gave the ruling party — and the president, Moon Jae-in — the largest parliamentary majority of any party since the country became a democracy.

The surge in support for the left-of-center ruling party has been because of the coronavirus, not despite it. The government’s handling of the crisis has received top marks both domestically and internationally.

Moon Jae-in has not been content to promote a return to the status quo that existed prior to the outbreak. He campaigned on a platform of transformation, one that has not been fully appreciated outside of Korea.

The South Korean example, because it holds many lessons for progressives around the world, offers a vivid refutation of the notion that the world, after the pandemic subsides, will necessarily shift further to the right.

Dealing with Pandemic

In late February, South Korea had the most coronavirus cases outside of China.

A cult-like church was responsible for a large outbreak in the southern city of Daegu, and the hospitals there were being overwhelmed. The government was scrambling to contain the crisis. A petition to impeach the president for his failure to address the pandemic garnered 1.4 million signatures. The country was getting bad press, like Suki Kim’s hack job in The New Yorker.

This week, less than two months later, the number of new cases of the coronavirus has dropped to a mere dozen or so a day. South Korea has had a little over 10,000 cases but only 236 deaths, for a mortality rate of a little over 2 percent. There have been more deaths in Springfield, Massachusetts (246) than in all of South Korea. That’s a metro area of about 700,000 people, compared to a country of about 50 million.

The United States and South Korea both registered their first coronavirus infections at the same time.

South Korea has achieved this success without closing down the economy. It shuttered schools and museums, and churches have held services online. But many restaurants and even movie theaters remained open. The unquarantined continued to travel with few restrictions around the country.

This ability to avoid full lockdown has relied on a robust and widespread system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantining. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world to manufacture kits in large enough quantities to test a significant portion of the population. It has gathered information on the movement of infected persons via cell phone data, credit card records, and closed-circuit television, and it shared some of that information publicly. It requisitioned the membership list of the cult-like religion in Daegu to shut down that infected cluster.

This system required some loss of privacy, which many Koreans seemed willing to give up. Oh Jeong Hyeon is a scholar at the Wilson Center. “In my opinion, COVID-19 is spreading quickly, and the disclosure of patient information is indispensable. The information not only lets people avoid the area of the outbreak, but also encourages people who were there to be examined quickly,” he told journalist Jean Lee, also at the Wilson Center. “That’s why the government needs patients’ information, and to me this is worth sacrificing privacy.”

The technological sophistication of the population — with an Internet penetration rate of 96 percent and mobile Internet usage of 90 percent — has enabled citizens to jump into the fight against the coronavirus. Programmers came up with interactive maps that provide information about where new infections have emerged. One popular app warns you if you come within 100 meters of the last tracked location of an infected person.

It’s not just coders that have gotten in on the effort. Musicians in the Seoul Philharmonic have put on virtual concerts to help get people through these difficult times. Violinist Won Hyung-Joon has gone even further by visiting hospitals and playing directly for coronavirus patients.

South Korea, contrary to popular belief, is not a high-trust society. People do not march in lock-step out of fealty to Confucianism or some collective ideology. But they do have a stronger sense of the common good than, say, teenagers partying in Florida or right-wing demonstrators in various states fed up with stay-at-home restrictions. South Koreans maintained physical distancing, complied with testing and quarantine protocols, and worked together despite some profound political, economic, and social divisions in the country.

At the international level, Moon Jae-in has reached out to help North Korea weather the pandemic. He has given advice to the Trump administration. After a tiff with Tokyo early on around travel restrictions, he directed his foreign minister to meet by video call with counterparts from Japan and China to discuss coronavirus cooperation.

When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan needed testing kits recently, he gave up on the Trump administration. The Republican governor pragmatically turned to South Korea and, courtesy of his Korean-speaking wife, negotiated a deal for 5,000 kits capable of administering 500,000 tests.

Early on, the U.S. news media was astonished by the statistics that showed Korea testing as many people per day as the United States was testing in 14 days. Even more astonishing is that, this late in the game, the governor of a state right next to Washington, DC has to get test kits from 7,000 miles away.

Moon’s Quantum Leap

During the election campaign, Moon Jae-in emphasized that it was no time for complacency with the economic status quo during the coronavirus crisis. Rather, it was an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy — capitalizing on industries like AI and biopharma,” observes Minseon Ku, a scholar at Ohio State University. Moon said prior to the election that South Korea “can be the country that overcomes the crisis the fastest through solidarity and cooperation.”

What that means in practice is pushing forward with an agenda that had been largely blocked by the opposition in parliament. Now, halfway through his five-year tenure as president, Moon no longer has to worry about that opposition. Writes Doug Bandow in The National Interest about last week’s election, “The right had its worst legislative result since 1960. A former prime minister and parliamentary floor leader were ousted from the National Assembly. Party leaders are likely to take responsibility by resigning, leading to further disarray in the once‐​powerful right.”

The bottom line is that Moon’s party has a parliamentary super-majority that can push through its economic agenda. That means addressing rising income inequality, though probably more through job creation than wage increases. It also means finally reducing the power of the big corporations, or chaebols, which have been at the center of economic corruption for decades.

But the challenge for South Korea is two-fold. The economy is export-driven, and global trade is taking a big hit during this crisis. Also, despite some grand words about the dangers of climate change, the Korean economy remains carbon-intensive. The capital, Seoul, has a reputation for having the largest carbon footprint of any city in the world.

So, tweaking the Korean economy isn’t going to work. It needs a quantum leap into a fundamentally different economic system.

Strangely, the mainstream press has missed Moon’s larger economic goal. He’s not just looking at AI, job creation, and boosting small and medium-sized enterprises.

Last month, his Democratic Party pledged to implement a Green New Deal that will make South Korea carbon-neutral by 2050, the first country in Asia to make such a pledge. Writes Chloé Farand in Climate Change News: “The plan includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.”

The coronavirus crisis has given this political opportunity to Moon. You know what they say: a crisis equals danger plus opportunity.

Actually, let’s walk back that statement…

Crisis ≠ Danger Plus Opportunity 

It is often said that, in Chinese, the character for crisis translates into danger plus opportunity. The reality is a bit more complex. Rather than opportunity, explains Sinologist Victor Mair, the second element of the crisis character really translates into either “incipient moment” or “resourcefulness” or “machine.”

“Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis,” Mair adds.

The Korean words for “crisis” (wi gi) and “opportunity” (gi hwae) derive from the same Chinese characters. The current coronavirus crisis thus presents not an obvious danger plus an opportunity to be seized. Rather, following Mair’s analysis of the critical phoneme gi, it is a time of danger and a moment for technological resourcefulness. In other words, digging into the word “resourcefulness,” it’s a time to use scientific know-how to put available resources to more efficient or ingenious use.

I can’t think of a better definition of the Green New Deal. That’s what this double crisis of pandemic and climate change demands: using science to make better use of existing resources. South Korea, having beaten back the coronavirus and demonstrated that democracy can flourish even in an emergency, is now poised to show the world how to move forward to save lives and the planet.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 22, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Who’s Responsible for America’s Coronavirus Fiasco?

Donald Trump said that he would make America number one again. And now the United States leads the world in coronavirus infections and COVID-19 deaths. It is a dubious achievement.

How could this have happened? The United States is supposed to have one of the best medical systems in the world. The Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, is world-renowned for its expertise in infectious diseases. And the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on disaster preparedness.

As if this weren’t enough, the Trump administration had plenty of advance warning. This novel coronavirus emerged at the end of December in China. The first known case of the disease appeared in the United States on January 20. China was overwhelmed by the coronavirus in early February. South Korea was hit hard at the end of February and Italy at the beginning of March.

But it wouldn’t be until March 13 that Trump declared a national emergency.

The Trump administration even had plenty of warning from its own high-ranking officials. The intelligence community was preparing briefings for the president. The CDC created a structure for dealing with the new disease in early January. On January 18, Heath Secretary Alex Azar tried to talk to the president about COVID-19, but Trump only wanted to discuss when vaping products would be back on the market.

“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” one official told The Washington Post.

On January 23, the World Health Organization released all the information about COVID-19 that was necessary to understand its potential global impact. Some members of the Trump administration, like Azar, tried to push the president to take the threat seriously. But others, like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, saw opportunity in the epidemic gathering force in China. “I think it will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” Ross told the press.

Between the identification of the threat and his ultimate recognition of the seriousness of the problem, Trump wasted over two months. During that period, the president should have seen what was happening in other countries and applied the lessons learned. He should have marshalled the necessary resources to manufacture testing kits and distribute them widely. He should have put in place a robust contact tracing system. And he should have identified the weaknesses in the U.S. hospital system and sought to remedy them.

Trump is not solely responsible for the COVID-19 calamity in the United States. The virus caught many countries by surprise. But those that responded quickly and effectively managed to reduce the infection rate and, more importantly, the mortality rate. Around 220 people have died of the virus in South Korea, out of an infected population of 10,500: a 2 percent mortality rate. In the United States, over 23,000 have died out of nearly 600,000 infected, a mortality rate of 4 percent: near twice that of South Korea.

The U.S. governors who responded with appropriate urgency to the epidemic have avoided some of the worst impact. Washington was the first state to get hit hard, but it has successfully reduced the infection rate. California has kept the mortality rate to 3 percent.

But a number of governors and many Republican lawmakers in Washington, DC were as cavalier as Trump in their approach to this outbreak. Early on, several of these politicians dismissed COVID-19 as a hoax to undermine the Trump presidency. In mid-March, influential Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Ca) was still dismissing fears of infection by saying “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.”

Trump managed to avoid impeachment despite his blatant unconstitutional actions. Because of the collapse of the U.S. economy, he may well lose the presidential election in November.

But could he also be held responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans?

When asked by the press whether Trump has “blood on his hands,” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden responded, “I think that’s a little too harsh.”

But others are more willing to investigate the president’s culpability. Glenn Kirschner, a long-time federal prosecutor, believes that Trump will have to face a number of gross negligence suits once he is no longer protected by the Oval Office. “I actually think he will see charges brought in each jurisdiction in which people have died as a result of his gross negligence,” Kirschner argues. “So I have a feeling that he has got a lot of criminal legal exposure coming at him beginning in January 2021.”

Of course, such suits would not be the only charges that Trump would face on leaving office. He could face charges of obstruction of justice stemming from the impeachment proceedings. He could face various charges of financial impropriety connected to the profits his business concerns made during his presidency. He might even face charges internationally for violating human rights conventions in his treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Trump is well aware of his vulnerability once he leaves office. That’s why he will fight as hard as he can, and as dirty as he can, to win re-election in November. He has continued to lie about his actions and even about his own previous statements. He denied saying, for instance, that he didn’t believe governors needed all the medical equipment they were requesting and that he wouldn’t return the calls of governors whom he didn’t like, even though both statements are in the public record.

He has systematically dismissed the oversight mechanisms that could expose his administration’s fraud and wrongdoing.

He is doing what he can to suppress voter turnout, for instance by calling into question the legitimacy of absentee ballots. He has even admitted that if more people vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

He will try to restart the U.S. economy as soon as possible regardless of the human cost. Indeed, Trump is singularly focused on the elections and saving his own political skin – not on saving the lives of Americans.

If Trump wins in November, he could again use presidential immunity to escape justice. If he loses, he might just try to stay in office anyway. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time he would violate the law or disregard the rules and principles of democracy.

Hankyoreh, April 19, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump Rex

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, dystopian fiction enjoyed a spike in popularity. However, novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which soared on Amazon, would prove more horror stories than roadmaps. Like so many ominous sounds from a dark basement, they provided good scares but didn’t foreshadow the actual Trumpian future.

Of course, it didn’t take an Orwell or an Atwood to extrapolate from the statements of candidate Trump to the policies of President Trump — and such projections bore little resemblance to the worlds of Big Brother or an all-powerful patriarchy. Many Americans quickly began bracing themselves for something quite different: less totalitarian than total chaos. There would likely be unmitigated corruption, new wars, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, along with an unprecedented reduction in government services and the further concentration of power in the executive branch. And it was a given that there would be boastfully incoherent presidential addresses, as well as mockery from officials in countries that had only recently been our closest allies. A Trumpian dystopia would be a Frankenstein monster constructed of the worst parts of previous administrations with plenty of ugly invective and narcissistic preening thrown in for bad measure.

And yet, there was still a lingering hope that those unsettling noises from the basement were just the equivalent of a broken furnace — annoying and expensive to fix, yes, but nothing like a living, breathing monster. Trump, after all, was going to be a singularly incompetent leader, or so his multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures suggested. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to do that much damage tweeting from the White House or phoning in from the links. And even if his minions in Congress did manage to push through some disturbing legislation, the guardrails of democracy would continue to contain his administration, and dystopias would, for the most part, remain the stuff of scary novels, not everyday life.

For many Americans, a Trump presidency did indeed usher in harder times. The earnings of farmers, dependent on exporting their crops, plummeted during the trade war with China. Nearly 700,000 people were poised to lose access to food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from Haiti, El Salvador, and other countries faced the loss of their temporary protected status.

Still, many of those farmers received government subsidies to offset their losses and the courts blocked the administration from following through on some of its cruelest immigration policies, at least postponing the worst nightmares. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections signaled a possible post-Trumpian future, as the Democrats, led by a crew of new women candidates, won control of the House of Representatives. Admittedly, the ultimate failure of the impeachment effort was a setback, but it was still just a matter of holding on for less than a year until election 2020 and then quite possibly waving the Trump era farewell.

That has now all changed.

Thanks to the coronavirus, dystopia is here, right now — but with a twist. As science fiction writer William Gibson once so aptly put it, “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In April 2020, the same applies to our new world.

Pandemic

Dystopia arrived not with a bang, but a cough. The culprit wasn’t a looming monster or a totalitarian state, but a microscopic speck that’s technically not even alive. And that basement, by the way, turned out to be far-off Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus first appeared. With Hubei province overwhelmed by sickness and death, China responded by using the powers of a centralized state to shut down everything — from travel to restaurants, public gatherings to dissent — in a draconian fashion.

The Trump administration chose to ignore those warnings.

Meanwhile, given the level of international travel in a globalized economy, other countries soon became hotspots. South Korea used technology — widespread testing, contact tracing, and apps to monitor quarantining — to contain the problem. Iran’s initial poor response, even as members of its leadership took sick and in some cases died, was compounded by punitive Trump administration sanctions. The hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed by Covid-19 and the government suddenly shut down the country in a belated attempt to stave off disaster.

Still, Washington dawdled. Trump and his crew squandered 70 full days during which they could have implemented valuable lessons being painfully learned elsewhere in the world.

Now, Covid-19 has decisively put the lie to American exceptionalism. Not only can it happen here, but it’s happening here, far worse than anywhere else. The United States is adding upwards of 30,000 new infections daily, twice the rate of China on February 12th, that country’s worst day, and nearly five times what Italy faced at its peak on March 20th.

Meanwhile, adding depression to disease, the U.S. economy has crashed. Claims for unemployment benefits have risen by an astounding 17 million in just three weeks, pushing the jobless rate close to 10% (and still rising fast). Yes, the whole global economy is taking a hit, but other countries have moved in more sensible directions. China’s blunt-force quarantine has now enabled it to restart its economy, South Korea’s pinpoint approach has so far avoided a full-scale economic lockdown, and Denmark has paid its companies directly to maintain their payrolls and retain workers during the downturn of self-isolation.

In other words, in true dystopian fashion, Washington has managed to fumble both its response to the pandemic and its potential economic recovery plan. Presidential incompetence, incomprehension, and intransigence have been key to these glaring failures. The myriad defects that Donald Trump displayed from his first day in the White House, then largely grist for the monologues of late-night talk-show hosts, have now turned truly tragic. They include his stunning disregard for science, his undeniable compulsion to spread misinformation, his complete refusal to take responsibility for anything negative, his thoroughgoing contempt for government, and his abrupt vacillations in policy.

Most of all, the president exhibited extraordinary hubris. Out of a belief in his own infallibility, he thinks he knows better than the experts, any experts, no matter the topic.

As it happens, he doesn’t.

In ordinary times, such an epic fail might bring thousands, even hundreds of thousands, out into the streets to protest. Not in this pandemic moment, however. Most Americans, if they can, are now sheltering in place, watching a dystopian scenario unfold in real time on their screens and expressing gratitude to front-line workers who are suiting up to fight the microscopic monster every day.

When the world outside becomes too much to bear, we escape into stories. Right now, however, dystopian fiction about other times and places just doesn’t do the trick. Instead, desperate to understand how and why this fate has befallen us, we’ve been watching films about infectious disease. In early March, 2011’s Contagion became the number one streaming movie of the moment, while Outbreak recently cracked Netflix’s top 10 even though it came out 25 years ago. And when we’re not streaming, we’re reading novels about epidemics that, from Camus to Crichton, are back on bestseller lists.

Don’t be surprised if you’re feeling a nagging sense of déjà vu. Bingeing on stories about plagues during a plague? Doesn’t that ring a bell? Could it have been something you were assigned to read or see on stage back in school?

Know Thyself — Or Not

In 430 BC, the second year of its war with Sparta, the legendary democracy of Athens in ancient Greece was struck by an unknown infectious disease. The Athenians first suspected that the Spartans had poisoned their reservoirs. As it turned out, though, their undemocratic adversary wasn’t to blame. According to the historian Thucydides, the plague came from faraway Ethiopia and entered the city by ship. Since Athens had built its empire with naval power, it was perhaps grimly fitting that its greatest strength would prove in that moment to be its signal weakness.

The plague spread quickly. “At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods,” wrote Thucydides. “In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.” (Sound familiar?) The disease soon overwhelmed the city’s rudimentary health-care system and dead bodies lay about the streets, rotting and unburied. And yet, despite the plague, the Peloponnesian War continued. That forever war of the ancient world (sound familiar again?), already in its second round, wouldn’t end until 405 BC, a quarter-century later.

Over five years and three successive outbreaks, the plague would, however, ultimately claim more Athenian lives than the war. Nearly a quarter of that city-state’s population, an estimated 100,000 people, would die from the disease. Even its esteemed leader, Pericles, would lose two sons. Another victim: the vaunted Athenian political system. According to classical scholar Katherine Kelaidis, “The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy.”

During those plague years, Athens didn’t, however, completely lock down the city. It continued, for instance, to hold its annual drama festival at the Theater of Dionysus where, at some point, a new play by Sophocles had its debut. In itself, that was anything but unusual as he wrote more than 100 plays during his long lifetime. But this drama also proved painfully topical. Sophocles took the legendary story of Oedipus the king and added a wholly original element: he set its plot in motion with a plague.

Oedipus Rex takes place in Thebes while “a fiery demon” grips the city. Its king, Oedipus, desperate to understand why the gods have called such a plague down upon his realm, sends an emissary to the famed Delphic Oracle to find out. Its answer is unexpected: to rid Thebes of the plague, he must bring to justice the murderer of the previous king. As it happens, Oedipus himself killed that previous king. What’s worse, that king was also his father. In doing so, Oedipus had, however inadvertently, fulfilled the first part of a previous Delphic prophecy: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In other words, he is the cause of the religious pollution that has brought plague down on Thebes.

All of this qualified Oedipus as the classic example of the tragic hero, a son of nobility who lacks self-knowledge, in this case an understanding of his true origins. Moreover, he demonstrates an extraordinary arrogance, believing that only he can rule wisely or save Thebes. Even when the oracle predicts a tragic outcome for him, he scoffs, believing that the will of the gods is no impediment to his actions.

The Greek word for this kind of arrogance is hubris and, in Greek drama, it’s associated with the pride that precedes the fall of a powerful man. The inevitable result of hubris is a visit from Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, often depicted with a sword and scales.

Focused as it was on the inevitable downfall of a tragic hero in a plague-stricken city, Oedipus Rex must have been deeply disturbing, if not terrifying, to watch in the Athens of that moment. Given the pandemic at hand, it’s remarkable that Athenians were still staging plays at all. But like Oedipus, its citizens undoubtedly wanted to better understand the cause of their affliction. This early example of horror fiction — with its plot twists involving murder, incest, and pandemic — surely helped some of them come to terms with their predicament and decide who or what to blame for it, just as, almost 2,500 years later, we watch films or read novels about plagues, among other things, to try to grasp ours.

In that first season of the plague, the citizens of Athens would indeed turn their fury against their leader, Pericles, and drive him from office. Later, after a brief return to power, he, too, would die of the disease.

Every Society Gets the Tragic Hero It Deserves

Now, another democracy is being overwhelmed by contagion. It, too, is involved in endless wars and led by a man whom millions of its citizens once believed to be the last-chance savior of the country.

Donald Trump didn’t kill his father or marry his mother, nor is he the cause of the coronavirus.

Still, in other respects, he hews to a distinctly modern, reality-TV version of the tragic hero. He, of course, became as rich as Croesus, even as he bathed in the adulation of his television viewers. Thanks to the Delphic Oracle of the Electoral College, he then rose to the most powerful political position in the world. Yet, through it all, he has exhibited virtually no self-knowledge. To this day, his understanding of his own faults remains near zero, while his amplification of his imagined strengths is off the Richter scale. Admittedly, Donald Trump lacks the gravitas of Oedipus and would never have been able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, but this is twenty-first-century America, not ancient Greece, and every society gets the tragic hero it deserves.

As with Oedipus, the president’s extraordinary arrogance has put the country in peril. His denial of the scientific evidence for climate change prompted him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a monumental blunder that will plague later generations. His “deconstruction of the administrative state,” the unravelling of government institutions patiently constructed by his predecessors, significantly crippled his administration’s response to the coronavirus. His gargantuan pre-pandemic addition to the national debt through simultaneous tax cuts and military budget increases put the country at great economic risk. All of these policies were pushed through over the advice of wiser counsels, even within his administration.

Now, on a daily basis, the president appears before the American people and pretends to know much more than he does: about when to lift shelter-in-place restrictions (Easter because “it’s a beautiful day”), which experimental drugs to use (“I’m not a doctor, but I have common sense”), and how to meet the needs of states desperate for ventilators (“try getting it yourselves”). Serial failure has not tempered his hubris, not faintly. In adversity, he’s simply fallen back on a tactic he’s deployed his whole life in the face of adversity: double down. If hubris didn’t work, then über-hubris is the cure.

Through it all, Donald Trump has somehow eluded the grasp of Nemesis. Poised with her scales of justice, the goddess watched over last year’s impeachment hearings. Yet courtesy of a phalanx of Republican senators, Trump was not brought to justice, despite his unconstitutional behavior.

Now, it seems, Nemesis has returned, this time brandishing her sword.

Trump’s incompetence in the face of Covid-19 has helped cause a soaring American death toll. The U.S. is being serially laid to waste, a reality for which he accepts no responsibility. Unlike Oedipus Rex, Trump Rex has not the slightest interest in confronting the truth of his sins or the horror of his actions. Don’t expect the president to put out his own eyes, as Oedipus does at the end of the play. No need, in fact. Trump has always been blind and, not surprisingly, his blind ambition combined with his blind greed has culminated in an administration in which the blind are indeed leading the blind.

Come November, it falls to the American people, if all goes well, to deliver the ultimate judgment of Nemesis.

The End of the World?

Dystopian fiction is about how the world ends — not the extinction of the planet but the end of our familiar world. How we got from here to dystopia isn’t normally central to such novels. In fact, the end of that familiar world has usually taken place before you open the book and you may, at best, see it through brief flashbacks. The point is to plunge you directly into a future from hell like, for example, the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nightmares don’t work with long explanatory introductions.

In a similar fashion, we’re not experiencing the end of the world itself right now. We’re not (yet) in the midst of nuclear annihilation or, say, the extinction of the human species via some extreme version of climate change. The current coronavirus pandemic is an apocalypse, to be sure, but a passing one. As Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki wrote long ago about the everyday horrors of communism in A Minor Apocalypse, “Many generations have thought the world was dying, but it was only their world which was dying.”

Herein lies the sobering reassurance of such stories. They remind us that worlds, like people, die all the time, only to be replaced by new worlds. Cities fall and rise again, as do civilizations. Even dystopian places like Idi Amin’s Uganda or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian killing fields eventually burn out. The handmaid lives to tell her tale and Gilead, too, crumbles in the end.

Athens survived the plague, though its democracy was compromised by war and disease. America, too, will live on. But it will have lost some further measure of its greatness thanks in no small part to the man who, however cynically, wanted to make it great again.

TomDispatch, April 17, 2020