Musings from afar

Why US authority stands undermined

The expectations are so low from Washington that even America's closest allies are not coordinating their responses with it.

 |  Musings from afar  |  5-minute read |   09-04-2020
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As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, China's response has been at the centre of most debates and discussions. Chinese Communist Party's opacity in dealing with this crisis in its initial weeks, its ham-handed manner of treating whistleblowers, its use of information as a tool of diplomatic leverage and then after its recovery, its attempts to portray itself as a saviour of the beleaguered nations has generated an intense global debate. After all, the very future of the global order is at stake and here is a country that is ostensibly aiming to emerge as the global hegemon.

Inept management

This deliberation is happening when America and its political leadership has shown itself as inept in managing its domestic crisis emerging out of the contagion as well as its global fallout. For a country viewed as the last port of call whenever global crises emerged in the past, it has now been found wanting in the most serious crisis since the end of the Second World War. The US is emerging out of this crisis as a power diminished in credibility if not in its capacity, to manage such a profound situation. It is now the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, surpassing China and Italy, though the peak of the outbreak in the US still possibly remains months away.

US President Donald Trump's leadership so far has been defined more by its absence. For weeks, he refused to treat the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. In fact, till a few days back, he was suggesting that the early fatality numbers in the US were much less than those from the flu or even automobile accidents. "We lose thousands of people a year to the flu," Trump argued in order to convince the country that a lockdown was not needed. "We never turn the country off." In fact, he was hopeful that the US could begin to reopen businesses by the Easter holiday this week.

Trump administration's recklessness was on full display early on when, after the first few cases in the US, it did not show any sense of urgency but maintained that the situation was under control and would dissipate in the summer "like a miracle". Trump seemed more interested in picking petty fights on Twitter with Democratic state governors who called for more stringent measures. And then, as the situation deteriorated, America's domestic capacity problems got severely exposed with inadequate medical supplies and insufficient testing.

Glossing over facts

Now, American public health officials are projecting the number of deaths in the country to be between 1,00,000 and 2,00,000. This sobering reality dawned on Trump only last week, when he was forced to acknowledge the worst saying "I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead" and that "this is going to be a very, very painful two weeks."

The US Congress has passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which is the largest stimulus package in its history aimed at reviving a pandemic battered economy. This rare bipartisanship is also likely to result in another bill on infrastructure investment and additional healthcare benefits but political strains are quite visible. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has announced a new House committee would examine "all aspects" of the federal response to the pandemic, not ruling out an investigation in the style of the commission on the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Trump has shot back by calling it a "witch hunt" and deriding it as partisan politics.

New reality

That American polity's response to the crisis would be shaped by the undercurrents of partisan politics is to be expected, given that this is an election year and stakes are high for Trump and the Democrats. Recent opinion polls reflect this, as well with 94 per cent of Republicans approving Trump's handling of the crisis, compared with 27 per cent of Democrats. Trump's approval stands at 49 per cent, quite high by his standards and in a time of highly polarised domestic political landscape. As the crisis unfolds further in the days and months ahead, Trump's handling of it will have profound bearing on the November elections.

For the world at large, questions about America's global leadership are becoming more serious. China, with all its faults, is presenting a model of global leadership, which may seem very attractive to a large part of the world even as America's claim to global pre-eminence is seemingly more dubious by the day. Trump is busy picking fights with close allies like Germany and France by diverting medical supplies meant for these countries by outbidding the original buyers as well as with Canada and Latin America by forcing American companies to stop exporting hospitalgrade N95 masks to them. The fact that few in the world are calling upon the US to lead and manage the global response to this pandemic should be worrying for American policymakers.

The expectations are so low from Washington that even America's closest allies are not coordinating their responses with it. The world knew that America was beginning to become more isolationist and during the Coronavirus crisis, that isolationism became visibly manifest. America's relationship with the global order is at a crossroads and the rest of the world is beginning to come to terms with it with profound consequences for us all.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: DailyOh! When Indira Gandhi choked media's ad revenue, to why Jwala Gutta was called 'half-Corona'

Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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