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INSIGHT: Coronavirus is Making China Model Look Better and Better

SoDATA — 2020 is the moment when Washington’s global authority could truly begin to buckle, says an opinion piece in Bloomberg as it compares Beijing’s handling of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Wuhan and by the Trump administration.

Sans narratives and counternarratives by the two competing global powers, the author braves to title his article “Coronavirus is China’s chance to weaken the liberal order” and Bloomberg adding at the end of it, “This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners”.

According to Hal Brands, the author of the article, two decades post-Cold War were a golden era for American power. Washington was geopolitically supreme; democratic practices and institutions had spread more widely than ever before and the U.S. economy was leading the world into an era of ever-deeper and seemingly ever-more-profitable globalization.

Then came the 2008 financial collapse and ended America’s unchallenged post-Cold War primacy.

In 2020 — over a decade later — the coronavirus (COVID-19) of 2020 could end up hitting the world’s democracies (including US) as hard as many predict. If that happens, it could deal another staggering blow to the U.S. and the international order it leads, writes Brands.

According to him, the 2008 financial crisis delivered three-fold shock. First, it took the luster off the U.S. model — its economic model, primarily — and raised profound questions about the basic competence of American leaders. Second, it lent respectability to the thesis that autocratic governments might actually outperform their democratic counterparts in terms of delivering stable growth and managing crises. Third, it turbocharged Chinese geopolitical assertiveness and fueled fears of American decline.

Brands pegs his opinion on one of his key observations: In international affairs, the psychological balance of power — the world’s sense of who is rising and who is falling — often changes far more rapidly than the physical balance of power. The 2008 crisis shifted that psychological balance dramatically, creating a widespread perception that the American era had reached its end, he says. “The parallels to today’s crisis are alarming”.

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According to Brands, as the present crisis progresses, it has begun to seem that the U.S. may suffer even greater damage to its international position and prestige.

“Who wants to join the posse if the sheriff can’t shoot straight?” That reputation was already suffering under President Donald Trump, and it has taken a further hit because of the coronavirus, Brands says. The list of the administration’s failures is long, he observes. And that list is all the more depressing given that other countries equally surprised by the outbreak have reacted so much more adeptly.

Second observation: The coronavirus saga is also certain to set off another round of debate on the merits of democracy and authoritarianism. The fact that China subsequently claimed to have gotten a handle on the epidemic by energetically enforcing a draconian lockdown of the affected population, while the world’s leading democracy dithered in its own response, will be used by proponents of authoritarianism to argue that their system is best equipped for crisis.

More recent events are further advancing the narrative. The Chinese government (and prominent Chinese firms) are providing supplies to countries such as Italy and even the U.S. itself. Beijing has promised additional funds to aid World Health Organization (WHO) programs in poor countries.

Only a few weeks ago, when the impact of the coronavirus was still heavily concentrated in China, the dominant narrative was that Beijing was once again the new “sick man of Asia.” Now, the theme seems to be that the coronavirus shows just how badly America’s relative power and prestige have fallen.

Third observation: After 2008, this perception led to a surge in China’s willingness to defy the U.S. and its friends and allies in the South China Sea, in international institutions, and in negotiations on global responses to climate change. No doubt the coronavirus will stimulate new Chinese efforts to displace and discredit American leadership in global affairs.

In his view, the administration should take the crisis as an opportunity to rebuild the public-diplomacy capabilities needed to wage the battle of global perceptions with China. “If the Trump administration can manage this, it might yet shift the near-term trajectory of the crisis — and the long-term impact on American leadership”.

Brands concludes that if the U.S. can’t repeat the performance today similar to former presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the story of 2008, the coronavirus crisis will inflict great damage on a superpower, and a world order, that has already suffered too much of it in recent years.


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