Donald Trump, who campaigned on making America great again has presided over — indeed caused — an enormous fall in American prestige, moral authority and effective power in the world. It may still have, by far, the most military power, and enormous economic resources, but the practical management of the Covid-19 crisis invites only derision.
Nor has it overcome the embarrassment of its poor performance in its own country with outstanding science on behalf of the world. Down the track, a vaccine or a standard treatment regime may emerge from American genius — but so far most of the lessons for the world are in examples of what not to do. And in the evidence, it has presented of a central leadership sunk in populism, crude prejudices, anti-intellectualism and obscurity. Whatever it is, the Trump United States is not a clever country, nor, in the form of its society or system of government, a presently great one.
The disorganised response, the increasing resistance to social isolation strategies, and the desperation to declare the emergency over so as to reboot the economy and tackle unemployment suggest that the US will be among the last major nations to emerge from deep recession. That, coupled with the impact of the epidemics in much of Europe will inevitably have a strong influence on the speed with which world trade and growth resumes. For Australia, as a trader in raw materials, or for China, in manufactured goods.
Australians, Chinese, or citizens of other countries cannot simply observe such failures as events far away. The prosperity, and coherence, of the North American and European economies, is as vital to Chinese stability as it is Australia’s. In Australia, indeed, it probably matters more than all of the domestic budget measures in August. World trade and growth, and the soaking up of mass unemployment will only get going again when a paralysed America, a flattened Europe and nations such as India are back at full power. Nor is there much to be hoped for or expected if Joe Biden is to defeat Trump in November. No doubt he would seek to reverse some of the more egregious acts of Trump. But he will have to deal with the new world as he finds it, rather than seek to recreate a past. The influence, the polarisation and the bitterness of the Trump years will likely last long after him. And that’s assuming Trump loses — to my mind only a 50:50 proposition, even given the state of the economy and the temper of the American people.
An early criticism of the draft Australian resolution calling for an inquiry was that it seemed to be looking for critical assessments of China’s politicians — perhaps the whole political structure of the state — rather than, as desirable and necessary, an independent and transparent critical review of the science and the progress of the disease, with a focus on lessons to be learnt for the future.
There was always going to be such an international scientific and medical review, conducted by independent experts. The World Health Organisation has routinely conducted such reviews, after, for example, the SARS and MERS of earlier this century, various Ebola epidemics in Africa and into swine flu a few years ago. These have been rigorous, and if not focused on the politicians involved, have incorporated examination of the timing and quality of regional, national and international responses, problems of logistics, management of information and so on. And the results of such inquiries have been incorporated into the advice issued by WHO with fresh outbreaks, and the way it organises its own resources and the way it pitches itself to different countries.
It is perfectly true that the WHO is a bureaucracy, full of politics and not a little corruption, particularly in the necessity to manage donor countries and its personnel, bloated in some areas, seriously under-resourced in others. For all of that, it is, like most UN agencies, fairly effective in its sense of mission, in its science, and in its organisation and leadership of international resources against epidemics. That the US, in particular, feels that it has become a boondoggle, in the old UNESCO image, reflects rather less any ineffectiveness, or any reflex kowtows to China, as declining official involvement in the field.
China does have considerable influence in the organisation, as one might expect given its population and the fact that at least four of its operational directorates are run by Chinese scientists. But it is also a reflection of China’s diplomatic extension into aid politics, its activism in seeking the leadership of some third world issues, and its cultivation of latent hostility in other countries to the US.
China, in short, is increasingly jumping into the gaps caused by American retreat. I expect it will continue to buy and sell goods to Australia on an essentially commercial basis, even as it despises our leaders as folk unable to imagine an independent national existence, with a sense of our own national interests rather than assiduous toadying to a US that no longer much cares.
Even then, however, that its government (and the alternative one) have gone out of their way to offend and insult them, for no apparent Australian purpose, is hardly calculated to invite any throwing of bones. Such timing? Was it for any domestic political purpose — such as harvesting wellsprings of Australian racism or to cheer people up as they languished at home? Was it to express distaste at an authoritarian communist regime, which persecutes minorities and people, such as Taiwanese or Hong Kong folk, with insufficient unthinking loyalty to the party? If so, why now, when the Chinese regime is especially toey because of a strange trade war with the US and because of events in Hong Kong? Australia has been generally indifferent to Chinese human rights abuses for decades, and has spent much of the last decade copying its technology and methods — not to mention its indifferent cruelty.
The world might have briefly noticed that Australia has seemed important enough to be abused by Beijing. But even among those who would rate that an honour, I very much doubt that the whole affair has enhanced national prestige, or the reputation of its leaders.