Leadership in the time of Coronavirus

The features of leadership in the time of the coronavirus may change, but both rivalry between nations and the appetite for power continue. Some governments are exposing them to daily scrutiny, addressing people’s concerns but also wooing voters ahead of looming elections, while some governments believe life-and-death decisions are theirs to make as custodians of their peoples who are above accountability. Some leaders are gambling with lockdown measures realizing they are risking their countries’ economies, and even the fate of their personal and political agendas. Others have rushed to consolidate their power and ringfence themselves from accountability.

Meanwhile, the world’s determination to confront a single enemy has yet to produce a coherent plan reflecting any radical change in international relations. There is unprecedented international coordination, but there has yet to emerge any sign of a new pattern of relations between governments and citizens dominated by partisan politics, greed, and corruption, such as Iraq, Lebanon, or Libya – nor is there a decline in the appetite for war in countries like Yemen or Syria.

There is also a lack of global leadership desperately needed at this time, especially by the major powers. Some world leaders have chosen to exclusively focus on domestic needs out of some nationalistic imperative, ignoring the importance of global leadership in such crises. But others have seen Covid-19 an opportunity for global repositioning.

Today, the US and China are the world’s top two economies and are competing to dominate the future, but they are radically different in terms of their models of governance. Both have been hit hard by the virus in different sets of circumstances, and face growing recriminations, doubts, and distrust.

In this context, it is worth monitoring whether the US and China alone would economically recover from the pandemic, given their sheer weight. Second, we must try to chart out the course of the rivalry between the two opposing styles of government. Thirdly, we must observe the impact of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus crisis – beginning with the start of the outbreak on its territory through its reopening of the ‘wet markets’ allegedly the origin of the outbreak – on its own global ambitions. A question here is: Will humanity forget what happened after the outbreak is contained?

The Chinese ambassador to Lebanon, Wang Kejian, wrote to me protesting last week’s column, saying all the accusations against China are baseless. He also protested the part where I said that US recovery and leadership…would be the path to global recovery”. Mr Kejian wrote: “some specific countries or politicians have nothing better to do than discredit others, deflect responsibilities and find scapegoats. This is immoral and irresponsible. It will not help their own countries stop the pandemic, nor will it support the international community’s joint efforts against it…. if there’s one lesson we can learn from the virus. It is that the virus knows no borders and ethnicity. It can only be defeated by the concerted efforts of all mankind”.

Clearly, the Chinese government is angered by the prospect of being blamed and is upset by what it considers to be a Western smear campaign against it, amid accusations it had deliberately misled others over the reality of the outbreak. It is also clear that China perceives the crisis from the angle of its rivalry with the United States, albeit the Chinese ambassador’s appeal for global solidarity and cooperation is right on the mark.

Many voices in the US and Britain are accusing China’s ruling Communist Party of prioritizing its hold over power above all other considerations, for the purpose of which it allegedly manipulated coronavirus numbers, with the price of lives lost around the world. Republican lawmakers this week proposed a bill to impose sanctions on any official outside the US who deliberately blocks or distorts information on the outbreak, calling it the “Li Wenliang Global 5 Public Health Accountability Act of 2020” in recognition of the Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm about the novel virus, causing Beijing to punish him before praising him shortly before his death from the same virus.

In the trade rivalry between the US and China, each side has a roadmap to win it and win global leadership. The US is determined to prevent China from achieving economic parity with it and win the ideological war between its democratic system and China’s Communist system – and vice versa.

The common denominator between leaders of democratic nations and those of autocratic ones is that they both want to hold on to power – either through elections or through other means in the case of the latter, such as constitutional amendments that lift term limits. The difference is that public opinion determines the course of the first set of leaders, while it is mostly absent from the second.

Many leaders around the world are also seeking to influence the US elections, some even determining their own policies accordingly – either on the basis of directly manipulating voting outcomes or by influencing candidates. And Donald Trump is at the top of such considerations.

Iran is focused on fighting the outbreak that has spread across its entire territories. According to a Foreign Policy report, Iran’s Mahan airline helped spread the virus by continuing flights with China, with an eye to maintain special relations with Beijing as it continues to import Iran’s oil, with Bahram Parsaei, a member of Iran’s parliament, recently flagging the scandal. In the meantime, there have been movements inside Iran’s leading echelons suggesting there is a desire to escalate the standoff with the US and pressure the European nations, to remind them that the regime has not been weakened and remains an active player.

Tehran’s position in the time of coronavirus and what comes after depends on relations with China, for reasons related to the oil market and the confrontation with the US, and on relations with Russia primarily because of the tactical situation in Syria. The Iranian leadership sees itself on the side of these two camps, on China’s side for sure not just because of sanctions but because of the similarities with its regime. For this reason, US-Iranian tensions may not recede radically, but could soften temporarily as both sides focus on responding to the outbreak. However, the only exception to this equation would emerge if Iran or its proxies target US forces, which would prompt Mr Trump to respond as he has pledged and done repeatedly.

The bet on Chinese recovery is not misplaced. Today, China is benefiting from low oil prices and is the first nation to control the outbreak with a unique sense of pragmatism driven by China’s desire to be the first major economy to heal from the crisis.

But a bet on US recovery is also a winning bet most likely, not least because of the size of the huge liquidity bloc waiting to be invested in the post-Covid-19 phase, although the skyrocketing unemployment will sharply hit the US economy for an unknown duration at this time.

Perhaps the US and China are alone set to recover, however, along with some Arab Gulf countries that have taken sound measures, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indeed, European countries will suffer a lot and their economies will face major difficulties.

Russia, too, whose president has put it under a month-long lockdown will suffer, as its economy could stall and take further damage from collapsing oil prices and the value of the local currency. According to Russian experts, up to 8 million Russians could become unemployed by the end of June. President Putin has yet to declare a state of emergency, because the Russian Treasury is unable to bear the cost of bailing out an entire shuttered economy.

Yet Europe and Russia remain in a much better position compared to poor countries, which will be unable to absorb the shock unless wealthier nations can offer loans, grants, and aid to help them cope with the pandemic. This is where visionary leadership that is not bogged down by nationalism and geopolitics is important, and this is the litmus test of leadership in the age of coronavirus.

Raghida Dergham  

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