Dr. Rajkumar Singh 17 June 2020
Democracies are thought to have advantages of a free press and electoral accountability to improve performance in response to crises, but not all democratic systems are equally effective. Federalism in the United States creates a much more fragmented system for responding to and institutional features of U.S. democracy diminished its infrastructural capacity to implement coherent policy: “Meaningful federalism and decentralization decrease central state capacity, which is one reason why the United States ranks relatively low on this metric. The lack of internal coordination within the United States and the competition between U.S. states and with the federal government for health equipment and supplies has led observers to liken the current moment to a return to the Articles of Confederation and the early days of the Republic. While other democracies such as South Korea and New Zealand have performed much better than the United States. In the context regime type may not be the most important domestic attribute differentiating good performing states from others: “The thread uniting the countries that did well was that, whether democratic or not, they were strong, technocratically capable states, largely unhampered by partisan divisions.”
Different form of government, no matter
In fact, the thread on the coronavirus, in international relations has much to say about the challenges of fostering cooperation between democracies and autocracies. It is related on the democratic peace, which along with other research speaks to the ability of democratic partners to cooperate, given their perceived ability to make credible commitments. Checks and balances in democratic systems make promises more difficult to make but also more challenging to undo. Some, though not all, authoritarian governments by contrast are thought to be more volatile and less credible partners because leaders are relatively unconstrained to make and break commitments. Democratic decline in the United States has created simultaneous authoritarian vulnerability, meaning the Trump administration was not receptive to hearing and acting upon news and warnings, though there were many of them, including from intelligence agencies, the National Security Council staff and economic adviser. Coupled with federalism, the U.S. response has been underwhelming.
However, given the nature of the issue, the United States and China must collaborate, both to respond to the public health crisis and its economic consequences. This is something grasped by many elite actors in both countries. In early April, some 100 former U.S. government officials and scholars signed a letter imploring the two countries to work together. Some 100 Chinese scholars issued a parallel letter. While differences in regime type may not explain the absence of cooperation, there are other domestic political drivers in both countries that may impede cooperation. In China’s case, the coronavirus outbreak represents the single most important legitimation challenge to Xi Jinping since he became president in November 2012. The country has relied on high annual growth rates of 8%, but the country’s economy contracted by 6.8% in the first quarter of this year. Appeals to Chinese nationalism in the wake of COVID-19 might help shore up domestic Chinese opinion. This temptation has been on display in unhelpful statements from Chinese officials that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to China,
Covid-19 and US presidential election
For its part, the Trump administration faces a political problem with the upcoming 2020 elections and has an incentive to deflect blame from its own response. By blaming China for the magnitude of the outbreak, the Trump administration can try to channel domestic discontent towards a foreign adversary, particularly from the administration’s core supporters. Thus, both the health impacts and economic disruption can be pinned on China rather than the administration. This blame-shifting manifested in unsuccessful U.S. efforts at both the G7 meeting and the United Nations Security Council to insist that other countries attach Wuhan or Chinese to the name of the virus. In both cases, such actions undermined the ability of the G7 and the Security Council to agree to a joint statement and other active measures to respond to the crisis. The Trump administration’s decision to withhold support for the WHO is tied to its perception that the organization and its leadership cozied up to China in the lead up to the outbreak and thus failed the world. The role of the individual is easier to observe in the United States where democratic decline has accentuated the problems of its presidential system and made the country increasingly like a personalized dictatorship, subject to the whims of its leader. This has made first image explanations in political science theories, which that focus on the role of individuals, more relevant than ever before. Trump’s personal inclinations have had an outsized impact not only on the U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak, but also the country’s willingness to engage in international leadership.
Analysis of Trump’s worldview
Trump has a well-developed and long-held worldview that is, as demonstrated, based primarily on the president’s hostility to international trade and alliances and his view that foreign countries are ripping off the United States. He thinks the U.S. has been getting the sucker’s payoff from international cooperation for a long time. He evokes a neo-mercantilist, zero-sum view of the world. It has also been noted that the importance attached to relative gains may vary over time and here we see it vary by individual. Trump lies on the extreme edge of that valuation, elevating both the distribution of gains to the United States as well as short-term considerations. Under Trump, the U.S. has departed from its international leadership position in previous crises like HIV/AIDS and Ebola because of the president’s own America first worldview, which has led to lacunae about the ability of the country to resolve this problem on its own and the need for international cooperation.
While Congress may ultimately be able to use its appropriation and investigation powers to restore WHO funding, the experience to date of Congressional oversight of this president has not been promising. As we saw, after President Trump unilaterally held up Congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine, he was impeached by the House of Representatives but not convicted by the U.S. Senate and thus avoided being removed from office. It is hard to imagine any process holding him to account so close to the November 2020 election.
On some level, the intersection of two leading countries with personalistic authoritarian regimes elevates the importance of the individual to a structural property. To the extent that Trump and Xi get along or see mutual benefit to cooperating, they may cooperate, but as soon as their individual fortunes are better served by appealing to nationalist audiences, they are not constrained from pivoting to hostility to the other party. While that agency has consequences, it nonetheless makes agreements on trade, global health, or anything extremely unstable.