America’s absence from the global scene

Those in power in US had correctly concluded that accepting rights, interests of other nations would not weaken it

Shahid Javed Burki October 18, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Some of what we are witnessing right now on the global scene need not have happened. Strong post-war leadership had crafted a rule-based system that all nations, big and small, strong and weak accepted. In this global order, America was the leader but not the ruler. It allowed countries to participate even when its own strategic interests were not directly or fully served. For instance, it allowed the United Nations Security Council to block moves Washington wished to make. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the field widely open to the United States. Even then American leadership showed restraint.

Those who held the reins of power in Washington had correctly concluded that accepting the rights and strategic interests of other nations would not weaken it; it would only make it stronger. At times collective action was the most effective way of addressing some problems that had a global reach. But this was disturbed with the coming to power in Washington of Donald J Trump as America’s 45th president. His ambition he said in his inaugural address delivered on January 20, 2017, was to “make America great again.” MAGA became the slogan that Trump’s ardent followers had inscribed on their red hats. Along with MAGA, Trump said he would pursue the “America first” approach in crafting the way he preferred to deal with the outside world. This left the world to its devices.

David Ignatius, a highly respected columnist who writes for The Washington Post and speacialises in the Middle East, recently provided a list of events most of which were occurring in the geographic space from which Trump’s Washington was largely absent. “A bloody war erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and both sides look to Russia for a solution,” he wrote in a column published on October 7 under the title: “A Distracted US only Enables our Rivals”. His list included the rise of militias, most of them funded by Iran, that were active in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Given the space the militias had created for themselves, Ignatius was surprised that the US response was to prepare to close down the embassy in Baghdad for protecting its own people from harm.

The Middle East was not the only place that left space to be occupied by other nations. China drew red lines to assert dominance over Taiwan and several islands in East Pacific. US military experts privately conceded that Chinese power in the area outmatched that of the US. In a tweet — the form of communication the American President often used to announce major policy initiatives or personnel changes — surprised his military commanders by announcing that he was planning to bring back the 4,500 American troops who remained in Afghanistan. They would be home to celebrate the 2020 Christmas with their families. If this space was vacated there was no doubt that it would be filled by extremist groups, in particular the Taliban.

These were not the only developments that cried for active American involvement. A pandemic that at the time of this writing had taken more than a million lives across the world, 215,000 in the US alone, called for an international approach. Instead Trump withdrew from the World Health Organization and spurned international cooperation on developing a vaccine. Continued Ignatius: “He promoted ‘America First’ with a vengeance.” The move against the WHO was ill-conceived and ill-timed. It reflected politics rather than science. An organisation such as the WHO was needed to monitor and determine public policy priorities as the pandemic showed no signs of abating.

An international organisation was needed not only to guide the world to adopt the most effective approaches of dealing with an exceptionally lethal virus but also of using science to develop medical initiatives that would contain its impact. There were 36 million cases around the world in the middle of October and the nature of its geographic spread was changing. In fact, focusing on the geography of the disease suggested that we were looking at two very different ailments, one urban and the other rural. India now with 6.8 million cases compared to 7.6 million in the US was expected to overtake the latter in a few weeks.

With 30,000 cases reported each day, India outpaced the US by a wide margin. At 1,000 a day, the death rate was also tickling up. Rural areas were not well-positioned to cope with the spreading disease. About two-thirds of all hospital beds were in urban areas that have one-third of the country’s population. Not only was there a marked difference in the availability of medical facilities. There was a vast difference in urban and rural cultures. Fearing government intervention that would hurt them economically, rural Indians were hiding their sick and not revealing the number of people they have lost to the disease. Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist of Indian origin at the University of Michigan, attributed the spread of the virus in India to “habituation, desensitisation, fatigue and denial.” Families in what was once her country “are living in fear, grief, sadness, depression, anxiety and food insecurity, delaying their care from other health conditions.”

In writing Rage, his second book in three years on the Trump presidency, Bob Woodard talked to Trump 17 times and recorded the conversations with the President. The book revealed that the President was fully aware of the intensity of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it was likely to take a heavy toll on the US. But the message that went out from the White House was very different: that the pandemic was not a big deal. The Woodward book appeared a few days before President Trump landed in a military hospital in Washington having picked up the coronavirus.

The Covid-19 pandemic was not the only crisis the world faced that required international action. The other was the availability of adequate amounts of food needed in several troubled world spots. That food-shortages would not result in famines was the primary function of the World Food Program, the WFP, whose financial situation was under stress as a result of the Trump administration’s decision not to fund it to the needed extent. It was ironical that the WFP was created at the suggestion of US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1961. On October 9, 2020, the organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the year. This prize had been coveted by President Trump. He thought he deserved it because of the work he had done in the Middle East that had resulted in peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

“The world is in danger of experiencing a hunger crisis of inconceivable proportions if the WFP and other food assistance organisations do not receive the financial support they have requested,” the Nobel committee said in selecting the WFP for the reward. “The women and men of the WFP. brave danger and distance to deliver lifesaving sustenance to those devastated by conflict, suffering because of disaster, to children and families uncertain about their next meal,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General after learning of the award. The US presidential election might bring Joe Biden to the White House. In that case, the US would return to the world.


Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2020.

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