The orders to tamp down any discussion of coronavirus in Japan in order to maximize the chance of the 2020 Summer Olympics being derailed undoubtedly came from the top, making Prime Minister Shinzo Abe directly culpable in a spreading epidemic in the world’s oldest national demographic. Needless to say, few are looking to Tokyo for a how-to guide.
Canada’s Justin Trudeau has the look of a man who has been completely overtaken by events…because he has been. That’s less a judgment of his leadership or his team’s management skills, and more the crystallizing realization in Canada that there is no future for Canada unless it does everything of substance hand-in-glove with the United States. That includes trade policy and energy policy and China policy and…anti-COVID efforts. Trudeau has been (repeatedly) blindsided by whatever fresh spasms of oddity have erupted from the White House, and he simply has no option but to make the best of it. Pragmatic? Yes. Necessary? Certainly. But the liberal flame has most certainly gutted out.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin proudly proclaimed Russia had COVID “under control” just ten days before the Moscow mayor launched a lock down. There’s been broad spectrum public criticism by health care workers of the Russian government’s (mis)management of the epidemic, that has progressed to several doctors committing suicide by jumping out of buildings (a favorite technique of the Russian security services for disposing of troublesome personalities). This would be bad enough at any time, but Russia’s educational system collapse in the 1990s means Russia doesn’t have a particularly deep bench of health care staffers. COVID combined with the government’s response to the bad PR coming out of the health care sector is gutting what’s left of an already woefully inadequate health care infrastructure. Needless to say, while many countries want to manage the message, no one else is liquidating their precious health care workers to do so. (And incidentally, the Russian bot farms are hard at work spreading bat-shit crazy COVID-related conspiracy theories so please quit getting your COVID news from Facebook.)
Not to be left out, most of the world’s secondary powers have slightly wacky nationalist leaders who are proving…wackier with every passing day.
India’s Modi is working diligently to disenfranchise a large portion of his own population, and seems genuinely surprised when there is (violent) push back.
Turkey’s Erdogan is gayly skipping his way down a neofascist path, setting the stage for (another) harsh, ethnic-based, wipe-out of a conflict with the Arabs to the south, the Europeans to the northwest, and the Russians to the northeast.
Brazil’s Bolsonaro seems committed to ensuring the epidemic hits his country as hard as possible, in part by personally leading press-the-flesh rallies against COVID-containment and mitigation efforts.
Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is nearly as obtuse on the topic of the virus as Bolsonaro. Moreover, he has decided against providing much of any support to Mexican firms during the crisis, ensuring that Mexico’s recession will be longer and more difficult than it needed to be.
The number of leaders who have risen to the occasion is vanishingly small. Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen have done a phenomenal job of managing the COVID epidemic, but much of the credit must go to those countries’ intelligence and diplomatic corps who are arguably the most attuned to regional disruptions. After all, for them threat detection/assessment is a matter of day-to-day survival, and their hawklike watching of China is what provided their countries’ health services with the advance warning the situation necessitated.
Honestly, the only leader who has truly outperformed is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. But while Ms Ardern continues to impress, her country’s geographic isolation grants the Kiwis virus containment/limitation options denied the rest of humanity. There are a few lessons there for others, but only a few. Yet even with these three bright spots, no one outside of their respective countries is looking to Moon or Tsai or Ardern for leadership.
That holds true pretty much everywhere. With the possible exception of Angela Merkel, not many people have looked to any of these leaders to be authorities on regional issues, much less global ones…ever. Part and parcel of true global leadership is that there can really only be one. Since the Americans for the past 70 years have provided the security architecture and economic capacity for a global system to exist, it has fallen to the man in the White House to design the response, set the course, provide the resources and, to be blunt, lead. That’s triply true in the case of the meaningful international institutions which provide the sinew of global cooperation.