Russia now has the third highest number of COVID-19 infections after the U.S. and Spain, with Putin reportedly seeing a drop in his usually high approval ratings. (Though the country seems to be faring relatively well otherwise.)
It is interesting how virtually all the major world powers have been brought low by this pandemic. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Greece (among others) have seen their geopolitical stars rise, to varying degrees, from their effective responses.
The first three have become especially more influential, with leaders across the world turning to them for guidance and assistance. Taiwan, which is officially shunned by all but fifteen countries, now has more friends in the world fighting for its inclusion in the international system. Germany’s economic and political policies are seen as the gold standard by rich and poor countries alike.
Obviously, different countries were hit in different ways, and larger nations like the U.S., China, and Russia would ostensibly have a harder time containing an outbreak. But that doesn’t matter: These nations—especially the U.S.—claim to have the superior political model with which to lead the world; they also generally have more resources than smaller countries. Thus, they have raised the standard by which they are judged.
Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been much talk about whether we are entering a “multipolar” world, one in which no country really dominates. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. and China not being the most influential nations, but it’s likely their influence will continue to fall in -relative- terms: Not a decline so much as the rise of everyone else.
With these comparatively small funds, the W.H.O. must carry out its official mission of ensuring “the highest possible level of health” for “all peoples.” That includes eradicating diseases (such as smallpox and soon polio), facilitating research and cooperation (which recently gave us the first Ebola vaccine), promoting nutrition, setting universal healthcare and medical standards, and responding to emergencies like pandemics.
With this small budget, backed by its pleading for further funds, the W.H.O. has shipped more than two million items of personal protective equipment to 133 countries, and is preparing to ship another two million items in the coming weeks. Just a couple days ago, it delivered one million face masks, along with gloves, goggles, ventilators and other essential goods to Africa. More than a million diagnostic tests have been dispatched to 126 countries worldwide and more are being sourced as we speak.
As early as February, the organization brought together 400 of the world’s leading researchers (including from rivals the U.S. and China) to identify research priorities. It launched an international “Solidarity Trial” involving 90 countries, to help find effective treatment, and is currently running a “mega-trial” of the four most promising COVID-19 treatments and vaccines from around the world.
Through its innovative online “OpenWHO” platform, the W.H.O. pools together the world’s knowledge and best practices and delivers it to frontline personnel rapidly through an app. Users take part in social learning network, based on interactive, online courses and materials covering a variety of subjects. OpenWHO also provides a forum for the rapid sharing of expertise, in-depth discussion and feedback on key issues. So far, more than 1.2 million people have enrolled in 43 languages.
Again, all this for the cost of running a big hospital. While the U.S. does contribute one-fifth of the agency’s budget, this amounts to $893 million—a drop in the budget of our annual budget, which includes over $700 billion for the military alone. Talk about bang for our buck.
Moreover, we had pledged $656 million for specific programs, including polio eradication, health and nutrition services, vaccine-preventable diseases, tuberculosis, HIV—and preventing and controlling outbreak. And we’re still trying to do more damage to them.
Lawfare does a great job of breaking down how absurd our expectations of the W.H.O. are. While it concedes that the W.H.O. dropped the ball with China (something I also admit), it also reminds us of the far bigger and more complex picture regarding its relations with member countries (and the inherently political nature of health problems to begin with).
The work of the WHO is inherently technical; it does not need to make the sort of charged political decisions demanded of the U.N. Security Council, where the vital interests of different countries repeatedly conflict. Nor is it required to take a stance on the sensitive ideological values of different countries, as human rights organizations must. And because the WHO’s mission is narrowly defined in relatively objective terms, its performance can be evaluated with relative ease—for example, by using straightforward public health metrics. This ought to give WHO officials incentives to act appropriately and reduce the risk that countries are unable to discipline it if it fails to. The WHO’s leadership in the eradication of smallpox and in advances against polio seemed to validate this theory.
It is tempting to blame the WHO itself for its problems—its notoriously complex bureaucracy, its decentralized structure, its “culture” or the persons who run it. But all of those things are a result of the political constraints it operates under, as many reform-minded critics have observed. Big bureaucracies are established to guard against errors. In this context, this means staying away from actions that will offend member states whose support (financial or otherwise) is necessary for WHO’s operations. The sorts of bureaucratic reform that WHO insiders and sympathetic critics have called for over many decades would not protect the WHO from leaders like Trump.
It turns out that even the expert-led technical interventions of the WHO are politically charged. And this is not just because some countries want to hide disease outbreaks from the world. Countries also disagree about the problems that the WHO should focus on in the first place. The setting of priorities and allocation of resources among different public-health challenges are policy choices, not technical choices. The WHO is not an anti-pandemic organization or an infectious-disease organization: It is a health organization, and health policy is intensely contested around the world.
Many of the familiar cleavages in international politics had begun to pull apart the WHO long before the coronavirus pandemic. People disagreed about which health threats should be given priority, and the WHO found itself torn between governments, interest groups, activists and donors who wanted the organization to give priority to different things—HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, tobacco use, obesity, even climate change. And then there is intense disagreement about whether the WHO should give priority to developing countries and, if so, how much. The WHO has set itself the goal of correcting global health care inequality, which begins to seem like a redistributive program from north to south—the sort of thing applauded by academics and commentators but politically explosive, to say the least.
As I have previously argued, the W.H.O. doesn’t have the resources or power to stand up to any country, especially since virtually every country plays a role in its funding, governance, and the election of its director-general. If even most of the world is deferential to China—only fourteen nations officially recognize Taiwan instead—how can we expect an organization responsible for so much, with a small budget, few personnel, and no sovereign power, to somehow be any different.
China deserves criticism for its initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, its continued air of secrecy that makes it difficult to verify its alleged success, and its blocking of Taiwan—a major pandemic success story—from the W.H.O. and other international institutions.
But I feel a lot of American criticism is of the “glass houses” variety. Our response to the virus, both initially and still now, has hardly been stellar. The behavior of governments at all levels, as well as by private citizens and businesses, makes it difficult to claim any moral high ground over the Chinese response (and no, this isn’t to say we’re the same in terms of totalitarianism, etc.).
Insurance companies will reportedly be raising their premiums next year. Many of those treated are left with bills in the tens of thousands. Profit-centered hospitals are actually laying off well needed staff because treating COVID-19 is too costly. A man in Brooklyn was raided for hoarding precious medical equipment, while a Georgia man was fraudulently going to sell $750 million in nonexistent masks to the Veterans Affairs Department. Doctors have been censored and even fired by hospitals for speaking out against the lack of protective equipment, which of course shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Masks are being sold at marked up prices. Many of our “essential workers” are still dying and underpaid; millions are illegal immigrants (ironically the Dept. of Homeland Security reminds them of their essential status while targeting them for their illegal one).
Our economy of nearly $20 trillion, home to most of the world’s billionaires, top innovators, and tech companies, somehow cannot allocate its resources to test and treat people and ensure they don’t starve during the lockdown. Our rapacious and hyper-individualistic attitude to money and self interest is somehow intact, if not thriving, in the face of senseless death and suffering ( notwithstanding the many touching and inspiring stories I’ve acknowledged and shared here about the better side of our society.
Yeah, the Chinese government (among others) has several times dropped the ball on this virus. It’s used it as an excuse to tighten its grip and even to bully Taiwan. The cultural practice of the wet market is problematic on a lot of levels. There are probably many more sordid stories we don’t know about.
But given how our far wealthier and better resourced country has mishandled this—across both the public and private sectors, and as a society—I’m not sure we would have done much better with an outbreak of an unknown disease.
I wish the folks putting all their energy and focus on China would hold businesses, healthcare companies, and government officials accountable—or, at the very least, direct some scrutiny and ire their way—and engage in some introspection about our own problematic practices and values (lack of community engagement and concern, hyper-individualism at the expense of others, employer-sponsored healthcare that leaves us at the mercy of unaccountable and disengaged bosses, etc.)
Withholding funding (even temporarily) from the World Health Organization—in the midst of a pandemic and while it has been providing supplies and training to vulnerable nations, including our own—is foolhardy and utterly without merit.
The W.H.O. is accused of having been too deferential to China at the start of the outbreak. But around the same time, on January 24, the president praised the Chinese response on Twitter, stating that “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
When confronted about this tweet yesterday, Trump stated he “would love to have a good relationship with China”—which is ironically why the W.H.O. handled China the way it did.
The organization is run by 194 countries (including the U.S. and China), which also elect its Director-General. In order to facilitate global cooperation and knowledge sharing, it has to strike a delicate balance between providing science-based health information and making sure countries aren’t antagonized or allowed to squabble with each other; otherwise the world might lose out on key information and research.
In fact, the U.S. received vital early epidemiological data from China only because the WHO used its good relations to broker access. That’s the same reason the otherwise secretive Chinese eventually opened up and even published the first genetic profile of the virus for the world to use.
Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this with gratitude. In late February, he tweeted “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart…”
Furthermore, against initial resistance, the W.H.O. managed to pressure China to allow observers into the country; in early February, an international team led by the agency visited Wuhan, including two Americans, (one from the C.D.C. and the other from the N.I.H.).
Of course, it’s totally fair to debate whether the W.H.O. struck the right balance with China. It could have said more about China’s suppression of independent scientists, lack of transparency and human rights violations. It certainly could have been more open to Taiwan and the crucial information it provided. But again, it’s a hard balance to strike given the need to keep China on board (and recall that most of the world, including the U.S., also avoid official relations with Taiwan out of deference to China, too).
From the beginning, the W.H.O. issued urgent advisories throughout January about the potential dangers from the virus and announced that it constituted a “public health emergency of international concern” a day before the U.S. made a similar declaration. The W.H.O. repeatedly said “all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread.”
From January 22, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held almost daily news briefings to warn the world that the virus was spreading and that countries should do everything they could to stop it. Every day he repeated: “We have a window of opportunity to stop this virus. But that window is rapidly closing.”
The W.H.O. has also been criticized for its decision in January not to impose restrictions on travel from China, which the organization warned would be ineffective— and they were right. We imposed travel bans in February on all foreign nationals who had visited China, but as we know, this did not stop the virus from spreading; we now have more reported cases than anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, countries that did not enact a ban, such as Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan, have fared better those that did.
Finally, the W.H.O. has been taken to task for not declaring a global emergency sooner. But when it made this declaration on January 30, there were still relatively few reported cases outside China. World leaders still had the info and updates to act, and some countries responded immediately; South Korea implemented an effective blend of policies that has made it one of the top success stories. The W.H.O. cannot be blamed for our slow response.
There is no denying that the World Health Organization is a flawed institution. But that’s to be expected of an organization made up of 194 countries, each bringing their own baggage, rivalries, and self interest. For all its problems and missteps, on balance it has done a good job in the face of a very complex and difficult pandemic—one that even the world’s richest country has had a hard time handling.
Perhaps the biggest irony in our abandoning the institution (albeit allegedly temporarily) is that it will give ample opportunity for China to fill the void, as it has been doing throughout the last few years. We bail out of global leadership time and again and then wring our hands at the Chinese for doing the obvious geopolitical thing of stepping in.
With the world responding to the pandemic in a variety of ways—and many countries learning from each other or from the U.N. World Health Organisation (itself made up of experts all over the world)—I am reminded of the largely forgotten words of James Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution.
This darling of patriots and conservatives—the Federalist Society uses his silhouette as its logo—once said that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively.”
In the Federalist Papers, which were published to promote ratification of the Constitution, he emphasized the importance of respecting global public opinion:
An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: the one is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed. What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiased part of mankind?
This was at a time when the U.S. was virtually the only republic in the world. Even the most patriotic and liberty-loving Founders recognized that whatever the political or cultural differences between the nations of the world, mere pragmatism should permit us to take whatever ideas or resources we can.
Consider that unlike other nations, we declined to use the W.H.O.’s test kits. Back in January, over a month before the first COVID-19 case, the Chinese published information on this new mysterious virus. Within a week, German scientists had produced the first diagnostic test. By the end of February, the U.N. shipped out tests to 60 countries.
As I’ve said ad naseum, global cooperation is not merely idealistic or Utopian: It’s the sober reality of living in a globalized society where we face problems that affect all humans, regardless of where they happen to be born. Even in the 18th century, our political founders and leaders understood this. We ignore it at our peril.
On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.
The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.
As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.
In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.
Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)
This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.
For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.
Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.
On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.
Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.
Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.
Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.
This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.
In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.
With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.
Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)
In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:
“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.
Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”
Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.
A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.
Today is the anniversary of a largely forgotten episode that reminds us how the U.S. has always struggled with messy politics and ambiguous or flawed electoral rules.
It was on this day in 1825 that the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be president, after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes in the previous year’s presidential election.
There had been four candidates on the ballot: Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were admitted as candidates, eliminating Henry Clay.
Many were surprised that Adams was elected over Jackson, who still had the most electoral votes. The representatives of all the states that had gone for Clay in the Electoral College supported Adams.
Clay was the Speaker of the House and arguably the most powerful person in Congress. It was widely believed he used his influenced to convince Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State (then and now considered the most prestigious and influential office after the presidency itself). Jackson’s supporters denounced this as a “corrupt bargain” and launched a four-year campaign of revenge, claiming that the people had been cheated of their choice.
In a now familiar refrain, these “Jacksonians” attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by elitism and corruption.
More to the point, as the son of the second president, John Adams, the election of John Quincy to only the sixth presidential office began a discussion about political dynasties that recently came up with the Bush and Clinton candidacies.
Researchers at Pew asked populations in different countries about which countries they saw as their biggest allies and threats.
Nearly a quarter of Americans saw Russia as the country’s greatest international threat, which put it on par with China.
One in ten Canadians named Russia as their greatest threat — but one in five said the same about the U.S.
The number of people who see Russia as the greatest threat has decreased as Putin has helped the country achieve more visibility on the international scene. Across 25 nations, 42 percent of people believed that Russia had become more influential globally; more than half of Americans concur.
Of course, this didn’t mean more people seeing Russia more positively: With the exception of India and Turkey — at 15 percent and nine percent, respectively — no more than four percent in any country named Russia as their most dependable ally.
As for China, the majority of people in most countries agree that its influence on the world stage has grown considerably, in particular seeing China as the world’s biggest economic powers alongside the U.S.
But only a median of six percent considered China their most reliable ally, compared with 27 percent who named the US.
Moreover, China is considered a threat by many neighbors: 62 percent of Filipinos, half of Japanese, 40 percent of Australians, 32 percent of South Koreans and 21 percent of Indonesians. Among the last two, the perception of China has worsened, though among the Japanese, it has gotten better.
In Canada, 32 percent of people saw China as a threat, the biggest figure for any state there.
Finally, as for the U.S., things are rosier than one would think. Many countries saw the U.S. as their biggest ally, including China’s neighbors (South Korea at 71 percent, the Philippines at 64 percent and Japan at 63 percent). Unsurprisingly, Israelis are the most enthusiastic in this regard, at 82 percent.
The caveat: Though large numbers of Canadians, Australians, and South Korean saw the U.S. as an ally, many also saw it as a big threat, making the country’s place in the world more polarizing.
On this day in 1777, after offering to serve the United States without pay, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution allowing French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette to join American revolutionary forces as a major general.
Barely two years before, when he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause of liberty—hence his willingness to fight for the Patriots for free, and to even purchase his own ship to cross the Atlantic.
While Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers,
Lafayette was by far among the most promising. He learned English within a year
of his arrival, had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bounded well with George
Washington, to whom he was a close advisor.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British
force, he was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly
retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command
of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (some of which bear his name) before
sailing back home in 1779 to lobby more French support.
Lafayette returned a year later to a hero’s welcome in
Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and
supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army, and was so popular among Americans that
Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive
Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command in Virginia blocked forces
led by Cornwallis until other American and French forces could position
themselves to strike. This victory—which involved almost as many French as
Americans—is credited with ending the war.
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of
liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French
Revolution, with Jefferson’s help contributing to the drafting of the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest
republican and civil rights documents in history. He was opposed to slavery,
the murderous excesses of the revolution, and the subsequent autocracy of
Napoleon. He was invited by James Madison to visit all 24 states of the
Union—to which he still received popular praise and love—and he turned down
calls to be the head of France.
Because he was foreign. did not live in the U.S., and fought
across all regions out of ideology rather than money, Lafayette was seen as a
unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented colonies. His legacy in
both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds.”