The world in August 2020: the dance of the Great Powers

I haven’t posted at all in August. This is mainly because my wife and I finally completed our house move to a village in East Sussex. We have been reunited with the bulk of our possessions after nearly four months of storage, and we have been unpacking figuring out what to do with them. Then came choosing and ordering all sorts of new things to fit our new house and lifestyle; getting to know the neighbours has been constrained by social distancing, but there has been some of that too. It just hasn’t felt appropriate to take time out to do some blogging. Besides I quite like to take extended periods off for reflection. I’m sill not sure what direction to take the blog. I’ve had two main ideas. One is to try to dig a bit deeper to develop some ideas in series of essays. The second is the opposite: to fire off quick opinions on the issues of the day. Of course I can do both. I’m going to try the second idea first, by reflecting on the month that has just passed.

The pandemic gets messy

The biggest issue of the day remains the Covid-19 pandemic. In the developed world the good news is that death rates have plummeted (outside the USA). But infections remain persistent, which makes loosening restrictions much harder. The exponential nature of infectious diseases means that things can quickly get out of control. Not enough people have caught it to confer herd immunity, and it looks likely that immunity isn’t conferred for long periods after illness anyway. Meanwhile the impact on jobs and normal life has been heavy, and could get worse as measures to head off the worst, such as paying people to do nothing, run out of steam. Difficult decisions pile up on governments and members of the public, and everybody, across the world, is struggling. Apart from trying to head off another wave of nasty, slow deaths, the biggest worry seems to be the effect this is all having on children’s education, closely followed by how to rebuild economies as people realise (or not) that the we can’t go back to how things were before.

The US election: is Trump catching up?

The month started with US President Donald Trump trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden for November’s presidential election. It ended with all sorts of experts from both sides saying that Mr Trump is closing the gap with his relentless focus on law and order, following riots in various US cities over police racism. The betting now has the two contenders nearly even. The hard evidence for this catching up is rather thin so far, so we await polling based on the month end, after the republican convention. Doubtless both sides have their reasons for talking up the President’s chances, but I remain sceptical. Compared to four years ago, many more people have already made up their minds. Those that have plumped for Trump will be cheering him on, and remain on fire. But Trump sceptics will have seen nothing in his transparent politicking and outright lies to persuade them to change their minds. Mr Biden seems to be holding his nerve, and appears to be well-advised. Mr Trump, on the other hand, remains his own worst enemy. Still the polls don’t have to narrow by very much for the election to become quite close, such is the built-in Republican advantage. But this is no rerun of 2016.

Belarus: spheres of influence

The big idea of the moment on the political right (taking in some on the left too) is national sovereignty and the primacy of the nation-state, with a reaction against supranational structures and treaties. Alas, just as it did in the 19th Century this soon morphs into an international system based on a small number of “Great Powers”, surrounded by minor powers, satellites and colonies who are not fully independent in any practical sense. Each Great Power demands its sphere of influence, where other Great Powers must keep their noses out. This is evident in Belarus, where there is a popular uprising against a rigged election and a dictatorial regime that has been in power for too long. But Belarus is, more clearly than any other country, within Russia’s sphere of influence. The rest of the world seems to accept this, and are keeping out of it. This is bad news for the people taking part in the uprising. President Lukashenko’s support in his security forces looks strong, and the Russian government do not want the uprising to succeed. They only want to weaken Mr Lukashenko’s regime so that they are less able to resist Russian influence, which doubtless involves making the Russian oligarchy richer. Belarus’s claim to be an independent nation is probably the weakest in Europe, after all; it only won independence from Russia by accident.

China: victim culture

Another Great Power seeking to undermine the independence of others to further its interests is China. Like Russia (which feels it was shafted when its communist regime collapsed in the 1990s) and the USA (where Trump supporters are convinced that their country has been taken advantage of by all and sundry), this assertiveness is driven by a strong sense of historical victimisation. In China’s case this is based on abuse by colonial powers in the 19th Century (it did not achieve Great Power status and was treated as fair game, by the values of the time) and then subjected to a decade of attack by Japan from the 1930s, in which it was devastated. China’s sense of victimhood has more historical validity than Russia’s or Donald Trump’s. But victim mentality is hard to turn into mature, constructive engagement and long-term success. The country is demonstrating its contempt for Western liberalism by crushing dissent in Hong Kong (where nobody questions its sphere of influence). Its subordination of all to its national interest, and its willingness to bully and bend rules, including its tolerance of cyber attacks from within its borders (or worse) have raised security fears for equipment supplied by businesses based their, and any data they might get their hands on. This is causing costly commercial disengagement with the West, not helped by Mr trump’s paranoia. It has now also deeply antagonised the other Asian giant, India. It is hard to know where all this is going. Personally I’m not as convinced as most commentators by the country’s unique combination of central party control with rampant commercialism, with the former increasingly taking priority. There are distinct financial instabilities which even China’s highly competent management may be unable to control, and the rest of the world is slowly ganging up against it.

A revitalised European Union

The EU hit a low point early in the year, as the advance of Covid-19 made it look irrelevant, and Britain’s exit diminished it. But the institution advances in times of crisis, and release from the Brexit saga seems to have invigorated it, as well as fresh leadership within the Commission. Its scheme to deliver collective relief for the Covid crisis broke new ground, especially with the issue of collective debt. The usual Anglo-Saxon sneerers (like the New Statesman columnist John Gray) predict the EU’s imminent demise, but, not for the first time, the institution lives on. The flaws of the nation-state system may not be evident to these critics, but it surely is to the EU’s member states. But it is sobering for British Europhiles like me to realise that the EU’s step forward has been made much easier by the UK’s departure. shared debt would have been a very hard sell in Britain’s political climate, even if Brexit had been headed off.

Brexit endgame

But Brexit isn’t done yet. What will happen once Britain ends its transition period from leaving the European Union on 1 January 2021? Negotiations seem deadlocked, with both sides blaming the other for intransigence. They may well both be right. Britain’s light-headed government as a strong belief in cobbling things together at the last minute, and does not want to end up as appearing to be an EU satellite. It hankers after status somewhere in between being a Great Power, where it develops spheres of influence, while not being in a minor power, where it would be in somebody else’s sphere of influence. There is no sign that this has been properly thought through, and so what it is prepared to compromise on. But the EU is behaving decidedly in the manner of Great Power which doesn’t mind denting a neighbour’s sovereignty for its own convenience. But a no-deal would be very costly to both sides, so the betting is that a way will be found of saving face.

Britain’s essay-crisis government

Britain’s Conservative government’s approach to Brexit, leaving everything difficult to the last minute and trying to bodge through, is reflected in everything it does, and the results aren’t pretty. The most egregious example in August was the collapse of its attempt to replace A-level and GCSE exam results with a moderated system of teacher assessments putting the overall results in line with previous years. Instead there has been massive grade inflation, and doubtless injustice as some teachers were more generous with their assessments than others (though, of course, this may be the case with exam marking too). The government had plenty of time to prepare, and yet walked straight into the elephant trap, relying on moderation by algorithm rather than human intervention. This partly reflects the managerial approach of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who celebrates his light touch, but abhors competence and dissent amongst his ministers. But it goes deeper. Britain’s political class has for a couple of generations become political specialists, with little experience of serious organisation and management beyond election campaigns. The civil service is little better, drawing a critical distinction between “policy” and “implementation”. Civil servants take pride in specialising in the the first, and assuming that the second can be dealt with by separate implementation specialists. In the real world policy and implementation need to be in a close feedback loop which separation makes impossible. And when the government (in both political and civil service guises) asks for help from practical people, it usually asks the wrong ones: people from big business or the major consultancies that support them. Big business succeeds by making things simple and employing economies of scale; public services are in the public sector largely because the have to deal with human complexity, for which this approach is ineffective (otherwise the private sector would already be handling them). The government’s sub-standard Covid testing and tracing regime arises from the false application of big business wisdom.

Ed Davey: the new Lib Dem leader

The British Liberal Democrats chose a new leader, Ed Davey, who comfortably beat his rival, Layla Moran. I know them both quite well. The party went for the experienced Ed, who was a coalition minister. Many of Layla’s supporters had hoped to put those coalition years, with their student tuition fees and benefits cuts, behind them. But many members had joined precisely because they thought the coalition was a worthy project. On being chosen, Ed said that the party had to “wake up and smell the coffee”. A rather tired cliché, but he is right that the party needs to broaden its appeal beyond an opposition to Brexit that tipped into taking sides in a culture war. Like the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, he seems to want to make competence centre stage, as the Conservatives seek to distract the public from their failures with cultures wars. But will the party be crushed by Labour? Or will Labour seek to operate in a sort of partnership depending on relative local strength? The answer to that depends on the party’s local strengths, and relatively little on the leadership. Meanwhile there is a lot of quotidian work to be done to make the party’s national infrastructure more effective, after years of crisis management have created dysfunction . The same can be said of Labour, but, as a smaller party the job is much easier for the Lib Dems. The party’s President, Mark Pack, and Chief Executive, Mike Dixon, recent appointments both, are up for this patient work – the signs are that Ed is too.

One thought on “The world in August 2020: the dance of the Great Powers”

  1. So far as Ed Davey is concerned, it strikes me that he – and the Lib Dems generally – can go back to building their traditional coalition between the ‘well healed with a conscience’ in the some London suburbs and cultured places like Bath, with the less affluent in the Celtic fringes; Brexit is no longer a divisive force between the two. Where there does seem a gap is in policy coherence. My main comment on this is that I would picture the good folk of Cornwall or the Orkneys as being more interested in leading a good relatively non-materialistic life of an independent nature, than in the details of difficult and ambiguous arguments about how far human rights should extend. If a London based leadership is to succeed, it does need to empathise with the far-flung spots that have up-to-now normally provided the leader.

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