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“Viral” elections: Will coronavirus impact the outcome of US presidential race?

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With the coronavirus COVID-19 spreading rapidly worldwide and the first deaths reported in the United States, the issue of its impact on US stock markets is going viral and more and more people now realize that the new disease could have a serious impact on the outcome of the November presidential elections as well.

Any global pandemic poses three main threats to any country, namely medical, economic and, as a result, political, and the US is certainly not an exception. Is America’s healthcare system ready for such a potential pandemic?

In a WHO analysis of national health care systems, the United States ranks 37th out of 191 countries. Back in mid-February, optimists were confident that the US was better prepared for a possible epidemic than most countries in the world. The high death toll from a spate of natural disasters, starting with Hurricane Katrina, has forced the government to respond with a series of measures to get the national health system ready for “worst-case scenarios,” including the annual allocation of $1 billion to states and individual hospitals as part of emergency response measures.

Still, according to a Politico.com report that came on February 26, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), responsible, among other things, for combating infectious diseases, was not yet ready to detect whether the coronavirus was spreading across the country because of problems with a test developed by the CDC, potentially slowing the response if the virus starts taking hold, probably because the test lab itself could have been infected. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until very late in February that the White House finally began to realize the magnitude of the problem, if not medical, then, certainly, political.

President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Vice President Mike Pence to lead a task force to combat the spread of the coronavirus rattled many domestic commentators who were quick torecall Pence’s failures in fighting the HIV outbreak in Indiana during his stint as governor there. In addition, during a February 28 meeting with voters, President Trump dismissed reports about the extent of the spread of coronavirus in the United States as a “hoax” being spread around by the Democrats, comparing it to allegations of his alleged ties to Russia and the impeachment process. It wasn’t until March 2 that Trump finally announced travel restrictions to countries affected by the coronavirus, and announced new screening procedures for people traveling from “high-risk countries.” The list of countries to which flights are canceled is also growing.

On March 2, The Washington Post warned that within the next few weeks the virus could spread across Washington State, which has already become one of the hotspots of undetected spread of the COVID-19 infection. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II is being blamed for the agency’s slow response to the infection. Moreover, accusations of “incompetence,” “blatant slowness” and unwillingness to listen to critically acclaimed medical experts are now coming from members of the Trump camp itself, who actually stood behind Mr. Azar’s appointment to the head of the HHS. All this is adding to the general atmosphere of bureaucratic confusion. As of early-March 2020, the CDC had only one laboratory capable of providing a set of COVID-19 identification tests, and the provision of commercial test kits is being delayed due to sharp disagreements between officials and private pharmaceutical companies.

On March 3, experts said that the US authorities had “lost six weeks” of preparation time since the discovery of the first patient. This made it impossible to put the whole situation under control early on and, as a result, the risk of a mass spread of the disease among Americans increased exponentially. On March 1, Chris Meekins, a former HHS emergency-preparedness official, said the risk of significant US outbreaks had risen from 33 percent to 75 percent in the previous week alone.  Federal health officials have also changed their rhetoric from “containment” of the virus, to measures designed to prevent the worst consequences for the United States. Meanwhile, by March 4, less than ten US states had launched mass-scale COVID-19 test programs, and a mere 12 out of 100 HHS laboratories had  necessary equipment in place to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Meanwhile, lobbyists representing the interests of the US pharmaceutical industry are locking horns in Congress for billions of dollars that the federal government plans to unload to stave off a possible epidemic. The sticking point here is who and how will pay for patients who do not require immediate hospitalization, but are to be quarantined. As a result, a bill on the allocation of $8.3 billion for priority epidemic-prevention measures took almost until mid-March to be finally approved.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that much of the drugs imported by the US come from China. According to the Breitbart portal, we are talking about 97 percent of all antibiotics and 80 percent of the active substances and substances used in the production of medicines. Many basic medicines, as well as protective equipment for the medical personnel also come from abroad. Finally, US pharmaceutical firms no longer produce generic drugs. The past few weeks have seen a notable drop in supply volumes due to the coronavirus epidemic in China. The quality control of drugs and their precursors is a separate issue. The US authorities have thus found themselves hostages to their own policy of encouraging cost-reduction by pharmaceutical companies through shifting production to third countries.

The economic losses the US may incur as a result of a possible COVID-19 epidemic remain hard to estimate. Until very recently, healthy economy was a major factor Donald Trump could count on in his bid for a second term in the White House. And with good reason too as the poorest categories of US workers have seen a notable rise in their incomes, and salaries in the private sector continued to grow in February of this year.

Meanwhile, by the close of 2019, many signs were already visible warning about a possible economic decline in the second half of 2020. Even the initial reports about an incidence of COVID-19 infections in the US sent stock indices tumbling down. On February 24, the Dow Jones Industrial Average slid by over 1,000 points and the S&P 500 index tumbled eight percent on February 26. The White House ramped up pressure on the Federal Reserve System to bring down the interest rates. On March 3, two weeks before the official date of the meeting of its Board of Governors, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by half a percentage point in the first emergency rate move since the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. Bloomberg suggested that the coronavirus could “play into Trump’s hands” on the assumption that the rate cut would bring in new investments and spur the US economy. The next day, however, Wall Street stocks plummeted again.

From a macroeconomic standpoint, the US external debt has kept going up throughout Trump’s presidency, along with the budget deficit. Thus, even before coronavirus, even a GDP growth of almost 2.1 percent could not be enough to reverse the negative trend. And now, the outbreak of the epidemic could be the “spark” that would send America’s “fragile economic balance” up in flames. The US could probably draw some consolation from projections similar to those World Bank experts made in 2006. According to those estimates, based on the 2003 SARS pandemic, in the event of a new global outbreak of the deadly flu, the first-year drop in the US GDP would be the least insignificant around, ranging from just one to three percent. With all that being said, just where things could go from now remains anyone’s guess.

One thing is clear: the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic on the US economy will be long-term and it will take us a few months to get a whole picture of the scale of government measures being taken to offset the negative consequences of the coronavirus. Just in time for the decisive phase of the election race. A number of studies conducted in recent decades by the US academic community show that the state of the national economy, above all its year-to-year dynamics, significantly affects the political preferences of US voters. Even a moderate recession, let alone a full-blown one, that is enough to slow down the economy three to six months before the Election Day.

Not surprisingly, right after the first cases of COVID-19 in the US became evident the issue became a centerpiece of the election campaign. With a deep split running through the US political establishment and society as a whole, playing up the issue of the coronavirus infection could prove an easy way to win votes in the election race. US media is already talking about some anonymous sources spreading information about the coronavirus in social networks to freak out elderly voters to make sure they stay away from the Democratic Party primaries and to reduce the overall voter turnout in the November presidential elections.

Donald Trump’s critics may interpret the urgent rate cut by the Federal Reserve, led by a Trump appointee, as an attempt to increase the president’s chances for reelection. On the other hand, if the dollar sinks too low as a result of the Fed’s actions, it would eat into the US families’ income in the run-up to the November vote. Finally, lower interest rates can reflect badly on the labor market. A sharp slowdown in the employment rate a few months before Election Day 2016 left some voters wondering about a worsening situation in the labor market. As a result, many people did not vote for the candidate of the Democratic Party, whose representative was then in the White House.

Overall, the COVID-19 outbreak offers politicians potential gains while at the same time presenting them with serious risks. On the one hand, it gives one a perfect chance to present oneself as “a protector of the health of citizens.” On the other, panic among the population can negatively impact the approval ratings of the current administration, of state governors, and even of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, all the more so if the measures being taken are seen by people as ineffective.

Washington’s inability to check the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic may sap the Americans’ confidence in the federal government. As a result, the infection could turn from an important factor in the election campaign into a national security problem. The Trump administration’s current anti-coronavirus policy may factor in very significantly in Donald Trump’s chances for re-election. Indeed, if the situation with the coronavirus epidemic gets worse, COVID-19 might determine the outcome of the November vote.

From our partner International Affairs

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Biden: No More “Favourite Dictators”

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

 Former US President Donald Trump shared a strong personal rapport with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Trump made no bones about the fact, that he got along well with authoritarian leaders – especially in the Middle East. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump while looking for Egyptian President had even said, “Where’s my favourite dictator?”

Statements made by Biden before taking over as US President

On the other hand, Joe Biden before taking over as US President had repeatedly criticized Erdogan, MBS and Sisi for their poor human rights record, and had unequivocally stated that none of them would have a free pass in a Biden Presidency.  Biden had on numerous occasions flagged the dismal Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia, especially MBS’ involvement in the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and lashed out at Trump for soft pedaling on the issue because of his personal rapport with MBS. Similarly, in August 2020, Biden had dubbed Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’ and also expressed the view that the US needed to lend support to opposition parties in Turkey. Biden had also issued a warning to Sisi, saying that there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’.”

How President Biden has approached relations with the three leaders

During the Biden Administration, ties with Saudi Arabia have witnessed a change. A report which clearly points to MBS’ role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was released (Trump had refused to release this report). The US has withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and defence agreements signed between the US and Saudi Arabia, during the Trump Administration have been put on hold. Yet, Biden while sanctioning Saudi officials in connection with the Khashoggi case, in addition to those sanctioned by the Trump administration, refused to impose sanctions on MBS owing to the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East (Saudi support is essential for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA) and the strong US-Saudi relationship. It would be pertinent to point out, that Biden’s decision not to impose sanctions on MBS has drawn strong criticism from many including members of his own party.

If one were to look at the case of Turkey in recent months, the Turkish President has himself toned down his Anti-West rhetoric and described his meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the recent NATO Summit as fruitful. While commenting on the meeting with Biden, Erdogan stated that ‘ We believe there is no problem that cannot be resolved in Turkey-US relations,’

The US President also said, that the meeting with Erdogan was positive and expressed hope that the bilateral relationship would improve in days to come.

While the meeting between Biden and Erdogan was positive, differences between both sides still persist over Turkey’s purchase of S400 missiles (the Trump administration had imposed sanctions in its final days and Turkey had also been removed from its F-35 fighter jet program)

Turkey’s strategic relevance

Turkey has stated that it is willing to play a role in security in Afghanistan, and guard Kabul airport, after the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Turkish President did say that Turkey would require diplomatic, logistic and financial support that the United States. The Biden administration’s outreach to Turkey indicates that in spite of differences over key issues, Istanbul’s potentially important role post the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is something, the US will not ignore. Erdogan on his part needs to have a reasonable relationship with US, given the fact that the Turkish economy has slowed down significantly.

If one were to look at the case of Egypt, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi role in the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, was acknowledged by the Biden Administration. While the US President during a telephonic conversation hailed Sisi for his ‘successful diplomacy’ in the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

‘We have had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly. And now, we are working closely together to build something positive’

It would be pertinent to point out, that during his telephonic conversation with Sisi, in May 2021, Biden did flag the need for a ‘constructive dialogue’ on human rights in Egypt

Conclusion

While it is easy to criticise Joe Biden, he has the onerous responsibility of striking a  balance between values, which he has repeatedly referred to even after taking over as President, with US interests. Given the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, Biden while refraining from taking steps, which may be counterproductive has flagged his concerns with regard to Human Rights, and sent out a strong message that bilateral relations will be dictated by substance and not mere personal chemistry or optics. At the end of the day it is important not to forget Miles’s law — ‘where you stand depends upon where you sit’.

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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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