World Leadership Beyond Covid-19

The 9/11 terror attacks led to killing of over 3000 Americans in New York. The US reacted; formed a coalition and vowed to avenge the strikes. In a response that was largely punitive for the mastermind and the abettors, who were still invisible, Uncle Sam went pounding and pulverising Afghanistan. As if that were not exemplary enough for the rest of the world, an enraged George W Bush went about setting his own standards for the world’s behaviour. He threatened the comity of nations: “Either you are with us or against us.”

Arrogance!

The outcome was much expected: In a moment of America’s extreme sorrow, the world responded with sympathy on the face and a subdued indifference in the heart. The feigned feelings made little difference to the US.

The US was the (mind the strikethrough) a Super Power then. The world looked at that country with awe, and respect, born of fear of its military and economic might rather than reverence for a true leader.   

In its effect, the Covid-19 pandemic has been more devastating than the 9/11 attacks––the death toll in the US has exceeded 10,300. It is more than three times the lives lost in 9/11 and the figure continues to rise harrowingly. The catastrophic effect on the economy will be more evident as time passes. In denial, President Trump first called the pandemic a hoax and, in a matter of days changed tack to declare that it was horrific.

With a difference though, this pandemic is indeed America’s 9/11 (Version 2.0).

In 2001, without a second thought, the US began bombing the perpetrators of 9/11 allegedly hiding in Afghanistan. In this instance, although President Trump has blamed China for the spread of the pandemic, and has gone on to call Covid-19 as the Chinese Virus, he has displayed no desire or keenness to punish that country. As it appears, the US contemplates enough before punishing and chastising countries for errant behaviour. China is certainly not Vietnam, Korea, Panama, Guatemala or even Iraq.

There are stark reasons for this reluctance. The years gone by have exposed the rot setting in and have proved the powerlessness of the most powerful nation on the earth. Whether it is Paris Summit on Climate Change, or it is the Nuclear Deal with Iran, or it is trade war with China, or it is the affairs of the NATO, or it is China’s expansionist actions in the Sea in the South of China or it is intervention in a war-torn Syria, the US has gradually relinquished its leadership role. There are allegations that in the last few days, American firms have got a few consignments of medical equipment, meant for Europe, diverted to the US (of course, unscrupulously). Needless to say, these are acts unbecoming of a world leader. In hindsight, Hollywood’s projection of Uncle Sam as the saviour of the world looks comical.

In the same context, the high death toll in Europe (in Italy, Spain, France and the UK in particular) has laid bare the hollowness of the superiority of the West over the rest of the world. Last month, the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte was heard saying, “If Europe does not rise to this unprecedented challenge, the whole European structure loses its raison d’être for the people.” The Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic was scathing: “European solidarity does not exist… that was a fairy tale. The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People’s Republic of China. To the rest of them, thanks for nothing.”

The Covid-19 pandemic curve for China is flattening. Beijing has already begun extending medical support to countries all over the world. Its economy will soon get off the ventilator and show signs of improvement. But, if the news of dissent brewing in the Chinese population is to be believed, the peacefulness of further rise of the People’s Republic of China would be in doubt.

The leadership in India took timely and daring steps to fight the pandemic. Until now Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the population of 1.3 billion along by exploiting the ancient art of ‘saam, daam, dand, bhed’ (साम, दाम, दंड, भेद) literally meaning: “by hook or crook, or any rule in the book.” His leadership will be put to an even greater test when the storm has gone past and it is time to pick pieces and revive the economy.

It will be a while before conditions start improving in the US and other parts of the world. As it appears, Post Covid-19, US will not be automatically restored to its Super

IMG_3980
Leadership in the Post Covid-19 World

Power position. Perhaps the world will look for a replacement for its desiccated and introverted leadership. Also, in a world that clamours for human rights and democracy, Russia and China will have to work overtime to prove their credentials to be accepted as the Number One. Perhaps it would be a leaderless world until a truly deserving country occupies that first-among-equals status. Perhaps the pace of life will slow down. Perhaps people will be more inclined to family values and spirituality….   

Did someone say (…more loudly, this time), “It will be an Asian Century?”

All said (and hinted), it would be naïve to assume that the leadership of the post Covid-19 world would be up for grabs. It’ll have to be truly earned.

Trump-Darroch Spat & Admiral Awati

National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla (1977).

Rear Admiral MP Avati (later, Vice Admiral), the Commandant, wasn’t amused when cadets mocked him on the stage. It was an Inter Battalion Dramatics Competition and cadets acting as roadside magicians (madaris) had gone overboard with their act. With the wave of a wand one had turned an on-stage Admiral Awati into a goat; and the goat went bleating until the play lasted. The antics of the cadets were in bad taste.

Few appreciated that stage performance. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, the Admiral walked up to the stage after the play and started bleating somewhat like the cadets had done a while ago. He waited for the officers and the families to vacate the auditorium and when only the cadets were left behind in that closed space, he made another small speech, the sum and substance of which was: “Future officers of the Indian armed forces do not behave like this. I don’t approve of this sense of humour.”

Vice Admiral MP Awati PVSM VrC (graphic courtesy Latestlaws.com)

In the following days, did some heads roll? Were the producer, director and actors of the skit taken to task? Might have been; might not. Most of us never came to know. In fact, nearly half a century later, all that is of no relevance. What is really relevant is the message that went down to a thousand five hundred future officers, and through them, to thousands more. And the message was not about ‘mocking/ not mocking superiors’, but a more serious one––it was about the art of speaking one’s mind and leaving a lasting impression.

Fast-forward forty years; a different geographical location; different characters but quite a similar situation in some ways. When Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch wrote a memo to his government expressing his ‘free and frank’ opinion about President Trump and his Administration, he was performing his solemn duty as UK’s representative in the US. It is just that the confidential communication got leaked and embarrassed the governments and a whole lot of individuals on either side of the Atlantic.

The spat that followed is unprecedented. President Trump stopped short of declaring Ambassador Darroch persona non grata. Saying, “We will no longer deal with the ambassador,” and calling Sir Darroch, “Whacky,” was no less damaging. It would perhaps have been a different spectacle, had President Trump dealt with the situation in a more amicable way––like Admiral Awati––behind closed doors.

All-weather Friends?

Needless to say, at this moment the US-UK relations are at their lowest ebb since the Boston Tea Party. Yet, Ambassador Darroch’s resignation is not likely to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin of their partnership––they cannot afford to let it be. Even in times of extreme crisis these two all-weather friends have lived with certain amount of lack of trust. At the peak of World War II (1944), the Americans had put the pilots of the RAF in a (friendly) lock up in Purulia to maintain the secrecy of their B-29 Super Fortress bomber operations against the Japanese.

Country’s interest comes first!

Today, both UK and US are facing the worst crisis since World War II. The US is grappling with Iran, China, Syria, North Korea and Mexico (not to talk of the irritant that has cropped up because of President Trump’s recent racist tweets against congresswomen). The UK, on the other hand, has its hands full with Brexit and the urgency to form a new and stable government. The sacrifice of a diplomat on the altar of their mutual relations would be put on the back-burner for the time being; to be put under the carpet later.

At this juncture, any further dip in relations will be a monumental mutual loss. In a zero-sum game, who’ll gain from their strain? A third party?

Aborting Crime

Last week the scourge of deadly knife crime in the UK tried to vie with the Brexit issue for space in the British polity and life. An alarming 285 stabbing deaths were reported in the year ending March 2018––the highest number of such killings within a 12-month period since record keeping began in 1946.

Critics blame the austerity measures to reduce UK’s debt levels following the global economic crisis of 2008 for the increase in violence. They say cuts in support services and opportunities for children have left communities increasingly disadvantaged and fearful. Disaffection, anger, fear and the lack of positive alternatives could also be causes of children’s violent behaviour. Desperate circumstances might be nudging children to form gangs and resort to knife attacks.

Graphic courtesy CNN

Some believe that cuts in police staffing levels have aggravated the problem. The number of police officers in the UK has fallen from 1,71,600 nine years ago to fewer than 1,50,000 last year. Some think that a diminished police force has led to low detection and prosecution rate for crimes.

“We will only defeat the scourge of violence if we understand and address the complex root causes,” said Prime Minister May. She rejected direct correlation between falling police numbers and violent crime. London’s Metropolitan Police Service thought otherwise. Boosting police funding as well as widening controversial stop-and-search powers to tackle knife crime has been recommended as a way to deal with the menace. The defence secretary has offered to send in the military to assist the police to deal with the menace.

It is a complex issue.

Needless to dive into statistics; the situation in India is equally alarming, if not worse––from petty thefts and chain-snatching to robberies, rapes, murders and gang wars, we have them all. Rapes, domestic violence, and crimes against women, is a category in itself. While the Brits have to concentrate on one type of crime, namely knife attacks, Indians have a wide range to deal with.

To look for answers, it would be worthwhile to look at the crime graph in the US in 1989 when it had just about peaked––violent crime had risen 80 per cent in the preceding 15 years. Then, in the early 1990s the crime rate started falling, or rather plummeting. The fall was so sharp that analysts ignored the drop and continued to predict worse days ahead until the crime rate stabilised at a very low level and people started walking the streets without fear.

The natural questions were: “What happened?” “Where have all the criminals gone?”

Graphic courtesy The Hindu

The answers were obvious: “Innovative policing strategies and larger police force; drug controls; aging population,gun control laws; economic growth; and a whole lot of other ever-soobvious reasons.”

Levitt and Dubner, in their book titled Freakonomics came out with an explanation––beyond the obvious ones mentioned above, and the many more propounded by experts––for the steep fall in the crime rate. They drew attention to an unforeseen long gestating demographic change that had reduced crime, perhaps more than all the other efforts put together.

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the US legalised abortion (Roe vs Wade case). Levitt and Dubner explained the judgement thus: “When a woman does not want a child, she usually has good reason. She may be unmarried or in bad marriage. She may consider herself too poor to raise a child. She may think her life is too unstable or unhappy, or she may think that her drinking or her drug use will damage the baby’s health. She may believe that she is too young or hasn’t yet received enough education. She may want a child badly but in a few years, not now. For any of the hundred reasons, she may feel that she cannot provide a home environment that is conducive to raising a healthy and productive child.” Levitt and Dubner observed that before Roe vs Wade, only the daughters of middle or upper class families could arrange and afford a safe illegal abortion.

Children born to women who wanted to abort pregnancy (but couldn’t) were likely to grow up to be criminals. There is a data galore to arrive at that not-so-pleasing inference.

Levitt & Dubner conclude: “When the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a position to raise the baby well. If she decides, she can’t, she often chooses abortion.”

In the parting wisdom on the subject, which Levitt & Dubner share in their book, perhaps India, UK and the world can find solution to the problem of crime: “But once a woman decides she will have her baby, a pressing question arises: what are parents supposed to do once a child is born?”