By Philip Stephens
The state is back. Long live globalisation. Coronavirus is remaking democratic politics. The paths out of the crisis will present liberal democracies with a choice between authoritarian nationalism and an open global order founded on co-operation between states.
Watching nations seal their borders and governments assume draconian powers to combat Covid-19, the temptation is to expect the worst. Compare the shambling performances of US president Donald Trump and the informed statesmanship of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and you can see reasons for optimism. Competence shines through at moments of crisis.
For politicians, everything but coronavirus is now trivial. Right or left, whatever their election platforms, pledges or governing programmes, the present generation of political leaders will be judged on their handling of the pandemic. One or two may slip through, but emergencies on this scale do not leave many hiding places for bluffers and hucksters.
The return of government to centre stage marks the close of an era in which power and responsibility migrated from states to markets. The response to the pandemic has seen democratic leaders assume powers unprecedented outside wartime. The pandemic was a consequence neither of globalisation or capitalism. But it has exposed the limitations of unfettered markets — witness the competitive bidding for scarce resources in the US healthcare system.
The crisis has made a bonfire of other orthodoxies. To watch governments throw trillions of dollars into the fight to prevent economic collapse is to appreciate just how absurd was the preoccupation of recent decades with balanced budgets, public deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios. Of course, governments must set sustainable limits for spending and borrowing, but the era of fiscal fundamentalism has passed.
The eventual bill for the defeat of coronavirus will be colossal. At some point the debts will have to be repaid. With luck, however, the context will be a rational discussion and rebalancing of the respective responsibilities of government, private business and citizens.
The financial crash of 2008 proved a lost opportunity for change. The result was rising public discontent and the spread of angry populisms of right and left. Coronavirus leaves no room for a second hesitation. Voters across most advanced democracies are paying a price in weak healthcare systems for ideological devotion to small-state, low-tax economics. Liberal markets have a long-term future only if they rest on political consent.
The easy conclusion is that the pandemic will prove to be a gift to the populists and a prelude to a lurch towards authoritarian nationalism. The return of the state can be held up as proof that the populists were right all along about global elites. Closed borders are the only safeguard against the outside world. The powers that states have now assumed to fight the pandemic fit the public’s preference for security over freedom.
The disinformation campaigns run by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow promote just such a message. The pandemic is cast as the work of decadent western capitalism — a crisis born of untrammelled globalism and enfeebled western democracy. The relative success of authoritarian regimes in beating the outbreak speaks to their innate superiority over the west’s liberal democracies.
The narrative has a superficial attraction. The draconian shutdowns ordered by China’s president Xi Jinping undoubtedly helped to bring the initial outbreak under control. Beijing is now relaxing the restrictions. The snag is that the same political absolutism provided the incentive for Chinese officials to conceal the earliest cases. As to Russia’s claims of its own success, the jury is still out. And the Republic of Korea has shown how a determined, efficient democracy can suppress the virus.
To the extent that any good can be said to flow from such a deadly catastrophe, it is in the pandemic’s capacity to restore the worth of competence and honesty in democratic politics. Mr Trump’s delusional bluster about how he is defeating the “Chinese” virus is defied daily by the escalation in new cases. It marks out a widening divide between the White House and the state and local authorities — Republican and Democratic alike — that are confronting the pandemic. Polls show Americans giving the president the benefit of the doubt, for now. But the reckoning cannot be delayed indefinitely.
In Europe, political leaders have regained the attention, and where they have shown grip, the confidence of electorates. Straight-talking has worked. Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel have all won strong public support for harsh measures to suppress the pandemic.
There is nothing inevitable about the restoration of faith in good government. The failure of the European Union to show any real measure of solidarity in supporting Italy’s desperate fight against the virus shows how easy it is even for those who preach internationalism to retreat behind national borders. The compelling logic of enhanced global co-operation is no guarantee of action. And, yes, the pandemic will impose a heavy cost in terms of lost economic output and disrupted trade.
That said, coronavirus promises to open a door to the rehabilitation of government, to a more equitable political and economic settlement, to the restoration of faith in democratic politics and to renewed global co-operation. The question is whether the politicians choose to walk through it. – FT.