ABC RN: The Coming Post-Covid Anarchy

14 MAY 2020

Topic: Article in Foreign Affairs

TOM SWITZER: Well as coronavirus continues to take a toll on the health of nations around the world, one thing has become clear: the winners and losers are not who we might have expected a year ago. The virus has taken an uneven and unpredictable course through the world, defying our usual assumptions about power and resilience. Some small, poor countries have been left relatively unscathed while powerful, prosperous nations have been ravaged.

So what does this mean for global order? And for the strategic rivalry between China and the United States? Will everything change? Or is the virus merely accelerating trends that were already in place? Former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd is the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. He’s written an essay in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in New York. It’s called the coming post-COVID anarchy, and he joins me now from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Kevin Rudd, welcome back to between the lines.

KEVIN RUDD: Good to be with you on between the lines.

SWITZER: Now your recent essay is titled ‘The coming post-COVID anarchy’. Anarchy? Why anarchy?

RUDD: Well, Tom, you’re a good realist scholar of international relations. You would know that realists assume that anarchy is in fact the natural state of the International society of states. Remember it was Hedley Bull who wrote about this quite a long time ago.

SWITZER: An Australian realist!

RUDD: An Australian realist. And within the realist argument, it’s that order actually represents the exception rather than the rule. So why do I argue this? I argue it because the current order, as we’ve known it since 1945, is underpinned by and large by US geopolitical power and geo-economic power. Secondly, that’s become challenged, not least by China. Thirdly, the COVID crisis has turbocharged the hit on American real and perceived power. But there’s a fourth factor as well, which is the impact which the COVID crisis has on China’s own power, not least the damage to its economy, the flowthrough effect to its ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on its military and on the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, but more importantly, international perceptions of China, both in the developed and the developing world. So where do we end up? We end up not with the same old order as in the past, but a slow and steady drift towards a more anarchic order where both China and the US are damaged. And the institutions of global governance, whether it’s the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G20 etc. become increasingly the terrain for geopolitical battle between these two wounded powers.

SWITZER: Okay, so neither country is the victor here. But some analysts say that China’s heavy handed approach, you know, it’s draconian lockdowns, mass surveillance, that’s been a political win for Xi Jinping, and that strengthened the central authority of the communist regime. How would you respond to them?

RUDD: Well, let’s look at that argument. Within China itself there’s been a huge hit on the economy. And, as a result of that, China will have its worst growth numbers in 2020 that it’s had in over half a century since the end of the Cultural Revolution almost. That is huge. It undermines Xi Jinping’s China Dream, one pillar of which was for China to quadruple its GDP by 2020, measured against 2000 levels. This single year of itself of economic non-performance blows a hole midships in that. And then secondly on top of that, Tom, you’ve got the problem which arises in terms of internal political debates within China itself, and I think some growing levels of resistance to Xi Jinping’s own leadership. And finally, as I mentioned before, the blowback around the world in terms of the economic damage to economies, both developed and developing, causing a big question mark to arise in terms of whether China has, in fact been the rest of the world’s best friend because of the outbreak of this virus. So these factors I think qualify the overall argument you hear from some the China’s authoritarian model in managing the crisis domestically translates into a geopolitical win for China internationally. I don’t think that necessarily holds.

SWITZER: What conversations do you think, Kevin, I have going on right now in Beijing over China’s place in the world? I mean, is there a division over this so called wolf warrior — this is the hardline diplomacy we often hear about — a division between that wolf warrior diplomacy versus, say, China’s desire to promote soft power?

RUDD: Yeah, Chinese politics in some respects is not dissimilar to elements of politics we find and in other countries. That is, you find nationalists and internationalists. You find localists and globalists. You find ideologues versus, as it were, reformers and pragmatists. And so the Chinese political system, while it’s controlled by Xi Jinping’s leadership, still has all these tensions and personalities within it. So the debates now I think are of a twofold nature. How do we allow this to happen in the first place? What failed in terms of the processes and systems China put in place after the SARS crisis of 2003 to prevent a pandemic or an epidemic, as it was then from happening again? The second debate is, how the hell do we get the economy back together again, given that China is a economy where 40% of GDP comes from the traded sector of the economy, and international trade is being blown to bits by this crisis? And the other debate, again, between nationalists and internationalist is the one you’ve just touched on, Tom, which is China’s wolf warrior diplomats out there launching attacks against any critique of China’s performance, on the one hand to defend the party’s legitimacy and on the other hand, older, more seasoned diplomats saying this isn’t actually contributing much to the improvement of China’s global image. Those are the discussions and debates underway at the moment.

SWITZER: We’re talking about this wolf warrior diplomacy. What do you make of China’s recent boycotts or threats of boycotts of Australian exports? Barley. Beef. What’s going on there?

RUDD: Well, as I’ve said in other recent interviews since those public statements by the Chinese ambassador to Australia, it’s unacceptable in my view for any ambassador accredited to any country to issue public threats against their host country. In 35 years or more of dealing with the Australia-China relationship, I don’t recall previous Chinese ambassadors ever having done that, nor do I recall any Australian diplomat ever having done that, irrespective of the crisis of the day, whether it was Tiananmen, or the things that I went through when I was in office, etc. So I think as a matter of, shall we say, diplomatic practice, what occurred then was regrettable, as has been some of the hardline commentary which has emanated from the Chinese nationalist media.

The bottom line is, however, the Chinese nationalists have seen the effectiveness of some of these sorts of measures when applied to various European countries in the past. The sorts of economic leverage which China applied to Norway after Norway, through the Nobel Prize committee, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a famous Chinese dissident. And they’ve also seen how those economic leverage points have worked with various of the other Europeans. So this is not alien to the Chinese playbook.

My argument about Australia’s management of the relationship at present is that, if the Australian government is of  the view — and a view I in general support — that there needs to be an independent international inquiry as to the origins of the virus, transmission of the virus, notifications to the WHO and through them to the world community etc. then if you’re going to put that forward as an Australian government, then do some work on it first, get a few other governments to come along with you, and advance it through the multilateral machinery which exists rather than just blow it out as a thought bubble. That’s the way in which you do real things in the international community rather than, I fear sometimes, pitching a diplomatic initiative primarily for domestic political leverage in Australia itself.

SWITZER: Of course, what complicates matters further is President Trump’s theory that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan and raises the question why would China agree to an inquiry without losing face.

Let’s turn to the United States. How badly damaged is the US and your judgment? I mean, will it recover reasonably quickly with a change of administration in November? Or does the damage go deep, perhaps too deep for recovery?

RUDD: There has been deep damage. Politically, the house is a divided house within the United States. Those of us who have followed us politics over many years have really seen it to this divisive. And that actually is a real factor in terms of constructing a post-presidential election national consensus on how America engages the world and the future. American politics has become so binary, including on America’s own future world view. On the economic damage, it’s huge. This is the biggest hit on the US economy, at least since 1946 and the recovery from the war and probably since the depression, the end of the depression, in 33. So this takes a while to recover but the American economy, as we know, is a history of resilience. Look what happened after the global financial crisis.

SWITZER: Well, I was going to make the point too, it’s got enormous capacity for change and renewal. I mean, you think about its recovery from the Civil War, that depression and Vietnam. Are you being a bit too pessimistic here, Kevin?

RUDD: Well, I live in the United States and I actually listened to the debate. I’m back in Australia now and when my American interlocutors, Republican and Democrat friends of mine over 20 years who are a part of let’s call it the foreign policy and national security policy machinery, saying that it’s become increasingly hard to forge consensus these days across the aisle on America’s behaviour in the world, that is a real issue then. It’s not just my external analysis. It’s part of the internal analysis within the US itself. Do I think the United States can come through this domestic political malaise and the economic destruction which has occurred? Yes, I do, because it’s a remarkably resilient country. But I think a precondition is that we see a democrat win this November.

It’s not that I am a cheerleader for Joe Biden, personally — I barely know the man — but he’s likely to put together a mainstream, competent foreign policy and national security policy team as opposed to, frankly, the chaotic nature of the Trump administration on most foreign and national security policy questions. And that I think is necessary for America to rebuild its alliances abroad, rebuild its credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world, and to overcome what has been an extraordinary period where America, rather than taking the lead in the global recovery from the virus, both in public health terms in economic terms has simply been missing in action, and in fact, being unable to contain the damage domestically.

SWITZER: Yeah, but people said this when Obama replaced Bush, that under the Bush administration, there was a loss of respect and credibility that diminished prestige and authority and consequently a reduced ability to lead and persuade. A lot of those qualities dogged the Obama administration, so isn’t it more deep seated and structure rather than just changing an administration to get a different outcome?

RUDD: I think your question, Tom, understates the departure from the norm which the Trump administration has represented. I mean, you know me reasonably well, I’ve worked with us administrations of Republican and Democrat stripes – Obama and prior to him, Bush – and I have friends on both sides of this equation. This is such a radical departure from the mainstream, by which I mean the treatment of alliances, number one. Number two, the global advocacy of protectionism as a virtue and to the extent that the World Trade Organization has almost ceased functioning. And three, this general view of let’s call it ‘America First’, which basically says to the rest of the world, we no longer see ourselves as a global leader, we are only concerned about the United States. This is such radical departures from the post-1945 or shall I say post-Rooseveltian America that we’ve seen in that country since the early 1930s. And so that’s why I have a view that this has been such a radical departure that we need a restabilization around a Biden presidency. Do I think he can do it? Yes, I do. But it’s not a normal transition. It’s an utterly abnormal transition.

SWITZER: Okay, back to your essay. You say before the virus the idea that China and the US were destined for a new Cold War that was a bit far-fetched, but you now argue it seems likely we’ll have what you call Cold War 1.5. How would that be different from the US-Soviet Cold War? I mean, what would it look like?

RUDD: Well, you’re right, Tom. I mean, many people in the last during the period of the US-China trade war of the last couple of years have said, well, we’re now into a new Cold War. That’s just stuff and nonsense really. Because if you remember the Cold War, and some of us who was sufficiently from the Paleolithic period of politics, like myself, can remember the Cold War, I was actually a serving diplomat during the last decade of the Cold War.

SWITZER: In Sweden and China, weren’t you?

RUDD: That’s right. I remember dealing with the Soviet embassies in both Stockholm and Beijing, where we had to mind what we were doing with the Sovs, as we used to call them. Now, the bottom line is what was the Cold War about? One, mutually assured destruction in terms of the nuclear race. Two, zero economic engagement. Three, a whole bunch of proxy wars around the world – Africa, Latin America and elsewhere – and on top of that, a deep ideological contest. Now, apply that to China pre-COVID then frankly the conditions didn’t all apply. Yes, some element of nuclear competition, China’s force modernization with nukes and enough second-strike capability to have in fact a level of mutually assured destruction. But the economic engagement between the two countries was comprehensive across all domains. No third country proxy wars. And an emerging but nascent ideological conflict between authoritarian capitalism and liberal democratic capitalism. But I think what the real danger now is, Tom, if we’re looking to the future is, does the COVID crisis result in a much more accelerated economic decoupling between China and the United States? If it does, then the glue which has held together the relationship in the last several decades begins to dissipate, and therefore we begin to look at some of the conditions which existed in the previous Cold War with the Soviets. And if that hold and we then move in that direction, one of the other things I’ve written in this article in Foreign Affairs is: let us then learn the lessons of the last Cold War with the Soviets whereby detente created a mechanism which prevented crisis from turning into catastrophe, given the near-death experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. How do we apply that logic for the future of the US-China relationship?

SWITZER: Perhaps a return to classic balance of power politics in the realist mould? Kevin Rudd, great to have you back on the program.

RUDD: Thanks for having me, Tom, and all the best to your very intelligent listeners.

SWITZER: Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister, he’s now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. You can get his article, ‘The Coming Post-COVID Anarchy’ that’s from the Foreign Affairs website.