First published Strategic Culture Foundation
The United States dominated the Twentieth Century for four principal reasons. Its manufacturing capability far exceeded anyone else’s; perhaps the most dramatic illustration was its stunning production in the Second World War when it, for example, manufactured 300,000 aircraft, twice as much as the next place country. Its inventive capability was also immense: from airplanes to electricity transmission to assembly lines the USA was the inventor and, equally important, the adaptor of numerous world-changing innovations. Thirdly, unlike most of the non-Anglosphere world, it was politically stable: even under the strain of the Great Depression its political system held. Finally the “American Dream” had sufficient reality to be attractive. But what is left today of these four? Much (most?) of its manufacturing has been outsourced to China. What remains of American ingenuity? – a buttonless iPhone is not at the same level as the Apple 1. As to political stability, whoever sits in the White House at the end of January 2021 will be regarded as an interloper by half the population; that will have consequences on the street. The American dream that your children will be better off – by every measurement – than you were has collapsed: the children, crushed by unpayable debt and zero-hour contracts, hide in your basement. And as it goes with the West’s leader, so, ceteris paribus, it goes with the other Western countries. The outlook is poor, unstable and desperate.
How did it happen? There are many reasons but the principals are the usual pair: wars and spending. Too much war: during its rise to power, wars were good for the West but it doesn’t win them any more and it hasn’t lost the habit. Too much spending leading to too much debt: debt for investment is worthwhile but debt for consumption is not. It transpires that “history” has, in fact, resumed its movement.
In short, the West has lost its mojo”. “Mojo” or “magic” is an appropriate word: there certainly was a reality to Western power and authority but there was also a magical element because a significant amount of the West’s power rested on the conviction of the conquered and the awed that it could not be beaten.
There has been a loss of competence – an essential component of the mojo. I recommend Stephen Walt’s essay The Death of American Competence. As he rightly points out, one of the pillars of American power was “an image of the United States as a place where people knew how to set ambitious goals and bring them successfully to fruition.” He speculates on the reasons for the decline, suggests several, but he knows it has been a long development: “Over the past 25 years, however, the United States has done a remarkable job of squandering that invaluable reputation for responsible leadership and basic competence”.
The COVID-19 outbreak provides a sharp demonstration of the loss of mojo.
In what will probably be remembered as one of the most ironic events of the Twenty-first Century, the GHS Index in October 2019 assessed the countries of the world on their preparedness for an epidemic or pandemic. It ranked the USA and the UK as the two best prepared countries: the former with a score of 83.5/100 and the latter at 77.9/100. The world average was calculated to be 40.2/100. I think it is a pretty safe bet that no one a year later would say that either handled COVID-19 well: some might say that the two were among the worst in the world. According to at least one ranking, the USA was first and the UK fifth in deaths as of 14 November. Hardly the “best prepared”.
These kinds of rankings are very dependent on GIGO and unstated assumptions. And the cynic would not be especially surprised to see GIGO and assumptions manifesting themselves in the GHS rankings: the top fifteen contain nine NATO members and two close US allies. Who knew that geopolitical choices were so prophylactic? As to countries with – shall we say – less therapeutic alliances, China scored 48.2/100 and Russia 44.3/100. In the actual test of COVID-19, no one would suggest that Russia (216 deaths/million) or China (3/million) did worse than the USA (745/million) or the UK (740/million).
There is a lot to question about these numbers and how they are measured; consequently, they should only be considered as rough comparisons. They are drawn from the worldometer site and are, I believe, the numbers as generally reported. What’s counted as a “COVID death” varies, what’s counted as an “infection” varies; some countries (ours) are truthful and others (theirs) aren’t. So there’s room for much argument about this or that number. But, with respect to Russia and China as compared with the West, there is one clue to reality and that is the IMF projection for economic growth in 2020. Against a world fall of 4.4% China is projected to grow 1.9% and Russia to fall 4.1%. The IMF expects Russia will do better (less badly) than any in the Euro zone or G7; specifically, it projects the USA at -4.3% and the UK at -9.8%. Therefore, whatever the “real” COVID-19 numbers may be, the IMF at least assesses Russia and China to have done better (less badly) than the supposed winners of the GHS Index.
A poor result for the West and one to be meditated on. Prima facie, one would expect the USA and the UK to have handled COVID-19 much better than they did and therefore why they did so poorly requires some thought. And the same goes for many other Western countries. Given the long-time reputation and expectation of Western competence, COVID-19 has demonstrated that there needs to be some re-thinking about these assumptions.
COVID-19 revealed a lack of planning: none of these countries seems to have had a stock of PPE. In the USA destroyed stocks were not replaced. Neither were they in Belgium, Canada or the UK. There seems to have been a shortage in many other places. Not competent. How about hydroxychloroquine: is it a useful treatment or not? maybe in July; yes in July; no in July; yes in October; confused in October; yes in October; no in November; maybe in November. And so it goes: you’d think in a competent epidemiology environment there would be a pretty definitive answer – even if “only sometimes” – by now. How about face masks? In February “skip mask and wash hands“; March “If it’s a regular surgical face mask, the answer is no“; April “only useful for healthcare workers and patients who test positive“. Today, they are essential for all. Not competent. The Imperial College model… enough said. Not competent. The Gates Foundation, a strong proponent of vaccines, is a principal funder of the WHO, Dr Fauci’s organisation and the CDC. The CEO of Pfizer sold shares the day of the announcement that the company had a vaccine. Why would Fauci fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan? Conflict of interest? Coincidence? But certainly not competent.
Not competent. In the West today competence always comes second. It used to be normally first and occasionally second; now it is always second. Second to what? Second to diversity. The list of diversity categories that must be satisfied is ever-changing and ever-growing: race, language, gender, sexual preference, transgender – always expanding. And all of these categories have to be filled first. By competent people, of course. But only by whatever competency is left over after the primary demands are satisfied.
Gilbert Doctorow describes the state of affairs as it relates to Belgium in his essay which was the spark for mine:
The source of incompetence is called corruption, and corruption is built into the political system here by the ultra-sophisticated practice of power sharing that enables the two nations of Belgium, French-speakers and Dutch speakers, to spare one another’s throats and enjoy the fruits of governing without concern over competence or popular will. The problem is compounded by another ultra-progressive political principle built into the practice of governance – proportional representation, which encourages a proliferation of political parties, which in recent decades numbered already double what they had in the 1960s due to party organizations stopping at the linguistic borders. There is a constant search for a parliamentary majority through coalition building, where policy consistency goes out the window for the sake of nose-counting and finding bedfellows however ‘strange’ they may be.
He concentrates on Belgium’s “power-sharing” (a concept familiar to Canadians after years of official bilingualism). But I think his point can be expanded farther and that what he sees as peculiar to Belgium is now common throughout the West under the rubric of “diversity”.
First make sure that the ever-changing and ever-expanding diversity requirement is satisfied and then you can look for competence. This state of affairs can bumble along until reality bites and competence or the lack of it really makes a difference.
And reality, in the shape of the SARS-CoV-2, bit. I suspect that in China and Russia, to take two better performers, competency is still the common first choice.
Coincidental with this is the chaos in the US election, the signing of the RCEP and the report that two Chinese “carrier killer” missiles hit a moving target in the South China Sea.
So why has the West lost its mojo? I would propose this epitaph for the tombstone
Competence always came second