A forward-looking question to ask amid the current crisis is: will the inevitable highlighting of government’s necessary role in the crisis lead to greater recognition of the necessity of that role at other times?
One wonders what the private reaction was in the White House, or in conservative political circles in the United States, to the video that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recorded upon his release from hospital while recovering from COVID-19.
Johnson’s message to his fellow citizens was largely a paean to the National Health Service (NHS), which he praised for saving his life and for being the key to his nation eventually overcoming the coronavirus.
The NHS, established by the post-World War II Labour government, became long ago a cherished institution among Britons generally. Nonetheless, it was remarkable, especially to American ears, to hear the leader of the Conservative Party go out of his way to heap such praise on an institution that is the epitome of socialized medicine. The NHS is financed by taxpayers and has a huge work force, including doctors and nurses, employed directly by the state.
Johnson has seemed to be a soulmate of Donald Trump on various issues, including the issue that Johnson rode into 10 Downing Street — Brexit, with everything it implies regarding the restriction of immigration across international borders. But in his video, Johnson pointedly praised by name two nurses who were by his side when he was in intensive care and, as he put it, “things could have gone either way.” He just as pointedly mentioned that the two were immigrants who had come from outside Britain.
“I guess everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole,” remarked the American economist Robert Lucas during the Great Recession a decade ago. Lucas’s own economic scholarship could hardly be described as Keynesian, but his comment acknowledged how when circumstances get really bad, the need for help, including the kinds of help that only governments can provide, takes precedence for most people over doctrine and ideology. The phenomenon applies not only to the sort of economic stimulation associated with Keynesianism but also to other forms of necessary government intervention.
The current public health and economic crisis is the kind of really bad circumstance that highlights certain vital things that only a government can do. This is true of the COVID-19 pandemic itself, when it comes to necessary measures such as lockdowns and the commandeering of essential medical resources. It is true of the economic jolt from the lockdowns and associated fears, and the need for immediate financial relief amid skyrocketing unemployment. If that jolt leads, as it appears it will, to a more traditional recession with depressed demand, it will be true as well of the needed stimulus measures that are classical Keynesianism.
The crisis highlights these truths, but it is not just during crises that the truths apply. Government has vital roles all the time, not just in a crisis. Recognition of those roles would imply taking certain actions when the country is not in crisis. Regarding public health, it would have meant heeding the warning from top government experts some three years ago that a pandemic such as COVID-19 would strike, and taking steps to make the nation much better prepared for it than it has in fact been. Regarding economic turmoil, it would have meant practicing the flip side of deficit-expanding economic stimulus during recessions by restoring government revenues and eliminating deficits during good times — which the United States has not done since the latter part of Bill Clinton’s administration.
Free markets do wonderful things, but some things important to the public interest they cannot do, and only government can. This fact is widely recognized with those parts of the public interest that involve military force. Nobody depends on the market to raise armies for national defense. But the same fact does not get as widely recognized with other aspects of the public interest that just as legitimately are part of national security, including the protection of the public from infectious diseases. The profit motive is no better at fighting a viral pandemic — involving, among many other necessary measures, advance stockpiling of medical supplies — than it is at fighting an armed foreign aggressor.
A forward-looking question to ask amid the current crisis is: will the inevitable highlighting of government’s necessary role in the crisis lead to greater recognition of the necessity of that role at other times?
The persistence of American anti-government ideology suggests that for the United States, the answer to that question is largely “no.” An illustration of that ideology that is especially relevant to the current public health emergency was the expenditure of enormous amounts of congressional time through dozens of Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Subsequent efforts by Republicans in power to sabotage the ACA, coupled with the absence of any alternative program to expand health insurance coverage to Americans, have intensified the distress for uninsured citizens hit by, or fearful of, COVID-19. The ACA is built around the existing U.S. system of private and employment-based health insurance and is nothing at all like Britain’s NHS, but the efforts to destroy it have been partly motivated by a refusal to recognize even a supportive government role in health care.
The same ideology is readily apparent even in emergency measures that have been taken so far in the current crisis. Those measures give short shrift to beleaguered state and local governments and the postal service, both of which are parts of the public sector whose revenues have plummeted at the very time the services they provide are more needed than ever.
The prioritizing of ideology over effectiveness has been exemplified at the state level by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who responded to criticisms of her refusal to order lockdowns by lecturing people on the limited role of government, the responsibility of people to provide for their own safety, and her intention to base her decisions about the pandemic on her “commonsense conservative values.” South Dakota has now become a COVID-19 hot spot with one of the nation’s most rapid increases in new cases.
Much punditry at the moment is speculating on how the pandemic will reshape the international order, and on such questions as whether it will hasten China’s replacement of the United States as a global leader. Those are important questions, but it also is worth asking where, coming out of the pandemic, the United States will appear on a global spectrum of recognition versus non-recognition of the vital role of the public sector in addressing major public problems. The answer — subject to change depending on the result of this November’s U.S. election — is that the United States will appear more isolated than ever at the extreme non-recognition end of that spectrum. It will be markedly different in that regard even from the Conservative Party-governed Britain led by Donald Trump’s friend Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s government had earlier considered letting the virus infect most of the population (or, as Trump put it in considering the same idea for the United States, to let the virus “wash over” the country) in the hope of building herd immunity. The British discarded that approach — however consistent it was with a conservative, limit-the-government ideology — when realizing that it would overwhelm the health care system and lead to huge numbers of avoidable deaths.
The lasting effects of Johnson’s experience on Johnson himself remain to be seen. But watching a still-haggard prime minister on that video, it is hard not to believe that this is a man who knows he was at the bottom of a deep foxhole and will always remember the implications of that predicament and what it took to get him out of it. Maybe it is only this kind of personal experience that can sweep aside ideological impediments to effectiveness.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.