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Geopolitics

Coronavirus: What Unites And Divides Us

Communities across the globe are all grappling with the same scourge. And yet, the pandemic is also fueling an every-nation-for-itself mentality. Where will it lead us.

One Billion Rising activists march in Manilla, Phillippines.
One Billion Rising activists march in Manilla, Phillippines.
Dominique Moisi

-OpEd-

As it worsens, the coronavirus crisis also brings into sharper focus our collective contradictions.

The epidemic — contrary to what some say — doesn't lead to a rise of populism or to the strengthening of authoritarian regimes. It doesn't help partial democracies at the expense of traditional liberal democracies. In fact, the virus represents a boost, at least initially, for leaders in power, regardless of their politics or their ways of exercising power.

At the same time, the increasing popularity of the leaders in charge often comes with an uptick in criticisms concerning the way they handle and manage the pandemic. Hence the fact that, especially during a major crisis like this one, people behave towards their leaders like teenagers with their parents.

They want their leaders to protect them, but when they deem that protection to not be effective enough, or else too heavy-handed, they unload with a barrage of criticisms, and with arguments that can actually be quite valid: "If only you had protected me from the start, I wouldn't be in the situation I am today," or "Isn't the complete lockdown you subjected me the result, in fact, that there aren't enough masks and tests?"

During a major crisis like this one, people behave towards their leaders like teenagers with their parents.

Still, most nations are grateful to their leaders for being "at the helm" when the winds are so strong. Political leaders in charge are gaining popularity almost in every country. From Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron to Angela Merkel, Viktor Orban to Giuseppe Conte, all the leaders benefit from the pandemic. You would have to exhibit completely irresponsible behavior and rhetoric, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to not gain an increasing popularity among voters.

Trump's case, in the United States, is particularly interesting. U.S. public opinion, for the most part, seems to have forgiven his early blunders, his underestimation of the severity of the threat and the fact that he seemed to give priority to saving jobs rather than lives. His daily briefing, now much more sober, has become must-see TV for many Americans, as are the uddates in France by Health Director Jerome Salomon. Trump may not have the "gravitas' of New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, but he seems to be aware at last of the exceptional nature of the crisis.

In the United Kingdom, a majority of British people are empathizing with PM Boris Johnson, who is himself infected by the virus. But this rallying behind the man in charge is just an illusion. A majority of British people will soon criticize his unwarranted optimism and debatable "herd immunity" strategy.

Indeed, as the number of victims surge and the pandemic's economic costs rise, we could witness a turn of events at any moment. The public counts its frustrations as Molière's L'Avare did with his gold.

In this second phase, which can happen very soon, all of those who are not in power today and who maintained a reasonable rhetoric during the peak of the crisis, may earn a kind of "opposition reward." This change of course is all the more plausible given how naturally ungrateful people tend to be. World War II hero Winston Churchill survived in the political realm for just a few months after his victory. The UK was tired of glory. They wanted a welfare state.

Today populations are torn between fear for their lives and fear for their jobs. Right now, the the first takes precedence over the second. But for how long? There will come a time when tensions will become higher and higher between these two priorities.

Supporters of the Indian government's controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill.— Photo: Sachelle Babbar ​

Coronavirus hasn't strengthened populists, at least not yet, but it is encouraging nationalism. The more a country has felt abandoned, even betrayed by its neighbors, cousins and allies, the more people rally behind a flag. In Italy, a particularly moving video shows a doctor embracing the peninsula in his arms as you would do with a child.

"They didn't all die but all were affected," wrote La Fontaine in the fable Les Animaux malades de la peste (The Animals Stricken with The Plague). Today, the worst hit countries, Italy and Spain, are also the ones who need European solidarity the most, as they have the heaviest debt and most fragile economies.

Consequently, the surge of nationalist reflexes has an impact on solidarity. In the coronavirus context, it is not a good time to be a Syrian refugee. This withdrawal and lack of solidarity is also happening inside Europe. Each country naturally focuses on its sick patients, on its deaths. Television news has never been so national, some might even say provincial.

At a time when Americans "hijack" mask shipments on a Chinese airport tarmacs by offering the most cash, the "One for all and all for one" spirit of the Three Musketeers seems all but dead and gone.

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote about a series of experiments done on mice. When some of the mice were subjected to pain, other mice would demonstrate emotional distress — empathy, in other words — but only if they'd previously interacted with the mice in question. Are we like these mice? During a crisis, can we only show solidarity with our fellow citizens who share our nationality?

This tragedy should deepen and extend our humanity. Instead the opposite seems to be happening, as if the physical lockdown has become emotional as well.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Hasn't Joe Biden Visited Ukraine?

U.S. President Joe Biden has been evasive when asked if he plans to follow European leaders by visiting Kyiv. However, such a move could have far-reaching consequences for Ukraine and the rest of the world.

What message would a visit by the U.S. president to Kyiv send to Russia?

Cameron Manley

U.S. President Joe Biden has been unyielding in his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: heavy sanctions on the Russian government and financial markets and strong words about Russian President Vladimir Putin, labeling him a “butcher" and “war criminal”. The U.S. has also sent upwards of $54 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

This week, the war looms heavily over Biden’s trips to Germany and Spain for meetings with world leaders at the G7 and NATO summits.

Already on this side of the Atlantic, the staging would thus seem perfect for the U.S. president to reaffirm support for Ukraine by going to Kyiv, following in the footsteps of top European leaders, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN chief Antonio Guterres, who have paid recent visits to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

And yet, save a surprise detour this week, it appears that Biden will in fact not be making the much anticipated trip to Kyiv. What's holding him back?

Russians say he's scared

By all accounts, Biden had plans to visit Ukraine, responding positively in April to President Volodymyr Zelensky's invitation to come and see the destruction“with his own eyes.”

However, when asked last week if he still plans to visit Ukraine, Biden evasively said that it depends on “many things regarding whether this will cause more difficulties for the Ukrainians, whether it will distract from what is happening.” When asked to clarify whether this meant that he would not visit Kyiv during his trip to Europe, he replied: “During this trip, it’s unlikely.” He stressed, though, that he spoke with Zelensky three to four times per week.

Russian news has pounced on Biden’s notable absence from Kyiv. On Thursday, Russian daily Kommersant ran the headline: “Not the time to head to Kyiv” and notes that this is not the first instance where Mr. Biden has had to make excuses for not visiting Ukraine.

Russian media sites have mocked Biden for his “fear” of visiting Kyiv.

In March, the U.S. president visited Poland and was closer than ever to the Ukrainian border. The fact that he never walked the streets of Kyiv, unlike British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was explained by the U.S. president himself: He was "not allowed." The White House refused to clarify what or who was stopping him.

Other Russian media sites have also mocked Biden for his “fear” of visiting Kyiv, using tweets from U.S. citizens to substantiate calling the president a “puppet” or “coward.”

Over the course of several months, high-ranking officials from Washington have indeed visited Kyiv, most notably Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and even First Lady Jill Biden, who made an unannounced visit at the start of May.
Photo of \u200bUkrainian President Zelensky on the phone with U.S. President Biden on June 15

Zelensky on the phone with Biden on June 15

Sarsenov Daniiar/Ukraine Preside/Planet Pix/ZUMA

Leaders of war and peace

Of course, when and if he were to visit, the appearance would likely be unannounced, for security reasons. Indeed, a visit from the U.S. president himself carries higher stakes than perhaps any other world leader. It's worth remembering that during the Guterres visit to Kyiv in late April, Russia launched a new round of missile attacks on the city that the United Nations chief said were an attempt to "humiliate" the UN.

Moreover, it may be no coincidence that the first air strikes on Kyiv in weeks have coincided with this current round of European summits, as Russia has continuously demonstrated its readiness to escalate.The U.S. sending its president to Ukrainian soil would no doubt raise the stakes further.

Back in March, Zelensky said that Biden, as the leader of the free world, is also the “leader of peace.” But of course these are war times, and the prospect of a visit to Kyiv begs the question of whether Biden wants to be seen as the leader of the war.

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