U.S. Leadership, The Missing Link In World's Fight Against COVID-19

In 2020, the world faces a pandemic without recognizable leadership from a state or multilateral bodies. Even diehard critics of U.S. interventionism may be missing the superpower of the old days.

Donald Trump arriving at press briefing on COVID-19 pandemic
Donald Trump arriving at press briefing on COVID-19 pandemic
Arlene B. Tickner


BOGOTÁ — Much has been written in recent years on the collapse of a world order where the United States plays a key role in its construction and upkeep, and on the possible implications for international relations. Idealized traits of this order included: Near-universal free trade and liberal democracy, the existence of common rules, and multilateralism and globalism. All of these supposedly contributed to the peaceful coexistence of nations, the fluid functioning of the global system and, ultimately, collective wellbeing.

While this is a caricature of a project whose inner contradictions ultimately nurtured the crises that led to its downfall, the absence of world leadership has seriously affected our collective capacity to fight problems that are inherently ignorant of borders, such as global warming or pandemics. As these issues create shared costs and affect the weakest populations, they demand joint, consensual policies in response.

But instead of a coordinated strategy that pulls the entire international community in the same direction, there is dissonance in the efforts of different countries to contain the coronavirus, if not finger-pointing and mutual incriminations. Trump, for example, has been attributing the "foreign virus' invading U.S. territory to Europe's lack of action. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of exporting the virus, South Korea has condemned Japan for restricting air traffic, and Colombia's President Iván Duque has closed the border, refusing to talk to Maduro on the other side. He is thus encouraging illegal entries by Venezuelans, which is even more dangerous. Both Russia and the Saudis are, for their part, fishing in murky waters, looking to make some capital from a dirty oil war.

Crises bring out the worst in states bereft of proper leadership

We may not like the conductor role the United States has played in the past but even the most critical observers, with whom I identify, must admit to feeling some nostalgia at this juncture. This would be the time to issue a political call for cooperation and solidarity, and take a collective decision for which there are currently no ideal voices, not even among multilateral bodies like the UN. The situation is being aggravated, and the possibility of collective action thwarted, by protectionism, nationalism, unilateralism and xenophobia. All of these elements have been rising since the previous great crisis, the financial crash of 2008.

Crises bring out the worst in states bereft of proper leadership, as well as in societies — especially when they are subjected to a high dose of fear and uncertainty. Still, besides mutual suspicions, discrimination and selfish hoarding, crises also sow expressions of altruism, compassion, solidarity and collaboration. The moving gesture these days by Italians and Spaniards coming to their balconies to applaud and encourage those fighting the war on the coronavirus produces a different kind of nostalgia. A sort of wishful hope that, once our world is so shaken up we no longer recognize it, we may learn to face our present and future together.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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