A disturbing polemic is emerging against the background noise of coronavirus reports from around the world: the cause of the problem is the other, the foreign. Xenophobia is alive and well and might get worse with serious implications if COVID-19 doesn’t run its course in short order. Beyond the human costs of the disease spreading too quickly and the real human suffering of it taking too long to resolve as we stare at the abyss of Recession or even Depression, we may also find that suspending the globalized world order has dire consequences for diplomacy, peace and the future at a time when we need more global collaboration than ever. Let’s start by looking at China.
China is a world force with ambitions of being a superpower, growing at a massive rate, a manufacturing giant with ties deep into the world economy and a strong belts and roads strategy for winning friends and growing influence. To some extent, the entire Chinese system is geared, ironically much like the imperial and capitalist systems it sought distance from, to keep expanding until it bumps into rival superpowers and painfully grows into how to work together. Much of the time from 1980 to the current decade was spent figuring that out, and not without friction from trade wars to cyber conflict and from territorial disputes with neighbors to taking its place on the world stage.
At the end of the Obama Presidency, we had formed a new understanding in cyberspace that didn’t make cyber-conflict between the US and China go away so much as it changed the tone of the conflict. The current administration’s policies saw a return to the old status quo with more cyber conflict and posturing with China, from the accusations leveled against APT10 to a saber with Iran last year. We see the tone in documents like the Cyberspace Solarium Commission calling for a strong cyber resilience and stance, and all of this now collides with a virus coming from Wuhan and the greatest propaganda machines the world has ever seen.
There are now Chinese claims that tell a story that would shock and alarm outside china: that the US is behind the outbreak of coronavirus despite that being a really untenable, nonsensical position. This is the absolute worst time to be seeking political unity and domestic tranquility in any country by pointing fingers at foreign devils and the other. It’s all too easy to blame them and not us. Totalitarian regimes and even political parties in democratic systems find it easy to rally and gain momentum by blaming the foreign, but now is an especially vulnerable time for this on either side of the Pacific.
When asked why we couldn’t get tough on China, Hillary Clinton once said that “it’s hard to get tough on your banker.” While this might have been both witty and painful to hear as well as a slight hyperbole, the truth is that trade and close ties between nations leads to a lot of forgiveness, and it’s hard to go to trade war, cyber war or actual war when countries are integrated in a global system. The reverse is also true: it’s easier to go to war with the hated foreigner responsible for the worst disaster in decades in your country when you aren’t trading with them and interdependent; and that is exactly the situation right now. In the end, we are going to need each other and not keeping that in mind is downright dangerous.
The answer is to not get bellicose. The answer is not to seek political advantage by blaming the other and the foreign. COVID-19 has not loosened its grip on the world at this point as we hope for a swift end and as we optimize for a slower rate of infection to preserve health systems. However, we have to also hope for a return to an integrated, global world order sooner rather than later because without it the polemic, the rhetoric of hate will call for action; it’s very easy to get hard on your former banker. We do not want to find that coronavirus sticks around for 9 months as a depression hits and local situations worsen and the misinformation and disinformation campaigns blaming the other leave us clamoring for vengeance because emerging from this disaster should not see us enter an age of hot war. We have enough problems to fix making sure that the hotbed that bred SARS, MRSA, coronavirus and a flurry of influenza annually before we start approaching things like environmental recovery and climate sustainability without the distraction of the other horsemen of revelations being unleashed upon the world.
For more on coping with the COVID-19 outbreak and securing business continuity outside of the perimeter, read our emergency checklist.