All posts filed under: World Affairs

Winners and Losers: The Global Economy After COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world economy in ways that will be debated by pundits and future historians for decades to come. Yet, as hard as it is to predict a disrupted future accurately, the pandemic (not to mention its probable successors) looks likely to produce clear economic winners and losers. The top digital companies—Amazon, Apple, Tencent, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Ant, Netflix, and Hulu—have thrived during quarantines and the ongoing dispersion of work. These are the most obvious winners in what leftist author Naomi Klein has called a “Screen New Deal” that seeks to create a “permanent and profitable no-touch future.” Since 2019, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have added over two-and-a-half trillion dollars to their combined valuation, and all enjoyed record breaking profits in 2020. But it’s not just the tech oligarchs who have benefited from the pandemic disruption. Companies that keep the basic economy functioning—firms dealing in logistics, for example, or critical metals or food processing—have become, if anything, even more important. With the shipping supply chain disrupted due to the …

How Strong Was Taiwan’s COVID Response?

In September 2020, I arrived in Taiwan on a flight from New York. I had read much about the border protocols that had prevented COVID from entering the country, but many aspects of the arrival process appeared incongruent with the country’s supposedly impermeable defenses. Staff in the airport interacted directly with me and other passengers with no distancing protocols. I asked if they were required to quarantine themselves. “No,” came the reply. Taking a taxi to my quarantine hotel, I saw no barriers in the vehicle. I asked the driver a similar question. Was he required to isolate himself? “No,” he said, adding, “they disinfect the vehicle every day.” While checking into my quarantine room at the hotel, staff interacted with me at close distance, and would immediately interact with other guests before returning home to their families. Witnessing these potential breaches at the gates of Taiwan’s COVID fortress was disconcerting. In the months prior to my arrival, many headlines on former COVID success stories asked: “What Went Wrong?” I was afraid that such headlines …

The Geography of COVID-19

The ongoing pandemic is reshaping the geography of our planet, helping some areas and hurting others. In the West, the clear winners have been the sprawling suburbs and exurbs, while dense cores have been dealt a powerful blow. The pandemic also has accelerated class differences and inequality, with poor and working class people around the world paying the dearest price. These conclusions are based on data we have repeatedly updated. Despite some variations, our earlier conclusions hold up: the virus wreaked the most havoc in areas of high urban density. This first became evident in the alarming pre-lockdown fatalities that occurred in New York City and the suburban commuting shed from which many of the employees in the huge Manhattan business district are drawn. Similar patterns have been seen in Europe and Asia as well. The problem is not density per se but rather the severe overcrowding associated with poverty in high density areas. Overcrowded physical proximity often includes insufficiently ventilated spaces such as crowded public transit, elevators, and employment locations, especially high-rise buildings, which often …

Stopped Cold: Remembering Russia’s Catastrophic 1939 Campaign Against Finland

While the Germans had been flexible on the fine print of their August 23rd, 1939 non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had been meticulous with his own territorial claims. By insisting on Soviet predominance in Finland and the Baltic states, Stalin could not only recover Russia’s old Tsarist borders in the north-west but also acquire naval bases to project Soviet power further into the Baltic Sea, whence came numerous stores vital to the Nazi war effort, from Swedish iron ore and timber to Finnish nickel. Compounding the economic leverage Stalin enjoyed over his partner in Berlin—owing to Hitler’s need for Soviet oil, manganese, cotton, and grain, as well as rubber transshipments from Asia—Soviet domination of the Baltic, Stalin believed, would turn Nazi Germany into a virtual economic vassal of the USSR. The one thing Stalin had not reckoned on was that any of these neighbors might object. Certainly he did not expect resistance from the Baltic states. As early as September 24th, 1939, three days before Warsaw surrendered to Germany, Soviet Foreign Minister …

Europe, China, and the New Global Hierarchy

Seen from Beijing, Europe is an Asian peninsula. ~Angela Merkel For more than 20 years the Chinese Communist Party engaged the world wearing the mask of smiling diplomacy, and for more than 20 years the world was fooled. We believed in such unlikely concepts as “Chimerica” and “Chindia,” and we trusted the sickly-sweet promise of “win-win co-operation.” There were always isolated voices warning us of Beijing’s intentions throughout those years—Cassandras who knew what lay ahead—but we chose to ignore them, for the most part. This began to change in 2017 with the Trump administration, which refused to accept Beijing at face value. And 2020 was the year the Party’s mask finally slipped. It became impossible to ignore the volumes—the libraries—of evidence pointing to genocide in the concentration camps of Xinjiang. Meanwhile 30 years’ worth of promises about Hong Kong’s political and civil liberties proved to be emptier than a Xinjiang mosque, as that once-free city was abruptly swallowed into the totalitarian motherland. By the end of 2020, China’s relationships with the US and Australia had …

Anti-Colonialism’s Bad History

Prevailing academic theories of race relations hold that wealth and power differences between groups of people arose from social, economic, and legal systems created to benefit one group of people over another. One of those systems, we are told, was colonialism. Hence the renewed interest in European imperialism and calls to “decolonize” everything from education and beauty to music and health. “Renewed” because this is, of course, not the first time that colonialism has been blamed for the vast wealth and power differences readily observable in the world today. The story starts with Karl Marx. Marx admired capitalism, which he credited with destroying feudalism and the “idiocy” of rural life. The fly in the capitalist ointment, as Marx saw it, was competition, which he thought would drive down profits. To remain profitable, he averred, capitalists would be compelled to squeeze laborers’ wages, thus “immiserating” the working class. The more rational economic system Marx envisaged would do away with competition and replace it with central planning. That was a big mistake, but not the only one. Between …

Fulton and the Case Against Normalcy

Whether they know it or not, Americans are in trouble. The world order from which they have drawn immense benefits—an order they once led the way in creating and for which they have borne the greatest burdens over three-quarters of a century—is at risk. Since Americans generally misunderstand their role in the world, the United States has developed an unfortunate habit of performing that role fitfully and poorly. A more mature understanding of their unique position and exceptional role in world affairs is required for Americans to better protect their interests and avert disaster in a dangerous world. A long-ago speech by a foreign dignitary may hold the key to recovering some lost wisdom about how America came into this role in the first place. Seventy-five years ago this month, Winston Churchill traveled to the American Midwest to deliver what he believed to be the most important speech of his career. At an obscure college in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill set himself two stark objectives: one general and the other specific. The general aim of “The …

Starvation and Ethnic Cleansing Stalk Ethiopia

“Forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten,” wrote eminent 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon of the “Aethiopians” as they “slept near a thousand years.” Ethiopia remains the only African country not colonised—its rugged mountainous terrain kept out intruders and helped to preserve one of Africa’s most unique cultures. The country is far more prominent on the global scene these days, in large part due to a terrible famine that seared images of its starving children into the world’s collective consciousness during the 1980s. But more recently, it has attracted attention due to its remarkable economic renaissance. The country was in the ascendant and its tourism industry was champing at the bit. A campaign was launched promoting Ethiopia as the Land of Origins—the cradle of humanity out of which the antecedents of modern humans set off from Africa around 185,000 years ago. But the world’s tendency toward forgetfulness has re-emerged since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military into Tigray, the country’s most northern region, last November. This move has plunged Ethiopia into deepening …

COVID-19 and the Ongoing Global Workplace Revolution

For most of the recent past, economic geography has shifted to ever-larger cities across the globe. By the end of the last decade, many were convinced that we were entering a supreme era of the glittering, high-rise “superstar” city that would inevitably swallow all the best bits of the economy, and serve as unparalleled centers of tech, culture, political activism, and global trade. Globally, the ranks of city-dwellers more than doubled over the last 40 years, from 1.5 billion in 1975 to 3.5 billion according to data from the OECD. Yet now this urban-centric pattern may be slowing, and even reversing. Three critical factors are at play here. First, of course, the pandemic has weakened the appeal of urban life by the very logic of social distancing and higher levels of infections and fatalities. The second factor has been an alarming uptick in urban crime and disorder, particularly in the United States but elsewhere as well. Finally, there has been a move to dispersed and online work, which enables people and companies to shift their …

China and the Question of Taiwan

There is no reasoning with someone who has built an entire worldview around the conviction that, as George Bernard Shaw put it, a particular country is the best in the world because they were born in it.1 Shaw’s stinging put-down was actually meant as a definition of patriotism, but it works just as well, or better, when applied to what Orwell once called “the great modern disease of nationalism.” No honest debate on world affairs is possible with an interlocutor who keeps switching into competitive mode, deciding in favour of their nation from the outset, and looking only for evidence to support that nation’s supposed superiority. In most situations, this is mildly frustrating; a benign disease. But when heads of state are suffering from the malignant version, then these failures of logic can become everyone’s problem. In modern-day China, nationalism is at its strongest when dealing with the idea—almost an article of religious faith—that the independent island nation of Taiwan is in fact a Chinese state and must be unified with the mainland as soon …