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History accelerates in crises. This pandemic may not itself transform the world, but it can accelerate changes already under way. One ongoing change has been in the relationship between China, the rising superpower, and the US, the incumbent. Being a superpower is not just about brute strength, it is also about being seen as a competent and decent leader. After victories in the second world war and the cold war, the US was such a leader. Despite rising economic strength, China is not. But times can change. The coronavirus may accelerate the process.

Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat, has written a characteristically provocative book on the struggle for primacy between the two superpowers under the provocative title Has China Won? The answer, he suggests, is not yet. But it might. This is not just because of its scale, but also because of American mistakes, including false perceptions of Chinese reality. Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from his analysis is that global influence derives mainly from one’s own choices. China and the US have each made big mistakes. But the US failure to create widely shared prosperity at home, and its bellicosity abroad, are proving crippling. The dismal presidency of a malevolent incompetent is one result.

Two side by side bubble charts showing the Deaths per million, by province and state for the US and China

Now has come the virus, an event not considered in this book. It casts a harsh light on the competence and decency of the superpowers. It has done the same on EU solidarity (or its absence), the effectiveness of states, the vulnerability of finance and the capacity for global co-operation. In all this, the performance of the US and China is of pre-eminent importance. So what have we learnt?

The novel coronavirus, which is causing such social and economic havoc, emerged in China’s Hubei province. There seems little doubt about this. The US National Institutes of Health state that it originated in bats. Irresponsibly and tragically, the local authorities suppressed news of the infection, causing a delay of at least three weeks in the response. That let the virus spread across the world. Thereafter, however, the Chinese state took brutal action, bringing the disease under control in Hubei and halting its spread across China. Relative to population, China’s mortality rate has been very low. Both the initial suppression of bad news and the scale of the response are characteristics of a repressive, yet effective, state. (See charts.)

Total since 100th case for the five highest countries
Highest countries showing cases per million, since 100th case

Effective response to the disease will have had a big economic cost in China. But the state encouraged employers to retain their employees, while also providing support to enterprises to do so. The official urban unemployment rate has risen very little. The largest group of victims has, as usual, been migrant labour. China can now reopen the economy, though there is a risk of a second wave of the disease as it does so.

The US has had its own forms of denial, emanating shamefully from President Donald Trump himself, together with huge failures in ramping up testing and providing equipment, as has the UK. Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs has written devastatingly of the ill will and ineffectiveness on display. Infections are spreading at fearful speed across the country. It could get worse. Italy and Spain show how much worse. Yet the US has the additional drawback of a defective health system.

The US, like other high-income countries, has now responded with “social distancing”, although Mr Trump has only reluctantly extended it, and a fiscal response, worth $2tn. Roman Frydman of New York University, argues that this is neither big enough, given the scale of the American economy, nor well-focused: only a 20th of this sum is going to hospitals, while state and local governments are short-changed. Worst of all, argues veteran anti-corruption campaigner, Frank Vogl, is a $500bn fund for big corporations likely to be under Mr Trump’s unsupervised control, which is contrary to the will of Congress.

Line chart showing total deaths  for the highest countries
Lines chart: Deaths per million for the highest six countries

The fundamental American principles of democracy and individual freedom remain attractive to many around the world, despite the global rise of populist autocracy. The vigour of its private economy may yet save us all. But today the US is losing its reputation for elementary competence, already badly battered by its long list of futile wars and the financial crisis of 2007-09. Parts of government, notably the Federal Reserve, remain effective for now, though who knows what would happen in a second Trump term? But the fundamental capability of the often despised “administrative state” — the bulwark of any complex urban civilisation — really matters. At these times of crisis, its absence is lethal. A government at war with science and its own machinery is now very visible to all.

For those of us who believe in liberal democracy, these US failures hurt: they give credence to the idea that autocracy works better. But the death of decency and competence in core western governments matters beyond even this. The arrival of the pandemic is a global moral challenge. It is necessary to tackle the spread of disease, manage financial shocks, stabilise the economy and help the weak. The US has to play a big part. There remains no alternative to its role.

Line chart: Cumulative number of deaths, by numberof days since 10th deathShowing US states and selected subnational regions in Italy, Spain, China, France, S Korea and UK

We have been reminded that no man is an island in a pandemic. As Gordon Brown argues: “Out of this crisis must come reforms to the international architecture and a whole new level of global co-operation.” If this is to happen, some states must lead. Any global order rests on co-operation among powerful states. China and the US must not only function. They must function together, recognising the many interests they share, while tolerating their deep differences.

If not us, who? And if not now, when?

martin.wolf@ft.com

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Letters in response to this column:

2020 will go down as the year of deglobalisation / From Arjun Kapur, New York, NY, US

Virus is putting US and western democracies to the test / From Dr Harlan Ullman, Senior Advisor, Atlantic Council, Washington, DC, US

World has shown itself to have no moral compass / From Ujal Singh Bhatia, Geneva, Switzerland

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