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Interview

China, the US and the post-virus international order

Francis Fukuyama and Dominique Moisi discuss the once-in-a-century crisis

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he tours a section of new U.S.-Mexico border wall built in San Luis, Arizona on June 23.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Political scientists Francis Fukuyama and Dominique Moisi have seen their share of turning points in history -- the end of the Cold War and the formation of the European Union, to name two.

Now, as the coronavirus brings the world to a once-in-a-century crisis, their views show a number of common threads: from the strength of democracies like South Korea and Taiwan in responding to the pandemic to the weakness of populism in offering solutions.

But the two scholars also showed their differences in separate interviews with Nikkei. Fukuyama, the Stanford University senior fellow known for his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man," favors a hard-line approach to dealing with China. Moisi, a special adviser at French think tank Institut Montaigne, argues for drawing China into a united international community.

Yet, both were critical of America's lack of strategy on China and its reluctance to coordinate with allies to form a united stance.

Edited excerpts from the interviews follow.

Francis Fukuyama: The Stanford University senior fellow is known for his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man."   © Getty Images

<Francis Fukuyama>

Q: What has the coronavirus pandemic taught you about the state of democracy?

A: The fundamental and deepest weakness about the United States right now is its polarization. I don't think that it's a symmetric polarization. The right has moved further to the right than the left has moved to the left. There has been movement to the left on the part of Bernie Sanders and so forth, but that wing of the Democratic Party was defeated in the primaries, and Joe Biden is not a left-wing candidate, particularly.

But the Republican Party has shifted very dramatically over the last decade. This began with the rise of the Tea Party and then it's accelerated since [Donald] Trump has become president and managed to really take over the Republican Party. In the time of Ronald Reagan, the party was really a party of economic ideology. It had to do with deregulation, small government, but it was very much in favor of free trade, it was favorable to immigration. Since then Trump has taken it in the direction of racial identity and nationalism, reflected in his making immigration the single-most important aspect of his presidency, walking away from international organizations and agreements, attacking free trade, attacking NATO and other democratic countries.

He's managed to take a good third of the American electorate with him in this shift. You have a very disunited country.

Normally, when you have a big epidemic or some national tragedy that strikes a country, that's usually the occasion for national unity. But in this case it hasn't been, and I think that's evidence of how deep the polarization is.

Q: How about in the rest of the world?

A: It's not clear that democracies are doing worse than authoritarian governments [in handling the pandemic]. Quite a number of democracies have done really well. South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, all of these have managed to control the epidemic.

You've also had a number of authoritarian countries that have done very poorly, like Russia. There isn't an overall correlation between being a democracy and having a good response to the crisis.

I do think there is a correlation between populism and bad performance, because populist leaders don't like to do things that are unpopular. It's not an accident that Brazil and the United States now are, like, No. 1 and No. 2 in terms of deaths.

We have a real problem because around the world there are many countries that are using the COVID crisis as an excuse to increase executive power. That's going on in Hungary, in Poland, in Mexico, in Bolivia, in El Salvador, and that is a very dangerous precedent. China is obviously doing that as well, in terms of its crackdown on Hong Kong.

The basis of my worry about the effect of this crisis on global democracy, that these countries will increase executive power and then they won't return that power once the crisis is over; they'll just keep it.

The Chinese have wanted to crack down on Hong Kong for some time. But, up until now, they just haven't seen a good opportunity to do it. Now that everyone's attention is distracted by COVID, they are going to go ahead with something they wanted to do all along.

The other thing is that they are trying to exploit a propaganda advantage comparing themselves to the United States, because they are in a much better position with regard to having controlled the disease, even if they were responsible for the outbreak at the beginning.

Q: How do you see the state of U.S.-China relations?

A: Trump has decided that he is going to try to deflect responsibility for his handling of the disease on China, and so his whole administration is now geared up for blaming China, and I wouldn't be surprised if the trade deal fell apart.

It's too bad, because I actually think that there is a fairly broad consensus in the United States for taking a much harder line against China, but unfortunately the United States has not been willing to lead this effort.

For example, if you look at the 5G issue with Huawei, the United States has been pressuring everybody to not buy from Huawei, but they've not organized any kind of effort because the United States has been simultaneously attacking its allies on trade issues.

Q: Do you think Trump's proposal of holding a G-11 meeting, instead of a G-7, and inviting countries like South Korea, India, Australia and Russia will be beneficial?

A: This idea of having a league of democracies is not bad. I have advocated some version of that in the past. But Russia does not belong in that group. There's absolutely no reason to include Russia.

The Clinton administration tried to do something like this in 1999, when they established "the Community of Democracies." The problem there was that they made the membership too broad, and so they included Egypt, which was not a democracy at that time, and very corrupt countries like Nigeria.

And so, if somebody is going to do this, you really have to figure out what countries are you going to invite, what are the criteria for membership, you know, what are some of the internal rules, and then, most of all, what are you going to do with this organization? What's the strategic purpose of this going to be? Is it actually going to be a kind of "league against China" or as a counterweight to Chinese power? All of these are possible ways of conceptualizing a democratic league like this.

Dominique Moisi is a special adviser at French think tank Institut Montaigne. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

<Dominique Moisi>

Q: What has the coronavirus pandemic taught you about the state of democracy?

A: When it comes to the health dimension, I don't think democracies did badly. Populists, by contrast, proved their incompetence, their absolute lack of seriousness. [The initial steps taken by] Donald Trump in America, the example of Bolsonaro in Brazil. It showed that classic, liberal, serious, democracies, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan -- Germany in Europe -- are in fact better armed to fight the pandemic.

In the case of China, an authoritarian regime, there are serious doubts about the figures given.

And, in the case of Russia and [President Vladimir] Putin, clearly the balance sheet is not very positive. All in all, COVID-19 has reinforced the democratic system.

But that is only the initial dimension. Now we are slowly but surely moving into a second phase, which is of an economic nature.

If anger of being unemployed exceeds the fear of being infected, the environment is much more favorable for the populists and much more dangerous for the democracies. I see it in my country, France, today, the surge of anger. I would call it a new age of anger. That is quite threatening for the democratic system, defended, represented, by President [Emmanuel] Macron.

The pandemic is not a game changer; it is an accelerator of deep trends that were already at work. In political terms it is the vulnerability of democracy.

Q: What will the U.S. presidential election mean for the world?

A: The election of Nov. 3 is going to be the real decisive moment for the fate of democracy. Donald Trump has destroyed the champion of democracy that America was. America no longer, under Donald Trump, can stand for democracy, in the world.

America will not return to be what America was in the 1960s. America has lost its appetite for foreign military adventures. There is a deep fatigue in America. [Even] if Joe Biden is elected president, I do not think the hard power of America will suddenly resurrect. But the soft power of America may return. All the more so [because] the soft power of China is being greatly damaged by [recent] behavior.

Q: How has China acted in this pandemic?

A: The major collateral damage of the COVID-19 virus is Hong Kong. The Chinese have suppressed the special status of Hong Kong while the world was completely obsessed by the pandemic. I'm comparing that with the year 1956. The Soviet tanks invaded Budapest as the West was caught in the threat, crisis, in the Middle East, and the Soviets knew that this was the right time for them.

When I think of a new Cold War between China and the United States. China is more and more brazen, like the Soviet Union. Changing by force the status quo. It has become a revisionist power. And I make a big comparison [to] what Russia did in Crimea six years ago. Dismissing treaties and violating international law. Hong Kong and Crimea [are] the same thing, to my mind. It's a brutal disruption of the existing order.

But there is a difference [when comparing with the old Cold War].

At the time of the first Cold War, the United States and its camp could live without the Soviet Union. We could do without Moscow. There was one element that was delicate, which was, of course, gas and oil. But, apart from that, we were totally independent from the Soviet Union.

When it comes to China, we cannot really dream of doing without China. We need China. This is the major point. How can we do without China? 

Now, we have a common adversary that is a very dangerous one, one that is much more powerful, in global terms, than the Soviet Union was. The Soviet Union was a military power. China is a global power. That is a major difference.

Psychologically the Chinese are much more confident in themselves than the Russians ever were.

We have to combine containment and engagement of China, and tell the Chinese, 'Listen, you depend upon us as much as we depend upon you. We can both commit suicide, but it's not in your interest.'

We need a long-term strategy vis-a-vis China, the way the Chinese have a long-term strategy vis-a-vis us. And, for the moment, unfortunately, this is not the case.

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