Lenin once said that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen”. If Covid-19 is the great accelerator then perhaps the most significant change it has hastened is the shift in the balance of power between East and West. In a timely new book, The Wake Up Call, out this week, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue that the virus has exposed serious flaws in western governments and demonstrated the growing strength and resilience of many eastern states. With high death rates and a looming economic crisis, Britain, America and the European Union have, they write, failed the “stress test” of the pandemic. A virus that at the start of this year looked as if it might be “China’s Chernobyl” now appears more like the “West’s Waterloo”.
This is not just about the clash of civilisations between Beijing and Washington. There was a swift and effective response to the pandemic by governments across Asia. Only seven people have died in Taiwan, 27 in Singapore and 34 in Vietnam. London has lost almost 7,000 people and New York more than 23,000, but in the South Korean capital Seoul — which is slightly bigger, with similarly busy streets and crowded public transport systems — the death toll was just 23.
While Downing Street wavered, Seoul’s politicians put testing booths on street corners and introduced temperature checks at bus stops. As US doctors were reduced to wearing ski masks and Donald Trump suggested that people could protect themselves by injecting bleach, South Korea ensured all its hospitals had proper equipment and resolutely stuck to the facts. In one four-week stretch in April, more people died in London than in the worst four weeks of the Blitz. By early June, Seoul had ended its lockdown and was going back to work.
It was partly that having suffered the Sars outbreak in 2002 the East was properly prepared for a coronavirus pandemic, but the West was also too slow to face up to reality when it struck and too inflexible in its response to the crisis. The US sidelined international bodies such as the World Health Organisation, and the European Union started bickering about a stimulus plan. China lost no time in seizing the opportunity to win over new allies. Medical equipment was dispatched to Italy in boxes printed with the lyrics of Italian operas and to Hungary emblazoned with the slogan “Go Hungary”. “In the West there is a shortage of basically everything,” the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban declared. “The help we are able to get is from the East.”
On everything from infrastructure to education, the West is being overtaken by the East. Britain argues endlessly about whether to build a third runway at Heathrow, but China is planning to construct 215 new airports by 2035. Singapore’s schools routinely finish top of the international league tables with a system that rewards good teachers and sacks bad ones. It is proudly elitist, with an emphasis on competition and testing. The same approach is applied to the administration of government, with an elite mandarin class, trained not in the classics but in science, and some top civil servants paid over a million dollars. The Chinese education system is increasingly competitive too, with the gaokao exam for universities compared to “ten thousand horses crossing a river on a single log”.
Instead of rising to the challenge, the West has taken to denouncing “experts” and turned to protectionism. The US is led by a man who loathes globalisation, imposes tariffs on rivals and champions America First rather than free trade. Washington seems old-fashioned and flabby. Silicon Valley may be buzzing with bright young things but there are, according to Micklethwait and Wooldridge, five times as many people working in government IT who are over 60 than below 30. It is perhaps not surprising that America’s Social Security system relies on 60 million lines of code written in a computer language that was created in 1959.
Meanwhile, Britain is preparing to walk away from a free trade deal with the EU unless it gets the right to undercut other European governments and prop up failing British companies with state aid. Brexiteers talk of turning Britain into a low tax, low regulation Singapore-on-Thames while pursuing immigration policies completely at odds with the liberal approach taken by Singapore, which has a net migration rate more than three times ours and where in 2017 47 per cent of residents were foreign-born. Far from trying to improve the administration of government by creating an elite mandarin class, Downing Street has embarked on a Whitehall blame game that has included a purge of senior civil servants. There is is nothing liberal or democratic about the governing party’s persistent attacks on the impartiality of the civil service, the independence of the judiciary or (the latest bizarre incursion) the integrity of the Electoral Commission that oversees elections.
The West is not just a geographical construct. It is, as Micklethwaite and Wooldridge suggest, “an idea that has freedom and human rights at its heart”. China, with its security law in Hong Kong and its appalling attacks on the Uighur Muslims, could not say the same, nor could Singapore, whose first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once boasted: “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
Outward-looking liberalism and open-minded creativity have been the West’s greatest strengths but we are in danger of squandering the competitive advantage that these values bring. In the US, the intolerant Black Lives Matter thugs who intimidated restaurant diners refusing to raise a fist are the mirror image of the right-wing vigilantes who rampage the streets asserting their power. The left-wingers who write “In Defence of Looting” and call for the defunding of the police are a political echo of the Trump supporters who insist on the right to bear arms.
In this country the woke warriors who obsess about Rule Britannia are as illiberal as the members of the anti-PC brigade who rail against “activist lawyers”. The debate on gender is an uncompromising culture war of “right” versus “wrong”. Shared facts are despised by left and right and moral certainty is prized over ambiguous reality. There is end of an empire feel to the complacency and self-indulgence on all sides.
Democratic Athens gave way to militaristic Sparta after a plague undermined its institutions and weakened its army, while two great plagues contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. The West will go the same way if it does not rise from its slumber. The clock is ticking. It’s time to wake up.
Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist at The Times. She started writing about politics in 1996 and was a lobby correspondent on The Daily Telegraph before becoming political editor of The Independent on Sunday. She joined The Times in 2008.