Different countries’ responses to the pandemic cast important new light on the debate over the best ways to govern nations – and which form of government has proven itself superior in coping with COVID-19. Well before the pandemic, Stefan Halper’s book, The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the 21st Century, raised the specter of the world becoming convinced that the way China is governed is preferable to the way the U.S. governs itself. Halper argued that the Chinese willingness to engage developing countries without moralizing has led many nations to seek to adopt its “market authoritarian model.”
In contrast, the Washington Consensus “held that the developing world would prosper by adopting the model of liberal democracy and free markets that had worked so well for the world’s rich club.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, many believed that most – if not all – nations would seek to adopt a U.S.-like regime. Over the last decade, however, there has been a growing democratic deficit, as nations once considered democratic (such as India, Poland and Hungary) and nations that had been trending in that direction (such as Turkey, Indonesia and Thailand) have all become less democratic and have adopted various authoritarian elements. It seems that the Washington Consensus is losing ground, just as the Beijing Consensus is on the ascendance.
The pandemic has brought the differences between the Chinese and U.S. governing models into sharp relief. China initially responded to the virus’s emergence in an authoritarian manner, with local officials suppressing the news and releasing misleading public statements in order to avoid having to report bad news to the central authorities. However, once the central government became involved, it acted decisively and effectively. It contained the virus by putting 46 million people on lockdown, quarantining 16 cities. It introduced widespread testing and contact tracing. China’s rapid and cohesive response is widely credited with having avoided a much more calamitous outcome within its borders.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump argues that the U.S. suffered because China did not inform the U.S. about the virus breakout. However, the White House knew about the virus by January. Trump was warned about the pandemic by his own key adviser, Peter Navarro, and by U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department, and the Defense Department; nevertheless, the President continued to belittle the risk and refused to act for two months. When he finally did act, he did so in a chaotic manner, disregarding his own medical advisers, making public statements that ranged from misleading to dangerous. A Columbia University study showed that at least 36,000 lives could have been saved if the U.S. had introduced social distancing even one week earlier. As of May 28, the U.S. had reported a high rate of 5,348 cases per 1 million people and 312 deaths per 1 million people. Trump had an approval rating of 42 percent.
The Chinese and U.S. national governments’ responses to COVID-19 have had an impact on global perceptions of the two countries. The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, stated, “Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century. This is now happening in front of our eyes.” Public intellectuals have taken notice. Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, wrote, “Far from making ‘America great again,’ this epic policy failure will further tarnish the United States’ reputation as a country that knows how to do things effectively….Once COVID-19 is over, Americans are likely to discover to their chagrin that other voices (Beijing, anyone?) are receiving more respectful attention.” Similarly, Dominique Moïsi, a senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne and a political scientist, has noted that “America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly….Sometime in 2021 we come out of this crisis and we will be in 2030. There will be more Asia in the world and less West.” A recent poll in Germany found that 73 percent of Germans have lowered their opinion of the U.S. in the wake of the pandemic, while approximately half as many respondents (36 percent) have reduced their opinion of China.
The debate over the relative standing of the Washington Consensus versus the Beijing Consensus misses the existence of a third model. This third model is best exemplified by New Zealand. After multiple national elections in which the party that won control of Parliament actually received fewer votes nationwide than its main rival, New Zealand had two national referendums about its electoral system, in 1992 and 1993, leading to the adoption of a German-style voting scheme. The system ensures that Parliamentary seats are distributed in a much more proportional manner than was previously the case, allowing smaller parties to find a footing, which has ushered in an era of coalition-based governing. This has resulted in a much higher level of cooperation and consensus-building.
Already a skilled communicator, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s combination of openness, personal touch, and empathy have worked to make her one of the most respected leaders in the West. In handling the COVID-19 crisis, Ardern has combined a strict lockdown with effective communication, all while relying on medical authorities. As officials provided consistent, reliable information, public trust in the government rose and so did compliance with its directives. The country is now emerging from its lockdown with only 21 deaths (in a country of 5 million people). As of May 28, New Zealand had a low 307.8 cases per 1 million people and only 4.5 deaths per 1 million people. Ardern’s approval rating was 59.5 percent, the highest rating enjoyed by any Kiwi leader since polling began.
Several other democratic countries are showing the merit of adopting a similar way of coping with the pandemic. Australia joined New Zealand introducing an early lockdown and using consistent messaging to secure public support. Rather than facing the predicted 153,000 cases by mid-April, the country of 25 million people only had 6,670 cases by the last week of April, with just 78 deaths. (As of May 28, Australia had reported 286.1 cases per 1 million people and 4.1 deaths per 1 million people.) Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a 64 percent approval rating (as of May 26).
In South Korea, medical companies collaborated with the government after the first cases emerged within their country. The companies quickly developed tests, which the government swiftly approved. The combination of high levels of testing and quarantining the sick allowed the country to avoid entering a lockdown. As of May 28, South Korea had reported 219 cases per 1 million people and 5.2 deaths per 1 million people. In a poll released on May 8, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating was 71 percent, the strongest level of support ever for a South Korean president at this stage of the electoral cycle.
Prior to the outbreak of the virus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced much criticism and had been unable to form a government since December 2018, despite holding three national elections. However, he has been given credit for quickly putting stringent protocols in place when the pandemic hit, keeping the death rate low. As of May 28, Israel had reported 1,892 cases per 1 million people and 31.6 deaths per 1 million people. 67 percent of surveyed Israelis expressed approval of Netanyahu’s response to the pandemic.
Germany also launched a successful testing and quarantining system, albeit one less effective than the nations cited so far. Germany’s history of government abuse and the high regard for privacy has prevented the country from using contact tracing. As of May 28, Germany reported 2,196.5 cases per 1 million people and 103.1 deaths per 1 million people. Chancellor Angela Merkel has a 56 percent approval rating (as of May 26).
The ways these countries coped with the virus does not suggest a second coming of the Washington consensus, given that some democracies did very poorly (the U.S. and the U.K.) and some rather poorly (India and Sweden). However, their success shows that one need not adopt authoritarian measures to effectively fight COVID-19 or govern well. Because New Zealand has performed best, and has been leading the parade, we may from now on refer to the new consensus as the New Zealand consensus.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.