Anger and politics

The violence in American cities reflects the fury of polarisation

America’s chronic anger could be its political undoing

THE SUMMER heat has its way of energising our political passions. The American and French revolutions both began in earnest with the sweltering June and July air stuck to each soldier’s skin. In 1967, a “long hot summer” of violence erupted throughout the United States as protesters against police brutality and racial injustice clashed with police and the national guard in most big cities.

The following summer saw similar protests, and—like today—a hotly contested presidential election.

The current unrest in America is similar in many ways to the riots of the 20th century, with young people and minorities expressing grievances over both racial inequality and the relationship with their government.

But two recent developments serve both to worsen the tensions between protesters and their opponents and to decrease the chance that the government will find a solution: political polarisation and partisan rage.

The turmoil of 1968 is the most obvious parallel to today’s. Then, the Republican Party’s Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were the candidates of “law and order,” pledging to crack down on the violence and extend sentences for rioters.

That year’s election was also one of the major catalysts for the marriage of race and political party in America. Nixon’s and Agnew’s electoral strategies probably helped them capitalise on the anger and anxiety of many white voters. In a new research article about the contest,

Omar Wasow, a political scientist at Princeton University, finds that the year’s protests “likely caused a 1.5–7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election”. Since then, characterising protests as racial violence and promising to “crack down” on it has become a linchpin of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook.

The Republican politicisation of protests has continued to the present. Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 has been linked to his continuing campaign against immigration across the southern border, but many of his supporters may have had the Ferguson and Baltimore riots of the mid-2010s in the back of their mind.

It is no empty generalisation to say that Republicans rely on whites—and Democrats, non-whites—for their electoral successes; according to a study published by the Pew Research Centre on June 2nd, 81% of Republican voters are white, whereas only 59% of Democrats are.

Offered a choice between Joe Biden and Mr Trump, African-Americans pick the Democrats’ presidential candidate nearly 90% of the time, according to The Economist’s latest polling data from YouGov.

The Republican Party’s increasing whiteness over the years has made it less amenable to making progress on racial justice. Although white voters generally agree with African-Americans’ grievances on police brutality, they focus on the violence and looting in the ensuing protests rather than on the broader social context.

A majority of both whites and Republicans told YouGov that they thought race was a major or minor cause of George Floyd’s death, for example. But most also said that the protests were the result of black Americans’ “long-standing bias against the police” rather than “a genuine desire to hold police officers accountable”.

White Democrats, on the other hand, have moved to the left on racial issues, a product of political polarisation and “partisan sorting”. As Democratic elites adopted the ideas of African-American activists, so did the liberal whites who remained in the party. This has also changed the portrait of the average protester.

Black Americans protesting against police violence are now joined by whites and Hispanics, the young and the old. Demonstrating against police brutality has become political and ideological, not just racial.

The big, angry sort

Over the past 60 years America’s political parties have not only grown further apart racially; they have also become angrier at each other. In “American Rage”, a forthcoming book on the subject, Steven Webster, a political scientist at Indiana University, finds that Americans’ ratings of the opposing party have dropped by roughly 40% since 1960, from an average of 50 to 30 out of 100.

Party identification is not only a product of positive association with one side of the aisle, Mr Webster argues, but also a statement of negativity toward the other. He theorises that voters have been baited by the media and political leaders to view the other side as fundamental threats to their livelihood; as a group to be detested, not to work with.

Crucially, Mr Webster finds that both parties have their fair share of angry voters. Some in unsavoury corners of the right shout for “law and order”; anger on the left spills into rioting and looting. And he argues that this anger is a fundamental threat to the American government.

Mr Webster says that when people shift from being emotionally angry (eg, in response to a police shooting) to being habitually so (eg, routinely demonstrating violently against the state) they “lose trust in the national government, lose their commitment to democratic norms and values and weaken in their commitment to minority rights. They think people who disagree with them politically are a threat to the country’s well being.”

In short, the racial anger manipulated by Nixon and Mr Trump is not just a political tool, but also damaging to the country. So too is the anger among some Democrats toward the police. Mr Webster says that the short-term capitalisation of Republicans on the fury of angry whites is a long-standing political strategy, “but this time we might also find a manipulation of the protesters by the left.”

Elite Democrats are likely to tell supporters they ought to be angry at police brutality, they ought to be angry at systemic racism and that they ought to be angry at the president. Why?

“Because an angry voter is a loyal voter,” says Mr Webster. He finds that 30-40% of voters who feel angry some or all of the time are so-called “negative partisans”—the ones who view the other party as threats to the country and unworthy of their votes. In contrast, the majority of voters who rarely or never feel angry are much more co-operative.

This year’s presidential election has mostly been void of the angry politics of race. The president has campaigned (and tweeted) much more about socialism and restrictions on movement stemming from the coronavirus. Now Mr Trump may return to the same politics of racial division that served him last time.

Speaking in the White House rose garden on June 1st, he called protesters “thugs”, “criminals” and “looters”, and pledged “severe criminal penalties and lengthy sentences in jail”. Such language has historically served as code to some white voters that Republicans stand with them against the “violent mobs” (Mr Trump again) of African-Americans threatening their peace.

There is little doubt the campaign will become racialised.

If Democrats fall prey to this familiar trap, defending the riots in the name of racial justice, the mobilisation of anger around George Floyd’s murder could meet an ill-fated, politicised end.

But if activists remain non-violent and reserved in their protests against brutality and racial injustice, America may be able to make some sorely needed progress on police reform and racial inequality.

Germany Is Reopening. And Learning a Tough Lesson.

The way out of a lockdown is much harder than the way in.

By Anna Sauerbrey

People on the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, May 9.Credit...Christian Mang/Reuters

BERLIN — In its handling of the coronavirus, Germany has been something of a model, alternately admired and envied across the world.

For good reason: The curve has flattened. The number of people newly infected each day is stable. The absolute number of deaths and the fatality rate remain low compared to other countries.

And the reproduction factor — a key metric to measure the virus’s spread — hovers around one, meaning that on average, one infected person infects only one other person. The first wave of the virus has passed. Germany, cautiously, is reopening.

But as it gradually eases up, opening shops, schools and even museums, the country is learning a tough lesson: The way out is much harder than the way in. Loosening the lockdown, even in conditions of relative success, is fraught with difficulties.

The path to lockdown was relatively smooth, by contrast. When the number of infections started to accelerate in early March, Germany’s politicians hit the brakes. By mid-March, public life had come to a grinding halt. Schools, kindergartens and most shops were closed, as were the country’s borders.

Social distancing measures were introduced and gatherings of more than two people were banned. People were urged to stay home, though they could still go for a walk, shop for groceries and take exercise. At the same time, Germany increased its number of intensive care beds and quadrupled its testing capacity.

On March 18, Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the nation in a televised speech, speaking with unusual emotion and poignancy. “It is serious,” she said. “Do take this seriously. Not since the day of German reunification, no, not since the Second World War, has our country seen a challenge that so severely depends on all of us acting together in solidarity.”

It was a moment of national unity and solidarity, something that felt precious in a political era still marked by the aftershocks of the migration crisis of 2015. Policymakers of all political camps were almost unanimous in stressing the severity of the situation and agreed on the cure.

The German people understood and followed.

By the beginning of May, it looked like the measures had worked. Even the most prudent virus-watchers allowed themselves expressions of cautious relief. “It is our duty to protect Germany’s citizens as best as we can,” Lothar Wieler, the notoriously sober president of the Robert Koch Institute, said in a news conference on May 5. “We have done very well so far, as the figures are showing.”

Other epidemiologists were cautiously optimistic as well. “Infections are pretty much under control,” Stefan Willich, the director of the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, told me. “The German health care system was far from being overwhelmed at any point in this crisis so far.”

Germany was lucky to be late in line, most experts agree. The distress in Italy, and before that in China, was sobering: German citizens knew the stakes and adapted accordingly. And crucially, both the country’s politics and the health care system proved to be up to the task.

“I was surprised to see how very flexibly Germany’s health care system reacted to the crisis,” Wolfgang Greiner, a professor of health care economics at the University of Bielefeld, told me. Both the market — most labs are private companies, as are many hospitals — and the political steering worked.

On May 6, the country’s 16 states agreed to ease the lockdown. The guiding principle is regional autonomy, with each state pretty much in charge of its own way out, following only rough common guidelines. There’s one condition: If the number of new cases rises above 50 in 100,000 inhabitants across seven days in an area, the local authorities must reinstall restrictions.

Experts disagree on the wisdom of the strategy. “Instead of knocking the whole country out with a nationwide lockdown,” said Professor Greiner, who supports the approach, “we now have better monitoring in place and can react regionally.” But Karl Lauterbach, a lawmaker from the Social Democratic Party and an epidemiologist, disagrees. “The way we’re easing the lockdown is unsystematic,” he told me. He’s afraid that states may outbid each other as they try to jump-start regional economies and cater to voters’ hunger for life.

The real trouble, however, goes much deeper. The economy is in disarray: 10.1 million Germans have applied for wage subsidies; many have lost their jobs, particularly those in precarious work and the service sector.

Projections suggest that the economy, which has officially entered recession, will shrink somewhere between 6 to 20 percent. The loss in tax revenues will be substantial — nearly 100 billion euros, or $108 billion, by one estimate. And the country’s debt burden will soar.

The question is: Who will pay? That quandary is likely to define the next months and years, setting off a dirty lobbying war — as companies vie for concessions, support and contracts — and political turmoil.

The Social Democratic Party wants to “tax the rich,” while the Christian Democrats are expected to retable their age-old idea of cutting corporate taxes. Their governing coalition could fracture. More difficulties lie ahead.

Police officers pepper spray protesters during a demonstration in Berlin on May 9.Credit...Christian Mang/Reuters

And right now, demons old and new are out on the streets. Just a few weeks ago, Germans sniffed at gun-waving Americans protesting the lockdown. But the schadenfreude was short lived.

On May 8, thousands of protesters — a wild mix of extremists, conspiracy theorists and ordinary citizens, supported in large part by the far-right populist Alternative for Germany Party — flocked to the streets of major cities like Berlin,

Munich and Stuttgart, claiming their rights were under threat and touting conspiracy theories.

On Saturday, they turned out again: 5,000 gathered in Stuttgart, and smaller demonstrations dotted the country.

The protesters speak for very few: A clear majority of the population backs the restrictions.

But it’s a bitter irony that in the country’s brief moment of vindication, all the old conflicts are re-emerging. It makes the early togetherness look shallow, a product of our instincts for survival rather than of humanitarian insight.

So instead of solidarity, we have strife. In place of unity, division. It looks like this is Germany’s new normal, too. 

The Next Pandemic Crisis Is Mental Health

The psychological harm of lockdown hits people with existing conditions hardest.

By Harriet Williamson

A health psychologist in Spain during the coronavirus pandemic
A health psychologist works at a temporary hospital in Madrid on April 25 to provide better support to patients and families who are suffering from the impact of COVID-19. Jesús Hellín/Europa Press via Getty Images

Lois has bipolar disorder and a 16-month-old baby. In normal circumstances, her condition is manageable. Under the United Kingdom’s lockdown, in which trips outside are tightly limited and seeing family or friends impossible, her mental health has deteriorated.

No one is picking up the phone in her National Health Service (NHS) recovery team, part of a branch of mental health services for people with long-term mental health conditions, and the soonest appointment she can get with them is two months away.

Lois, as a young mother with a serious mental health condition, is at particularly high risk. But as lockdowns across the world continue because of the global coronavirus crisis, people with preexisting mental health conditions are seeing symptoms worsen. As Mental Health Awareness week begins in the UK, tens of thousands of people there are already painfully aware of the damage being done, even as the government overlooks psychological costs in favor of economic calculations.

According to research from the charity Rethink Mental Illness, 80 percent of people living with serious mental illnesses such as borderline personality disorder and psychosis thought that their mental health was worse because of the impact of coronavirus. Twenty-eight percent described their symptoms as much worse.

I have seen my own mental health fluctuate under lockdown conditions, with the difficulties of loneliness and lack of routine. I have struggled with intrusive thoughts about suicide and depressive days where doing basic tasks to care for myself are near impossible.

Although there is some evidence that lockdown measures have allowed anxiety in some people with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder to lessen, the lockdown is cutting people off from vital treatment, important daily routines, and regular coping mechanisms. Kirsten, who suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder, cannot visit the gym or be hugged by her family members. “It’s nigh on impossible to get any help at the best of times, let alone just now,” she said. “So many services aren’t available.”

Spike is in alcoholism recovery and has borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and body dysmorphia. Even before the pandemic, he was going through a painful recovery process. Spike spent the first three weeks of lockdown “in darkness,” drinking again, frightened and feeling utterly alone. Without face-to-face meetings, Spike’s recovery has stalled.

Other people who spoke to Foreign Policy reported canceled mental-health appointments, therapy over the phone or Zoom that just didn’t feel effective, and general practitioners scrapping mental-health reviews.

The lockdown has stripped away most of the routines and mechanisms needed to manage mental health conditions. People cannot visit their friends or family, attend in-person therapy sessions or other mental-health appointments, go to groups or classes, or even leave their home as many times a day as they wish to. Regular routines, a critical part of well-being, have been disrupted and replaced with an anxious and uncertain future.

Other aspects of the coronavirus crisis are putting huge pressure on mental health. Loss of livelihood and fears about money and where the next meal is coming from are hitting vulnerable families hard. The Trussell Trust, the United Kingdom’s leading network of food banks, reported distributing more food parcels in the first two weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown than ever before, an 81 percent increase on the same period last year.

Around the world, coronavirus has seen a rise in domestic violence and the mental and physical harm that comes with it. Financial insecurity and domestic violence are force multipliers for the impact of mental-health problems, turning manageable problems into crises. So is the isolation of lockdown.

A possible and tragic outcome for sufferers who feel that they cannot continue in pain is suicide. British police have recorded “early signs” of an increase in suicides and attempted suicides, but say it is too soon to describe this as a trend.

However, Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator and political columnist for the Daily Telegraph, has said that there could be 150,000 avoidable deaths caused by the U.K.’s lockdown measures, a figure that seems to come from his own speculation.

Australian scientists have calculated that the likely deaths from suicide caused by loneliness, isolation, and a lack of access to mental health would be massively outweighed by the lives saved by the lockdown measures—but all such models rely on uncertain assumptions in an unprecedented time. As countries build up experience, the costs may become more apparent.

When asked about the potential spike in suicide rates caused by lockdown measures at his daily briefing, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson replied with the assurance that more money would be directed towards mental-health charities.

While charities do undeniably important work in Britain and around the world, prioritizing them over the mental-health arm of the NHS is a dubious choice. As a department, mental health has been chronically underfunded after a decade of Conservative Party rule in the U.K., while austerity has stripped away other sources of protection and aid.

A mental-health nurse, Cara, told Foreign Policy: “Not enough is being done to ensure mental-health services remain accessible but I’m most worried about how services cope when we start to reemerge from this crisis. I can foresee how services are just going to collapse—they’re already stretched and I don’t know how they’re going to cope with the collective trauma and grief that’s going to come out of this.”

A spokesperson from Samaritans, which operates the U.K.’s best-known suicide hotline, told Foreign Policy: “Samaritans is a critical service, needed now more than ever. There’s no doubt that these uncertain and challenging times can affect our mental health and wellbeing.

“Our volunteers are as busy as ever providing emotional support to people who are struggling. Currently, one in three calls for help to Samaritans are about coronavirus and we are continuing to hear about struggles with mental health, access to services as well as the impact on basic needs such as food, housing and employment.”

The NHS urgently needs parity of esteem between mental and physical health, which means that both are treated and funded equally. Mental health problems account for 23 percent of the burden of disease in the U.K., but only 11 percent of the NHS budget is spent on supporting people who are struggling with mental illness.

Routine appointments such as mental-health reviews and individual therapy sessions should go ahead for all patients, over the phone or via apps such as Zoom, along with consistent and clear messaging about lockdown measures to prevent further confusion.

Governments worldwide need to treat this growing crisis with the same seriousness that they apply to economic matters—and realize that, in the absence of strong measures such as universal income that alleviate fears, financial stresses will inevitably become mental health issues, and vice versa.

Mental ill health will cost Britain and other countries dearly in the future if it is not treated and managed during lockdown. Lives are at stake. 
Harriet Williamson is a journalist, mental health activist and artist.

The Reality of China’s Push Into Eastern Europe

By: Ridvan Bari Urcosta

Most countries naturally tend to rely on their strengths to increase power and influence abroad.

For China, this means using its substantial economic resources and propaganda (i.e. manipulation of its public image) to coerce foreign countries into partnering with Beijing and the broader international community into believing it can compete on a global scale. Its efforts to boost its influence abroad have, of course, been concentrated on Southeast and South Asia, but more attention has been paid to China’s push into Europe, particularly Eastern Europe.

The region has turned into a symbolic battlefield for the United States, Russia and now China as they each compete for power and prestige in the region.

China even dubbed 2020 the “Year of Europe,” signaling a desire to improve ties across this strategically important market. When Beijing launched the campaign, the U.S. and EU were in the early stages of what looked to be an emerging trade war, and China saw an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.

Much has happened since the beginning of 2020, most notably a global pandemic, but even before the coronavirus, China’s ability to increase its influence in Europe was always questionable because it would have to rely so heavily on propaganda and manipulation as it championed its achievements in building diplomatic bridges, constructing key supply networks and infrastructure, and providing much-needed credit for cash-starved countries that didn’t want to rely on Western institutions.

But in reality, China’s engagement with Eastern Europe is not nearly as strong as the headlines suggest, and its weaknesses will only be exacerbated by the pandemic. For both sides, the goals of engagement have little to do with strengthening relations between them. Rather, Beijing is using its relationship with countries in the region to expand its leverage against the U.S. and the European Union.

Likewise, Eastern European countries are using China to increase their negotiating power over Washington and Brussels, both of which are wary of China’s increasing presence across Eurasia. Ultimately, they see each other as a source of leverage in their relationships with other critical players rather than strategic partners in their economic and security agendas.

At the center of China’s outreach to Eastern Europe is its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to revamp the supply chain across Eurasia using loans, often with unfavorable terms to the borrowers, to build infrastructure that will connect the entire Eurasian landmass via roads, rail and ports. The project will allow China to sell its exports, a critical part of its economy, to markets abroad using a supply chain that Beijing itself helped build and largely controls.

In the 2010s, China’s expansion into Eastern Europe has been focused in large part on rail. The so-called China-Europe Express, a series of railway routes connecting China to European markets, requires the participation of countries in Eastern Europe, the gateway to other valuable markets in the European Union, most notably Germany.

But the rail project isn’t as big of an achievement as it’s been touted to be, mostly by Beijing itself.

All the railway routes in the China-Europe Express have actually existed since the Soviet era.

The project, then, is really about repurposing and upgrading existing infrastructure rather than building an entire network from scratch – which would be a much more ambitious and complicated project.

Constructing an entirely new rail route to Europe would require getting the approval of many countries through which this network would pass, a politically challenging endeavor particularly given that China prefers to conduct negotiations on a bilateral basis.

While some countries may be open to accepting China’s help to improve their own infrastructure, they may not be willing to participate in Beijing’s broader vision for Eurasia. In addition, this project has run into technical complications, including the lack of standardization of rail gauges among the different railways, which slows down the transit of goods. Financing is also an issue.

Upgrading this rail system would require massive investments, and China simply does not have the capital to complete such a project. Even before the pandemic, its economy was struggling with problems that were only aggravated by the U.S.-China trade war. In fact, Beijing’s investments in Europe fell to 11.7 billion euros ($12.6 billion) last year, just a third of the total at its peak in 2016.

Freight Lines, China and Europe

China has made many grand announcements about BRI’s achievements in Europe, but in reality, some of its most high-profile projects in the most geopolitically significant Eastern European countries have not been executed as Beijing promised. In Romania, for example, the government scrapped a deal earlier this year with a Chinese energy firm to construct two reactors for the Cernavoda nuclear power plant.

Similarly, plans to have a Chinese company help construct the Tarnita-Lapustesti Hydropower Plant were shelved in 2015. In Hungary, at least seven projects agreed to by China have failed to get off the ground, including a cargo hub at the Budapest airport and a biotechnology project.

Most notably, the Budapest-Belgrade Railway, for which China would provide the bulk of the financing, has yet to take off after seven years of talks. Both the EU and observers within Hungary have criticized the project because it would require Serbia and Hungary to accept massive loans from Beijing that these countries are unlikely to pay back.

In Poland, President Andrzej Duda and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a strategic partnership deal in 2016, but little has come of it. In fact, relations between the two countries are arguably worse now, after an employee from Chinese telecom company Huawei was arrested in Poland last year for allegedly spying for the Chinese government.

In another example, Czech President Milos Zeman opted not to go to China for the 17+1 summit in April, in part because China had not lived up to commitments regarding investment. When Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Prague in 2016, he promised around half a billion euros of investment into the Czech economy within the next two years.

To date, none of these funds have arrived. The Chinese-Czech relationship has become increasingly tense, especially after the Czech government improved relations with Taiwan in 2019 and voiced support for the establishment of official bilateral diplomatic relations.

China has relied heavily on propaganda to conceal these shortcomings. In 2012, Beijing launched the “16+1” initiative to improve diplomatic engagement with and strengthen pro-China sentiment in Central and Eastern European states in the EU as well as Balkan states.

Greece joined the initiative in 2019, making it the 17+1. This was, of course, accompanied by EU-China summits and a series of high-profile promises and nonbinding memorandums of understanding on future projects.

By hosting such events and making such announcements, China elevated its profile in Eastern European affairs and gave the world the impression that it was succeeding in the region. It was a savvy public relations move, but no substantial advancements have come with it. China’s failure to deliver on promised funds has started to create problems with the EU, as Brussels has criticized China for its attempts to separate Central and Eastern European members from the rest of the bloc.

European Opinions of China

On Dec. 5, Pew Research published a report on opinions toward China from around the world.

The Central and Eastern Europeans are somewhat divided in their assessments. More Bulgarians (55 percent), Poles (47 percent) and Lithuanians (45 percent) have favorable than unfavorable views of China, and Hungarians (40 percent favorable, and against 37 percent unfavorable) are nearly evenly divided. But a plurality of Slovaks (48 percent unfavorable) and a majority of Czechs (57 percent unfavorable and only 27 percent favorable) have negative views of China.

Despite China’s difficulties in delivering on its promises, Eastern European countries can still benefit from publicly backing the relationship. Flirting with China enables Eastern European states to build up leverage and bargaining power they would not have otherwise. In some respects, it is another factor to help them counterbalance Russian threats. For much of its existence, Eastern Europe has been a pawn in power struggles between Russia and the West.

Central and Eastern Europe has generally focused their strategic energies outward, toward the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean seas – toward the Rimland, in Spykman’s terminology – rather than inward, toward the Heartland. For these countries, opening up new avenues into the Heartland to connect with China threatens to overthrow the traditional Russia-West competition. It immediately creates geopolitical tension because it signifies Chinese expansion in the spheres of influence of both the United States and Russia, in the case of Belarus.

The projects of most value for Eastern Europe to engage in this game are those of a strategic nature. A prime example is the Rail Baltica project, which aims to connect the railways from Western Europe to Finland via Poland and the Baltic states along a new European standard gauge.

In Chinese plans, such a railway has strategic importance in the delivery of Chinese goods to all corners of Europe, but for the United States and NATO it has strategic importance in terms of military mobility and readiness. Even if China’s ability to follow through is in doubt, the discussion is enough that Washington must pay attention.

Eastern Europe relies on the U.S. presence in the region to counter Russian influence, something China cannot offer. If China were to decide to play a geopolitical role, it would immediately make Russia and China regional competitors; but Beijing is not ready for such a role and so is concentrating on advancing economic connectivity. As long as the United States views its ties with Eastern Europe as strategically important, it maintains the upper hand over Eastern Europe in the relationship.

The Eastern European states’ talks with China, no matter how superficial, are done with the goal of reducing the imbalance in the relationship with the United States. The U.S. has identified China as one of its top threats, and Western Europe is also keeping a watchful eye on Beijing. The days when China could expand its influence unchecked are over, even if Beijing’s strategy for engaging with Eastern Europe reflects its commercial needs — and even if its ability to deliver is limited.

For both the EU and the U.S., China poses a threat to national security, with a case in point being 5G. In an assessment report (“Cybersecurity of 5G networks - EU Toolbox of risk mitigating measures) that the European Union issued earlier this year, Brussels called for improvements in the bloc’s foreign direct investment screening mechanism so that states could better detect foreign investments in the 5G value chain that may threaten the security or public order of more than one EU member state.

This has proved a divisive issue, given that some states are not convinced that China is a national security threat. For example, Chinese telecom giant Huawei employs around 2,000 people in Hungary, where it has invested $1.2 billion since 2005 according to company figures, and now Hungary expects $180 million in investments from China for the construction of the second-largest Huawei supply center in the world.

Notably, Poland and Romania, staunch U.S. allies, rejected Chinese involvement in their 5G networks in favor of cooperation with the United States.

During the Cold War, Eastern Europe was the most important region in the geopolitical rivalry between the superpowers. It now seems that in the new international, multipolar world order, Central and Eastern Europe – and Europe as a whole – will play a serious role.

Chinese success irritates both the U.S. and Russia, especially success in the European continent, which is the traditional domain for both. China does not truly challenge U.S. interests there, but for those states, flirting with China does give them more leverage in their interactions with Washington.

Preventing a COVID-19 Food Crisis

The pandemic is amplifying the risk of a world-wide food-price spike, which would trigger outright crises in many developing countries. Governments must therefore work together to address disruptions to food supply chains and prevent food protectionism from becoming the post-pandemic new normal.

Carmen M. Reinhart, Rob Subbaraman

reinhart43_Waseem AndrabiHindustan Times via Getty Images_indiaricecoronavirus

ST. PETERSBURG/SINGAPORE – Even before the pandemic, there were signs that global food prices could soon surge. Extreme weather events induced by climate change have become more common.

African swine fever wiped out over one-quarter of the world’s pig population last year, causing food prices in China to increase by 15-22% year on year so far in 2020. And more recently, the worst locust blight in 70 years has destroyed crops in East Africa. In Kenya, the price of maize, a staple food, has risen by over 60% since 2019.

COVID-19 is amplifying the risk of a worldwide food-price spike, which would trigger outright crises in many developing countries. In the poorest of these, food accounts for 40-60% of the consumption basket, about 5-6 times its share in advanced economies.

While lockdowns have led to a collapse in demand for durable goods and discretionary services, the opposite is true of food. In cities around the world, reports of panic buying and food hoarding have proliferated since the pandemic began.

On the supply side, global grain stockpiles are healthy but could quickly be depleted as the virus disrupts food production and distribution. And shortages of animal feed, fertilizers, and pesticides have increased both the costs of farming and the risk of bad harvests.

Moreover, from harvesting fruits and vegetables in India to operating meat plants in America, labor shortages are becoming increasingly apparent as cross-border travel restrictions in much of the world disrupt the normal seasonal cycle of migrant farm workers. And transportation shortages are making it more challenging to get produce to market – when there is one.

Farmers need to reconfigure their supply chains away from bulk wholesale to (currently closed) restaurants, hotels, and schools, and toward grocery stores and home delivery. But that takes time, not least because commercial and consumer food products are prepared and packaged differently. In the meantime, fresh produce has had to be destroyed.

Furthermore, some major food-producing countries have already imposed export bans or quotas in response to the pandemic, as Russia and Kazakhstan have done for grain, and India and Vietnam have done for rice. Meanwhile, other countries are stockpiling food through accelerated imports, as is true of the Philippines (rice) and Egypt (wheat).

Such food protectionism may seem like a good way to provide relief to the most vulnerable segments of the population, but simultaneous interventions by many governments can result in a global food-price surge, as happened in 2010-11. The World Bank estimates that protectionism accounted for about 40% of the increase in the global price of wheat and 25% of the rise in maize prices at that time.

One can understand these countries’ nervousness. While the COVID-19 pandemic has led to falling growth, rising unemployment, widening fiscal deficits, and soaring debt in advanced and emerging economies alike, the appearance of new infection hotbeds in developing countries will mean an even starker tradeoff between saving lives and protecting livelihoods.

Moreover, developing countries are already facing a sudden stop in capital and remittance inflows and a collapse in tourism, while the terms of trade and currencies of the many oil and primary-commodity exporters among them are crashing. Even before COVID-19, many low-income countries were at serious risk of debt distress. And many of these economies are also highly vulnerable to a spike in food prices.

Nomura’s Food Vulnerability Index ranks 110 countries based on their exposure to large food-price swings, taking into account their nominal GDP per capita, the share of food in household consumption, and net food imports. The latest reading shows that of the 50 countries most vulnerable to a sustained rise in food prices, nearly all are developing economies that account for nearly three-fifths of the world’s population.

In fact, surging food prices would be a global problem, because they are highly regressive everywhere. Even in developed economies, a jump in food prices would drive a bigger wedge between the rich and poor, exacerbating already-severe wealth inequality. No one should ignore the age-old connection between food crises and social unrest.

Multilateral institutions have mobilized quickly during the crisis to provide emergency loans to a record number of developing countries, while G20 creditors have agreed to a temporary suspension of debt-service payments from poor countries that request forbearance. But because the risks posed by surging food prices do not apply only to the most vulnerable economies, temporary debt relief may need to be extended to other countries as well.

With the pandemic threatening to wreak even more economic havoc, governments must work together to address the risk of disruptions to food supply chains.

More broadly, some modicum of global policy coordination is essential to prevent food protectionism from becoming the post-pandemic new normal.

Carmen M. Reinhart is Professor of the International Financial System at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Rob Subbaraman is Chief Economist and Head of Global Markets Research for Asia ex-Japan at Nomura.