Professor Walter Mead on the post-pandemic world

May 1, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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In the latest of its webinar series, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) hosted distinguished academic Professor Walter Russell Mead, who is also the Wall Street Journal’s Global View columnist, on the topic “Who will lead the post-pandemic world?”.

Walter Russell Mead

His presentation has been reported to have been fascinating and erudite, with many topics of interest also arising during the Q & A.

On President Trump’s strategy on Iran, and whether it would work, Professor Mead explained that the aim is to put pressure on Iran so the regime finds it harder to pursue its aggressive, ambitious regional policy while maintaining a reasonable domestic economy. The problem for the Trump Administration was that the JCPOA nuclear agreement was not strong enough, and totally ignored the regime’s expansionist regional behaviour, which was also a concern of many of Iran’s neighbours. Trump is trying to create a framework for a more comprehensive approach that stops Iran’s expansionism and settles the nuclear issue. The Iranians are resisting this, but their economy is worsening. Their strategy seems to be to hope Biden wins in November, or otherwise just keep going as they are, although Biden has also said there can’t be a return to the JCPOA.

The Pandemic has severely weakened Iran due to its effects on the country and the fall in the oil price. It’s interesting, Mead noted, that Russia threw Iran under the bus when it launched its oil price war against Saudi Arabia. Russia is also reducing its economic relationship with Iran.

Overall, the US strategy is working, but there is currently not an end in sight.

Asked about whether the Trump Middle East peace plan could work and, specifically, what would happen if Israel annexed parts of the West Bank, he said that, like many before, the plan will not settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The effect of the annexation will depend on the degree – if it’s a minimal annexation that just takes in the main settlement blocs that everyone accepts Israel will retain in any peace agreement, which appears to be what PM Benjamin Netanyahu is looking at, there will be some diplomatic pushback, but it won’t be seen as a violation of the status quo. A more sweeping annexation including all settlements and the Jordan valley would cause a bigger issue. The surrounding Arab states are now more interested in Israel’s value as an ally against Iran and potentially Turkey than in the Palestinian issue, but they will only accept a certain degree of affront. Israel will need to calculate what it hopes to achieve against risking the wrath of the international community.

Finally asked for his comment on why there has been a resurgence of antisemitism during the coronavirus crisis and what can be done about it, he said there is no surprise this has occurred, as there is a long association between plagues and epidemics and antisemitism going back to the Black Death, and this won’t be the last time it happens. To counter it, the Jewish people need a strong national state that can defend itself and act as an advocate for Jews all over the world. That is a major difference between now and previous outbreaks of antisemitism – Jews now have Israel, a place they can go if needed.

There is also the need to have more education, so people see Jews as normal members of their communities – many of the most virulent antisemites have little contact with Jews. Jews are not the cause of antisemitism. It is important to remember that the causes of and, to some degree, the solution to, antisemitism lie outside the Jewish community, he concluded.

Earlier, after a sobering summary of the international impact of COVID-19, he noted that the effect in each country would differ depending on the individual circumstances of that nation, including the state of the economy and the health system, and the exports it relied on.

So far, he said, it hasn’t much changed the likely outcome of November’s US Presidential election. Donald Trump was trailing Joe Biden in the polls before the pandemic, and he still is after a slight rise earlier. The fact this hasn’t changed despite the huge death toll and devastating economic effects, not to mention various missteps by the President, demonstrates that Trump has a “high floor but a low ceiling”. The result will depend on the campaign and the battleground states, and is still too close to call.

The Trump campaign will depend on two main strategies – to attack Mr Biden and to focus on China. As a populist, Professor Mead explained, Trump needs to run against the establishment, and in this case will focus on the foreign policy establishment, which has been arguing for 30 years that free trade with China will make China more democratic and Americans richer. Trump will highlight his record of criticism of China.

At this stage, Professor Mead said, it is hard to forecast how a Biden win would change US foreign policy.

 The rest of the presentation focussed mainly on China, which Professor Mead said would find itself much less trusted by the international community after its earlier withholding of information, which could result in less investment in China by foreign governments and companies. Its economy is also struggling, due to internal structural problems and weakening of its trading partners.

As a “dramatically insecure “ government, it is focussed largely on its own survival, and its aggressive diplomacy should be seen in that light – it is more for domestic consumption than to advance international aims, where it has been largely counter-productive. It is also likely to become more internally repressive, as communist governments historically do when under threat.

It will try to bully other nations, as it has done with Australia, but if other countries stick to their positions, China will see its bullying as less useful. It is important that the US and its allies maintain a balance of power to prevent China trying to act against Taiwan or to take over the South China Sea.

Russia and the EU are also struggling with the pandemic, while the US, together with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been propping up the international economy.

The upshot, he concluded, is that while the US is a reluctant and not entirely satisfactory hegemon, it will continue to hold that position for some time.


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