Belmont Club

Suddenly, Neither Liberty nor Civilization Is Assured

The two biggest uncertainties about the post-COVID-19 world are whether any privacy will survive and whether China or the United States will dominate. With regards to the first, the Guardian rhetorically asks whether you would  trade the total loss of your privacy for safety from the coronavirus, even if it meant entering a “cybergulag.” That’s what Russia is planning to do and China already did.  As the City Journal put it, perhaps the only way out of the lockdowns  is to voluntarily submit to 24×7 electronic tracking.

The responses adopted by governments around the world seem to fall into two main categories. Those countries able to leverage new and emerging technologies to fight the virus have done better in limiting the number of cases and fatalities, while managing to keep most of their economies and societies operational. The countries unable to use technology had to rely on lockdowns, quarantines, generalized closures, and other physical restrictions—the same methods used to fight the Spanish flu more than a century ago and, in many cases, with the same slow, painful results. In Singapore and South Korea, individuals are digitally monitored, but life is almost normal. In Spain, they are not monitored—but they cannot leave home.

Western publics seem willing to submit to previously unthinkable levels of government control in the name of public health. New York governor Andrew Cuomo is able to say with considerable support that “We do not have enough ventilators. Period. I am signing an Executive Order allowing the state to take ventilators and redistribute to hospitals in need. The National Guard will be mobilized to move ventilators to where they are urgently required to save lives.”

Residents are now officially encouraged to inform on each other. “Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said this week that ‘snitches’ in his city will get “rewards” if they tattle on neighbors who could be violating the stay-at-home order put in place to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus,” Fox News reported. “Google will help public health officials use its vast storage of data to track people’s movements amid the coronavirus pandemic, in what the company called an effort to assist in unprecedented times.”

The effort is just a fraction of what Google has on tap for the global pandemic. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Alphabet Inc. unit is among companies that have cooperated with a White House task force looking at controversial technologies such as individual location tracking to enforce distancing guidelines. Such technologies that have been effective in some countries are out of bounds in many democracies because of privacy concerns.

Privacy concerns are likely to be swept aside by the understandable fear of disease. As a fictional CIA agent explained to an idealist, people in distress will let government do anything to make the problem go away. “Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em.”

Although such measures might be sold as temporary expedients, power once obtained is rarely relinquished. After all, it’s a chance to remake the world:

[California governor] Newsom said, “forgive me for being long-winded, but absolutely we see this as an opportunity to reshape the way we do business and how we govern. And that shouldn’t put shivers up the spines of you know one party or the other. I think it’s an opportunity a new for both parties to come together and meet this moment and really start to think more systemically, not situationally, not just about getting out of this moment, but more sustainably and systemically to consider where we can go together in this historic moment if we meet it at a national level, in a state, and sub-national level. So, the answer is yes.”

The City Journal writes: “if you think that the measures being tested in China grant too much power to public authorities, different ideas can be found elsewhere. The uses of technology are, by definition, plural and creative. In Singapore, for example, the government has launched a new app for contact-tracing that both increases its effectiveness and keeps each individual in charge. The app works by exchanging Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other participating users in close proximity. Records of such encounters are stored on each user’s phone. If a user is interviewed by the medical authorities as part of the contact-tracing efforts, he can consent to share his data. The app does not collect or use location data and does not access a user’s phone contact list or address book. Importantly, no data are uploaded to a government server.”

Privacy issues will become the centerpiece of Western domestic policy debates. The public can try and reclaim its privacy but they shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Foreign affairs will be dominated by the rivalry between China and the United States as each country vies for which can most successfully recover and regroup from the disaster. Beijing is already claiming the title. “Beijing is bolstering its soft power and taking the lead in a global response to the coronavirus public health crisis. The moves come as China’s daily number of new infections decline while those in the U.S. rise.”

On social and state media, China continues to promote its shipments of medical supplies to hard hit countries in Europe and Africa. China’s officials have also used Twitter — blocked in the country — to trumpet China’ssuccess in containing the outbreak domestically, even though the virus was first reported there and was met with missteps initially. Through the efforts, Beijing is touting the superiority of its governance model and tapping into patriotic sentiments at home.

The Chinese rivalry loomed, like the proverbial elephant in the living room, over the relief of the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly over a complaint sent to the newspapers about the coronavirus without consulting the chain of command.

When the Commanding Officer of the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT decided to write his letter of 30 March 2020 that outlined his concerns for his crew in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of the Navy had already mobilized significant resources for days in response to his previous requests. On the same date marked on his letter, my Chief of Staff had called the CO directly, at my request, to ensure he had all the resources necessary for the health and safety of his crew. …

But there is a larger strategic context, one full of national security imperatives, of which all our commanders must all be aware today. While we may not be at war in a traditional sense, neither are we truly at peace. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise. Many nations are reaching, in many ways, to reduce our capacity to accomplish our national goals. This is actively happening every day …

The nation needs to know that the Big Stick is undaunted, unstoppable —and that you will stay that way as we as a Navy help you through this COVID-19 challenge. Our adversaries need to know this as well. They respect and fear the Big Stick, and they should. We will not allow anything to diminish that respect and fear as you, and the rest of our nation, fights through this virus. As I stated, we are not at war by traditional measures, but neither are we at peace. The nation you defend is in a fight right now for our economic, personal and political security, and you are on the front lines of this fight in many ways.

The most intriguing aspect of the naval press conference is the linkage of the virus to deterrence in the new cold war. The natural world is setting the agenda in domestic and international politics. As City Journal notes “the coronavirus proved that our natural environment continues to be as dangerous and hostile to human life as it has always been. … climate change seemed to show that human activity was the problem … Nature is once again the problem … almost as if humanity is once again discovering the Neolithic.”

Suddenly, neither liberty nor civilization is assured. Once again it is about survival. Survival of the fittest.

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Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, by Jim Mattis and Bing West. This is a book on leadership as seen through Jim Mattis’s storied career, from his wide-ranging leadership roles in three wars to ultimately commanding a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East.

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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.