Presidential Lessons in Crisis Management

Insights, analysis and must reads from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and the Global Public Square team, compiled by Global Briefing editor Chris Good.

President Trump has embraced the mantle of “wartime president,” but in a Washington Post op-ed, noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss (who published his latest book, “Presidents of War,” in 2018) offers lessons on wartime leadership from some of Trump’s predecessors. Among those he extracts: “Level with the public,” unlike James K. Polk, who “fabricated” a pretext for war with Mexico; work “to unite the country against the common enemy,” as FDR did in rallying a divided nation to war against Hitler; show empathy, as Lincoln did for Civil War casualties; build confidence in a victory plan, as Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis; warn that more bad news could be on the horizon before it comes, as FDR did after Pearl Harbor; and put trust in wise experts, as Lincoln did with Grant.

At Politico Magazine, John Harris worries over another comparison, asking if Trump will fare as Herbert Hoover did amid the onset of the Great Depression. Like Trump, Harris writes, Hoover assumed the presidency without having held elective office before, but unlike Trump (who has faced challenges in business) Hoover had made it to a late stage in life relatively untested. When the test came, Hoover suffered a “breakdown,” as described by the contemporary columnist Walter Lippmann—not a psychological one, as Harris reviews it, but a political one, in which Hoover “found himself trapped by experience and instincts that suddenly were irrelevant to the moment.” Trump has used bluster and self-promotion to succeed in business and politics, Harris writes, wondering if he has a trait that can serve crisis managers best: the ability to adapt.

In Latin America, Covid-19 Separates Populists From Pragmatists

Latin America’s governments have responded to Covid-19 in very different ways, Frida Ghitis writes for the World Politics Review, but left-right politics have little to do with it. Rather, “a president’s own personal and populist proclivities” have “become the determining factor” in how a given country handles Covid-19, Ghitis writes.

In Brazil, right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus, while left-leaning populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has similarly eschewed precautions. But “[n]o government has put on a more surreal performance than President Daniel Ortega’s in Nicaragua, where the former Marxist guerrilla leader governs alongside his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo,” Ghitis writes. “As the virus started claiming victims in Central America, the eccentric Murillo called for a popular march against the virus—just the kind of mass gathering that public health experts warned should be shut down. Thousands of Ortega loyalists took to the streets in a parade Murillo aptly named, ‘Love in the Time of Coronavirus.’”

Pragmatists, meanwhile, have taken things seriously regardless of ideological slant. Ghitis singles out Argentina; left-leaning Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra, whose response was swift and sweeping; and conservative Colombian President Iván Duque, who addressed the nation in a “somber” tone.

China’s Covid-19 Deflections

Covid-19 may have originated in China, but the Chinese government has aggressively sought to deflect blame, David Gitter, Sandy Lu, and Brock Erdahl write for Foreign Policy. Lower-level spokesmen with the Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested the US may have seeded the virus in Wuhan, and although Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai seemed to contradict them, the authors suggest this is merely a good-cop, bad-cop routine. Chinese state media has also suggested the virus came from Italy, they note, surmising the Chinese Communist Party is doing whatever it can to protect its reputation. Disinformation watcher Laura Rosenberger of the German Marshall Fund, meanwhile, tells Axios that China has taken a page from Russia’s disinformation playbook, offering up contradictory narratives to sow confusion.

“To be sure, Beijing may well decide this messaging is counterproductive and cool it down,” Gitter, Lu, and Erdahl conclude. “But for now bellicose conspiracies and smooth-talking diplomats all are working under the same orders: redirect blame away from the [Chinese Communist Party] for the greatest global health catastrophe of our time.”

Lies in the Time of Coronavirus

As Covid-19 sweeps over the globe, observers are noting that disinformation abounds, in various forms. Typically unreliable websites have taken up Covid-19 as a topic—Karen Kornbluh and Ellen Goodman of the German Marshall Fund write that “of the top ten outlets that repeatedly share false content, eight out of ten are pushing misleading or outright false articles about coronavirus”—while The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz points out that Alex Jones and Infowars are hawking products containing colloidal silver, claiming it fights viruses, despite the FDA’s clear statement that there are “no FDA-approved medical countermeasures for COVID-19.” More traditional government propaganda is a problem, too: German public-media outlet Deutsche Welle reports that Iranian officials have obscured the virus’s severity and, in at least one case, blamed the US.

As for what to do about all this, Kristin Lord and Elayne Deelen of New America remind us that media literacy and healthy skepticism are the best medicines, and in an essay for The Atlantic, Andy Carvin and Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council recommend epistemic best practices (checking sources, checking one’s own biases) and turning down the temperature: “Your tone matters. And screaming into the void online or at someone in particular isn’t likely to make things better.”

An Oil Collapse Could Shake the World Economy Even Further

Covid-19 is hurting industries across the economy—Lufthansa’s CEO tells Der Spiegel, predictably, that the airline is “barely generating revenues any longer” amid transportation shutdowns—but oil could take a particularly severe hit, according to two essays in Foreign Affairs. The Saudi-Russian feud had already sunk prices, and amid the global shock of Covid-19, a “resulting collapse in demand will be bigger than any recorded since oil became a global commodity,” Daniel Yergin writes. “The decline in global consumption in April alone will be seven times bigger than the biggest quarterly decline following the 2008–9 financial crisis. In areas that lack access to storage and markets, the price of a barrel of oil could fall to zero.”

That will carry massive implications, Amy Myers Jaffe writes—particularly for developing countries that rely on oil exports, already face high debt, and count on oil prices in the $50-per-barrel range when drawing up their budgets. “Oil-linked debt troubles could explode across the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa in 2020, setting off financial crises and potentially even defaults that would be felt around the world,” Jaffe predicts—a catastrophe for world financial markets, where portfolios include oil-related and emerging-market investments.

And as the world economy confronts a Covid-19 crisis, an oil collapse could deprive it of a safety net it unfurled after the 2008 crash, when oil-rich countries helped out: “Tiny Qatar injected billions of dollars into Barclays during that crisis and helped secure emergency support to UBS and Credit Suisse,” Yaffe writes. “The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority simultaneously invested $7.5 billion in bonds issued by Citigroup to shore up that bank, while the United Arab Emirates injected $19.0 billion into its own banks to keep them afloat.” This time, that help is less likely to arrive.

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