Think Tank (3/2020)
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RSIS Webinar Series by Dr Adam Garfinkle
08 May 2020
Adam Garfinkle

Dr Adam Garfinkle, RSIS Distinguished Visiting Fellow; and Founding Editor of The American Interest gave three webinars between 8 to 22 May 2020. The webinars are part of a series which covered COVID-19.

  1. “Bad Arguments Never Die”: Why Effective National Responses to Pandemic Crises Have Nothing to Do with Regime Type or Governmental Size
  2. Net Assessment: How to Think About Major Discontinuities in the Global Order
  3. “Never Waste a Crisis”: Reform Opportunities in the Post-COVID-19 Era

“Bad Arguments Never Die”: Why Effective National Responses to Pandemic Crises Have Nothing to Do with Regime Type or Governmental Size

We have heard sirens of ideological marketing in the COVID-19 crisis, from Russia, China, and elsewhere, claiming that the pandemic proves authoritarian government superior to democratic government. We have also heard arguments in the United States and some other countries that small and limited government is inferior to big government in tough times, and implying that all future times will be tough.

Neither argument is correct. The evidence shows that neither authoritarian nor democratic systems have clear advantages or disadvantages in pandemic contingencies—other factors are far more important.  The same goes for the size of government. Neither big nor small is necessarily better; better is better, and what determines administrative effectiveness and competency is far more complex than mere size.

Net Assessment: How to Think About Major Discontinuities in the Global Order

Intelligence communities all over the world have practiced ways to study radical discontinuity contingencies, and plan accordingly. The US system features a methodology for structuring how to think about the COVID-19 pandemic crisis called Net Assessment.

Net Assessment methodology eschews “point” predictions and instead posits ranges of outcomes, each with probability markers assigned to them, in part by distinguishing between stochastic risk and structural uncertainty. In the current case, some of what we don’t know about COVID-19 falls into the category of risk: How long will it go on, how will it affect various economies and the global connectivity of supply chains, and so forth. Other aspects fall into the category of structural uncertainty: Will there be second and third waves of infection, or have no significant following second wave, like SARS? Will the virus mutate to generate a higher mortality rate? Will regimes collapse or civil wars break out, with what second- and third-order effects doubling back on public health and economic stresses?

All net assessment projections are striated into layered decision trees. Applied to the COVID-19 crisis, those layers would move from medical uncertainties, to economic impacts, to social implications, to political consequences within countries, to political consequences for the international system as a whole. Analytic frameworks are structured to be updatable as new information becomes available. They are in general designed to give decision-makers a heuristic tool to aid planning that is at the same time flexible but not excessively diffuse.

Singaporean scholars and analysts might benefit from learning more about US net assessment methodology, just as US scholars and analysts might learn from Singapore’s approach to understanding radical discontinuity.

“Never Waste a Crisis”: Reform Opportunities in the Post-COVID-19 Era

The COVID-19 crisis may be analogised as a stress test for human social and political institutions at all levels of society. Some of these institutions have been found wanting, though perfect agreement on which ones and why remains elusive within societies as well as among them.

That said, many proposals exist and more will follow as to how the US Government should reform itself to prepare for future pandemics. Those reforms could spill benignly over the government as a whole, and global governance protocols could be improved as a result of US initiatives.

With respect to international institutions, not a single international organisation has distinguished itself as even moderately useful in this crisis. At the same time, everyone knows that pandemic disease contingencies cannot be managed on a national level alone — and the same is true for other global governance challenges. So, in due course, national governments will try again to come to some practical arrangements to deal with a range of issues. They can succeed if they are practical, and if the locus of decision-making is more democratically distributed.

That, however, will require Western countries to make a sincere effort to integrate non-Western civilisational zones into reformed international organisations, and it will particularly require the Chinese government to make a critical choice:  to continue free riding on the global institutional set-up with its own unilateral advantage ultimately in mind, or to become a genuine good neighbour to other societies.

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