Damage control in Washington DC
“Humans are pattern-seeking, story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories, whether they exist or not,” said Michael Shermer, an American science writer. That must be why I can’t help but see a pattern taking shape in Washington. Let me tell you my story.
American President Joe Biden has started with damage control on three areas of global significance. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed these in his recent phone conversation with the spokesperson and chief adviser to the president of Turkey, İbrahim Kalın. (The rest of the conversation contains Turkey-specific details -- it was good to hear, for example, about the U.S. commitment for restarting long-stalled intercommunal talks in Cyprus). The readout of the phone call gave me a sense that an issue-based global leadership is taking shape in Washington.
The first issue is about the global COVID-19 response in terms of both health and economic policy. President Biden already sent an additional $1.9 trillion support package to Congress in his first week. On Feb. 4, Biden tweeted, “Let me be clear: The risk in this moment isn’t that we do too much — it’s that we don’t do enough.”
That’s the motto, not only for domestic but also for the global response. In that first week, the Biden administration also returned to the WHO and pledged 2 billion doses of vaccines for the COVAX program, which is aimed to ensure a more equal distribution of vaccines across the world.
The second issue was the climate change agenda. It’s good to see the U.S. back in the Paris Climate Accord, as Mr. Kalın noted in the phone conversation. The high-level climate conference on April 22, Earth Day, at the White House is also a global agenda-setting move.
Those interested in climate change should have a look at the new Human Development Report (HDR) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It’s about human development and the Anthropocene, which is the scientific name for the human-dominated epoch of the planet. Some mark its beginning with the industrial revolution.
When it comes to development comparisons among countries, we have been focusing on GDP growth rates more than any other indicator. Then came the HDR in 1990, claiming to qualify development beyond sheer economic growth figures, adding qualitative issues like female labor force participation, schooling years, or gender equality to the debate. The new HDR also includes the cost of human development to our planet, with new related metrics.
With non-carbon-based development becoming possible through new technologies, the climate change agenda is also turning into an item of the technology race. It’s not just about a green conscience, but about economic competitiveness now.
The third issue Sullivan raised during the first contact was the “broad commitment” of the Biden administration to “democratic institutions and the rule of law.” This is always the awkward part of these conversations, but it is the subject of a new divide, which I presume: Autocracies versus democracies.
I know that it has been just two weeks, but since the previous president was a disaster, we can’t help ourselves. As in the song by Katy Perry, “after a hurricane comes a rainbow,” we expect some good news. Yet the future remains clouded, not least by the virus.