What makes America unique?

Defining Elements of American national identity: Exceptionalism, Volunteerism and the American Dream

In an ordinary year, the United States expects roughly 76 million people to visit their country. People from all over the globe come to enjoy the beauty of American landscapes from the breathtaking Grand Canyon to the Utah Mountain ranges. They come to re-live American history by visiting the many historical landmarks and museums such as the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C, Gettysburg cemetery and Mount Vernon.

If those things don’t do it for you, there is a multitude of entertainment on broadway, world-class theme parks and sporting events, the best shopping in the world and a choice of global cuisines – available with a supersize option!

The United States of America certainly is the land of the plenty, and tourists commonly marvel at the confident, patriotic and entrepreneurial nature of the American people. We can point to these common stereotypes, but what is it that actually makes the American nation and its people so different and remarkable from the rest of us?

Having lived and worked in the United States, I boil it down to three defining characteristics. American Exceptionalism, Volunteerism and the Dream. It is these three components that have defined America since its founding and set the U.S apart from the rest of the globe.

In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is predicated on American’s strong tradition of successful immigration. Since its founding, America has been the ‘nation of nations’ and a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted; sentiments which are inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. In 1858, Lincoln stated that when immigrants internalised the creed that “all men are created equal,” they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood and flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” Today, immigration continues to be largely supported by both major political parties. In contrast to much of Europe, America has no major political party calling for ethno-cultural policies that would see a ban on immigration. These combined factors afford Americans a world-leading standard of living. Such standards outrank all other countries of major size and geopolitical importance. US history of post-WWII dominance and leadership on the international stage has reinforced and magnified traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism: a core aspect of American national identity today.

A long-standing tradition of volunteerism is another hallmark of American national identity based on the founding values of personal responsibility, moralism and equality of opportunity. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, date back to the 19th century. Writing about his travels through the US in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbours to accomplish community goals. Today, this same tradition of civic duty and community development is exemplified by the 40% of Americans who actively volunteer their time. This figure sets the United States apart as one the most philanthropic nations in the world. The strong culture and history of volunteerism in the United States lives on today and continues to enable a highly diverse population to unite around shared goals and common purpose.

A further core element of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. While the US is a country consisting of a ‘melange of beliefs, cultures and traditions,’ its common thread is that America is the land of opportunity.  The Pilgrims realised this dream, imagining a new destiny for themselves as did the founding fathers. In the 1830’s de Tocqueville observed the ‘charm of anticipated success’ in American society and his research led him to discover that this same optimistic outlook existed among the European colonists some 200 years’ prior.The American Dream is an elastic element which continues to be a defining element of American identity in the 21st century. Athletes invoke it during championship games, immigrants leave their homes in search of it and aspiring politicians appeal to it as a basis for their candidacies. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is another key unifying concept of American identity. American exceptionalism, the American Dream and volunteerism each remain central in American culture today and establish a shared American identity that is consistent with the nation’s founding ideals of freedom, personal responsibility, equality of opportunity, stewardship and hope. 

The United States of America is a wonderful country, though it is not perfect, it has never claimed to be. Today it is promising to see that the values of US Exceptionalism, giving back to one’s community through volunteering and the American Dream of a better life have endured from the nation’s founding and enable today’s American citizens to live prosperous and free lives.

Hong Kong: One Country, One System

In light of the ongoing 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, China’s ceremonial parliament has voted to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to enact dramatic national security legislation. According to the Chinese government, these new laws are intended to crackdown on ‘secessionist and subversive activity … terrorism and foreign interference’. Beijing has previously blamed the lack of a national security law for last year’s alarming anti-extradition protests. However, activists remain concerned that these laws will undermine civil liberties and bring an end to Hong Kong’s unique partial autonomy.

Hong Kong is currently governed under a “one country, two systems” model underpinned by two key documents: The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These established China’s rule over Hong Kong – subject to significant caveats including the continuation of British capitalism, maintenance of the common law, protection of civil liberties and an understanding that Beijing would not directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from the city’s 1997 handover. Significantly, Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact national security legislation “on its own.”

While details about the application of these new security laws remain unclear, they clearly encroach upon Hong Kong’s existing autonomy from China. The ‘crimes’ stipulated in the security laws have vague definitions and could potentially include any attempts to voice dissent against the Government. Such laws may also lead to widespread arrests on arbitrary political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. If these reforms are unable to bridge the divide between Hong Kongers and Beijing, then Hong Kong may remain a tinderbox of revolt for years to come.

The enactment of this legislation has prompted wide-spread criticism from international actors such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. In the United States, the Trump Administration has announced that it will no longer treat Hong Kong as being autonomous from the Chinese mainland as a result of Beijing’s latest intervention. In addition to the political ramifications, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is now in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair compared to China’s. These features make Hong Kong an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. Any erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech risks undermining this appeal.

Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would strip Hong Kong of its special privileges, China’s state media have taken aim at the US by comparing #BlackLivesMatter protests with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A commentary published in China Daily – a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party – said US politicians should do their jobs and help solve problems in the US, instead of trying to create new problems and troubles in other countries.

Chinese attempts to equate protesting in some US cities with wide-spread calls for democracy and freedom from China in Hong Kong are disingenuous and politically-motivated. At this critical time, it is important that Western media outlets critically assess China’s claims and report them for what they are. Racial tensions in the US and Chinese interventions in Hong Kong are entirely seperate issues. Failure to recognise these clear differences and blind acceptance of CCP rhetoric plays right into Beijing’s hand and may cost the people of Hong Kong their freedom.

Mearsheimer got it right

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Mearsheimer articulated a bold thesis- the great-power rivalry was not over. While Mearsheimer was ignored, Covid-19 has exposed the intense Sino-American security competition that he predicted.

In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer, argued that insecurity and conflict remained inevitable structures of the anarchic international system. Further, Mearsheimer argued that as China increased in power and ambition it would become more assertive in protecting its security and prosperity depended. As the global hegemon, the US would go to great lengths to stop the rising power from dominating Asia.

Two decades ago, Realism the long-standing theory of international relations took a hit following the unexpected end to the Cold War. Theories of Liberalism and Constructivism flourished and analysed what appeared to be a new world entering an era of increased globalisation and interdependency. State rivaries and military power seemed to matter less. The prevailing wisdom was that rapid economic growth ensured the emerg­ence of a democratic polity in China, as it had in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. China was categorised as a developing country, afforded grace for its communist rule while it “peacefully” progressed and lifted millions out of poverty. It was thought that the more China embraced­ global capitalism, the more likely it would integrate peacefully in the rules-based international order.

However, Mearsheimer contested such Wilsonian thinking, arguing that the brutal competition of power is a root function of the structure of the international system, a reality which has been true since the time of Thucydides. He called this the “tragic nature of great- power politics.” In an anarchical international community, without a central body to enforce rules and norms, great powers find it impossibl­e to trust each other. The tragedy is that striving for security leads to heightened tensions, a concept known by international scholars as the ‘security dilemma.’

For Mearsheimer, the consequences were clear: by growing ­enchanted with the Chinese market, the world was choosing to play with fire. Far from progressing to become a ­responsible democratic nation, Beijing was bound to upset the strategic sensibilities of neighbouring states, from Japan and South Korea to India and Vietnam. As a result, Mearsheimer advised the US to pivot strongly in Asia, deepen security ties with its allies and develop new strategic partnerships with old foes.

Alas, after America’s Cold War victory, both Democratic and Republican administrations indulged in what Mearsheimer’s academic colleague Stephen Walt calls the “hubristic fantasy” of global “liberal­ hegemony”, which both scholars warned would cost the US dearly in prestige and influence. Meanwhile, China’s rise continued. The CCP advanced its defence mechanisms, developed per­sis­t­ent cyber-espionage and pushed nationalism supported by wide-spread propaganda. Today, China plans to forcefully takeover Hong Kong alongside its relentless intimidation of Taiwan and aggressive­ build-up of military islands in the South China Sea. China is now showing every possible sign of seeking to overthrow the US-led security system in the region.

We now have an important and pressing choice to make. Will the United States follow the advice of Mearsheimer and lead a coalition to pursue a containment strategy. Or, adopt an approach of “engaging and constraining” China, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese suggests.

American national identity: land of the free

National identity refers to a shared belief among a group of individuals that they form a cohesive whole due to shared history, connection to a territory and common distinctive characteristics. Within modern America there are some who question the existence of a national identity. Others argue that while a shared American identity currently exists, social division and fragmentation will result in the demise of US national identity. Contrary to such views, national identity in the United States has proven to be resilient throughout history and plays an important role in continuing to unify a diverse population.

The US was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” This identity is exemplified in American leaders and seminal texts such as the Declaration of Independence, The U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’ s “I Have a Dream” speech. US national identity continues to be comprised of America’s founding ideals, evidenced through the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and volunteerism.

Puritan settler John Winthrop conceived of America as a “city on a hill,” a distinct place with a heaven-sent obligation to build a new world. In the aftermath of the War of Independence, many citizens agreed that Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and distinct from other nations.” Today, many Americans continue to perceive their nation in this exceptional light. In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is further predicated on American’s strong tradition of successful immigration. Since its founding, America has been the ‘nation of nations’ and a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted; sentiments which are inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. In 1858, Lincoln stated that when immigrants internalised the creed that “all men are created equal,” they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood and flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” Today, immigration continues to be largely supported by both major political parties. In contrast to much of Europe, America has no major political party calling for ethno-cultural policies that would see a ban on immigration. These combined factors afford Americans a world-leading standard of living. Such standards outrank all other countries of major size and geopolitical importance. US history of post-WWII dominance and leadership on the international stage has reinforced and magnified traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism: a core aspect of American national identity.   

A long-standing tradition of volunteerism is another hallmark of American national identity based on the founding values of personal responsibility, moralism and equality of opportunity. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, date back to the 19th century. Writing about his travels through the US in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbours to accomplish community goals. Today, this same tradition of civic duty and community development is exemplified by the 40% of Americans who actively volunteer their time. This figure sets the United States apart as one the most philanthropic nations in the world. The strong culture and history of volunteerism in the United States lives on today and continues to enable a highly diverse population to unite around shared goals and common purpose.

Another aspect of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. This refers to the belief that anyone can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities and cultures. The Pilgrims realised this dream, imagining a new destiny for themselves as did the founding fathers. In the 1830’s de Tocqueville observed the ‘charm of anticipated success’ in American society and his research led him to discover that this same optimistic outlook existed among the European colonists some 200 years’ prior. The American Dream is an elastic element which continues to be a defining element of American identity in the 21st century. Athletes invoke it during championship games, immigrants leave their homes in search of it and aspiring politicians appeal to it as a basis for their candidacies. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is a key component of American identity.

The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaim universal liberty, such documents have coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans and women. Despite immense social progress, some Americans argue that racism and sexism continue to divide American societies. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the centre of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. The #MeToo movement similarly draws upon the historic injustices encountered by American women while also raising awareness of the contemporary experiences of sexual abuse survivors. The movement exemplifies the intention of American women to seek freedom from barriers of sexual exploitation they experience, which currently prevent them from realising the full effects of freedom, equality and the hope implicit within the American Dream.

These movements both symbolise a powerful message: all Americans long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism and sexism in the United States have prevented people from accessing these promises. In Gunnar Myrdal’s description, America has represented the ideals—not the perfect execution—of liberty. Therefore, contest within the United States does not undermine the concept of US national identity, rather the ongoing quest for greater freedom within America attempts to reconcile society with the country’s founding values, emphasising the continued relevance of core aspects of American identity: liberty, equality and hope.

American national identity is broad enough to encompass all citizens, yet powerful enough to establish a shared connection between Americans, their country and their national aspirations. Though the United States will continue to face pressure to change, American identity will remain consistent and will continue to uphold the shared culture, ideals and values which founded America. 

References

Adamic, Louis. “A Nation of Nations.” Pi Lambda Theta Journal 24, no. 4 (1946): 137-39.  

Armstrong, Joslyn. “A Dream Deferred: How Discrimination Impacts the American Dream Achievement for African Americans.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 50, no. 3 (2019): 227–250.

Bone, Martyn. “City on a Hill.” Dictionary of American History, vol. 2 (2003): 184.

Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (Oxford University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central 2014.

Devos, Thierry and Hafsa, Mohamed. “Shades of American Identity: Implicit Relations between Ethnic and National Identities.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 8, no. 12 (2014): 739-54.

D. Lavy, Marvell. “Volunteerism in America.” Contract Management 45, no. 8, Aug (2005): 65-69.   

Erickson, Bradley M. ” Understanding American Identity: An Introduction.” Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, California, 2017. 

Gunnar, Mydral. “An American Dilemma.” Race vol. 4 (1962): 3–11.

Habermas, Jurgen. “The European Nation-State and the Pressures of Globalization.” New Left Review 235 (1999): 46-59.  

Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist No. 1.” Independent Journal (1787).

Hughes, Richard. “Teaching Note Race, Housing, and the Federal Government: Black Lives on the Margins of the American Dream.” Radical Teacher 106, no. 106 (2016):138–140. 

Jack, Elkin Terry. “Alexis De Tocqueville’s America.” National Civic Review 106, no. 1 (2017): 30-31.

Momen, Mehnaaz. “The Paradox of Citizenship in American Politics Ideals and Reality.” Ideals and Reality 1st Ed (2018): 33-35.

Miller, David. On Nationality. Oxford Political Theory, Clarendon, 1997.  

Schuck, Peter H.  “James Q. Wilson and American Exceptionalism.” National Affairs 43, (Spring 2020)

Song, Sarah. “What does it mean to be an American?” Daedalus (Spring 2008): 31-40.

The Economist. “Bernie Sanders, nominee.” February 27, 2020. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/02/27/bernie-sanders-nominee.

“THE BILL OF RIGHTS: A BRIEF HISTORY.” Aclu.org. Accessed May 17, 2020. https://www.aclu.org/other/bill-rights-brief-history.

Thompson, Debra, and Chloe Thurston. “American Political Development in the Era of Black Lives Matter.” Politics, Groups, and Identities, vol. 6, no. 1 (2018):116–119.

“Top 10 countries for volunteering time for charity between 2009 and 2018, by share of population.” Statista.com. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/283354/top-10-countries-volunteering-time-for-charities/.

Walzer, Michael. “What does it mean to be American?” What It Means to Be an American: Essays on the American Experience 46, no.6 (1974): 46. 

“Women’s Suffrage.” History.com. Accessed May 13, 2012. https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage



Realism and the diverging foreign policy approaches of the United States and China

The COVID pandemic has showcased a proliferation of blame, acrimony and military aggression between the United States and China. Additionally, we have witnessed the fragility of international institutions as the WHO which struggled to balance the strategic interests of China with the health of the global community. Core realist tenants of the anarchical, state-centric international order are proving relevant in the study of modern international relations.

The emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic has inspired varying international responses from the United States and China. China severely mismanaged the outbreak of the coronavirus through censorship and denial. As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, officials of the Communist Party of China made extensive preparations to protect their population, while only selectively sharing information with the international community. Amid the global pandemic, the Chinese government has continued to advance its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea and has been accused by the United States government of exploiting the crisis to gain territory. On April 2, Vietnam reported a Chinese military ship deliberating sinking a Vietnamese fishing ship in the disputed territory. In March, the Chinese government commissioned two research stations with defence capabilities on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The US international response has differed significantly from China’s approach.

America’s democratic values and trusted institutions have enabled more accurate reporting of COVID-19 figures, this has allowed epidemiologists to develop policies to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the virus. The US Centre for Disease control also continues to publish information that helps American citizens gain access to medical services and minimise community transmission. The US has prioritised holding China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus and has scaled up its military presence in the South China Sea. In March, the US military conducted live-missile testing in the Philippine Sea, sending a message of deterrence to China. On March 31, President Trump announced the suspension of all US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to concerns of its mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and “China-centric nature.”

Structural realists assert that the architecture of the international system forces states to compete for limited power. For this reason, cooperation within international institutions often proves fragile. The COVID pandemic provides a vivid reminder of the relevance of these realist precepts. States are fearful that cooperation may enable another state to advance their capabilities and gain greater power and influence relative to them. In this case, President Trump declared the suspension of all funds to the World Health Organisation, perceiving the benefits of US cooperation within the WHO to be waning relative to the growing influence of China. Structural realist theory also provides valuable insight into China’s behaviour within the WHO. States will engage in international institutions when they perceive opportunities to gain power relative to their competitors. President Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party has established the priority to challenge the American global order by strengthening Beijing’s multilateral clout. The World Health Organisation’s response to the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated the influence China wields in the institution relative to the US. Until mid-January, the WHO stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on a large scale, this statement was made without independent investigation into China’s claims.  Following the US decision to halt funding, China identified a US leadership void and stepped in to fill it, announcing a 30 million dollar increase in their contributions to the institution, enabling greater Chinese influence in global health and the portrayal of China as the new champion of multilateralism. So long as China continues to benefit from this institution relative to others, structural realists predict they will continue to amplify cooperation and influence within the World Health Organisation. 

According to realists, the main goal of states within the international system is survival. States understand the best way to ensure their territorial integrity is to be more powerful relative to others. These conditions place a premium on the possession of military power as states are aware of the inherent risks of conflict. China has historically undertaken expansionist strategies to guarantee security and survival, during the global COVID pandemic China has scaled up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, seizing the strategic opportunity presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the disputed Paracel Islands. Beijing blamed the Vietnamese ship for fishing illegally in Chinese waters. In the previous month, China commissioned two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The reefs are equipped with defence silos and military-grade runways. John Mearsheimer asserts that hegemony is the most effective way to secure the survival of a state. For this reason, the rivalry among the great powers for hegemony is a constant feature in the international system. 

The US government and military officials have criticised China for its increased militarisation in the South China Sea during the global pandemic. From the US perspective, the waterway is a vital channel for US-style sea power. In mid-March, US military vessels and aircraft conducted live-fire missile testing in the Philippine Sea. By demonstrating US military capabilities, a clear message of deterrence was sent to China. Structural realism offers a simple explanation for the recent foreign policy of China and the US. China is an emerging global hegemon and is pursuing as much power as possible within the South China Sea while discouraging others as a means of guaranteeing their security. The US seeks to maintain the status quo of American regional hegemony within the South China Sea and is attempting to balance against the increasingly combative behaviour of China.  

While structural realism provides unique and helpful insights into understanding recent COVID-inspired foreign policies of the US and China, the theory fails to grapple with the influence of domestic politics on a state’s external behaviour. Structural realists assert that the driving forces for international relations are systemic and uninfluenced by domestic politics. States are considered interchangeable ‘black boxes’ that will behave similarly as the international system creates the same basic incentives for all states. This level of analysis has limited structural realism in its understanding of the diverging COVID strategies of the US and China. Differences in the domestic political systems of China and the United States have proven relevant to recent international relations. Neo-classical realists have attempted to reconcile this criticism of structural realism by recognising the impact that domestic politics may have on a state’s external behaviour. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping protecting the reputation and authority of the Chinese Communist Party is prioritised above human life. China’s authoritarian leadership and communist political system led to the censorship of COVID information and prevented China from signalling early warnings to the international community. 

The United States is a democratic republic and stresses the importance of free communication between people and government. These internal values within the US have led to high rates of testing and the transparent disclosure of these figures to the international community. At current, the US has recorded the highest COVID death toll in the world, surpassing China. In saying this, it is important to remember that while the Chinese government claims to be ahead of the US in containing the virus with no reports of new cases, we have reason to doubt China’s information due to its censorship of early COVID warnings and lack of cooperation throughout the pandemic. We will likely never know how many Chinese citizens were infected and died due to COVID-19. In the US, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus and offered advice which conflicted medical experts. However, the democratic system in the US underpins the leadership of the President. When a US president fails, citizens can count on the objectivity of trusted institutions such as the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to provide accurate and objective information. The Disease Centre’s weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between government and the public since 1946 and this has continued throughout the COVID pandemic. 

Neo-classical realist theory inspires the contemplation of alternate foreign policy decisions which may have emerged had COVID-19 first broken out in New York rather than Wuhan. Internal conditions within the United States uphold democratic values enabling stronger communication between government and citizens. These societal underpinnings are likely to have guided a different foreign policy approach to China. While we can never truly be certain of this assumption, in order to prevent the COVID-19 global pandemic, an approach focused on saving lives rather than preserving power, based on transparent reporting and international cooperation was required, the US has exhibited these priorities in their COVID response while China did not.

The relevance of structural realism in the study of modern international realtions has been reinforced by the COVID-inspired external behaviours of China and the United States. The theory provides a useful framework for understanding inter-state completion, the fragility of international cooperation and military security. While it is limited by its system level of analysis, neo-classical realism has built upon previous work of structural realists and can assist in our understanding of the domestic forces behind foreign policy.


References

Asian Scientist Newsroom. “Chinese Scientists Sequence Genome Of COVID-19.” Asian Scientist, February 25, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-04-10/coronavirus-doesnt-deter-chinas-aggression-in-south-china-sea.

Beech, Hannah.“U.S. Warships Enter Disputed Waters of South China Sea as Tensions With China Escalate.” The New York Times, April 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/world/asia/coronavirus-south-china-sea-warships.html.

Bengali, Shashank. “What the coronavirus hasn’t stopped: Beijing’s build up in the South China Sea.” Los Angeles Times,April 10, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-04-10/coronavirus-doesnt-deter-chinas-aggression-in-south-china-sea.

Caspani, Maria. “The United States now has the world’s highest coronavirus death toll.” World Economic Forum, April, 12, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/united-states-worlds-highest-coronavirus-death-toll/.


“Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Britannica.com. Accessed May 6, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Centers-for-Disease-Control-and-Prevention.

Chan, Minnie. “US Navy launches live-fire missiles in ‘warning to China.’” South China Morning Post, March 24, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3076768/us-navy-launches-live-fire-missiles-warning-china.

Ching, Nike. “US ‘Strongly Opposes China’s Bullying’ in the South China Sea.” VOA News, East Asia Pacific, April 22, 2020,  https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/us-strongly-opposes-chinas-bullying-south-china-sea.

Crocket, Sophie. “The role of International Organisations in World Politics.” Student Essay, E-International Relations Students, 2012.  

Fidler, David. “The Globalization of Public Health: Emerging Infectious Diseases and International Relations.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 5, no. 1 (1997): 11-51.

Hernandez, Javier C. “Trump Slammed the W.H.O. Over Coronavirus. He’s Not Alone.” The New York Times, April 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/world/asia/trump-who-coronavirus-china.html.

Hernandez, Javier C. “Deadly Mystery Virus Reported in 2 New Chinese Cities and South Korea.” The New York Times,January 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/world/asia/china-virus-wuhan-coronavirus.html.

Kaarbo, Juliet. “A Foreign Policy Analysis Perspective on the Domestic Politics Turn in International Relations Theory.” International Studies Review, 17, no. 2 (2015): 189. 

Nassar, Dr Heba. “Review of Economics and Political Science.” Emerald Insight Publishing 3, no. 2 (2018): 50-68.

Newman, Edward. “A Crisis of Global Institutions? Multilateralism and international security.” Routledge, New York 2007.

Nuri, Yeşilyurt. “Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Politics.” Uluslararasi Iliskiler International Relations 14, no. 55 (2017): 119–124.

Paul, Rajat. “Internal political unrest and power struggle in China post-COVID-19.” The Sentinel, April 17, 2020,  https://www.sentinelassam.com/editorial/internal-political-unrest-and-power-struggle-in-china-post-covid-19/.

Powell, Robert. “Absolute and Relative Gains in International Relations Theory.” The American Political Science Review 85, no. 4 (1991): 1303-1320.

Pradt, Tilman. China’s New Foreign Policy Military Modernisation, Multilateralism and the ‘China Threat.’ (1st Ed 2016), 32.

Schweller, Randall. “Opposite but Compatible Nationalisms: A Neoclassical Realist Approach to the Future of US–China Relations.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 11, no. 3 (2018): 23–48.

Stewart, Cameron .“How China rewrote coronavirus history.” The Australian, May, 9, 2020, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/part-two-chinas-great-wall-of-silence-you-are-the-sinner/news-story/7e463f9c78bb73ed584b64160157dfb7.

Waltz, Kenneth. “Structural Realism after the Cold War.” International Security (2000): 5–41, https://doi.org/10.1162/016228800560372.

Waltz, Kenneth. “Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis.” New York Columbia University Press 329, no. 1 (1960): 204. 

Australia punching above its weight through global leadership

Australia is a middle economic power in the Indo-Pacific, geographically distanced from Europe and the US. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia has galvanised international attention and support regarding its recent call for an international inquiry into the coronavirus. In Australian colloquial terms, the nation is ‘punching above its weight’ to pursue their own interests through advancing global cooperation. Though Australia faces increasingly tense relations with China, this reality has not prevented Australian officials from taking a stand on the world stage to criticise Beijing for its management of the coronavirus. This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the international community to support an inquiry into the origins and transmission of COVID in addition to the WHO’s response. 

China, fearing that such an investigation would harm its international reputation has responded to Australia’s suggestion for an independent investigation with threats of economic coercion. Chinese ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng has threatened a freeze on tourists and students coming to Australia and a boycott on Australian beef and wine. While it would be easy for Australian officials to scale back their rhetoric in light of Beijing’s bullying tactics, Australia continues to remain vocal on the international stage, presenting a compelling case for the inquiry. At this early stage, Australia’s efforts appear to be successful in gaining international recognition with recent support pledged from the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

Australia is a regional power with global interests. Pursuing this inquiry is within our national interest as we seek to uphold international rules and norms of transparency and rule of law. An international community which respects these values and has international institutions which support integrity and facts over politics enables peace and prosperity to flourish among nations. The COVID inquiry will help to achieve this vision by seeking to uncover the truth amidst a sea of informational warfare. It will hold China accountable for their negligent handling of the coronavirus and set a clear standard for China’s future cooperation, forcing them and others to think twice before censoring critical health information and delaying international coordination. The inquiry will also uncover problems with the World Health Organisation’s response to this pandemic, a needed step to ensure the institution can develop clearer guidelines and international expectations for dealing with future international health risks. 

Australia’s announcement to pursue the COVID inquiry follows in the footsteps of the successful Australian-led MH17 inquiry. In the aftermath of a transnational tragedy, Australia capitalised its seat on the UN security council by introducing resolution 2166, leading the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The binding UN resolution called for a ‘full, thorough and independent investigation’ into the crash and demanded military actives in the area cease to enable site access. Through active and determined diplomacy, Australia put vital pressure on those who controlled the crash site to allow access for investigators and for the victims to be repatriated and returned to their loved ones. Australia’s leadership from the downing of MH17 to the coronavirus pandemic indicates a promising pattern of behaviour emerging within Australian Foreign Policy. Australia is filling a US leadership void and acting independently to help maintain regional peace and security. 

Australia’s foreign policy is predominately focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Australia seeks to increase the stability, prosperity and health within Pacific nations and such objectives will likely be advanced due to a COVID inquiry into the WHO. The WHO works to advance public health infrastructure within the Pacific. It is for this reason that Australia has not followed the US to halt the organisation’s funding as this would unnecessarily hurt the people we seek to empower most through Australian aid. Advocating for an inquiry on the other hand provides a more nuanced policy approach. Australia can criticise the inadequacy of the WHO’s response, demanding a higher standard for future compliance, whilst continuing to support the organisation’s valuable work within the Pacific. An inquiry into the management of COVID will help to ensure that the future work of the WHO is more transparent and therefore more effective at managing future health risks through improving infrastructure and resilience among vulnerable states.

Furthermore, an inquiry provides an opportunity for Australia to differentiate itself from China as a partner of choice for future trade and development partnerships within the Pacific. Over the course of the past decade, China has increased its presence in the Pacific providing new opportunities for the Pacific to participate in the Belt in Road Initiative and accept concessional loans to grow their economies. Australia now faces exceptional competition with China, particularly in the area of development. By standing up to China and exposing their negligent management of this pandemic, Australia is presenting a strong case for why it should continue to be a partner of choice in the Pacific. Australia’s display of leadership has outlined its priorities for transparency and international cooperation while exposing the risks associated with participating in trade and accepting development from China. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on Australia’s ability to lead the international community and contribute to global stability and prosperity. As a regional power, it is within Australia’s interests to hold states accountable for their disruptive actions and to build international institutions that promote transparency and integrity. In a time of great pessimism and uncertainty, Australia’s recent leadership provides hope for an international system more committed to truth, transparency and cooperation.

The value of a strong US-Australia alliance

The enduring alliance with the United States remains Australia’s most important defence relationship. Close economic and cultural ties between the nations also continue to flourish and significantly benefit Australia and the US. The historic US-Australia partnership is unique, resilient and enviable among other nations. 

Former Australian prime ministers Malcom Fraser, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating have each consistently argued for a recalibration of our alliance with the United States. Fraser, a former Liberal prime minister who passed away in 2015, was a major critic of Australia’s military alliance with the US and the implications for our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Fraser called for Australia to forge an independent strategic posture apart from the US, arguing that the defence risks of our close relationship with the US outweighed any possible benefits. Likewise, previous Labor prime ministers Rudd and Keating have both asserted a need to scale back our alliance with the US government, in favour of stronger relationships within Asia. 

Though the positions of these outspoken former prime ministers might indicate division within Australian foreign policy community, our most recent Foreign Policy or Defence White Papers reflect the Morrison Government’s clear commitment to deepening Australia’s long-standing alliance with the United States and keeping this relationship at the centre of Australian security.  

Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a robust relationship underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests and strong cultural affinities. The US-Australia partnership is formally recognised in the ANZUS treaty, which has seen significant military coordination between the two nations. The relationship extends much further, however, securing an economic boost for America and Australia and a wealth of cultural exchanges in areas such as health, science and education. For these reasons, Australia should continue to foster and strengthen close cooperation with the United States to secure a safe, prosperous and enlightened future for our country.  

Defence and Security

The history of Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a close military alliance which has served both American and Australian national interests. The ANZUS Treaty, concluded in 1951, is Australia’s foremost security treaty alliance. While the ANZUS Treaty was created in the wake of World War II when the risk of invasion from Japan was still live in our collective memory, our military relationship has since deepened due to the ANZUS Treaty and ensures that Australia continues to develop its military alongside the strongest in the world. The US-Australia Force Posture Agreement signed in 2014 and the 2015 Joint Statement on Defence Cooperation have instructed the annual rotation of US Marines to Darwin and enhanced rotations of US aircraft to Australia. The Talisman Saber is a biennial military endeavour between the two militaries, enhancing our respective combat readiness and interoperability of our forces. This project reflects the progressive, forward- thinking military relationship that America and Australia have managed to create that is responsive to modern security threats. 

Our relationship with the strongest military in the world provides Australia with privileged access to information and high-end military equipment. This has allowed Australians to foil at least a dozen domestic terrorist plots since 2014, break up transnational crime networks, and stop money laundering and illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people. Our military alliance with the US assists the Australian Defence Force as it responds to security threats and provides an added edge for us within the Pacific region. As China continues to rise, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda, the muscle of the US Armed Forces can be leveraged as a counter-balance to China and shape a stable, prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Australia is a small population, with limited military force in a culturally diverse region. For this reason, it is important that hubris does not stain foreign policy, leading us to think we are better or more powerful than we really are. Our military relationship with the United States has ensured that Australia remains a secure, free and open state in a region where this is not the status quo.  

Trade and Investment

Australia and the United States are not only strong military allies. Our economic partnership is critical to our interests. While Australia’s trade relationships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has lead to unprecedented growth and prosperity, the United States remains Australia’s most indispensable economic partner. Our economic relationship encompasses extensive two-way investment supporting production, growth and jobs in both countries. The United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has served as the basis of our bilateral trade relationship since the agreement came into effect on January 1, 2005. Under the FTA, all tariffs have been eliminated for products exported from the United States to Australia. The FTA has led to the growth of trade and investment in both countries. The United States is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of foreign investment – more than the next two countries – Japan and the UK – combined. The foreign capital provided by the United States is a crucial driver of employment, economic growth, and also the ability to export. Ultimately, foreign investment facilitates Australia’s trading relationships by providing the necessary capital and know-how for production of goods and services.

Innovation and Cultural Exchange

Australia and the US have successfully established and maintained partnerships that benefit both states. As part of the Australian National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian government has established a ‘Landing Pad’ in San Francisco to facilitate cooperation by US and Australian entrepreneurs. Australian scientists, researchers, and innovators enjoy maximum access to America’s world-class innovation ecosystem, and US academics and researchers travel to Australia to share their findings and learn from Australian counterparts. US and Australian government agencies also work together to advance global environmental goals. Zoos and universities in the United States and Australia are working collaboratively to save threatened species, such as the iconic Tasmanian Devil.

The United States and Australia also share best practices, personnel, and technology and equipment to combat wildland fires. In 2017 Wildland Fire Management Agreement was signed, building on 15 years of close collaboration. The United States and Australia also work together to build and strengthen health system capacities, including addressing antimicrobial resistance, human resources for health, and infrastructure within the Asia Pacific region. A recent example of this strong coordination was demonstrated in a call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicating plans to coordinate responses to the coronavirus in the Pacific. With President Trump’s recent decision to halt funding to the WHO this may make further funding available to strengthen bilateral and regional health coordination between the United States, Australia and their allies.  

A special relationship worth preserving

US presidents and officials have often referred to Australia as America’s closest friend and most trusted ally. This reputation is consistent with the special treatment and benefits Australian’s receive within the United States. For instance, the E3 visa is a United States visa only available to Australian citizens created by an Act of the United States Congress. Approving 10,500 slots for Australians each year, this visa is exceptional and signifies America’s appreciation of our alliance. In 2013, Ireland called for the E3 visa to be shared among Australians and the Irish, but these calls have so far been resisted in Congress. Then-Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey and the Embassy’s congressional liaison team successfully advocated for a change in the language of the first version of the proposed E3 amendment to ensure this outcome. Australia succeeded in Congress because of our historical defence bond and strong relationship with America.

Nonetheless, the narrative that Australia must choose between China and the United States has gained considerable traction in the media in recent years. At the heart of the story is the notion that Australia is economically beholden to China—a perception that China encourages. While there is no denying that escalating competition between China and the United States carries risks, Australia can continue to enjoy a strong, multifaceted partnership with the US whilst trading with China. The argument that Australia is at a cross-roads and somehow at the behest of China is weakened by the fact that China and the US have closer economic independence than China and Australia. Australia’s significant trade with China provides few, if any channels for the PRC to coerce Australia economically. The Chinese are not purchasing Australian commodities because they want to cultivate a friendship or drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. We are a supplier of choice to the Chinese as we have proven ourselves to be an efficient and reliable supplier by international standards. If China does not buy our commodities, someone else will. Research by Shiro Armstrong on the China–Japan relationship—a relationship marked by deep mistrust and periodic heightened tensions concluded that “trade has not been diminished or disturbed by politics to a significant extent”.

If Japan and a host of other countries in our region including South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan can enjoy growing trade with China while maintaining a strategic relationship with the US, surely Australia can do the same. Australia’s foreign policy debate needs to progress beyond an unhelpful focus on binary alignment choices toward a deeper dialogue about the practical challenges that China’s influence poses for alliance management. In saying this, it would be beneficial for the US and Australia to build a more resilient coalition where we discuss areas of divergence in our approach to China. This will secure productive, US-Australia relations and a united front on future foreign policy.  

Shared history, values, and prosperity have allowed the US-Australia alliance to thrive for the better part of a century, furthering both states militarily, economically and culturally. It is within our interests to maintain and grow the US-Australia partnership to ensure both nations can work together to tackle geo-political challenges with force and unity.

Hope for persecuted Christians in US-Australia bilateral

The Islamic State genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria, beginning in 2014, drew international condemnation. In 2020, Southeast Asia is the new hotspot for Christian persecution. Communism and religious fundamentalism appear to be the main driving forces of Christian Persecution. Such oppression will only be increased by the global COVID-19 pandemic as Christians are more likely to experience discrimination when seeking basic provisions in many countries.

Here are just a few examples of the kinds of persecution that Christians face in Australia’s backyard.

China 

As of 2018, the Xi Jingping’s government has implemented draconian laws on religious practices. Increased surveillance and restriction of privacy have severely constrained the religious freedoms of the Chinese people. Christians found to publically profess their faith have experienced interrogation, imprisonment and loss of property. The Chinese Communist Party is driving ‘thought reform’ with plans to retranslate and annotate the Bible so that the text is compatible with sinicization and socialism. Troubling parallels can be observed between this heavy-handed response to Christianity and Mao-era attempts to control hearts and minds.

India 

Opposition to Christianity has reached unprecedented levels in India due to the rise of Hindutva nationalism. Aid to the Church in Need reported nation-wide attacks on Christians in 24 of India’s 29 states from 2017 to 2019. Indian Christians face physical abuse, rape and murder for professing their faith. Sectarian violence remains wide-spread. However, of greatest concern is the growing impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, engendered by the failure of authorities to address attacks on religious minorities.

North Korea 

North Korea is an exceptionally dangerous place to be a Christian. The bible is illegal and from a young age citizens are taught to worship Kim Jong-Un. Christians in North Korea are routinely deported to kwanliso, maximum security political prisons or ‘re-education’ camps. Torture, starvation, sexual assault and death are frequently reported within these facilities. CEO of Open Doors David Curry, cautioned that as COVID-19 ravages health conditions in developing countries, “North Korean Christians who are already seen as second-class citizens, traitors, and infidels” face exceptional risks.

Laos 

In Laos, Christianity is branded as a harmful Western influence which challenges the nation’s communist values. Government officials use Laotians’ hostile attitude towards Christians to justify strict monitoring of believers. Converts to Christianity in Laos face the most severe forms of persecution. Abandoning Buddhism or tribal animist beliefs is seen as a betrayal to family members and the community.

Myanmar 

The international community has rightly condemned the horrific ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Yet, the Buddhist-dominated military has also systematically attacked other religious minorities including Christians. The military routinely engage in torture, rape, abduction and murder of Christians. Efforts to force conversions to Buddhism are common. Thousands of Christians have also been displaced and forced to flee to refugee camps. As access to these regions is very limited, their plight goes widely unnoticed outside Myanmar.

Brunei 

Brunei is an Islamic absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In 2014, Brunei became the first East Asian country to adopt parts of Sharia law, despite condemnation from the UN. The Sultan, along with the prime minister, has declared his vision that Brunei will be an entirely Muslim nation by 2035. All churches, including registered ones, are monitored and restricted by the authorities. Further, Islamic authorities offer financial bonuses and employment opportunities to those who follow Islam. This creates a social hierarchy that discriminates against non-Muslims.

Malaysia   

The Federal Constitution of Malaysia purports to protect the right to freedom of religion, including the profession, practicing and propagating of a person’s religious beliefs. Despite this, federal law favours the Islamic faith. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution privileges Islam with special status. Although it is more subtle than in neighbouring countries, examples of discrimination against Christians include the existence of sharia courts available to Muslims and the constitutional definition of ‘Malay’ to mean only those who profess the religion of Islam.

An opportunity for the United States and Australia

Under President Trump, the US has affirmed its strong commitment to the freedom of religion both domestically and internationally. While I was at the UN during Leaders Week 2019, the US hosted a high-level event titled ‘The Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom’. The scheduling of this event at the same time as the Climate Summit sent a clear message to the international community about the foreign policy priorities of the Trump/Pence administration.

Domestically, Trump has made a 2017 executive order to advance religious freedom as a centre-piece of his administration’s human rights agenda. The President has also taken action to ensure that Americans and American organisations are not forced to violate their religious or moral beliefs by complying with the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Further, the Administration has dedicated $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics around the world.

Given our shared liberal-democratic values, Australia is uniquely positioned to cooperate with the US on this serious international human rights issue in our region. With rising Christian persecution in Southeast Asia and the Indo-pacific, Australia’s strong bilateral relationship with the United States may provide a solution. As an evangelical Christian, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shares a unique personal connection with persecuted Christians in our region and a commitment to protecting religious freedoms alongside President Trump and Vice President Pence. If there were ever a time to ignite a global crusade to combat religious persecution, this would be that time.

A global spread: novel strain of authoritarianism infects democracies

2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.

At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.

Warnings from Hungary

Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?

Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies

Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.

Freedom of Assembly  

 Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.  

Police powers

Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.

Surveillance powers

Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.

Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.