Readers of The Affiliate Network may recall that three years ago we dubbed 2017 “The Worst, Worst Year”. We were wrong and we owe an apology. 2020 has taken that title and expanded it beyond what most of us considered likely or even possible. The mysterious and terrifying pandemic and the economic tsunami that followed, triggered massive social, political, and economic upheavals around the world. Though the epoch-ending event is not exactly a “black swan” — many credible practitioners regarded it as a certainty — it will still leave a mark lasting decades and may permanently alter the course of human events.
The world’s understanding of the novel Coronavirus, nCoV2, is that it emerged out of Wuhan, China in the waning weeks of 2019, and swept across the world like a wildfire. It turned human lungs to concrete, seemingly at random, and left paralysis and ruin in its wake. The contagion quickly spread to Iran before turning up in Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, and eventually New York. The time between the first reported cases in Wuhan to the day the World Health Organization declared Coronavirus 19 Disease (COVID19) a true pandemic: ten and a half weeks. At the time the WHO made the declaration there were 150,000 cases. Nine months later there are nearly 73 million.
A clue to the breathtaking speed of the contagion lies in the WHO declaration which cites “alarming levels of inaction” by the world’s governments. Reflecting a trend among democratic governments with populist tendencies; the leadership of Belarus, Brazil, Hungary, Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and most notably, the United States, chose to place short-term economic concerns above public health despite the terrifying data and the uncertainties about immunity, transmissibility, treatments, and fatality rates. Though the northern European governments (except Sweden) rapidly reversed course, the most bizarre and damaging response came from the White House itself.
The President of the United States, in a daily Coronavirus briefing, alternated between touting the aggressiveness of his personal response, to dismissing COVID as “just a flu”, a “hoax” perpetuated by his rivals, and even claimed it “would go away like a miracle.” He promoted myths and miracle cures, pushing the untested hydroxychloroquine and speculated that ingesting disinfectants and “powerful light” could be helpful, all while rejecting preventative measures such as masks and social distancing. The effect upon the United States was obvious. It soon led the world in every COVID statistic and has maintained that grim superlative ever since. What is less obvious, is that US leadership in this dubious regard has produced political headwinds for governments around the world struggling to get their populations to make sacrifices in the interest of public health.
Though COVID certainly impacted quite literally everything in 2020, only Victor Perez Sañudo and Lino Miani wrote specifically about the disease in The Affiliate Network. While Mr. Miani made an early analysis of the virus’s potential impact on Africa in “The Cloud Over Africa“, Mr. Perez Sañudo explained how to manage COVID risk to business in “Back to Work“. For most of the rest of 2020 our content focused on the foreign policy moves of ascendent states seeking to capitalize on US retrenchment in the hands of an isolationist White House facing the impacts of the virus.
To some degree or another, Turkey, Russia, and China all pressed their advantages in the international arena this year. Dino Mora warned of Russian influence in Central America in “Educating Costa Rica“, while Mike Skillt, in “Why Russia Cannot Win“, introduced us to the Turkish-Russian struggle for dominance in Syria after the Trump Administration ceded the field. Our colleague Wolfgang Pusztai, one of the world’s most respected Libya watchers, pointed out that conflict is an expanding one. In “Libya: From Civil War to Regional Conflict” Mr. Pusztai describes the Turkish struggle for influence against a cast of actors that have interests there. Russia, he says, used the same ineffective strategy of proxy war it applied against the Turks in Syria. As we would soon see, Russia and Turkey would again glare at each other across the field of battle before the end of the year in Nagorno-Karabakh. With Russian proxies in combat on three sides of a NATO member state, Turkish foreign policy is a concern on a global level.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, both Teoh Jit Khiam and Mr. Miani wrote repeatedly about developments in the South China Sea where Beijing seeks to set the facts on the ground to its advantage. Mr. Teoh’s “Between a ROC and a Hard Place” analyzed the costs and benefits of Taiwanese independence. He later walked us through the history of China’s relationship with the rest of the region in “The Malay Annals.” Lastly, Mr. Teoh capped off his performance with a fun “Alternate Futures” piece that presented a variety of triggers that could spark off a Sino-US conflict. Among the categories of event Mr. Teoh analyzed were “pre-planned actions that take place inside the South China Sea;” similar to the Sino-Indonesian row Mr. Miani wrote about in “Engulfing Natuna.” At the end of the year, Mr. Miani once again turned his pen to the region. In “Strategic Geography of the Internet,” he described efforts by the United States, Australia, Indonesia, and others to safeguard the web from Chinese dominance in the South China Sea.
After living through 2020 and observing its effects with a critical eye, we at the Affiliate Network feel we owe 2017 an apology. The events of 2020, shaped by COVID and made worse by some governments, have changed the game in so many ways. We can only go up from here and we are interested and excited to see what 2021 brings. Among our hopes for the new year are a return to predictability and stability in US foreign policy; a reinvigoration of US alliance relationships both in the North Atlantic and the Pacific; and an embrace of the technology and techniques for remote work that COVID forced upon us. If 2020 had any silver linings, it is up to us to make the most of them.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.