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30 SEP 2019

The need for leadership

A world out of balance: in a time of crisis, we need effective leadership more than ever.

The global economic slowdown, tensions over international trade, the effect of climate change on the environment and the enduring political fallout of the global financial crash have made the need for leadership from the US more important than ever. If the current administration is to provide this it must address a number of obstacles, says Jeff Flake, former US Republican Senator.

The built and natural environment

Starting with the built environment, bipartisan agreement over infrastructure spending continues to be elusive, despite the fact that both Republicans and Democrats recognise its importance.

The passing of the First Step Act in December 2018 is an encouraging step, however. The act, which reforms the criminal justice system and will help to reduce the nation's prison population, provides hope for similar bipartisan co-operation around infrastructure spending.

Where should this be focused? Survey evidence suggests that the disrepair of our roads and bridges represents the most pressing need. In general, it appears that telecommunications infrastructure is moving forward more rapidly than many had expected.

More serious than slow legislative progress on the built environment is the current US administration's wider failure to address the effects of climate change. The final bill I introduced before leaving the Senate last year was a bipartisan revenue neutral carbon-pricing bill. This is the first bipartisan carbon tax bill to be active in both houses of the US Congress. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent within ten years, and 91 per cent by 2050. However, it is hard to be optimistic about its chances.

Meanwhile, the Democrats' Green New Deal is so idealistic – 'ambitious' its supporters would say – that it is easy for Republicans to justify their opposition, entrenching their inaction.

The US President is a brake on progress around curbing climate change but he is more reflective of the Republican Party position than many of us would like to admit. There are very few Republicans advocating reform – not enough to gain any traction. In the absence of major election losses, I don't foresee a shift in the Republican Party.

With no substantial measures from China to curb its emissions, meanwhile, I've yet to see anything that would materially create a change in the models' forecast impact of rising temperatures. As a result, we are going to have to deal with the consequences in the form of severe weather events and their growing impact on coastal cities.

Jeff-Flake
Jeff Flake (Rep) served as a US Senator from Arizona between 2013 and 2019. He had previously served as a Congressman for 10 years.

China

The path taken by China, and its trade relations with the US, are instrumental to the future of global growth.

I have always felt that the US needed to toughen its approach to China on issues like intellectual property, patent laws and trade secrets in order to force changes to China's behaviour. But it had to do this by co-operating with its allies to produce a united front. Instead, we are isolating these allies with moves like steel tariffs on Canada and the EU.

The harm this does to US economic influence is compounded by the current administration's attitude to free-trade agreements, which appears stuck in the 1950s. In the past, when it came to free-trade deals the US was the only game in town. With the growing economic influence of China this is changing. The current administration seems to ignore this, believing that withdrawing from initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have no consequences.

If we want to grow we need to aggressively pursue bi-lateral and multi-lateral trade deals. Instead, our policies communicate that we are no longer a reliable partner, pushing countries – especially those in Southeast Asia – into China's vortex. The harm this does to America's future economic interests is hard to overstate. Modern global supply chains take years to reassemble: the US is losing opportunities that will affect us for decades.

Unfortunately, here – as elsewhere – the Republican Party has no appetite either to work with or to challenge the President. On the US-China trade war, the party is left hoping that the administration can strike a deal, with no back up plan if this fails.

Russia

The current administration's failure to take seriously Russian interference in US politics, meanwhile, has become a major threat to US national security.

You would expect a US administration to accept the consensus in the intelligence services that there was meddling by the Russian government in the US election. The result should be a search for concrete ways to combat future threats as well as moves to hold Russia to account diplomatically. The US administration has done neither.

At the start of last year there had not been a single Cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Ignoring these hostile Russian intentions comprises a serious lapse in the defense of the US and makes it harder for the administration to oppose Russia's regional influence in places like Syria. Again, it is hard to imagine the Senate effecting a change in the administration's attitude here.

This skepticism about the Russian threat is part of a wider narrative in which the President's pronouncements are aligned increasingly with those of Russian state media, a trend that is particularly undermining of US influence in the region. I travelled to Latvia last year, where 40 per cent of the country speaks Russian and many consume news from Moscow. The messages of these broadcasts, messages that the Russians have been broadcasting for decades – NATO is weak, its relationship with the US is tenuous – are increasingly echoed by our President.

We are going to have to deal with the consequences in the form of severe weather events and their growing impact on coastal cities.

Jeff Flake
Former US Senator

As a result, countries that want to be under our security umbrella and tilt towards our notion of liberal democracy must hedge their bets about how – and with whom – they are aligned. For those countries in the Middle East or other more far-flung theatres of Russian influence, the choice has become even tougher.

There is cause for hope, however. At a time where international collaboration has been generally stymied rather than promoted by the US lead, the example of Venezuela stands as an encouraging exception. The European Union and Canada, among others, are working in support of the US plan to combat the humanitarian disaster that has seen 3.5 million refugees flee the country. We are rallying global support for the rescue package that the country will need to avert the crisis and negotiate a transition to democracy, with power taken for a transition period by opposition leader Juan Guaido.

There is a good consensus that such a package must include emergency aid in the event that the Maduro regime falls, as well as additional financial support that could act as a bridge to future official loans from the IMF and other institutions. Whether this consensus has formed out of fear of US military action is unclear but the immediacy of the crisis, as well as broad consensus on the lack of legitimacy of the Moduro regime, has certainly helped.