The Vestiges of Machiavelli

Political discussions in liberal democracies are supposed to be about the battle of ideas, heterodox exchanges, and civil debates. Politicians and leaders present their arguments for a better and productive society through public discourse.

However, recent scandals in Parliament have indicated that it is not really the case. People have forgotten that politicians do not operate under the guises of morality, but manoeuvre based on strategy within established rules of the game — the game of survival in politics. Politics is rife with clever duplicity and manipulation.

Every member of Parliament has two main interests in mind — maintaining power and being perceived as a noble, honest fellow. As Machiavelli once said, “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you really are.”

Should the public expect more ‘Machiavellian’ behaviour as the election campaign goes underway? If so, what can we learn and observe from the late 15th century philosopher’s wisdom?

Political marketing to Machiavelli is a seductive tool and the use of charming to mislead the public. “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver” and “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” — A tool the Prime Minister utilises to perfection with her omnipresent slogan, ‘Be Kind’.

Regarding the competence of our leadership, he states that “the first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” If you do not have a competent team, pointless blunders will hit the spotlight, shown by recent resignations.   

Unfortunately, public policy will not be the driver of electoral success. Machiavelli states that “princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily.” Cunning political strategies are the best ways to preserve or gain power.

Machiavelli always maintained the importance of being effective without being impotently pure. Regarding leadership, he recommends that “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”

What are the ultimate lessons? Even under liberal democracies, politicians will always use cunning deception to attain or maintain power. Machiavelli was a republican and an astute observer of human nature, that politicians will always strive to serve their main interests — this is just reality.

We must understand that despite the imperfections of our system, liberal democracy still allows us to have a voice in contrast to autocracies. Multiparty systems still provide a check and balance of power on the leadership and their potential to abuse it.

Self-interests are the norms of politics, but if we genuinely want to have competent and effective leadership, the public must understand this aspect of human nature — effective politics require some level of Machiavellianism.  

Research Note: Lessons from Abroad: East Asia’s Covid-19 Containment Model

Leonard Hong with assistance from Joel Hernandez

Since the first cases of the Covid-19 virus emerged in the Chinese province of Wuhan, several East Asian countries including Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have successfully ‘flattened the curve’ of infection rates. The three countries used common public policies in the first 50 days since each registered their 100th case.

This report summaries how the three countries prepared for a pandemic to create the best possible position for dealing with Covid-19. It offers lessons for New Zealand’s efforts to set up efficient epidemiological controls and tracking efforts to help fight any future pandemic.

Research Note: Lessons from Abroad: Taiwan’s Covid-19 Containment Model

Leonard Hong with assistance from Joel Hernandez

Alongside South Korea, Taiwan is one of the few countries to “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 without a national lockdown due to its prior experience with the SARS epidemic of 2003. New Zealand’s pathway is similar to Taiwan’s and there are lessons to be learned as New Zealand moves into Alert Level 2. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters suggested creating “international bubbles” for countries with Covid-19 success to introduce new trade connections and travel links. His reasoning is that direct inbound travel to New Zealand from Taiwan cannot be riskier than travel within New Zealand at this point.

As of May 11, Taiwan is 53 days into its Covid-19 response compared to New Zealand’s 49 days (measured by the date of the first 100 cases). Judging by cumulative cases per capita (see figures 1 and 2), New Zealand has 24.8 cases per 100,000 while Taiwan only has 1.9 cases per 100,000. 

In early January, when the first outbreak began in Wuhan, Taiwanese Professor Dr Jason Wang from Stanford University predicted Taiwan would have the highest number of cases outside mainland China.1 As of May 10, Taiwan only has 73 active cases and 366 recoveries from a total of 438 confirmed cases.2 It also has a low case fatality rate (CFR) of 1.3% or 1.36% deaths. Italy, Spain, the US and New Zealand have CFRs of 13.9%, 10.1%, 5.9% and 1.4%, respectively.

The Taiwanese Government dealt with the initial rise in cases while maintaining an open economy by using optimal border controls, strict quarantine requirements, targeted testing measures, an advanced national healthcare system, effective contact tracing system, maskwearing public policy, tight enforcement of new Covid-19 rules and general government competence.

This report outlines eleven key examples of Taiwan’s pandemic approach.

Research Note: Lessons from Abroad: South Korea’s Covid-19 Containment Model

Leonard Hong with assistance from Joel Hernandez

As the world struggles to contain Covid-19, many countries are at different stages of containment and mitigation since registering their first 100 cases. Some, like South Korea, are more than a month further ahead compared with New Zealand and could offer a good example of what might be expected as New Zealand transitions out of Alert Level 4 lockdown.

As of April 20, South Korea is 91 days into its Covid-19 response compared to New Zealand’s 52 days. New Zealand appears to be on the same trajectory as South Korea measured by total cumulative cases and cumulative cases per capita. New Zealand has 29 cases per 100,000 people while South Korea has 20 cases per 100,000, showing that both are flattening their epidemiological curves. 

Early in the pandemic, Covid-19 cases in South Korea sharply increased, peaking at 909 new cases after 41 days. But as of April 20, South Korea only has 2385 active cases and 8042 recoveries from a total of 10,674 confirmed cases. It also has a low case fatality rate (CFR) of 0.2% or 236 deaths. Italy, Spain, the US, and New Zealand have CFRs of 13.2%, 10.3%, 5.3% and 0.8%, respectively. 

Although the South Korean government failed to stop the initial transmission of the virus from overseas, it speedily dealt with the first Shincheonji’s clusters in Daegu while maintaining an open economy, effective border controls, high-level diagnostic testing, strict enforcement of Covid-19 rules, efficient contact tracing and government transparency. It even avoided a national lockdown by giving local governments the authority to shut only parts of their districts.

The effectiveness of these policies was boosted by public solidarity, civil compliance, the prominent use of face masks and the widely understood lessons of previous virus outbreaks.

This report outlines seven key examples of South Korea’s pandemic approach and shares the lessons for New Zealand.

The unexpected winner of Covid-19 – China

9 April, 2020

Two centuries ago, Napoleon Bonaparte called China a sleeping lion and advised to “let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Bonaparte’s prophecies are relevant again today. The lion is now awake and she is becoming increasingly assertive.

Early in the Covid-19 crisis, there was a view that China would be weakened by it. Some even pondered the downfall of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. With the Hong Kong revolts, the death of Wuhan’s whistle-blower Dr Lee Wenliang, the looming global recession and economic confidence deteriorating within China, those predictions were not surprising.

But the coronavirus may just be a hiccup and Mr Xi’s government appears to have regained its domestic legitimacy. Instead of falling victim to the virus, the party could be deemed the victor in the international system. The losers seem to be the United States and the wider liberal international order. The balance of power has shifted in favour of China.

China covered up the origins of the virus to the World Health Organisation. As a result, Western countries such as the US, Spain, Italy and Germany have far more cases and deaths than China.

China is using the crisis to extend its geopolitical reach. In the last few weeks, it has sent additional masks and medical supplies to help the Italians and French. As President Xi pledges more support to Europe, he is using it to further legitimise his ambitious $1.4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

The virus has become useful for Beijing to add an element of soft power, which is necessary to become the so-called benevolent global force. By repairing the serious reputational damage caused to it by the pandemic, China is framing itself as a responsible power.

The United States led the international system since the end of the Second World War, but under President Donald Trump, its diplomatic efforts have changed tack and are now more nationally focused. China, by contrast, appears increasingly determined to fill that global leadership void.

Great power politics is still a ruthless business in the international system, and Covid-19 has resulted in a new phase of security competition between the US and China. Covid-19 unsettled the balance of power in a way few would have predicted just a few months ago.

Research Note: Lessons from Abroad: Singapore’s Covid-19 Containment Model

Leonard Hong

Singapore has set a high standard for dealing with Covid-19 and despite its decision to enter a lockdown this week, New Zealand can learn a lot from the country, according to a new report Lessons from abroad: Singapore’s Covid-19 containment model from the New Zealand Initiative.

Although Singapore has enacted a “circuit breaker” lockdown to defend against some new sources of coronavirus, it could make this choice due to its earlier efforts to identify, control and contain the pandemic threatening its territory.

New Zealand Initiative research assistant Leonard Hong said since Singapore reached its 100th confirmed Covid-19 case in March, it now has a similar number of cases per capita to New Zealand.

Neither country is yet through the worst of the pandemic, but speedy government action helps explain both countries’ relatively low case rate.

“Singapore’s main point of difference was its early and aggressive border security measures. Its first line of defence restricted travel from countries profoundly affected by the coronavirus, such as China, despite the World Health Organisation not recommending travel restrictions at the time.”

“It has also implemented one of the world’s most restrictive quarantine measures, including digital surveillance tracking systems to monitor those possibly infected with the virus,” Hong said.

While many countries encourage citizens to self-isolate to slow the spread of the virus, they find it tough to enforce those commands, particularly when the rules have not yet become laws.

However, Singapore authorities have already issued hefty fines for some individuals not complying with quarantine rules, and even repealed the work permits and visas of others.

“The Singapore government has taken a ‘no-nonsense’ approach when enforcing its rules by using excellent technological surveillance and harsh penalties,” Hong said.

He added that Singapore is rigorously conducting and boosting its testing regime to be one of the highest per capita rates in the world, although its rate is still slightly below New Zealand’s.

The city-state’s tight border and screening protocols also give the government greater visibility into which people encounter possible Covid-19 cases. It has created 20 dedicated Contract Tracing teams, under the jurisdiction of the police, to locate and monitor at risk individuals.

The teams are using a new, publicly available mobile software app to help warn citizens when they might be in proximity to infected people. The free source code for the app will be opened up for other countries to adopt.

“New Zealand’s government decided to enact a lockdown 26 days after its first case on February 28. By comparison, Singapore took 75 days since its first case on January 23 to enact its ‘circuit breaker’ phase showing that some of its earlier measures for containment were effective,” Hong said.

“Singapore’s early containment policies were a model for the world that the right policy decisions could make significant differences to the problems of Covid-19. New Zealand should keep an eye on what it does next.”

Singapore’s Successful containment of Covid-19

Plenty of first-world countries have been hit with Coronavirus cases and failed to stamp it out effectively. However, Singapore has once again shined as an example of clever public policy.

As of March 17, Singapore has a very low total number of cases with (243) because its government took what World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom described as an “all-of-government approach.”

How did it achieve this?

In the initial phase, Singapore focused mainly on border controls to prevent the virus entering. The city-state was one of the first to impose travel restrictions with China, then Iran, South Korea, Italy and now France, Germany and Spain as those places became infected.

It also imposed a mandatory 14-day ‘Stay-Home Notice’ and self-isolation for its citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders arriving from countries affected by the pathogen.

In the second phase, it prioritised hard containment by creating strict measures for tracing the virus’ spread, isolating individuals and treating the ill to keeping deaths low as possible. Its vigilant digital ‘Contract Tracing’ system also helped to locate the infected and map out the virus as it spread.

Singapore operates a centralised, top-down government system which makes it easy to compel people. In fact, the Home Affairs Minister deported three Chinese nationals – who were also permanent residents – for not following quarantine protocols and lying to officials.

Third, Singapore pursued economic stimulus packages to support the economy. In February, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced an $S6.4 billion government programme, of which $S5.6b will assist businesses and consumers, while $S4b is tagged to support businesses with their wage costs.

Singapore achieved all this without enacting a lockdown and remains open to the world.

New Zealand has many similarities to the city-state. Both countries rely on free trade, boast similar population sizes and are advanced market economies. However, while New Zealand’s more liberal approach makes it harder to exert central control, there is plenty to learn from Singapore’s containment policies.

Today, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced a $12.1b stimulus package to support New Zealanders and businesses. It follows Singapore’s example by including $5.1b in wage subsidies for affected businesses in all sectors and regions.

But there is more to do. Singapore and other South East Asian countries may provide inspiration for us.

Preserving our values amid growing turbulence

Australia and New Zealand face a geopolitical predicament as a consequence of China’s rise. How do we preserve our Western liberal values in the face of growing concern with our largest trading partner and it’s turbulent relationship with our key ally, the United States?

The 20th century saw the US rise with both economic and strategic dominance, but the 21st century is predicted to become the period of resurgence for China. Henry Kissinger has suggested that we are entering a multipolar world — international power dynamics shifting from West to East. 

Ideological tensions with China were recently highlighted by Australia’s Liberal MP Andrew Hastie and New Zealand’s Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady. 

After Hastie wrote a critical opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald expressing his concern for China’s human rights violations, comparing Xi’s regime to Hitler’s Nazi Germany, he was banned from entering China

Meanwhile, in her policy paper, Magic Weapons, Brady wrote of the Chinese Communist Party’s soft power coercion across Western nations, pointing to China influencing our democracies through foreign donations and the establishment of Confucius Institutes. Following this, she’s received threats of violence, her car and office vandalised.  

As Samuel Huntington predicted in his 1993 book ‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order’, Western liberal democracies like Australia and New Zealand will steadily witness greater civilisational tensions with China’s Confucian authoritarianism. 

And Graham Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap posits with a grim scenario of great power conflict: The rising China threatening the incumbent global power, the United States — Australia and New Zealand could fall victim in an intensive security competition between the United States and China. 

In his forward for Allison’sbook, Destined for War, Andrew Hastie posed the question: Can the political leadership of both countries overcome the historical structural stresses that have brought other great powers to war?”

The goal for both Australia and New Zealand is to protect our liberal democratic principles but to also avoid becoming the modern ‘Melos’ of the Peloponnesian War — the nation that fell mercilessly to Athens in 416 BC — preventing the ‘Thucydides’s Trap’. 

John Mearsheimer and Hugh White’s debate in Canberra is the beginning of an ongoing discussion concerning our strategy regarding the rise of China. Australians and New Zealanders must wake up to the task of solving this difficult challenge. 

It is imperative for both Australia and New Zealand to find a practical foreign policy solution to the ever-increasing turbulence between the United States and China. 

Leonard Hong is a recent graduate at The University of Auckland and a former research intern at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Unintended Consequences of Globalisation

In the past 30 years we’ve witnessed the end of the Soviet Union, the third wave of democratisation and extensive levels of globalisation. Mass flows of capital and mobility have become the norm. Francis Fukuyama predicted the ‘End of History’ with liberal democracies spreading around the planet and market capitalism enriching everyone.

To some extent this became a reality. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now shows empirical studies of great benefits brought to the world by globalisation. We live in a richer, healthier and more peaceful era than ever before.

However, drastic changes to the global economy and mass migration resulted in a backlash against cosmopolitanism. 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2008, the Euro crisis of 2011, the failures of the Iraq War and the refugee crisis of 2015 cumulatively left Western liberal democracies politically precarious. The rise in domestic inequality, offshoring of low skilled work, and declining trust in political and financial institutions led to worsening social cohesion.

These unexpected circumstances of events led us to a world of increasing populist sentiment evidenced by Brexit and President Trump’s election — the revival of nationalism.

John Mearsheimer stated that nationalism is the most powerful ideology on the planet”. Humans are tribal and we are social animals to the core. This explains the zealous dedication people exert towards national causes which seek to advance identity-based policies.

Contemporary populism is a symptom of the problem and not necessarily the solution. We have to defend the liberal world order, but future policy-makers should consider dealing with the side effects of globalisation.

To sustain an interconnected and a peaceful modern world, we must understand the causes of populism and continue to build towards a society where we embrace liberal democratic principles.