Watching the Tuesday evening news conference by President Donald Trump about the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic was a vivid demonstration of failed leadership and communication.
This dearth in leadership and communication is not only relegated to the United States. In the initial period of the COVID-19 outbreak, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party chose to obfuscate the truth behind the severity of the outbreak and prioritize its legitimacy and position of power.
Trump’s obvious poor grasp of details and inability to put together a coherent and confident message to the American public in the midst of perhaps the greatest crisis the United States has faced in the post-World War II period contrasted drastically with his White House coronavirus task force, which includes Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the task force; Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the task force.
Birx and Fauci systematically advocated for a scientific approach to dealing with the pandemic, arguing that any return to normal economic activity would need to be based on scientific fact. They stressed that the current crisis was not subsiding but accelerating in cities such as New York City and that all Americans need to continue to be vigilant.
This organized, data-driven approach to discussing the ongoing crisis was further buttressed by Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, outlining the forthcoming legislation package to inject liquidity into the financial system and provide cash for families, small business individuals and the unemployed.
Importantly, he stressed that America was headed for “a rough period, but it’s only going to be weeks, we think. Weeks and months.”
Pence further strengthened the systematic messaging by emphasizing the “15 days to slow the spread” and that “if every American — regardless of whether you’re in an area that’s impacted by an outbreak of the coronavirus or not, if every American would embrace these guidelines, we could significantly reduce the number of Americans that would contract the coronavirus and protect the most vulnerable.”
The takeaway from these rational and informed voices was that government and citizens’ decisions should be based on scientific data, that citizens should adhere to government guidelines and that the government recognizes the economy is going to be impacted very heavily, and that the government is doing everything in its power to mitigate the financial and health challenges of the coronavirus outbreak.
Unfortunately for the task force core members and Kudlow, Trump’s answers during the Q&A session completely diminished the fact-based messaging of his own team and sowed more confusion and division into an already anxious public.
This crisis in leadership and communication is further evidenced by Trump’s slurs, such as “Chinese virus,” that inflame ethnocultural nationalism in China and inculcate a nationalistic dimension into the already negative spiral in U.S.-China relations.
A recent example of a reciprocation of this brutish nationalism was the celebratory banner at a restaurant in the city of Shenyang with the words: “We celebrate the infection in the United States in earnest. May infections in Japan continue for a long time.”
Trump’s slurs, absence of leadership and pernicious communication style is highly destabilizing for international relations, it normalizes bullying behavior and it misinforms not only American citizens but citizens around the world.
Turning back to Xi, the consequence of his solipsistic behavior was the death of at least 3,200 Chinese citizens, a domestic economic tsunami and now a global recession at best.
Transparent leadership and communication at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis by Xi and the CCP might have prevented the global pandemic we are facing and its severe economic repercussions.
The absence of leadership and communication to cultivate trust, transparency and the conditions to really create a “community of shared future for mankind” is also evident in the campaign of disinformation by prominent Chinese diplomats such as Zhao Lijian, the current deputy director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department, suggesting that the virus that emerged out of Wuhan was a U.S. biological weapon.
Leaders must be accountable and need to own initial missteps through trustable communication. By trying to pass the COVID-19 buck, Xi and the CCP are demonstrating that they cannot be depended on to be truthful or credible in a moment of crisis or in taking responsibility for missteps.
At the national level, like Trump, Xi legitimates nationalism and discrimination when there is any tolerance for the celebratory banner seen at the Shenyang restaurant.
A more effective retort to Trump’s inflammatory language would be to have a no-tolerance approach to slurs to all states and people, not just the U.S.
Alas, the politics of convenience and simplistic messaging are easier ways to accrue political capital in the political machinations of Beijing and Washington than acting as statesmen who communicate to their citizens and the international community in ways that build bridges instead of creating fissures.
In an era of crisis in leadership and communication, Japan’s record has been mixed. At the domestic level, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have ushered in success in terms of stemming the spread of the virus at the level we are now seeing in Europe and the U.S.
Social distancing measures, the promotion of telecommuting and strong frontline education on preventing the transmission of the virus have also been strongly promoted through recommendations by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. There has also been a ban on Chinese and South Korean nationals until at least the end of March and a ban was added on foreign nationals who have stayed in some European countries, two provinces of China, and a part of South Korea and Iran to ensure the coronavirus is not transmitted from abroad.
Seen alone, these measures seem politically motivated or mismanaged. However, as the coronavirus pandemic deepens globally, what we are seeing is states around the globe adopting similar quarantine procedures and travel restrictions. In this sense, there appears to be a convergence that the best line of defense is social distancing, quarantining those with the virus and preventing the virus from being introduced from the “outside” so that existing medical services will not be overwhelmed and can treat effectively those who have been diagnosed with the virus.
Where the Japanese government has failed in terms of communication and leadership are in the quarantining of the Diamond Princess cruise liner, with eventually 712 out of 3,711 passengers and crew testing positive for the coronavirus, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Feb. 27 asking all schools to be closed through the end of March as a preventative measure without consultation with the public.
Clear and unbureaucratic communication with the public needs to be increased. Explanations for policy choices, such as comparatively few tests for the coronavirus, and the practical measures taken by the government need to be explained.
At the international level, Abe needs to exert more leadership and to communicate about the importance of establishing an Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative. Japan has the capacity, experience and credibility to work with states within the region to provide public goods.
This response initiative must include Japan’s traditional friends and partners such as Australia, the U.S., Canada and Europe. The real test of leadership will come in reaching out to South Korea and China, whose participation is also necessary but also more politically complicated.
Japan has much to contribute to helping resolve the current global crisis in leadership and communication. Here Abe should embody Deng Xiaoping’s saying of “Seek truth from facts” and define his and Japan’s leadership by advocating transparency and a scientific-based approach to global leadership and communication in this period of global instability. It’s no understatement that Japan’s friends and neighbors are in dire need of this kind of leadership and statesmanship.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.