China's zero-COVID, elections in Brazil, Cold War 2.0: Your Questions, Answered
Summer is over, and with it, this summer’s mailbag series is coming to an end.
After over 1,000 questions and exactly 100 answers (I am on vacation, after all), it’s been a pleasure.
Note: This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part summer mailbag series responding to reader questions. You can find the first part here, the second part here,, the third part here, and the fourth part here. Some of the questions that follow have been slightly edited for clarity. If you have questions you want answered, ask them in the comments section below or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and look out for future AMAs.
A worker wearing protective gear walks next to barriers that separate from the street a neighborhood in lockdown as a measure against Covid-19. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
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Why is Xi Jinping so committed to zero-Covid? Would using other nations' vaccines be so devastating to their nationalistic rhetoric that they have to sacrifice years of being in lockdown? What exactly do you think Xi's game plan is? (Sheng T)
Because China was complacent for two years after having massive initial success containing the virus…and in the meantime, Covid changed dramatically. Now it’s too late—if they open up suddenly, with most people having no immunity from prior infection and only moderate vaccine immunity (due to only moderate vaccination rates and poor vaccine effectiveness against the newer variants), China’s hospitals would quickly get overwhelmed and millions would likely die. They can’t import foreign vaccines without losing tremendous face because they so played them up as inferior to homegrown ones. So they’re locked in until they develop effective mRNA vaccines and stockpile enough therapeutics to offset elderly vaccine hesitancy. And that’s not happening until well into 2023.
Can we expect Europe to move away from fossil fuel (and Russian gas) reliance by going nuclear? It seems like a no-brainer in the long term despite its steep implementation costs. (Marcelo F)
No—it’s not a singular fix. There’s lots of popular opposition to nuclear in Europe, and France’s experience isn’t ideal (nuclear there has proven to be expensive, and nearly 50% of capacity is presently offline due to maintenance and other challenges). But it’s certainly a part of the solution, along with greater energy efficiency, diversification of sources for fossil fuels in transition, and renewables.
What will it take to decarbonize the U.S. economy quickly? (Zoe L)
We’ve come a long way already. Per capita carbon emissions in the U.S. are currently roughly what they were in the 1940s, in large part because we’ve successfully transitioned from coal to natural gas. Going forward, the key driver of further decarbonization will be investments in new technology, and in making existing technologies (solar, wind, EVs, batteries) cheaper. The misnamed “Inflation Reduction Act” will make a significant difference in that regard. Personally, I’d really love to see a nuclear fusion breakthrough. The efforts feel more serious this time around…
Do you think India's democracy will survive the next 25 years? (Classmate A)
Yes. The bigger question is whether the world’s governments will still be the principal actors on the global stage in 50 years. About that, I’m not so sure…
What would be the long-term implications of a permanently split Ukraine? (Ramsey T)
Depends on the nature of the split and whether Ukrainians accept it as a baseline. A return to pre-February 24 borders would be a split (Crimea would stay Russian) but one that could potentially lead to peace. Short of that, it’s hard to imagine an end to hostilities. I worry about what this means for Russia long term. They’ve made themselves into an Iran-like rogue state… but with 6,000 nuclear warheads. Not good for the world.
What do you think about John J. Mearsheimer’s prediction on Ukraine? Could this dreadful war have been avoided? (Andrea P)
I think he’s fixated on blaming the West. Yes, the West made all sorts of errors. We didn’t make an effort to integrate Russia into the West after the Cold War, and we didn’t hit the Russians hard enough for their invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Ultimately, though, this war is on Putin, not the West.
How do you evaluate Turkey’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war? (Burak P)
Overall it’s been constructive, especially on the food security front. But it’s also been highly opportunistic, cognizant of the opportunities the war provides to rehabilitate Turkey’s image and relatively poor diplomatic/geostrategic standing.
When will the war in Ukraine end? (Victor C)
No time soon, I’m afraid.
What is China doing right, if anything? How can West learn to do the same? (Asad F)
They are investing massively in STEM education, high-tech industries, and green energy technologies. The United States is finally starting to do this with the CHIPS Act and the “Inflation Reduction Act,” but we’re behind the curve. Another advantage China has is its political system tends to promote leaders on the basis of meritocracy. The US political system, not so much (though in part that’s because it’s nowhere near as powerful or consequential).
When you look at the Ukraine war and the conflict in Northern Ethiopia, do you think we are at the beginning of Cold War 2.0? (Isahaq A)
Yes—specifically in terms of NATO and the G-7 versus Russia. And it has elements of a hot war, even. But it’s not a global cold war like we experienced before the Soviet collapse, and it’s certainly not a fight among equals. Russia’s allies are Belarus and a couple of minor rogue states. That’s it. Not even Kazakhstan, which is supporting US/EU sanctions. Europe is united on one side of the Iron Curtain. China’s “friendship without limits” with Russia has turned out to be a friendship without very many benefits. And developing countries want nothing to do with a new cold war and will continue to do business both with the West and with Russia.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has been compared with former U.S. president Donald Trump.(Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)
What do you think about the upcoming elections in Brazil? Will there be consequences on the global stage? (Bernardo S)
It’s Lula’s to lose, although the race will tighten in coming weeks as the economy improves. In terms of policy, Lula and Bolsonaro aren’t exactly polar opposites on economics, where they are both more moderate than their rhetoric would seem to indicate. That means there should be broad continuity regardless of who wins. The big difference globally would be on climate, where Lula is much more aligned with other governments around the world. A big question is whether when Bolsonaro (likely) loses he will attempt to delegitimize and overturn the election the way Trump did in 2020. If he does, the chances he’ll succeed are minimal (the military and the courts would defend the rule of law), but it could still lead to a lot of violence. That’d be very destabilizing for Latin America’s largest economy.
Every democratically elected national leader appears to face record-low approval ratings and an upcoming, near-certain defeat at the ballot. Has this level of unrest at a global level ever happened before? What are the implications of such volatility? (Jack S)
It’s true that there seems to be a lot more populism and anti-establishment sentiment than in the recent past, which strongly suggests that the social contract in democracies isn’t working and needs to be redressed, or else democratic governance will start seriously crumbling. But keep in mind this is much more of a problem in the United States than, say, Canada, Germany, or Japan. So I wouldn’t overgeneralize or panic just yet.
Is globalization over? (Tiago S)
Not at all. While there’s some decoupling going on (between Russia and the West, between the US and China on areas of national security, by “my country first” populists around the world trying to score political points), the extent of it is limited by economic self-interest. In fact, the world is still the most integrated it’s ever been. But globalization is no longer being actively driven by the United States (or anyone else). That means that it’s being fought over, not that it’s over. The economic drivers of globalization are just too powerful.
Are we headed into a cold war with China? What are your expectations for the Sino-American relationship in the long term? (Johnny K)
No. There’s too much economic interdependence between the two countries, and both sides are well-aware that war would be mutually assured destruction. But there’s enormous uncertainty in the long-term relationship, which is entirely devoid of trust. Both countries are facing massive domestic challenges. China’s are primarily economic (though they could become political as well). America’s are primarily political (though they could become economic as well). If these two developments keep getting worse, we’ll likely see more conflict.
Is it true you grew up in the projects? What lessons did that teach you? (Allan S)
Yes. It’s hard to know for sure how the experience shaped me in the absence of a counterfactual, but off the top of my head: it motivates me to work hard, it makes me recognize the importance of understanding networks/stakeholders and not presuming performance alone gets you where you want to go, and it gives me an outsider perspective that is useful for being clear-minded about the advantages and disadvantages of different systems (as opposed to thinking that everything should run like the “Washington consensus”).
How do you find passion when it comes to work? (Steven T)
The subject matter—the state of our world and, most importantly, the people on it—is endlessly fascinating. And given that we’re in a period of nearly unprecedented uncertainty—a real transition point for the world—the work feels meaningful.
How do U.S. allies around the world see U.S. division and the upcoming elections in 2022 and 2024? How do they prepare for what may be coming? (Linda B)
They’re deeply, deeply concerned. The Europeans are working to strengthen the EU and related institutions to get some “strategic autonomy” from the U.S., should they need it. Some Asian allies are hedging or balancing toward China. While some U.S. allies like Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom largely have no choice but to stick with us, albeit each for different reasons.
What will it take to repair American democracy and restore its standing as the beacon of democratic ideals in the world? (Max B)
It will take a generation of hard work. Specifically, we need to invest in improving equality of opportunity for Americans who no longer have the mobility of their parents and grandparents, and we need to take money out of the political system to better align incentives for the public good.
With all the uncertainty (economics) and conflict (international relations) currently, what gives you the most hope? (Christian G)
That this is precisely the time when we get to rebuild our 20th-century global institutions to make them fit for the (first half of the) 21st century. That’s a terrific opportunity we should not waste.
What is the meaning of life? (Stefen S)
To keep a sense of wonder about our existence. For me, philosophically, that means keeping an open mind and never stopping asking myself that very question.
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