Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Pandemic Proves Only Technocrats Can Save Us

Populist politicians love to belittle experts, but when it’s a matter of life and death, the precautionary principle and expertise are what counts.

By , the founder and managing partner of FutureMap and the author of The Future is Asian.
Anthony Fauci briefs the press on COVID-19.
Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House in Washington on Nov. 19, 2020. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage parts of the world, the blame game is already well underway to pinpoint why it wasn’t better contained. Throughout 2020 and up to the present day, hardly a single aspect of the pandemic response—whether mask wearing, lockdowns, vaccine production, or school openings—has been free from politicization. Among the public and experts, debates have swirled around who made the most accurate guesses about the number of COVID-19 casualties or its impact on the stock market.

Meanwhile, scientists at the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) were mapping viral proteins, Operation Warp Speed was disbursing funds to biotech companies to ramp up vaccine development, and a wide global public-private coalition was launching COVAX to ensure vaccine distribution to poorer nations. Other than NIAID director Anthony Fauci, few of those involved would be recognized by any member of the public or chattering class. But if and when COVID-19 is finally eradicated, we’ll have these technocrats to thank.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage parts of the world, the blame game is already well underway to pinpoint why it wasn’t better contained. Throughout 2020 and up to the present day, hardly a single aspect of the pandemic response—whether mask wearing, lockdowns, vaccine production, or school openings—has been free from politicization. Among the public and experts, debates have swirled around who made the most accurate guesses about the number of COVID-19 casualties or its impact on the stock market.

Meanwhile, scientists at the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) were mapping viral proteins, Operation Warp Speed was disbursing funds to biotech companies to ramp up vaccine development, and a wide global public-private coalition was launching COVAX to ensure vaccine distribution to poorer nations. Other than NIAID director Anthony Fauci, few of those involved would be recognized by any member of the public or chattering class. But if and when COVID-19 is finally eradicated, we’ll have these technocrats to thank.

What differentiates all three Asian states—and others with ultra-low COVID-19 death rates—is they are highly technocratic.

In Asia, they already do. From Taiwan to South Korea to Singapore, doctors, engineers, and other professionals occupy the top rungs of elected office and functional agencies. In these countries, public administration is a vocation, and revolving doors between corporate and political life are minimal. Transparency is high and corruption is low. What differentiates all three Asian states—and others with ultra-low COVID-19 death rates—is they are highly technocratic.

In technocracies, competence, public spirit, and key performance indicators are more important than cults of personality or popularity contests. Populist dilettantes such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former U.S. President Donald Trump mocked the experts on everything from Brexit to China tariffs to COVID-19, sacrificing public welfare for political gain. Their megalomaniacal hijacking of the state in times of crisis serves as a stark reminder that when it’s a matter of life and death, we’d better trust the technocrats.


COVID-19 isn’t the only hazard demonstrating that complex global challenges easily overwhelm most domestic political systems and international diplomatic mechanisms. Rising geopolitical tensions, the governance of frontier technologies like artificial intelligence, and climate change are other existential issues where global cooperation at the moment can best be described as kicking the can down the road. But crisis management is not the same as problem-solving. That requires a strong global application of the precautionary principle as well as the proactive steering of large-scale resources to solutions. If you want a better world for your children, don’t hold your breath for global democratic deliberation.

There are numerous examples of 20th century interventions designed to prevent worst-case scenarios. In the latter years of World War II, then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt conceived of the “Four Policemen” to restrain military rearmament, a coalition that became embedded in the United Nations Security Council. Although the U.N. became a theater for Cold War grandstanding, it also served as a conduit for great-power dialogue. The establishment of the supranational European Union is another example of building institutions that overcompensate to prevent history from repeating itself.

If you want a better world for your children, don’t hold your breath for global democratic deliberation.

Similar approaches have characterized the U.S. and U.N. response to major demographic risks. In the 1970s, fearing the security implications of a rapidly growing world population, the Ford administration began significant support for population planning policies, such as the mass distribution of contraception across the developing world. That represented a turning point in global fertility, contributing to the present plateau of the world population at almost 8 billion people rather than the 15 billion people feared at the time.

In recent decades, the precautionary principle has entered the formal and legal vernacular. In Germany, the Vorsorgeprinzip has been used to enforce strong environmental protections against pollutants. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, a slew of so-called macroprudential measures required banks to maintain higher capital adequacy ratios to guard against liquidity crises, signaling the rise of a new regulatory capitalism. And with the onset of COVID-19, smart countries moved rapidly to close borders and deploy mass testing and contact tracing. All such measures have been designed by experienced professionals, whether lawyers, engineers, doctors, or scientists.

Precautionary principle thinking gained prominence through the work of scholars like Arend Lijphart, the Dutch political scientist who sought to explain how fragile multiethnic and multilingual societies maintain stability, arguing leaders who foresaw undesirable outcomes would preemptively overcompensate through inclusive policymaking and power-sharing agreements. In the 1980s, political scientist Robert Axelrod coined the phrase “shadow of the future” in his seminal work The Evolution of Cooperation, using game theory tools to find alternative policies to repetitive confrontation. His contemporary, political scientist Robert Jervis, wrote “the Lijphart Effect can help transform a dangerous situation into a safer one.” Today’s world is full of dangerous situations where shadow-of-the-future thinking should inspire preemptive overcompensation.

COVID-19 is a fine example. Risk philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his collaborators, complexity theorists Yaneer Bar-Yam and Joseph Norman, issued prescient early warnings in January 2020 arguing in favor of the precautionary principle owing to the interconnectedness of global epidemiological, social, and economic systems. Sweden’s Anders Tegnell, the country’s equivalent to Fauci, took the opposite approach, betting on a herd immunity that never arrived. Tegnell is, of course, an expert but also acted like a maverick rather than acting with the greatest protection of life in mind.

Global leaders have only begun to face the cascading spillover effects of COVID-19 in ways that massively compound existing crises. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have issued more than $2 trillion in emergency lending to cash-strapped governments. The United States, EU, China, and private creditors must consider major debt forgiveness and write-downs to prevent economic collapse in dozens of developing countries. Vaccine shortages and acute hunger have to be confronted through coalitions involving multilateral agencies like the World Food Program and philanthropic donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Business-as-usual, Band-Aid diplomacy won’t cut it. It’s time for big decisions and strong management, whether a sovereign debt resolution framework or a new Green Revolution.

It’s time for big decisions and strong management, whether a sovereign debt resolution framework or a new Green Revolution.

The global monetary system is another arena ripe for preemptive action. The U.S. dollar’s hegemony is gradually eroding, but unlike previous great-power transitions, the Chinese renminbi won’t replace it. Bodies like the IMF and Bank for International Settlements can engineer an orderly transition toward a multicurrency global system with predictable exchange rates and greater transparency, liquidity, and efficiency among central bank digital currencies. Or the world could just wait for geopolitically motivated currency shocks, such as the 1956 Suez Crisis (during which the United States threatened to dump the pound unless the British withdrew forces from the canal zone) or when former U.S. President Richard Nixon pulled Washington from the gold standard in 1971. China dumping its $1 trillion of U.S. dollar reserves is hardly a cudgel Washington should want held over its head.

Although the United States and China are geopolitical rivals, they do not have direct territorial disputes with each other. China and its neighbors, however, have many. Needless to say, the much-discussed “democratic peace theory” has no relevance in Asia. Whereas U.S. deterrence has helped maintain stability, actual conflict resolution will require a technocratic peace. Rehabilitating or reunifying North Korea with South Korea will happen through a carefully scripted multistage process, not a continuation of decades of nuclear saber-rattling and preconditions.

In the South China Sea and other maritime domains, disputed islands that have already been fortified will have to be ceded to countries that have claimed them—whether China, Vietnam, or the Philippines—rather than risk uncontrolled warfare to gain them back. Designated negotiators will have to meet in secret to find outcomes where each side gives and takes—and all save face. Democratic (and especially nationalist) electorates may howl at compromise, which is why only a technocratic process involving authorized envoys can slow the region’s slide toward major escalation.

And then, of course, there’s climate change. According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, all fossil fuel investments would have to stop this year to have any chance of keeping pace with intended greenhouse gas reduction targets. Former NASA Goddard Institute director James Hansen has called for the establishment of a “planetary regime” both to regulate emissions generating industrial activity as well as to undertake global scale ecological conservation projects.

Technologists, philanthropists, and far-sighted governments are also beginning to devote more research to atmospheric and oceanic geoengineering projects that could reduce solar radiation or absorb more carbon dioxide. A wide array of political leaders, civil society activists, and institutional investors have rallied around climate-focused causes, from carbon taxes to coal divestment, but the worse climate scenarios get, the more decision-makers will be forced into radical, top-down measures overseen by technocrats, not activists.

The list of humanity’s great challenges is only getting longer, but leaders are still building the global governance plane while flying it. At the same time, the solutions are now widely known, and public and private stakeholders are forming partnerships to implement them, with COVAX being the most recent example. But shifting from reactive to proactive—from knowing the worst-case scenario to overcompensating to ensure a successful response—will require new kinds of authority that fit uncomfortably with today’s sensitivities around sovereignty and the indecisiveness of democracy.

As the shadow of the future grows nearer, overcoming today’s complexity will require less virtue-signaling on Twitter and more technocratic execution. Tomorrow’s world will be better for it.

Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap and the author of numerous books, including Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global CivilizationTechnocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State, and The Future is Asian. Twitter: @paragkhanna

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