When COVID-19 was beginning it spread throughout the United States, President Donald Trump turned his ire on the World Health Organisation. The White House charged that the WHO was slow to respond to the threat and overly influenced by China. A new book, Play by the Rules: The Short Story of America’s Leadership: From Hiroshima to COVID-19, by Michael Pembroke puts the charges against WHO into a much broader context, seeing it as part of a pattern of irresponsible leadership, set against a long term decline of the United States.
Michael Pembroke is an Australian writer who has written a biography of the first Governor of NSW, Arthur Phillip, More recently, he wrote a blistering attack on the approach of the United States to Korea, in Korea: Where the American Century Began (2018). Pembroke is a former Supreme Court judge, and not surprisingly, he presents his argument like a well-drilled barrister. Repeatedly he demonstrates that the United States has been a serial offender in ignoring treaties and international law. The book shows its foreign relations has been far too focussed on resolving issues with military force, leading to millions of deaths and a less safe world.
Pembroke has presented a strong case that the United States is on a downward path, and China will continue to rise. The book puts a lot of current political debates into context, such as the Victorian Government, accepting funds for infrastructure from the Belts and Road Initiative from the Chinese Government. It raises some real questions about the wisdom of the approach of the Australian Government to banning telecommunication companies such as Huawei.
It is a little unfair to criticise a book that looks at American history from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, but a broader timeframe would have been useful. By stretching the scope of this history back to 1929, perhaps Pembroke might have been a bit more optimistic. By taking a longer-term view, it is clear that the United States has a strong capacity to revive and rebuild. The presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt represented a period where the United States went from economic basket case to world leader. It was not the first time as Abraham Lincoln steered the United States through an agonising and vicious Civil War. The United States has an astonishing capacity for renewal.
Even so, Pembroke shows the United States is in desperate need of fundamental reform, and the present federal leadership is incapable of providing it. Trump is compounding the mistakes of the past. Nonetheless, just a hint of optimism would have been welcome in this bleak assessment of American leadership. He may have also placed more emphasis on good examples of US leadership such as President George H. W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, where he worked with the United Nations, and had general world support.
On the other side of the coin, the book does not dismiss China’s human rights record, but it shows that the debate concerning its role has often been hysterical. It is not a comfortable read, but it is a compelling one.
Reivew published in Daily Review on 8 October 2020.