Moisés Naím: What is very interesting in all of this crisis is that a lot of what we thought was permanent—institutions, individuals, ideas, business models, ways of working, that we thought were permanent—turned out to be transient, and new things that we believe that were just temporary became normal.
I am Paul Laudicina, chairman emeritus of Kearney and founder of its Global Business Policy Council, and this is Coronavirus: a world transformed.
We’re recording this on Thursday, May 7.
On today’s episode, we’re thinking about the new realities that are emerging around the world as a result of the pandemic. Some of these new realities are, in the words of today’s guest, “pre-existing conditions.” Stark inequalities in wealth that were already apparent before the pandemic are more sharply illuminated by the current crisis. Truth and fact-based decision-making is perhaps more valued today than it was pre-COVID-19 as facts improve the ability to make critical life and death decisions. The need for more selfless leadership and stronger international collaboration across borders has become clearer, even as ironically, we need to isolate ourselves for our own protection.
Our guest, Moisés Naím, is an internationally syndicated columnist and best-selling prolific author and is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr. Naím is the founder and chairman of the board of the Group of Fifty and serves on the boards of a number of global companies. Over the course of his distinguished career, he has been editor of the journal Foreign Policy, a business school dean, and Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry. He joins us today from Washington, D.C.
Interview with guest
Paul Laudicina: First of all, Moisés, it’s always a great pleasure to catch up with you and to learn from you. Thanks for joining me today and for being such an important thought leader that I have called on for so many years. And I’d like to start, if you will, by having you share with us what life looks like in your neighborhood this week, and, of course, since you’re about as global a citizen as anyone I know, by neighborhood, feel free to interpret that very literally and liberally.
Moisés Naím: First of all, thank you, Paul. It’s always a pleasure talking to you and chatting about the world. The answer about the neighborhood is both thought-provoking and interesting because instead of thinking about the neighborhood, I decided to think about my ecosystem, my habitat. And one of the things that is no longer in my habitat is airports, hotels, and airplanes. And that has been all for the good, I have to say, but that was a very important part of my life, as it was yours, I’m sure, and traveling long distances and different continents. And just staying a few hours and then jumping to another place was part of our life, my life. That’s no longer the case. And it has been a very, very welcome change, and that will probably make me even more selective in my decisions of where to travel when that becomes normal again.
And the second is, in my ecosystem, anxiety is now common. One part of our culture in my neighborhood is anxiety and perplexity about what’s going on and in some cases even fear.
Paul Laudicina: And is it anxiety and fear about contracting COVID-19, Moisés, or is it anxiety and fear about the whole sort of complex of issues associated with a world changing in very uncertain ways?
Moisés Naím: Of course, there is the fear, the anxiety about the dangers, the risk of being infected with the virus, but that is also part of the larger anxiety about the world and about how things are changing and about. ... The pandemic is revealing all kinds of realities that were in front of our eyes and that we were able to ignore and can no longer ignore: inequality and asymmetric access to healthcare.
And then there is the concern about inept leadership around the world, the leaders that have been caught by surprise that have improvising, that are politicizing, that are using the pandemic either to concentrate power, or to deepen the polarization that is now common around the world.
Paul Laudicina: Well, you know, Moisés, we’ll talk about leadership in a while because this is an issue about which you know a great deal. But just on the uncertainty question. I mean, one of the things that I think we’ve all been exposed to with this virus is uncertainty about the virus itself, who it affects, who it affects severely, which parts of the world are more affected than others, the kind of, you know, nature of the virus itself has created uncertainty, but then it has spawned so much uncertainty about how the world will react to it and its impact on different sectors, on different demographics.
And, you know, we lived in a society not too long ago, where we thought we knew more about all of these kinds of things than in fact we do and particularly with the advent of artificial intelligence and extraordinary computing capability and so forth, we’re learning about a lot that we really don’t know about the world, aren’t we?
Moisés Naím: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And also, the responses to the crisis, to the new challenges, are also very revealing in terms of the reliance on experts. We’re coming out of a period, I hope we are finishing a period, in which there was deep disdain for experts, for science, for data, for facts, for evidence-based policies. We saw it in the debate about Brexit in the UK. We saw it with President Trump’s campaign, the disdain for experts on data and facts, and I hope that this—at least one of the silver linings of this crisis, this pandemic, is that it’s creating new opportunities for science-based, for evidence-based, decision-making to regain the place each of you have in the national conversation and in policymaking.
Paul Laudicina: Well, that’s perhaps a good segue to the question I wanted to ask you about how this crisis compares to others that we’ve lived through and managed through. As you see things, Moisés, what is it about this crisis that’s perhaps fundamentally different from others? And what is it about this particular pandemic and crisis that might be, if you will, reminiscent about other crises that you’ve observed?
Moisés Naím: Yes. So I think it’s safer to explore and dissect what happened with all the crises and then extrapolate to this one perhaps because this one is still ongoing, is still unfolding, in many ways it is beginning. But you and I, Paul, have discussed over the years, all of the different crises that we have seen and in many ways participated in: 9/11 was, of course, one but before that there was a debt crisis around the world. There were wars. After 9/11, we of course had the financial crisis of 2009–2010.
And one pattern that I have seen in all these crises is that the reactions to them touched more lives and changed more things than the triggers itself. 9/11—the reaction to 9/11—again touched more lives and probably created more victims than 9/11 per se and had more consequences than 9/11. So be aware of the reactions and pay attention to the reactions because the reactions tend to be sometimes overreactions, tend to be misguided, tend to be unfounded, and easy to make mistakes in trying to deal with this, an unanticipated crisis.
The second is that the predictions about profound total, irreversible changes in the world are often exaggerated. Yes, things change, but do not touch 7 billion, 8 billion, people that are in the world today. So, overreactions, exaggerating how much the world is going to change as a result of the crisis.
And finally, what is very interesting in all of this crisis is that a lot of what we thought was permanent—institutions, individuals, ideas, business models, ways of working, that we thought were permanent—turned out to be transient, and new things that we believe that were just temporary became normal. And I think we’re going to have a lot of examples in this case in the current COVID-19 crisis, we’re gonna see a lot of things we believed permanent, that are either under attack or going to be changed. And many things that are temporary are going to be with us—are going to stay with us.
Paul Laudicina: Well, surely the leadership issues are going to be seen differently in light of COVID-19. And in a recent column of yours, Moisés, you wrote that our most pressing question is whether those who govern us will measure up to the test. And you conclude that with few exceptions, our current crop of world leaders fall dramatically short of what the moment demands. And you go on to say that there’s no doubt that this pandemic has caught the world at a moment of great institutional weakness and poor leadership. In fact, I think you titled one of your recent columns, which have been so insightful on all of these issues, “Big Problems, Small Leaders.” So what do you make of the state of global leadership during this, the world’s biggest crisis of our lifetimes?
Moisés Naím: Yes, it’s not good. And I want to clarify: I feel the need, and I did in the column, to clarify that I’m not an anti-politics kind of person. I was in government, as you know, and I have observed closely and worked with governments for many years. And you know, governing is very, very hard, and being successful is very difficult. So I have great respect for the people in government and the challenges they face and how hard it is to be successful.
And I’m not, you know, too quick, I don’t think in saying that we are now facing a very, very grave crisis, very profound crisis at the same time that the cohort, the group of leaders that are now governing are very poor in a lot of ways. They’re very limited in a lot of ways. There is an element of bad luck here, which is that a major global challenge and crisis arose at the time in which, with some exceptions, most of our leaders are falling short.
Paul Laudicina: Well, you know, in your best-selling book, The End of Power, you argued that power has become easier to get but more difficult to use. And maybe that’s part of the problem that we see with leaders today. Are they in your judgment maybe effectively deprived of the tools, of the power, that’s needed to contain this contagion? We see it being wielded very differently in different parts of the world. What’s your take on that, Moisés?
Moisés Naím: Yes, I do believe that governments are more constrained, and not just governments but even people that have a lot of power. The book was titled The End of Power but did not mean that there was—you know, there are huge pockets of power concentrated in the world still today. We have the Vaticans and the Pentagons of the world, we have Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and Trump—these are powerful people. We have very large companies—Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs. So power continues to be concentrated in very important ways. But the point I make, and I think it holds well under examination is that all—even those powers—are constrained, limited in what they can do. The times in which they could do whatever they wanted have gone away, and now they face very often circumstances for which they don’t have either the tools or the power to use it.
And then, you know, they have been weakened in very significant ways, I think. Both the Vatican and the Pentagon today have been weakened by a set of circumstances. Just think about—I did mention Exxon Mobil—Exxon Mobil’s valuation today is lower than Netflix. And that of course imposes significant constraints in—on a company that for many years was seen as a monolithic untouchable, all-powerful entity.
And so yes, I think that those in power are just not that good, but they are also facing immense challenges because the powers that they have are limited, and the tools they have are limited.
Paul Laudicina: Well, you noted in The End of Power that power is not only decaying, but that those in power are more at risk of losing it than ever before. That was written of course before the pandemic. How will the pandemic affect, do you think, the powerful—in government and in business, in all walks of life, and their grasp on power?
Moisés Naím: Well, let’s start with politics and what we have seen in the world, I think, as symbolized by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and by Vladimir Putin in Russia. Orbán has used the pandemic to call for a national emergency. And that then led and he urged Congress and was given by Congress, a Congress that he controls, was given even more power. So the pandemic was used to concentrate power. And that has happened elsewhere too—in Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, in some Asian countries, you know, the pandemic has been used to justify the need and get the authorization to even have more power concentrated in governments.
The other consequence is that governments are under siege. And there are—you know, criticisms for delays, for lying, for ineptitude, for mismanaging, for not being capable of providing the responses that are needed, are a weakening bunch of governments. And again, Putin is a good example. But I think Trump is also an important example of this.
Paul Laudicina: It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it, Moisés, that to be able to deal with coronavirus, we are urging isolation and sheltering in place and cutting off contact with others? But yet when we think about the prescription long term, the leadership prescription for dealing with the consequences of a pathogen that respects no boundaries, it requires interdependence and collaboration and certainly engagement. And I wonder if in this environment of isolation to try and protect ourselves against the virus, we in fact are making ourselves even more vulnerable to a much more pernicious long-term virus of isolationism.
Moisés Naím: Absolutely. That’s a very good point. And in addition to that, which is correct, is the notion that the prescription itself only applies to a sliver of humanity. The notion that you should keep social distance and wash your hands and stay at home, most of the people living in the world today cannot afford that. First, very many don’t have running water. So, you know, washing their hands often may not be available to everyone. Then social distances, you know, people that work, live and work in highly concentrated, high-density urban settings is impossible. And third, staying at home and not go out to work is a luxury that they cannot afford. In most of these countries, if you don’t leave in the morning to try to make some money, you’re [not] gonna eat in the afternoon. And so the prescription which is now the universal prescription for, for this is in reality a prescription for either wealthy countries or police states like China.
Paul Laudicina: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that, Moisés, in particular about emerging markets. You saw recently the International Rescue Committee has issued this dire forecast of how COVID-19 might affect the vulnerable populations in the developing world, noting that the world’s most vulnerable countries could see up to a billion COVID-19 infections and over 3 million deaths and aside from the incomprehensible amount of pain and suffering associated with this kind of almost apocalyptic forecast, what do you think this would mean for the global human condition, for North–South relationships, for, you know, the ability of the global community to function and meet the basic needs of people around the world?
Moisés Naím: The problem with that, Paul, is that a lot of people who will be dying and suffering and losing jobs are invisible. We know the numbers. We know the statistics. We get occasionally some videos about what’s going on in television in the news. But these are victims that don’t have sufficient voice, sufficient visibility, and therefore are relatively possible to ignore.
There is a horrible parallel here, which is the crisis in Syria or the Rohingyas or other of the international crises in which you know, the numbers are not the ones that we were mentioning here. The numbers are lower but are huge. We’re talking about millions of people. And we have seen how the international community has either been paralyzed or incapable of providing a solution and safeguarding the lives and the health of these innocent people. And so what I’m saying is that the capacity of the world to react effectively and save lives in large-scale catastrophes is, whenever it has been tested, it has fallen short.
Paul Laudicina: Well, let’s zoom in a little bit if we could, Moisés, on a part of the world that you come from and know better than virtually anyone. How do you think this pandemic is going to likely affect Latin America? What are the concerns of viewers of yours throughout all of the Spanish-speaking world of your Emmy Award-winning TV show Efecto Naím? How are the leaders of developing countries in general and those in Latin America in particular responding to this crisis?
Moisés Naím: Latin American countries get hit by the pandemics and by COVID-19 with pre-existing conditions. They were already weakened by the fall in commodity prices. Latin America is a region that mostly exports commodities, agriculture, minerals, and hydrocarbons. And the prices have been going down and that has created significant pressures on the system. The fiscal space that these countries have is very limited. In order to deal with the pandemic, you need to spend, as we have been talking and we’re seeing around the world, countries are spending huge quantities to deal with the virus as they should be. And Latin American governments don’t have that space, and they don’t print their own money.
They also live—many of the countries—live off remittances of their citizens living abroad and sending back money to their families. That has dried up because employment for these individuals has dried up, plus all of the immigration issues that we know. Credit markets and foreign direct investment flows have also dwindled in Latin America.
But in general, there’s a long list of pre-existing conditions that then are placed in front and amplified by the pandemic. And so, governments are again, their response has been unequal. We have seen very effective very solid responses in Chile, for example. The new government in Argentina is also showing effectiveness in managing this. And then we have seen catastrophic reactions in two very large countries, namely Brazil and Mexico where the presidents of those two countries have delayed, ignored, minimized, disdained, and mocked the pandemic, and now the countries are paying the consequences in significant ways.
And so Latin American countries will have to muddle through again, through a very difficult condition. This is an external shock. Latin America is used to having its life upended, its economic life, its political life and social life, upended by shocks that come from abroad. And the big risk that is clearly in the horizon is that many of the gains that Latin American countries have had in the last decade or more, in terms of lifting people out of poverty, in creating a middle class—Latin America now has the largest and most numerous middle class it has had in history, but this middle class is not invulnerable, and many are at the risk of sliding back into poverty.
So, we may see that, and there is the fear Latin America had in the 80s, what was called essentially the lost decade, which was 10 years of stagnation, low growth, and increased poverty. So among experts, there is the worry that we may be entering into a new lost decade for Latin America, and I hope that doesn’t happen.
Paul Laudicina: Not only as you said, pre-existing conditions, but if you will, maybe comorbidities that the region is subject to and other regions of the world to be sure, but, of course, when the dust settles and there is the business of reconstruction that must take place, a lot of attention will be focused on international collaboration and global governance structures that we know again, speaking of pre-existing conditions, were increasingly hamstrung before COVID-19. And as someone who knows those post-Bretton Woods institutions well, how confident are you, Moisés, that the international financial institutions will be up to what clearly will be an incredible, historic, unprecedented burden that’ll be on them to help the global economy through the extraordinary dislocation that will come in the wake of this global pandemic?
Moisés Naím: I have great confidence in the competence and the technical prowess of the professionals at the IMF, the World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank, and other regional banks, and so I believe that they have solid professionals, experienced in managing these things in managing public policies and so on. But in the same way that I'm confident about the professionals, I am not confident in the shareholders of these institutions.
And these multilateral institutions—and that includes the UN, UNICEF and UNESCO and FAO and the World Health Organization and all that—are as good as their shareholders and their member countries that control them are good.
And very often what we have seen is that their member countries and nations that control these institutions do not do a very good job that requires thinking globally, that requires being willing to make concessions in order to create international coalitions that are able to work effectively. They are not good at sharing information, sharing power, and coordinating well. And very often they just dump a lot of mandates into these institutions without giving them the resources or the administrative capabilities to do that.
The multilateral world tends to be very inefficient. It’s very easy to make fun of it. But if it didn’t exist, we would need to invent it again. And in that new invention, we will require the nations that own them and control them to behave more responsibly and more globally and not put their short-term electoral preferences and priorities as obstacles of a job that has to be done effectively and technically.
Paul Laudicina: Well, clearly the demands on leaders of all institutions will be—are, in fact—great. Now, you serve on boards of directors and advise corporate leaders around the world. What advice do you have for business leaders who are facing these kinds of tough questions in the midst of all of this incredible uncertainty that surrounds a global pandemic today?
Moisés Naím: The first three priorities have to be liquidity, liquidity, and liquidity. That has to and I think it is now the concern of most companies, but you know, liquidity will become very important. The second is compassion and solidarity. It’s very important that people working in companies feel that those who run the company understand their situation and that of their families, that make life easier for them, that are willing to forego some margins in order to support the community, that at the end, a company is a community, and the community needs to really rely on leaders that are compassionate, that show solidarity and stand with them and not in a way that is felt like abusive, exploitative, or dangerous.
And that brings me to one thing that now is very much a priority, and that is truth. And that is also applicable to leaders in government. People want the truth. People don’t want tricks, don’t want slogans, don’t want manipulation, fake news, and lies. And we live in a world in which these things at the beginning may be very confusing and very difficult to discern what’s truth and what’s not. But at the end, the truth emerges. So the leaders—the corporate leaders that think they can get away with lying or obfuscating or confusing or just hiding information will not do well. And the same applies to people in charge of governments.
Paul Laudicina: Moisés, maybe there is a silver lining to this very dark cloud that hangs over all of us. Do you think perhaps after COVID-19, there will be a greater public appreciation for separating fact from fiction, from focusing on and demanding truth from power? Is that something that you can see coming out of this pandemic?
Moisés Naím: Yes, I believe that. I believe it was prior to the pandemic. I saw and I think we all see the building off of the demand, the appetite for the truth. People want to know the truth. And so, demand—whenever there is demand—supply appears. The demand is there, and the supply will be—will come in a variety of ways, both in terms of institutions, practices, technologies, that will create, will provide better ways and more effective ways of discerning what's truth from what’s not.
Paul Laudicina: Moisés, that’s a great note on which to conclude this discussion. Thank you very much for joining me today and for sharing your insights, and stay well.
Moisés Naím: Thank you, Paul. You too. It was a pleasure.
Wrap-up (Paul Laudicina)
There’s only so much ground we can cover in one 30-minute interview, and we’re aware there are undoubtedly many more questions that you might wish we had been able to discuss during each podcast. So don’t hesitate to be in touch with me with any additional insight we might be able to provide by contacting me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @paullaudicina, and I would be happy to respond.
We’ll be back with new episodes of Coronavirus: a world transformed soon. So stay tuned. More is coming.
About Moisés Naím
Internationally syndicated columnist, best-selling author, and senior fellow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Moisés Naím is an internationally syndicated columnist and best-selling author of several influential books, including The End of Power, a startling examination of how power is changing across all sectors of society, and Illicit, a detailed exposé on modern criminal networks. In 2011, he launched Efecto Naím, an innovative weekly television program highlighting surprising world trends with visually striking videos, graphics, and interviews with world leaders. The program is widely watched in Latin America. Moisés gained international recognition with the re-launch of the prominent journal Foreign Policy and, over his 14 years as editor (1996—2010), turned the magazine into a modern, award-winning publication on global politics and economics.
His prize-winning work is highly influential in the world of international politics, economics, and business. In 2005, Illicit was selected by The Washington Post as one of the best nonfiction books of the year; it was published in 18 languages and is the basis of an Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary. Of his 2013 book, The End of Power, former US president Bill Clinton said it “will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world.” Arianna Huffington, president of the Huffington Post, said it is “a compelling and original perspective on the surprising new ways power is acquired, used, and lost—and how these changes affect our daily lives.”
His columns and media commentary have a worldwide audience. He is the chief international columnist and a “global observer” for El País and La Repubblica, the largest daily newspapers in Spain and Italy. His columns are also carried by all leading newspapers in Latin America and have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Business Week, Newsweek, Time, Le Monde, El Estadão, and Berliner Zeitung. In 2011, he was honored to receive the Ortega y Gasset prize, the most prestigious award for journalism in the Spanish language. In 2013, Moisés was named one of the world’s leading thinkers by the British magazine Prospect, and from 2014 to 2017, he was ranked among the top 100 most influential global thought leaders by GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.
Moisés is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He is the founder and chairman of the board for the Group of Fifty, which brings together top progressive Latin American business leaders, and he is a member of the board of directors for several global companies.
In the early 1990s, Moisés served as Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry, director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and executive director of the World Bank. He was previously a professor of business and economics and dean of IESA, Venezuela’s leading business school. Moisés earned a master’s degree and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.