In 10 years, Bitcoin might become a national currency somewhere. Covid moved us several centuries back, says Bruno Maçães

Portuguese political thinker Bruno Maçães is one of the most prominent figures among political analysts. This former politician has written several books read and recognized by politicians and businessmen from Beijing to Brussels and Washington DC. His hypotheses are sometimes unsettling. Nevertheless, they reflect both technologies and geopolitical development. He considers Covid to be a moment that brought civilization several hundred years back. “The old model of the neutral state where a hipster and a conservative Muslim could live together comfortably is over,” he says in an exclusive interview with Jan Růžička for INFO.CZ.

You are a former politician, now a political scientist, writer, and a columnist. So, let's start with a topic, that is quite close to your heart: geopolitics of Covid. We can all see, that Covid is a true gamechanger and the world is becoming filled with more cleavages. Less globalization, more nationalism. What is your view as a political scientist on implications of Covid? Mid-term and long-term. 

It has both systemic implications and more direct and immediate implications. The first impact is on the level of the international system. We had been discussing the questions of the international order, the set of rules, institutions, and values around which the modern world has been organized since the end of WW II. That international system was already under a lot of pressure. Mainly because of the growing tensions between China and the United States and because of the rise of other powers. The system was becoming unstable even before Covid. The pandemic has just deepened that process and forced states to abandon a number of rules, procedures and institutions. At least since the past year we have been operating almost without any guidance from the international system. 

Each country is doing what it has to do. That's the first impact at the level of the system. The second impact regards the technology. Now, everyone is very much aware of the importance of the technology. As time goes, we start to realize more and more that we cannot afford to have the approach to the technology, that we had before Covid. We've essentially regarded technological progress as being fundamentally over. Progress was too slow in other areas as well. We realized that the environment is still a threat. With the climate change we need faster, more intense, and bolder technological progress. 

We saw that with the vaccines. If we had the same approach to technologies before, probably we could have many of these platforms (messenger RNA and other platforms) already developed. Fortunately, they have been developed quickly. 

We saw a similar progress also with our move to digitalization. Deliveries have exploded, e-commerce has exploded. And it doesn't stop there. Once you have e-commerce growing something like by 80% a year it creates a disruption in other areas. If this level of e-commerce remains in place, obviously you cannot have the old model of making deliveries. Walmart has completely changed. Its delivery system, its network system, both are completely different. 

We can see a burst of innovation, and countries are competing for the technological lead. That's the second impact at the level of the system. 

Then we have immediate, direct impacts. On the function of the European Union, on the election of Joe Biden, we have impacts in China, we have impacts in India. It is really the story of our lifetime.

SVĚT — "Covid moved us several centuries back." A talk with Bruno Maçães

Bruno Maçães

Bruno Maçães, PhD is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a senior advisor at the Flint Global in London. He was the Secretary of State for European Affairs in Portugal from 2013 to 2015 and was decorated by Spain and Romania for his services to government.

Dr. Maçães received his doctorate in Political Theory from Harvard University. His dissertation was awarded the Richard Herrnstein prize for the best dissertation in the social sciences. Then, he taught at Yonsei University in Seoul, Bard College in Berlin and Renmin University in Beijing. In 2008 he was a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, where his work focused on the political implications of the biotechnological revolution. He is the author of several books on international affairs, including The Dawn of Eurasia, Belt and Road and History has Begun.

Bruno is a regular commentator on the international media and has written for the Financial Times, Politico, the Guardian and Foreign Affairs. He also writes his World Game blog.

You already mentioned quite a lot of topics. The first one are the vaccines; they are definitely the zeitgeist. Everybody is talking about them; everybody wants them and from the scientific and manufacturing perspectives they are a massive success. However, it doesn't look like the pharma companies have become our heroes. Why from your point of view this honeymoon of the pharma companies and people has been so short?

It is all strange. Try to imagine what the current mood would be without the vaccines. Back in the summer 2020 most of us thought that it would be possible to contain the pandemic. The idea was that the vaccines would take a few years to develop, and in the meantime we have to contain it. It turned out we are not able to contain pandemic, at least in Europe and in the United States. If we didn't have the vaccines, we would have years of suffering, pain and an economic collapse ahead of us. 

Do you think people see it this way now? 

I'm not quite sure people realize that. We were extraordinarily quick. These are new technologies that will be also useful to fight cancer or aging.  The mRNA is going to be a general platform, not just for the vaccines. 

Europe is still under attack because there's not enough focus on the technology. When we look at the vaccines, particularly in Europe, you can see it is a business story of people making money and you don't realize that it's a scientific and a technological story. The US are doing better than Europe. They tend to think about the rule of technology, how the technology works, how it involves risks and how it involves some tradeoffs. 

Let's stop here. You used to be not only a Portuguese politician but also a European one. How do you see the role of the European Commission, also its recent battle with the United Kingdom? 

It's been a disaster. That's the word. Now, I don't think, as opposed to other people, that the problem is with the European Union as such. On the contrary. Procuring vaccines gave Europe more market power and more ability to obtain good results. But the process was very badly conducted by the people who didn't have experience or the insight into what was necessary. 

How and why?

It goes back to the very difficult relationship the European Union has with the technology. I mean the approach where technology is something not to develop but to regulate, to limit and to contain. That's the root of the problem. We have a trade negotiator in charge of the process. Trade negotiator is someone who creates legal rules. That's not what we need here to create legal rules. We had a dynamic that should have been resisted to by our political decision-makers, but it wasn't. There was too much focus on the price. 

But, back in the summer last year, everything looked great...

Back in the summer every European official sounded so enthusiastic. They told us that Europe was doing better than America. The whole story was about Trump. Many people in Europe were convinced that if you believed in science and if you were not Donald Trump, then the pandemic was not a big problem. There was a sense that it was under control. Cases went almost to zero back in July. That was precisely the moment when the European Commission was negotiating about the vaccines. I think the approach they took was "we have time because the pandemic is essentially under control". I also understand that they thought the vaccines would take several years to be invented. So, there was not enough knowledge of the market and the science to make good decisions.

Jan Ruzicka

PhDr. Jan Ruzicka, MBA is the Chief External Affairs Officer at the Home Credit Group, the world’s leading consumer finance provider. He now works and lives in Hong Kong from where he is running the company´s networks in the US, Asia and Europe. Before that he lived in Beijing, Cambridge, and Prague and for ten years he worked for the Czech government, advocating and shaping the health reform as Director-General at the Ministry of Health. At universities in Asia and Europe Jan teaches Behavioral Economy and the Disruption of Finance and Healthcare. He is especially interested in how innovation can create financial inclusion and health equality.

Can you make an assessment, a comparison between Brussels and London? Great Britain led by Boris Johnson didn't have a lot of success in 2020 in containing the virus.  Now, they have more than enough vaccines and they have been running the vaccination pretty quickly. 

The pandemic is a complicated story and there are contradictory requirements. If you focus on social measures, societies that are more cautious have an advantage. Societies that are very vibrant and dynamic will not live with lockdowns and restrictive measures easily. 

When you focus on scientific development, then the societies that are more dynamic have an advantage. We actually had two phases in the pandemic. Lockdown phase and the vaccine phase. Countries that had more trouble with the lockdown phase are doing better in the vaccine phase. Israel, the United States, and the UK. Countries that are described as populist. But that also means that they have better ability to make quick decisions. There's more focus on political leadership and less focus on rules. 

Unfortunately, it seems that the European Union did poorly in both phases. I think this is the only area in the world that did poorly in both phases. But then you also have countries that did very well in the first phase and seemed to be too cautious in the second phase. New Zealand in particular. They are going to start vaccination within a year or so. I think that's not a good decision because the country will have to stay closed to the outside. 

The United Kingdom logically has some advantages in this second phase. A very strong scientific and business base and the government that is quite interested in moving fast and taking risks. They are often criticized because of this. But in this case, it was a big success. 

You mentioned Israel, the European Union, the US, and the UK. These are regions with high-quality health care, and with access to vaccine manufacturers. Good. However, the world does not consist only of the West... and now, Red Cross, WHO and multiple NGOs are very critical that “the rich North is saving itself.” Thus, what will happen in the poor countries that don’t have money nor power and capability to get vaccines in time? 

That's a big story. Clearly the mood in Europe and the United States is that not a single vaccine dose is going be offered to other parts of the world, until everyone that wants to get a vaccine, gets a vaccine back home. The European Union, also the UK and the US are monopolizing all these vaccines for themselves. 

At the end of Second World War, the United States were able to think more globally. The United States did have needs at home to reconstruct, rebuild and bring back home soldiers, give them education and so on. And together with that, they were still able to contribute to the reconstruction of Europe, Japan, and other parts of the world.

Now, the US and Europe will worry about the rest of the world only after they are fully recovered. That's very disappointing. By the way it contrasts with the approach that particularly China and India are taking. 

What do you make of this contrast? 

It is quite a symbolic moment that China and India are going to take an advantage of this situation to create networks of influence in many parts of the world. In Africa we can already hear public statements being made that one cannot rely on the West. 

I'm not suggesting that the US and the EU should send massive amounts of vaccines to Africa. That would not be politically possible, but it would certainly be politically possible to send at least some vaccines and to help to vaccinate healthcare workers in several countries. That would not be unthinkable technically and in the past, it used to be possible politically. Now, it seems completely impossible to spare even a single dose. As far as I know, the only supplies of vaccines going to the developing world are done through NGOs and other private benefactors. They have acquired vaccines directly from the companies and they will give them to developing countries. Not a single dose has been directly provided by the US government or by the European Union. 

What does it say about us Westerners from the ethical an values point of view, and also from the geopolitical perspective?

We will lose influence all over the world. It's a question of ethics but it's also a question of politics. The Marshall Plan was not about a moral approach, it was about the situation that either the United States or the Soviet Union would dominate over Europe. The Marshall Plan was a strategy to avoid leaving Europe to the Soviet Union. 

Now you have the same question, but it seems there's no legitimacy, and also no understanding of the public about these issues. We have now a very immediate kind of democracy that doesn't think about the long-term issues. You can imagine the scandal if a country in the EU or if the US would decide to send the vaccines to another country. Decision-makers would be accused of harming their own citizens. 

Chinese do it for a combination of geopolitical and business reasons. Pandemic is under control in China. They are able to wait a bit more. They will vaccinate some parts of the country, but they can still afford to export a percentage of the vaccines produced in China; it´s because the situation is out of control in Europe and the US. That's another cost of not having been able to keep Covid under control. You're in such a desperate situation that you can only think about your immediate needs and you cannot think about the impact on the world. I think it's a big story. Vaccines and geopolitics probably work very well for China.

Is the Asian century finally here?

You know that in my book Dawn of Eurasia, I kind of argue that it doesn't make much sense to talk about Asia. What we see is a general integration of Asia and Europe into Eurasia. Everyone btw agrees that Europe is still important. China decided that having an investment agreement with Europe was the biggest priority for 2020. So, clearly, China thinks Europe is important. 

If you talk about Asia, I'm still very reluctant to see what exactly there is in common between Japan and Saudi Arabia. So yes, we can talk about Asia, but it doesn’t make much sense. Both Japan and Arabia have more in common with Europe than they have with one another. 

Asia is not an entity culturally, and geopolitically is not an entity either. That is why we should call it Eurasia. When we talk about economic dynamism, we're talking about the end of Pacific and we are talking about a kind of coastal arc that goes from Beijing to Mumbai through Jakarta. That's the area in the world that is becoming central to the global economy. It's not really Asia that we are talking about. Many parts of Asia remain very peripheral to the world economy. 

Let's open another chapter of our discussion: Covid as a disruptor. We already touched the topic of innovation before with regard to the vaccines and an acceleration of the e-commerce platforms. It seems that also in other areas, Covid has been a big booster in innovation. Do you think that still more of the disruption is coming? 

First of all, we have a huge acceleration in the digital area. People already knew it was coming, but they needed a kind of a social shock. For example, five years ago any professional would suggest that meeting via Zoom is a lazy solution. Not anymore. So, people have moved to a new equilibrium. They will certainly not go back to the old ways of doing things. Plus, digitalization does not just mean Zoom. Digitalization means automation, robotics, telemedicine and many other things that are now happening very quickly. 

There is now a truly huge explosion of biomedicine and biotechnology. The same we can see in the energy transportation. Geothermal technology is becoming a big one. And finally, there are cryptocurrencies and the Bitcoin. 

Definitely, the Bitcoin is another big story of 2020. We saw yesterday that it got very close to fifty thousand USD and no one could have imagined this before. And I think that's connected to Covid as well. Concerns about inflation, concerns about the dollar that resulted from all the stimulus packages made people think more seriously about the Bitcoin. 

Therefore, 2020 was a year of quite dramatic technological innovation.  Every day there's something new, and something new is happening. 

You've reminded me of a story from Hong Kong. You probably know there are 21 days to be spent in quarantine in hotel room there, which is quite harsh. And recently some of my colleagues traveled from Europe to Hong Kong. They enjoyed these 21-day long holidays. When they came out, I asked them how it was? Was it boring, was it mind-blowing or was it like the Matrix movie? And they told me they were actually happy living in their cubicle on Zoom or Teams and started to think that this new online norm is making them happy. So, is era of Matrix coming? Will we be living in some form of VR? 

I don't think so. There are so many people who are very traumatized by the lack of travel and human contact. And when the pandemic is over, there will be a period of time when all the consumption will go up. People are going to enjoy themselves, and to use their savings. 

Therefore, I would be more concerned about inflationary pressures as everyone suddenly wants to eat out and travel, rather than just buy laptops and staying at home. So, there will be some interesting years like the roaring twenties. 

Yes, work will be much more digital. But leisure time will continue to be as it was. People will want to go to a live concert again. That will not disappear. 

You already mentioned the Bitcoin. What is your feeling here? Will there be more regulatory pressures? Also, lot of people are thinking about how to regulate the internet or the social networks more.

There is a big race between the technological development and regulation. Countries are getting nervous about the power of the internet which is difficult to control. The internet is changing very dramatically, becoming more and more powerful. What we saw with the case of GameStop was a good example of the financial power of the internet. Marc Andreessen said that the internet is the world's largest hedge fund because of the ability it has to aggregate investment from different sources and move it quickly in different directions. This will be more and more present. 

There has not been a lot of money circulating on the internet until recently. For ten years the internet was about advertising, and that is a very limited business activity. It was natural that advertising would come first but what we are seeing now is a big change. Internet is becoming the internet of money and finance. Internet is becoming a force that governments can no longer control. Some of them will try to fight back and that's the story for the next decade. But the technological development is also moving very fast. Governments will have to make a choice whether they go with the flow or they will try to stop it. 

Who will be the winner?

Probably the ones that will go with the flow are going to be more successful. The question is which will be the first government to adopt the Bitcoin in some sense. This could be perhaps a reason for a central bank to include the Bitcoin in its reserves. We heard that the city of Miami might do that.  I'm sure within the next ten years we're going to have a central bank and we might even have a country adopting as its national currency. Governments should think about how to adopt and benefit from these technologies rather than trying to repress them. That's a fruitless struggle. 

Definitely, we can see the power of the internet in a form of power over the crowd. At the same time, we can see also the power of a persona or an influencer. For example, Elon Musk and his fight against short selling. Do you think these influencers will become even stronger in the digital era?

It's becoming much more democratic. You had individuals with a lot of market power but usually it was based on their experience or wealth. Elon Musk is the wealthiest person, but his appeal is very much based on his charisma and his popularity. I think the reaction of the financial establishment we saw in the past four weeks was a certain panic about this new world. 

What is striking here is that no one seems to make very much of the intrinsic value of these assets. This has always been a question whether intrinsic value, fundamental value, is more important than the market perceptions. The balance seems to be overturned and everyone is more focused on market movements or momentum perceptions. That's very natural for the new generations that are brought up in crypto-world, so to speak.

When you follow discussions on social media, they have completely different philosophy of valuation and looking at the market. It's all about pump and dump. It’s all about using social media to promote certain assets. Dynamics are less about fundamentals than they are about the dynamics of crowds and perceptions. That's fine in my opinion but it's very disturbing to more conservative financial establishment. 

There are three changes going on. Towards being more democratic, more virtual, and faster. Financial markets are becoming the internet itself. They are being absorbed by the internet. So, it's not surprising that they are more democratic, more open, more virtual and faster.

Societies are changing, and capitalism is changing as well: ESG, sustainability, climate change fight, political correctness, progressiveness, and communitarianism. These are new essential topics, and altogether we can see them as one big swing of the cultural pendulum. However, there is also an "anticulture, " the pendulum going in another direction, which Donald Trump represented for the last four years. But it's not only Trump: In every country, there are many people worried, socially, economically, culturally. That's the second swing of the pendulum. The United States is now the battleground of these two pendulum movements. How do you see the dynamic between these two cultural fronts?

Covid is probably going to make it difficult for the more ethical approach to social problems you're talking about. What we have learned from Covid is that we live in a very competitive world, where the resources that matter are by definition scarce. Before, we used to live in a world where resources were not considered scarce. They tended to be common good.

That’s a big change in our mental framework. We used to think that technology was almost universally acceptable. 

Now we are realizing that it is the scarcity that creates our extremely cutthroat competitive world. And in this world, it is a lot less about the collective interest and cooperation, it is more about competition. The first phase of Covid was about who can do a better job of containing the virus and restarting the economy. Second phase was about vaccines, and it has become even uglier than the first phase.

How about the climate change and the Paris Accord, when Trump is gone, and Biden is in?

With a climate crisis, I think we're not going to see cooperation either. I think we're going to see more intense competition. We might see something similar to what we can see with Covid. If the climate crisis affects some specific areas of the planet first and more heavily, the other parts of the planet may actually see that as an opportunity to attract people or talents. Brain drains of sort. 

It's almost inevitable that Covid is just a rehearsal for a world where environmental pressures will be much more present. Pandemics are going to continue in some form, and they'll be others - climate crises, antibiotic resistance and many other environmental challenges. Societies will always be trying to respond to this. It will be much more important to compete aggressively than to follow rules. 

So, no more of Francis Fukuyama and the End of History fairytale? Liberal peace is not coming? 

Well, I don't see a lot of future for what in fact is an ideology of the end of history: World, where we are all together at the same point. Where, we don't have deep disagreements and the world is stable because all conflicts have disappeared. 

I think Covid represents really the end of this. The instability of the system has already been there before. The trade wars are a good example. Until Covid, many people believed that the instability was self-inflicted. There was Donald Trump's populism that was creating instability of the system. Covid shows that the system instability has not been self-inflicted but has been a part of our condition. 

All of this is s a wake-up moment. We enter the age of instability where rules are being abandoned all the time and every rule was abandoned over the past year.

Basic principle is that you cannot force people to be at home in “a free society.” This fairytale will disappear very quickly. In the coming decades, we will have to get used to a world where we'll have rules. But the understanding is that rules will always be subject to exceptions that can emerge any moment. 

We are talking about the international collaboration, and about cleavages between the countries. For sure we are now in a more complicated world than a year ago. So, what will happen intrastate in the US or Europe? Inside the countries? 

The old model of neutral state where a hipster and a conservative Muslim could live together comfortably is over.  The state rules will become less neutral and more partisan and logically so.  When diversity has become deeper than we ever thought possible, a question follows: If we have endless diversity how to create a commonality, some idea or set of rules that will bind us together? 

Every part of the world is thinking about this. It's the most interesting question you can ask. China is creating a system of a collective building. A permanent nation-building. They want to reduce deep diversity so the nation can work together. The European Union is trying to create a framework where rules are almost automatic. So, they are impartial because they're not applied by anyone. There's an almost artificial intelligence of the Brussels bureaucracy and the rules are applied according to algorithms.

India is trying to reconstruct its former Indian civilization. Every part of the world is starting to work from scratch. The manual from the last three or four centuries of how to build a state has become outdated now. It doesn't work anymore. You have to create a new manual from scratch. Everyone is experimenting with everything. That's very exciting, dangerous, and unsettling. The rational thing to do is to experiment with different possibilities. I'm not disturbed by the idea that Chinese are pursuing a certain path. It might work, or not. The US are pursuing a certain path. Europe is pursuing another path. None of them becomes dominant.

So, we are back in pre-Westphalia era, before the Thirty Years´ War?  

Well yes. We are back in a moment we were four or five centuries ago when the modern state was being created. In those times, the European society had no idea whether it would work in 17th century and onwards. It was a very risky adventure. It could have been a disaster, but it worked very well. The kind of state that was developed in Europe in those days turned out to be so effective that it was adopted all over the world. We are again in a moment where you face the openness of the future and where you don't know if it's going to work or not. That's very stressful and distressing. 

Rational thing to do is to keep your mind open to different possibilities. Which by the way is what people did back in the seventeenth eighteenth centuries because you they had very different models there were being tried in Europe. You had radical parliamentary democracy; you had a kind of the Bonapartism of unwanted leader representing the nation. You had ten or twelve different models that were competing among themselves to see which one would work better. And the end result was a kind of fusion of some of them. 

I believe we should be like our ancestors: open minded and we should not stick to the solution that they eventually found.

Final question is here to conclude our discussion: What's holding us – as people, mankind, and the whole society – together? 

If you ask me what is holding the world together, I think it differs and will differ from society to society. And I find it perfectly acceptable, we don't have to have the same model. Therefore, what holds the Europeans together is completely different from what holds China together. 

What holds the whole world together is a very good question because it doesn't seem to be a lot. You know I am defending this deep diversity. 

What does seem to hold the world together is the sphere of technology. It seems to be the only universal value. This is the biggest lesson of Covid. 

You know we had become very prideful about our values, rules, ethics, relations... But suddenly we are in exactly the same situation as our ancestors were. We are back where we were twenty thousand years ago or even farther back. We are still these fragile creatures in a very harsh environment, animals that can be decimated by the virus. And that is the second universal value for me. 

We are fragile creatures in an adverse environment who have to try to control the environment through technology. Invention of fire is what made us human, and now we need to invent new fires. 

Thank you, Bruno, for an extremely interesting discussion. 

We have been discussing the topics of Covid, vaccines, geopolitics, technology, cryptocurrencies, the future of states, and what makes us human, with Dr. Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese and a European politician, professor, best-selling author and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Do 10 let někdo přijme bitcoin jako národní měnu. Covid nás vrátil do období 30leté války, musíme nalézt nový model státu, říká hvězdný analytik Bruno Maçães