COVID-19’s Painful Lesson About Strategy and Power

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In 2017, President Donald Trump announced a new National Security Strategy that focused on great-power competition with China and Russia. While the plans also note the role of alliances and cooperation, the implementation has not. Today, COVID-19 shows that the strategy is inadequate. Competition and an “America First” approach is not enough to protect the United States. Close cooperation with both allies and adversaries is also essential for American security.

Under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics is changing dramatically. Even if the United States prevails in the traditional great-power competition, it cannot protect its security acting alone. COVID-19 is not the only example. Global financial stability is vital to U.S. prosperity, but Americans need the cooperation of others to ensure it. And while trade wars have set back economic globalization, there is no stopping the environmental globalization represented by pandemics and climate change. In a world where borders are becoming more porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to cyber terrorism, the United States must use its soft power of attraction to develop networks and institutions that address these new threats. For example, this administration proposed halving the U.S. contribution to the World Health Organization’s budget — now we need it more than ever.



A successful national security strategy should start with the fact that “America First” means America has to lead efforts at cooperation. A classic problem with public goods (like clean air, which all can share and from which none can be excluded) is that if the largest consumer does not take the lead, others will free-ride and the public goods will not be produced. As the technology expert Richard Danzig summarizes the problem:

Twenty-first century technologies are global not just in their distribution, but also in their consequences. Pathogens, AI systems, computer viruses, and radiation that others may accidentally release could become as much our problem as theirs. Agreed reporting systems, shared controls, common contingency plans, norms and treaties must be pursued as a means of moderating our numerous mutual risks.

Tariffs and border walls cannot solve these problems. While American leadership is essential because of the country’s global influence, success will require the cooperation of others.

On transnational issues like COVID-19 and climate change, power becomes a positive-sum game. It is not enough to think of American power over others. We must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals, which involves power with others. On many transnational issues, empowering others helps us to accomplish our own goals. The United States benefits if China improves its energy efficiency and emits less carbon dioxide, or improves its public health systems. In this world, institutional networks and connectedness are an important source of information and of national power, and the most connected states are the most powerful. Washington has some sixty treaty allies while China has few. Unfortunately, as Mira Rapp-Hooper recently argued, the United States is squandering that power resource.

In the past, the openness of the United States enhanced its capacity to build networks, maintain institutions, and sustain alliances. But will that openness and willingness to engage with the rest of the world prove sustainable in the current populist mood of American domestic politics? Even if the United States possesses more hard military and economic power than any other country, it may fail to convert those resources into effective influence on the global scene. Between the two world wars, America did not and the result was disastrous.

The key to America’s future security and prosperity is learning the importance of “power with” as well as “power over” others. Every country puts its interests first, but the important question is how broadly or narrowly it defines those interests. This administration has shown an inclination toward short-term, zero-sum, transactional interpretations, with little attention to institutions and allies. “America First” is defined too narrowly. It steps back from the long-term, enlightened self-interest that marked the security strategy designed by FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower after 1945. The new threat to America’s security is not just from transnational forces like COVID-19 and climate change, but from Americans’ domestic failure to adjust their own attitudes to this new world. That is the painful lesson that COVID-19 is teaching us.



Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard and author most recently of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Alexander Cook)