Aftershocks: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the New World Disorder
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a global public health disaster of almost biblical proportions. It is a once-in-a-century occurrence that threatens to destroy countless lives, ruin economies, and stress national and international institutions to their breaking point. And, even after the virus recedes, the geopolitical wreckage it leaves in its wake could be profound.
Many have understandably drawn comparisons to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. That pandemic, which began in the final months of World War I, may have infected 500 million people and killed 50 million people around the globe. As the grim toll of COVID-19 mounts, it remains to be seen if that comparison will prove apt in terms of the human cost.
But, if we want to understand the even darker direction in which the world may be headed, leaders and policymakers ought to pay more attention to the two decades after the influenza pandemic swept the globe. This period, often referred to as the interwar years, was characterized by rising nationalism and xenophobia, the grinding halt of globalization in favor of beggar-thy-neighbor policies, and the collapse of the world economy in the Great Depression. Revolution, civil war, and political instability rocked important nations. The world’s reigning liberal hegemon — Great Britain — struggled and other democracies buckled while rising authoritarian states sought to aggressively reshape the international order in accordance with their interests and values. Arms races, imperial competition, and territorial aggression ensued, culminating in World War II — the greatest calamity in modern times.
In the United States, the interwar years also saw the emergence of the “America First” movement. Hundreds of thousands rallied to the cause of the America First Committee, pressing U.S. leaders to seek the false security of isolationism as the world burned around them. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed back, arguing that rising global interdependence meant no nation — not even one as powerful and geographically distant as the United States — could wall itself off from growing dangers overseas. His warning proved prescient. The war eventually came to America’s shores in the form of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Even before COVID-19, shadows of the interwar years were beginning to re-emerge. The virus, however, has brought these dynamics into sharper relief. And the pandemic seems likely to greatly amplify them as economic and political upheaval follows, great-power rivalry deepens, institutions meant to encourage international cooperation fail, and American leadership falters. In this respect, as Richard Haas notes, the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftershocks it will produce seem poised to “accelerate history,” returning the world to a much more dangerous time.
However, history is not destiny. While COVID-19 worsens or sets in motion events that may increasingly resemble this harrowing past, we are not fated to repeat it. Humans have agency. Our leaders have real choices. The United States remains the world’s most powerful democracy. It has a proud legacy of transformational leaps in human progress, including advances that have eradicated infectious diseases. It is still capable of taking urgent steps to ensure the health, prosperity, and security of millions of Americans while also leading the world to navigate this crisis and build something better in its aftermath. America can fight for a better future. Doing so effectively, however, requires understanding the full scope of the challenges it is likely to face.
A More Turbulent World
In her 2017 book Pale Rider, the science journalist Lauren Spinney notes several ways in which the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic may have contributed to the instability of the interwar years. Some historians and political scientists have argued that the flu contributed to the defeat of the Central Powers by leading to widespread illness among German troops and tipping the Austro-Hungarian empire into collapse. The breadth and depth of the trauma caused by the infection of one-third of humanity also contributed to disenchantment with both capitalism and colonialism in many countries as badly suffering underclasses noticed the disparate impact of the virus on their lives.
The flu may have also bent the course of history by infecting key leaders at important junctures. Some believe it worsened Woodrow Wilson’s underlying health conditions during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, convened to end the war and establish mechanisms like the League of Nations to prevent its recurrence — although there is no historical consensus on this score. But, Spinney writes:
[Historians] do reach a degree of consensus when it comes to the massive stroke he suffered the following October. His earlier bout of flu certainly did contribute to that, they believe. That stroke left an indelible mark both on Wilson (leaving him paralysed down the left side) and on global politics, … because it rendered him unable to persuade the U.S. government to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, or to join the League. Germany was forced to pay punitive reparations, stoking its people’s resentment—something that might not have happened had the U.S. had a say in it. By turning Wilson into the greatest obstacle to his own goals, the Spanish flu may therefore have contributed, indirectly, to the Second World War.
Spinney also points out that the flu killed or debilitated other important world leaders and officials, perhaps playing a minor role in making the Russian revolution more chaotic by felling a senior adviser to Lenin and encouraging the coup in Spain by weakening King Alfonso XIII. In addition, the pandemic sickened Mahatma Gandhi at a key moment in India’s push for independence. Meanwhile, widespread illness among Indian farmers and laborers combined with drought to drive up food prices, further heightening grievances against British imperial rule. More broadly, the injustice of a system that could allow millions of Indians to die from influenza was hard to deny.
Nevertheless, it would be a stretch to say that the flu was the fundamental cause of global turmoil during the interwar years. Whatever impact the pandemic had was soon overtaken by other domestic and structural forces that proved far more important in driving the world from one great war to another.
However, there are good reasons to believe that the geopolitical implications of COVID-19 will be more significant and enduring. The novel coronavirus has now spread to nearly every country on Earth. China and a number of other Asian nations, such as Singapore and South Korea, appear to be on the downslope of the virus — although the risk of second waves remains — but large swaths of Europe and the United States are in the midst of an acute outbreak. Additionally, the epidemic is just starting to take hold in many emerging market and poorer countries. It could take 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine. Until then, the virus will continue to hopscotch across the planet. Even countries that successfully “bend the curve” through draconian measures could see the virus roar back if they loosen restrictions too quickly or lack the testing, contact tracing, and health infrastructure to contain fresh outbreaks.
It is impossible to know how many people worldwide will ultimately fall ill or perish from COVID-19. We should all hope that emergency measures will slow the spread and prevent a large-scale resurgence. If such containment happens, the toll could be far lower than the hundreds of millions sickened and the tens of millions killed during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. But, even if the grim tally can be kept down, the combinations of the virus and the steps required to contain it will rock economies, stress political systems, and decimate vulnerable populations. And, because the world is so much more interconnected now than it was a century ago, the possibility of COVID-19 producing cascading consequences across the international system is much greater. The prospect is further heightened by the likelihood that the crisis will accelerate and magnify the many pre-existing domestic and international forces that were already hurtling the world in a more fractured, competitive, and conflictual direction before the pandemic struck.
The planet has seen unprecedented economic expansion since World War II, improving the lives of billions of people. The combined gross domestic product of all countries in the world has expanded from a little more than $4 trillion in 1950 to around $86 trillion in 2019, far outpacing population growth and contributing to rising average per capita incomes. More than anything, this growth has been fueled by globalization: an exponential increase in the volume and velocity of goods, services, information, technology, and people crossing and integrating across national borders, communicating, making items, and doing business. But, these aggregate gains have not been evenly distributed. Globalization has produced both winners and losers. The world’s ultra-rich individuals have prospered and hundreds of millions of people have transitioned out of poverty and into the burgeoning middle classes of large emerging economies in nations such as China, India, Mexico, and Brazil. But, over the past few decades, the very poor throughout the world and the middle classes in advanced industrial economies have been left behind or squeezed as creative destruction, market efficiencies, automation, and trade have displaced jobs, disrupted communities, and produced stagnant wages. The result has been a paradox of unprecedented prosperity coupled with growing inequality — a rising tide in which too many boats are sinking.
COVID-19 now both imperils the economic boon of globalization and threatens to worsen the plight of those already struggling. Even before the pandemic emerged from China’s Hubei province in December 2019, many analysts predicted the global economy was facing significant headwinds. Trade tensions between the United States and China, lower investment rates, weak business confidence, and high levels of private and public debt were all seen as growing risks. Economists also warned that sky-high budget deficits and historically low interest rates robbed many countries of the macroeconomic tools required to address a new financial crisis.
The fast-changing nature of the pandemic and national responses make reliable predictions difficult. Nevertheless, COVID-19 will likely have a devastating effect on the global economy. The speed and severity of the damage in the United States have already been breathtaking and unprecedented. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. economy will decline by more than 7 percent during the second quarter of 2020, constituting an annualized decline of more than 28 percent, though the decline could actually prove to be much larger. The unemployment rate in the United States, which stood at 3.5 percent in February and increased to 4.4 percent in March, could jump to more than 10 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and still be as high as 9 percent by the end of 2021. Recent predictions by Goldman Sachs are even more dire: a 34 percent downturn in the second quarter — followed by a 19 percent rebound in the third quarter — and a 15 percent jobless rate by the end of the year.
Moreover, as the International Monetary Fund notes, “[t]he economic damage is mounting across all countries, tracking the sharp rise in new infections and containment measures put in place by governments,” likely producing a global economic meltdown this year that will be worse than the 2008 financial crisis. Travel and tourism have been shut down around the world, trade has been disrupted, factories and businesses have been shuttered, and billions of people have been forced to practice social distancing and shelter in place. Meanwhile, global supply chains have been crippled and demand has plummeted. This situation has led companies to shed jobs at an astounding rate. If inadequately addressed, it could produce a self-reinforcing spiral in which huge numbers of unemployed people can no longer afford to buy goods and services.
Unlike past economic disasters, the one associated with COVID-19 represents a “self-induced economic coma” largely caused by extreme but necessary public health interventions. Some investors and Trump administration officials believe the economic pain will be sharp but short, with a “U-” or “V-shaped” rebound starting later this year. After all, the American economy bounced back relatively quickly after the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic with localities that intervened earliest and most aggressively experiencing a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic subsided.
However, many economists are less sanguine. Depressed demand from risk-averse consumers and unemployment could feed on each other. Widespread bankruptcies among heavily indebted companies could weaken entire industries and threaten financial institutions. As the virus surges back in some places and spreads to others, intermittent local and national shutdowns will continue to disrupt work, trade, and travel. Existing global supply chains will be unreliable for many months to come. Moreover, there will be substantial political pressure to permanently “deglobalize” in certain areas, especially in relation to medicine and medical equipment, causing further economic disruption.
Countries will have vastly different capacities to respond. Trillions of dollars in income support, credit, and loan guarantees may cushion some of the blow in the United States and Europe, but even wealthy nations will have a difficult time financing repeated rescue packages. Developing countries — including those already struggling from capital flight, currency depreciation, falling prices for commodities like oil, and enormous amounts of debt — will have far fewer options. Such countries also have comparatively poor health systems, putting them at much greatest risk of total collapse. All of these factors promise to worsen global inequality as disparate access to healthcare, social distancing requirements, and unemployment hit middle- and low-income groups the hardest.
The virus and the economic disaster it spawns could, in turn, create new scenarios for political upheaval. In recent months, places as diverse as Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, and Lebanon have experienced mass protests. Millions of demonstrators have railed against the high cost of living, inadequate services, rising inequality, corruption, government repression, and abuses by security services. With large gatherings banned across the globe and people under stay-at-home orders, protest movements have gone dormant or shifted toward organizing for community pandemic response and online activism. But, it is easy to envision new waves of grievance-based demonstrations and threats to public order in many countries. In places where people are currently giving their governments the benefit of the doubt — or where they are simply too scared of public gatherings — patience could eventually run out and protestors could take to the streets en masse.
The collapse of healthcare systems, inadequate economic support, and perceived government mismanagement could drive riots and demonstrations in some locations. In both poorer nations and more developed ones, public health restrictions that limit work could devastate those living on thin economic margins. Growing outrage could prompt clashes between desperate individuals and the security services enforcing those public health restrictions. Even in places that manage to deliver an effective response to the virus, outcomes are likely to be highly unequal and the economic dislocations could be significant, creating a new set of injustices. For example, the price of staple crops is already beginning to rise, creating the specter of the global food price spikes in 2007 and 2008 that led to unrest and riots in developing countries around the world. Many of these risks will persist beyond the pandemic itself as economies continue to struggle.
COVID-19 could prove particularly devastating in existing conflict zones where a predictably vicious cycle has already taken hold. Despite calls from the United Nations and the Pope for a pause in fighting to allow governments and people to focus on the pandemic, violence rages in many regions. In Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere, combatants and extremists seem to perceive opportunities to exploit distracted foes. Countries providing external assistance to states fighting extremists are also finding it more difficult to operate. In Iraq, for example, American troops — already distracted by threats from Iranian-backed militia — are now hunkered down to avoid COVID-19. France has removed troops from Iraq altogether due to concerns about the virus.
In many conflict zones, healthcare systems were already strained or non-existent before the pandemic. Now, continued fighting is making it more difficult for people to receive emergency medical assistance or for security forces to redirect their full attention to helping contain the virus. And, because camps for internally displaced persons and refugees fleeing conflict areas are also historically vulnerable to contagion, U.N. officials and relief organizations have expressed grave concern for the potential impact of the coronavirus on overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, Iraq, Libya, Kenya, Syria, and numerous other countries.
Elsewhere, fragile states could crumble. Political science teaches us that the prospect of revolution and civil strife is particularly high where grievance-based incentives to challenge the government collide with a collapse of state capacity to address those grievances or — in extremis — impose order. In places already teetering on the brink of state failure, COVID-19 could push them over the edge in various ways: by directly crippling leadership; by severely affecting the ranks of state police, military, or civil servants; or by overwhelming governments via the sheer enormity and complexity of managing the crisis. The economies of Iran and Venezuela, for example, were already struggling under the weight of punishing U.S. sanctions and years of governmental corruption and mismanagement. Now, the virus could tip either country into state collapse and anarchic unrest. Iran has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world with tens of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths. In fact, the number of actual cases in Iran may be five times higher than official figures suggest. The novel coronavirus has also infected dozens of members of the Iranian parliament and other current or former top figures. The economy has been battered by sanctions and plummeting oil prices, and is in no position to weather the pandemic’s economic fallout. The virus has been slower to take hold in Venezuela, but fears there are sky high and catastrophe looms due to the country’s shattered healthcare system and inadequate water and electricity.
Like COVID-19 itself, there is no reason to expect that dislocations produced by the pandemic will stay contained within the borders of any one nation. According to the United Nations, from 2000 to 2019, the number of international migrants worldwide increased from 150 million to 272 million. Many of them were internally and externally displaced by civil war, horrific levels of criminal violence, or environmental disaster. Indeed, in 2019, the number of internally displaced persons and refugees totaled nearly 71 million people — the most since World War II.
As the number of humanitarian crises grow and economies worsen, we should expect COVID-19 to contribute to these trends. For now, attempts to slow the spread of the virus by closing borders have also slowed migration flows. However, as conditions worsen and some states disintegrate, more people will flee to places with better healthcare, greater safety, or more economic opportunity. In Central America, for example, border closures and lockdowns have temporarily disrupted migration to Mexico and onward to the United States. But, if COVID-19 and its accompanying economic turmoil hit El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras hard, the underlying humanitarian crisis driving migration to America’s southwest border will deepen. Similar dynamics are likely to play out in North Africa, the Sahel, Central Asia, and the Middle East, pushing more people into Europe.
In response, countries on the receiving end may rush to pull up the drawbridge. Wealthy countries will be tempted to wall themselves off from migrants fleeing poorer nations, but so too will regional neighbors. For example, Colombia and Brazil recently shut their borders with Venezuela despite previously letting in a large number of Venezuelans fleeing the country’s political and economic turmoil.
More nationalism, less democracy
We should also expect recent global trends of growing nationalism, xenophobia, populism, and protectionism to worsen. Conditions will be ripe for mass anger from below and demagoguery from above, supercharged by a digital ecosystem that compounds the dangers of the novel coronavirus with the viral spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. In February, for example, disinformation about COVID-19 that was widely disseminated via an email from a foreign country sparked a riot in the Ukrainian village of Novi Sanzhary. Protestors smashed the windows of a bus carrying healthy individuals evacuated from China’s Hubei province, clashed with police, and tried to block the road leading to the health facilities where the individuals were supposed to be quarantined. So far, social media companies have done a good job policing misleading information about COVID-19. But, as the discourse surrounding the crisis migrates from medical information to broader economic scapegoating and political hate, cracking down on misinformation and disinformation will become much more difficult.
In addition, the crisis could produce further democratic backsliding. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, democracy was under siege worldwide with countries such as Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, and Turkey trending toward more authoritarian and populist leaders. All told, according to a 2019 Freedom House report, of the 41 countries that were consistently ranked “free” from 1985 to 2005, 22 registered net declines in freedom in just the last five years. There are compelling reasons to believe COVID-19 will deepen and widen this trend. Some nations will adopt emergency laws that dramatically increase the power of the executive. On March 30, the Hungarian parliament passed a law granting Prime Minister Viktor Orban vast powers under the guise of combating the virus. Such powers include the authority to suspend existing laws, rule by decree for an indefinite period, and punish anyone “disseminating false information” that obstructs the government — creating what R. Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University calls the world’s first “coronavirus autocracy.” Hungary might be the canary in the coal mine with other strongmen exploiting the crisis to consolidate their rule.
Compounding this challenge, at least 47 countries and territories across the globe have already decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to the pandemic. In some places, we can expect executives to seize on election delays to engineer extended tenures and greater power.
Longer-term threats may emerge from new uses of digital surveillance. Digital technologies will necessarily play a decisive role in rolling back the pandemic and preventing its re-emergence, helping governments rapidly identify individuals who have tested positive, engage in contact tracing, and quickly isolate individuals to contain the further spread of the virus. In Israel, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the Shin Bet security service to use digital surveillance tools and big data analysis designed to combat terrorism. This allows Israeli authorities to track people infected with COVID-19 as well as those who came in close proximity with such people without their consent. No matter the merits of such decisions in the current moment, there is a real danger that some countries will use COVID-19 as a cover to establish more enduring, expansive, and invasive forms of digital surveillance, raising significant civil liberties concerns. Moreover, as the United States learned after 9/11, surveillance systems created in response to a particular crisis have a tendency to persist long beyond the emergency at hand — even in established democracies.
A New Cold War
Important shifts in the global balance of power were also underway before the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting many to declare the end of America’s “unipolar moment” and the return of great-power politics. Depending on the metric, China’s economy has already risen to become the world’s largest, creating an associated boost in Beijing’s international confidence. Meanwhile, Russia is in the midst of a long-term decline but has become much more assertive in recent years under Vladimir Putin. Both China and Russia have invested significant resources in modernizing their militaries, contributing to a new arms race across multiple domains, while seeking to carve out spheres of influence at the expense of U.S. influence and allies. Globally, Russia has played a mostly disruptive role rather than an order-building one. China under Xi Jinping has been more ambitious. Beijing has sought to build networks of influence via its transnational Belt and Road Initiative, promote its own vision of international institutions and norms on issues ranging from development to Internet governance, and hold up its model of state-led capitalism and digital authoritarianism as a means of governance that is superior to that of the rest of the world. The Trump administration has responded to these developments by identifying great-power competition as the top U.S. national security priority, investing billions of dollars in a new arms race, and launching a debilitating trade war with China.
In this context, COVID-19 holds the potential to further shift the balance of material and soft power, sharpen the competition for influence, and exacerbate tensions — especially between the United States and China.
The material balance
The United States currently has more cases — and more deaths — related to COVID-19 than any other nation on Earth. And, because the Trump administration was so slow and haphazard in marshalling a coherent federal response, the public health and economic consequences of the pandemic will be worse for the United States than they would have otherwise been. The costs associated with stimulus packages — already running in the trillions — will continue to mount. Ballooning deficits and national debt, in turn, will eventually create pressure to reduce overall federal spending, making it more difficult to make the investments in education, infrastructure, research and development, green energy, and healthcare that are required for long-term economic competitiveness.
The pandemic could also undermine U.S. military power. During World War I, the influenza pandemic traveled with U.S. troops from camp to camp in the United States and then with them to Europe. At the height of America’s military involvement in the war, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20 to 40 percent of U.S. Army and Navy personnel. Today, this novel coronavirus could similarly threaten military readiness if it infects a significant portion of the force, leads to the extended cancellation of training and military exercises, prevents deployments, or disrupts military supply chains. COVID-19 has already put the crew of one of the U.S. Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers out of commission. However, the bigger long-term challenge is likely to be fiscal: The same austerity imperatives that could eventually produce butter-versus-butter trade-offs will also likely compel guns-versus-butter ones, adding to the pressure to shrink the U.S. defense budget.
Of course, China has also been badly affected. China’s economy was slowing before the pandemic, partly as a consequence of the trade war with the United States, and the country is saddled with incredible levels of debt. Then, as COVID-19 spread outward from the city of Wuhan, it shuttered much of the nation’s economy in February. As a result, China likely experienced an economic contraction during the first quarter of 2020, something that has not occurred there since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. But, the full extent of the damage remains unclear because official statistics have not yet been released and may not even be reliable when available. Interestingly, while both the central and local governments have moved to support companies and limit layoffs with hundreds of billions of dollars in loans, Beijing has thus far refrained from enacting a massive stimulus package or providing extensive financial assistance directly to the general public. This fact may suggest that the Chinese Communist Party sees the overall situation as manageable without taking extraordinary measures. China is now attempting to restart its economy: Work at industrial enterprises and in construction is resuming, the large-scale lockdown of Wuhan has ended, and some are predicting a Chinese economic recovery across the rest of the year. Nevertheless, growth rates are still likely to be far below pre-COVID-19 expectations. Nationwide social distancing requirements will continue to threaten small businesses, hurt the service sector, and suppress domestic demand. Moreover, trade paralysis and slumping foreign demand for Chinese exports due to the overseas spread of the virus will further drag on China’s economy.
Whether China is able to rebound faster and more completely than the United States is uncertain — but the answer could determine the relative material balance between the two countries for years to come.
Soft power and sharp power
The crisis is also affecting the balance of soft power between the United States and China — that is, their respective abilities to wield influence through attraction, their alignment of other nations’ values and underlying preferences with their own, and their sheer capacity to manufacture and deliver what the world needs. In this domain and by all rights, COVID-19 should have put Beijing on its backfoot. Regional Communist Party officials covered up the initial outbreak and the central government hid the virus from both its own citizens and the world. And, just as it did 18 years earlier during the SARS outbreak, Beijing was slow to share vital information with the World Health Organization, dragged its feet on allowing technical teams from the World Health Organization to visit the affected areas, and refused to admit a dedicated team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though natural viruses like COVID-19 are not national creations and no one should blame the Chinese people for the pandemic, a good case can be made that the culpability of the Chinese government for the global spread of the virus is high.
Yet, Beijing has thus far managed to avoid being put on the strategic defensive. Instead, it has exploited the absence of U.S. leadership and pursued a multi-pronged approach to turn the crisis into a geopolitical opportunity. First, it has capitalized on its apparent technocratic ability to contain the virus at home. Although reasons to doubt the extent of China’s purported progress against the virus persist, Beijing has used a relentless stream of propaganda at home and abroad to create the perception that it has mastered COVID-19 and bought the world time to more effectively respond to the pandemic.
Second, China has provided or announced medical assistance to 82 countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, including masks and other personal protective equipment, testing kits, respirators, ventilators, and doctors. China surged medical assistance to Italy even as some of its European Union neighbors failed to respond to Rome’s early pleas for help. As E.U. chief diplomat Josep Borrell recently noted, “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the U.S., it is a responsible and reliable partner.” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution contends that Beijing’s transparent efforts to flip the script may ultimately backfire in many European capitals. Already, some European countries have recalled or rejected Chinese-made masks and testing kits based on their poor quality. But, China’s aid has been much better received in many emerging markets and developing countries. In the months ahead, Wright argues that China’s efforts may prove particularly effective in parts of Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America where its Belt and Road Initiative already provides it an economic and political entry point. Overall, China has managed to successfully position itself as the world’s leader and public health benefactor on this issue — a role traditionally occupied by the United States.
A third and related prong of China’s strategy has been the use of so-called sharp power. Beijing has deftly escalated its information campaign against the United States by having senior diplomats promote conspiracy theories that obscure its own role in the pandemic and shift blame to Washington. China has combined public diplomacy with coordinated messaging by state-controlled media, legions of social media bots and trolls, and offers of assistance by Chinese corporate giants to further amplify the narrative that China is both the victim of malign American action and the world’s only savior at a time when the United States is pulling back.
China’s ability to turn COVID-19 lemons into lemonade has been greatly aided by the Trump administration’s own acts of commission and omission. In the “competition of systems” that is so important to soft power, America’s democratic, federalist system has looked shambolic. As the Eurasia Group’s Mark Hannah observes, the administration’s “litany of bad decisions makes America look like a nation unable to protect its own people, much less meet complex global challenges.” This has only served to accentuate the perceived coherence and competence of China’s response and governance model in comparison.
Similarly, in the competition for global leadership with Beijing, the Trump administration has essentially ceded the playing field. In both the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic, Washington galvanized a worldwide response. But, beyond banning travel from China and Europe — the latter without even consulting America’s closest allies — the Trump administration does not appear to care much about events unfolding beyond U.S. shores. It is “America first and America only.” Traditional friends and allies have been forced to look elsewhere for help — including to Beijing — or to rely solely on themselves.
Confusion in messaging has further compounded America’s woes. Donald Trump not only initially failed to call out China for its early mishandling of the outbreak, he tweeted out compliments about Xi’s decisive leadership. As the virus spread, however, Trump pivoted from denial to blame-shifting while U.S. officials began insisting in international fora that COVID-19 be referred to as the “Wuhan virus.” This rhetoric came across as both xenophobic and small. It did nothing to undermine China’s strategic gains from the crisis and, instead, only served to make international cooperation more difficult.
Whether one side of the U.S.-Chinese competition ultimately comes out ahead — or simply less far behind — as a result of the pandemic, we can expect the bilateral disruptions, mutual recriminations, and competition for influence to persist for years. The crisis is almost certain to harden public perceptions and further cement the view among elites in both Washington and Beijing that the two nations are locked in a zero-sum showdown and should move to more rapidly “decouple” their economies. The latter view will be particularly salient in the United States given the revealed vulnerabilities of relying too heavily on China for pharmaceutical manufacturing and medical devices. Such sentiments could frustrate responses to this virus and future public health challenges by driving the two scientific communities apart when they should be working together to develop treatments and vaccines.
For years before COVID-19, there was a raging debate about whether the U.S.-Chinese competition would descend into a new Cold War. The odds of that happening now appear higher than ever.
Another Blow to the Liberal International Order
Last but not least, this entire situation is occurring against the backdrop of a liberal international order straining to the breaking point. As with other trends, this one was not created by COVID-19 but has been greatly exacerbated by it.
As countries have understandably focused on contending with the virus within their own borders, multilateral institutions and organizations have struggled to galvanize a collective response — especially in the absence of American leadership. The Group of 7 and Group of 20 have convened but were forced to do so virtually due to the pandemic. Neither group has yet managed to move beyond rhetoric to actually take decisive steps to jointly combat the virus or mitigate its impact on the international economy. Meanwhile, at a time when the United Nations is contending with a “dire” liquidity crisis, it is struggling to finance its relatively paltry $2-billion COVID-19 response fund while the U.N. Security Council remains deadlocked by the blame game between the United States and China. As accusations of undue Chinese influence have also undermined the authority of the World Health Organization, the organization has become a political football in Washington. After his 2021 budget proposed slashing U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization, Trump is now threatening to suspend U.S. funding altogether, potentially depriving the organization leading the international effort to combat the virus of $400 million.
The international institution at the greatest risk, however, could be the European Union. Over the past dozen years, the European Union has been battered by the 2008 financial crisis, the subsequent multi-year eurozone debt crisis, the 2015 migration surge, Brexit, rising right-wing and populist movements, democratic backsliding in places like Hungary and Poland, rising transatlantic tensions with the Trump administration, and efforts by Russia to amplify Euroskepticism and sow division. Now, some analysts fear that the simultaneous health and economic disasters brought about by COVID-19 could push the European Union into the abyss. Countries are retreating to self-help tendencies, imposing border restrictions, and limiting the export of some vital medical equipment. And, calls for economic assistance from Italy and Spain have reopened the wounds of the eurozone crisis with some northern European countries accusing southern European states of serially failing to responsibly handle their finances. “This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the International Affairs Institute in Italy, told the Washington Post. “The reason why coronavirus is such an epochal challenge is not that it brought things out of the blue. It touches on all spheres and does so by accentuating dynamics that are already there. It’s as if it is bringing the extreme out of everything.”
In his famous study The Twenty Years’ Crisis, the historian E.H. Carr offered a withering critique of the utopian faith in liberal internationalism prominent in Britain and elsewhere during the interwar years. Carr outlined the realist view that “history is a sequence of cause and effect, whose course can be analyzed and understood by intellectual effort, but not … directed by ‘imagination.’”
Through this fatalistic lens, the COVID-19 pandemic would seem to represent an insurmountable challenge to international order. After all, it is not only a massive, multidimensional crisis requiring collective action on a global scale. It is also one that happens to magnify many pre-existing forces pushing geopolitics in a less cooperative and more conflictual direction.
Yet, Carr was also careful to caution against “pure realism” because it “fails to provide any ground for purposive or meaningful action” and because it “offer[s] nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible.” Even with compelling structural conditions pushing in one direction, the United States — the most powerful democracy on Earth — still has agency. American leaders can choose to make a bad situation even worse or they can choose to push against seemingly intractable realities and make things better.
Unfortunately, at the moment, the Trump administration seems to be embracing the former choice. As one political scientist recently quipped on Twitter, we may be seeing the emergence of “Hegemonic stupidity theory: when the hegemon is stupid, the international system becomes unstable and prone to crisis.”
Snarky humor aside, if the United States leans into the forces of isolationism and nationalism, turns away from its allies and international cooperation, and fails to help other nations contend with this crisis because it is concerned with America first and only, the consequences will be even more calamitous. If it turns inward, this virus — which respects no borders — will be even harder to contain. The country will not just see untold suffering. It will also see the emergence of a post-coronavirus world in which America is poorer, less safe, and less able to determine its fate. That would be a disaster — and yet, if Trump continues to follow his instincts, that is precisely where things are headed.
The country can choose a different path. After World War I, the United States turned its back on efforts to construct a better international order. However, after World War II, it championed the creation of international institutions, norms, and alliances that helped create a more stable, prosperous, and just world. It can do it again.
Since the end of the Cold War, analysts have debated the priority that U.S. security calculations should give to transnational challenges. But, with the exception of America’s “forever wars” against terrorism since 9/11, other defuse transnational threats like climate change and pandemic disease have too often been treated as second- or third-tier priorities. To say the least, the current crisis presents overwhelming evidence that that mentality should change. The 9/11 era may now be over, but other transnational threats are no longer hypothetical — they are here and demonstrably greater than any we have faced in our lifetimes.
The virus and its accompanying economic and political fallout may cater to inward-looking, nationalist, self-help instincts, but the very nature of the crisis — like so many other transnational challenges — also contains a countervailing truth: Only international cooperation can successfully slow the virus and mitigate the worst aftershocks flowing from it. It is that internationalist future that the United States should embrace.
America can start by leading international efforts to confront COVID-19 itself. It can take a page from fellow democracies such as South Korea and Germany, and show the world it can marshal an effective response to the pandemic. It can take care of the urgent needs of the American people while also building a global coalition to combat the virus and the economic destruction it has wrought. It can speak the truth about COVID-19’s origins while avoiding petty distractions that undermine common purpose. The United States can join with other nations to produce and identify life-saving equipment, therapeutics, and vaccines — and make sure they are distributed to the most vulnerable countries. It can collaborate with the world’s best scientific and economic minds to anticipate the next stage of the crisis and the consequences that may follow — and use both existing and new institutional mechanisms to jointly develop coordinated responses. America can provide financial assistance — directly, alongside others, and through international financial institutions — to fragile economies. It can engage in humane diplomacy that loosens punishing sanctions and trade barriers that block medical assistance to countries being crushed by the virus. And, it can empower its development professionals and its military to provide vital humanitarian assistance where it is needed.
Then, as the virus recedes, the United States can invest in the international infrastructure, rules, and coordinating bodies needed to head off the next great catastrophe. Instead of berating its closest friends, it can strengthen its democratic alliances as the focal point for addressing shared challenges. It can seize the opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of globalization to shift it in a more egalitarian and resilient direction. And, it can do all of this in a way that shows the world that America’s enlightened self-interest and values can still be a lodestar for a stable international order.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century global challenge. It necessitates a truly global response. With U.S. leadership that rises to the occasion, the current moment could be an opportunity to show that international cooperation on a grand scale is still possible and desirable.
That is a future worth fighting for — and it remains within America’s ability to shape it.
Colin H. Kahl is co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security, a strategic consultant at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and a former national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.
Ariana Berengaut is the director of programs, partnerships, and strategic planning at the Penn Biden Center, a senior adviser to National Security Action, and a former official at the State Department.
Image: Adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention