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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 o
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.
Economic disaster
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 an
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.
Political upheaval
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 — o 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 als 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 governmenta corruption and mismanagement. l
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.
More displacement
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
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
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.
Growing apart
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
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
Choices Ahead
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
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
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
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
Image: Adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention