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After COVID, What Should American Foreign Policy Do?

The pandemic reminds us that American leadership can determine whether the arc of history bends toward something better or something worse.

COVID-19's long-term effects on the international system remain unknown, in part because the course of the disease remains unknown. Much still depends on factors such as potential new waves of infections as the northern hemisphere winter approaches, improved treatments, and especially the development of an effective vaccine.

At this point, some nine months into the plague, we do know that COVID-19 is not a geopolitical blip of little consequence. It has already inflicted a ghastly human toll and caused disastrous social and national dislocations. It is sharpening the key rivalry of the 21st century, the U.S.-China competition, and highlighting strains that were already disordering the world.

But it is unlikely to cause a fundamental altering of the global system on par with what happened after World War II destroyed two leading great powers, Germany and Japan, catalyzed the collapse of the European colonial empires, and propelled the United States to international primacy. And the changes that it does cause may not make the international landscape dramatically more menacing. There is even a scenario in which the pandemic weakens autocracy and populism more than democracy, underscores America's structural power even as it temporarily damages its soft power, catalyzes a more formidable balancing coalition against China, and leads to a more realistic form of globalization as well as renewed cooperation between the world's democratic states.

That depends, however, on what choices America makes in a post-COVID world. The COVID pandemic reminds us that "American leadership" is not a trite euphemism. It is arguably the single most important factor in whether the arc of history bends toward something better or something worse. America must soon recover the tradition of enlightened global leadership that it presently seems to have abandoned.

The fact that American dominance, the liberal order, and other aspects of the pre-COVID status quo continued for decades suggests that they possessed a higher degree of resilience than is often appreciated. Just as important, a closer look at some of the dynamics unleashed or highlighted by the crisis points to several opportunities for the United States and our allies. These include:

The pandemic leads not to de-globalization but to re-globalization along geopolitical lines.

The fundamental drivers of long-term globalization—technology that shrinks distances, the quest for economic growth that spurs trade, and the recognition that global problems do not recognize borders—have not been undone. If anything, they are underscored. For example, the need for growth to reduce the crushing debt burden created by the pandemic-generated recession will eventually produce a resurgence in global trade.

In some ways, the crisis may create opportunities for deeper globalization. As individual nations and leaders wrestle with the next phases of the COVID response, particularly antiviral therapies, vaccine development, contact tracing, and mass immunity, it will become clear that no one nation-state will be able to develop these alone. The resulting networks, some evolving organically and others reinforced by institutional mandates and incentives, will create a connective tissue that binds nation-states together rather than furthering their distance.

From a free press and an independent judiciary to opposition parties, decentralized governance, and elections, democracies possess an ecosystem of self-correction that provide warnings when policies aren't working, information channels for suggesting new approaches, policy laboratories for experimenting with different responses, and accountability channels for citizens to either reward or punish their elected leaders and the administrators who serve under them. Authoritarian systems, in contrast, eschew these mechanisms, any one of which could threaten the autocrat's monopoly on power. In the near-term, admittedly, such crises can provide political cover for leaders to consolidate control; they can also create the anger and resentment on which populist leaders thrive. But authoritarians cannot indefinitely hide from the convergent pressures of disaffected citizens, dysfunctional health systems, eroding control, and economic stresses accentuated by the crisis, and their political systems tend to be more brittle than democracies when confronted by such challenges. Witness the ongoing protests in Belarus as the latest example.

American policy may be the most important factor in determining which way the future breaks. If the United States commits its vast power and prestige to deepening cooperation and economic integration with the democracies, promoting a geopolitically informed globalization rather than a wholesale retreat from globalization, if it focuses on reforming and competing for influence within the institutions of the liberal order that underperformed or were corrupted by authoritarian influence, and to developing the policies—not simply the rhetoric—of responsible competition with China, then the fluidity that the crisis has created may well redound to the advantage of America and the "free world."

But if the U.S. chooses a course of narrow economic nationalism, gratuitous provocation of its closest allies, retreat from institutions in which it does not get its way, and continued downgrading of efforts to promote democracy and human rights, and if the country indefinitely flounders in discharging its responsibilities at home and abroad, then the future indeed looks grim.

Bringing about the better scenario will require better American leadership in myriad ways. These include:

  • Using its power to convene other nations for common goals;
  • Setting the agenda for what issues to focus on, and how;
  • Providing economic, personnel, and technological resources toward international challenges;
  • Leading the gathering, analysis, and sharing of information on global problems;
  • Pioneering innovative and creative solutions;
  • Deploying leverage to induce or persuade those otherwise reluctant to make responsible choices;
  • Serving as a moral exemplar;
  • Demonstrating competence in policy design and implementation; and
  • Being willing to sacrifice narrow self-interest in favor of the enlightened self-interest that comes from pursuing a larger global good.

This list is an implicit indictment of all that was lacking in American statecraft as the pandemic spread, and a reminder of just how dramatically U.S. performance will have to change to tip the balance from a dark future to a brighter one.

This piece was first published in "Resiliency in the Age of COVID-19: A Policy Toolkit," a report by The University of Texas at Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. It is republished here with permission. It is an abridged and updated version of a chapter co-authored with Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, “Maybe It Won’t Be So Bad: A Modestly Optimistic Take on COVID and World Order,” that appeared in COVID-19 and World Order: The Future of Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation, edited by Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. It is used with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.