The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) poses major challenges to the international system, yet it does not alter the fundamental framework of international affairs. As the U.S. government confronts the virus’ spread, policymakers should adhere to established tenets of U.S. grand strategy. Global health crises come and go, but the underlying drivers of international relations – globalization, competition, security, human rights – remain constant. In order to advance U.S. national interest over the long term, the country must consider how short-term measures aimed at safeguarding public health impact long-term strategic objectives.
Grand strategy is a holistic concept encompassing how states utilize national arsenals of power to achieve security in an insecure world. In the words of Victor Davis Hanson, grand strategy denotes harnessing “all the resources that a state can focus – military, economic, political, and cultural – to further its own interests in a global landscape.” For decades, the U.S. grand strategy has prioritized four interlocking objectives: achieving military superiority, preserving robust alliances, facilitating global commerce, and championing human rights. The U.S. government’s COVID-19 response should reflect these abiding principles.
The World Health Organization recently designated the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic. As of this writing, the virus is present in over 157 countries, and has infected more than 204,000 individuals, 8,200 of whom have died. The virus has caused major disruptions to the world economy, halting global supply chains and squeezing financial liquidity. Some states, like South Korea and Taiwan, have responded to the crisis fairly well. Other states, like Italy and Iran, have struggled to find effective mechanisms to protect their populations.
China and Russia are America’s two most insurgent adversaries. Through disinformation campaigns and geopolitical power-plays, both states are taking advantage of the chaotic international context to pursue long term strategic ends. To highlight the value of the U.S.-led international order, as compared with Chinese and Russian authoritarian visions for the future, the U.S. should use all the tools at its disposal to counter their antagonistic behavior.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the cover of COVID-19 hysteria to solidify personal power in Moscow and undermine U.S. dominance in energy markets. President Putin has ruled Russia, in one capacity or another, since the year 2000. During this timeframe, Russia has experienced a steady decline in democratic freedoms and an increase in autocratic governance. On Wednesday, Putin cronies in the parliament approved a series of constitutional amendments allowing him to stay in power for another two terms, until 2036. The move to break Russia’s term limits had been in the works for some time, yet it is presumed that Putin utilized COVID-19 panic to obscure its implementation. Secondly, Russian actions in the energy arena have contributed to a collapse of global oil markets. Based on news reports, Putin decided to renege on a deal with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and unilaterally increase oil production as a means to attack the U.S. shale industry. The U.S. should call out Putin and his sham democracy, while also taking steps to protect American energy independence by increasing stockpiles in the strategic petroleum reserve thereby bolstering domestic producers.
China, meanwhile, is engaged in a widespread disinformation campaign designed to cover up its own shortcomings and undermine U.S. credibility. On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official propagated the state-encouraged falsehood that COVID-19 originated in the U.S. “It might be the U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” tweeted government spokesman Zhao Lijian. “The U.S. owes us an explanation!” China seeks to craft a narrative that clouds COVID-19’s origin, glorifies the Chinese government’s response, and highlights U.S. and European imperfections. Wang Zhonglin, the Communist party secretary in Wuhan, called for instituting “gratitude education among the people of the whole city” to give thanks to President Xi Jinping for resolving the crisis. Local Chinese citizens were furious at the suggestion. China continues to struggle with the pandemic, but considering their official statements cannot be trusted, it is impossible to know the extent of the struggle.
The U.S. Response with Recommendations
Unfortunately, the day-to-day implementation of the U.S. government’s COVID-19 response has not gone very well. When President Trump sees a threat, his inclination is to deny and denigrate. This strategy may work well against “Sleepy Joe Biden” or “Mini Mike Bloomberg”, but one cannot ridicule a virus into remission. Early White House assertions that the virus was “contained” were easily rebuffed by a spike in new cases. Comparisons between COVID-19’s lethality with that of the common flu were quickly corrected by estimates suggesting that the virus’ fatality rate is significantly higher. While there have been bright spots, including the announcement of public-private partnerships and actions to waive counterproductive medical regulations, the response appears uncoordinated and ad hoc. Whereas the White House should speak with one coherent voice, we all too often receive a cacophony of contradictory commentary.
In line with grand strategic objectives, the U.S. should harness its resources to resolve the pandemic and counter China and Russia. Scholars refer to the DIME Model (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economy) to define elements of national power. Diplomatically, the U.S. should engage with partners and allies to share best practices and facilitate cooperation. On the information side, the U.S. should follow the United Kingdom’s lead to create a designated entity to counter COVID-19 disinformation at home and abroad. Militarily, the U.S. should maintain a vigilant force posture abroad, and look for ways to mobilize military assets at home to assist in public health drives. Economically, the U.S. should act promptly to buttress hard-hit industries (energy, transportation, hospitality) and protect the most vulnerable in our society, including hourly wage workers, students, and those without health insurance.
The United States maintains a powerful position in the world because of its adherence to an intelligent grand strategy. As policymakers struggle to deal with COVID-19, they must consider the long-term implications of their actions. The desire to combat COVID-19 should be in line with our desire to maintain military preponderance, sustain alliances, preserve economic power, and advance human rights. Honesty and transparency, not political expediency, should guide U.S. actions to achieve these ends. The responsible use of authority and belief in a free people should be what contrasts our behavior with China and Russia. The U.S. should view the pandemic as an opportunity to show the world how a strong, resilient, and free society can recover and thrive. This will advance grand strategic objectives more than anything.
Jonathan Coleman is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and countering organized crimes. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His professional experience includes five years as a law enforcement officer.