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America’s role in world affairs may never recover from COVID-19

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Imagine if all the U.S. combat fatalities suffered in the Korean, Vietnam and recent Middle Eastern wars combined were inflicted upon us by an adversary in just four months — then add 10,000 deaths more. That would be roughly the number of American deaths, to date, from COVID-19. Despite having created the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced armed forces — and spending trillions of dollars in the effort — America is reeling. From a public health perspective, more than 100,000 deaths in four months is a very bad virus; from a national security perspective, it’s an unqualified disaster.

The failure of the Trump administration to even participate, let alone take the lead, in global efforts to devise a coordinated response to the most significant global health challenge in a century has made it clear to other nations that they cannot depend on U.S. leadership in a crisis. It will have lasting consequences for America’s role in world affairs.

Rather than using the international institutions it created to help manage and prevent crises, the United States now is actively undermining organizations such as the World Health Organization. The United Nations system, which otherwise might help mediate and moderate relations among states, particularly the great powers, instead has been converted to a partisan punching bag.

China, on the other hand, is taking an increasingly prominent role in shaping the international order, seizing opportunities to supplant U.S. leadership in multilateral organizations and pursuing initiatives to foster closer relations and gain influence with nations throughout the globe. U.S. allies in Asia are feeling the pressures — and incentives — the most, but China’s initiatives extend to Europe, Africa and even Latin America. If these trends persist, it is inevitable that within a decade or two China will be the dominant power in East Asia, and current U.S. allies will be compelled to reach some form of accommodation with it.  

The United States’s retreat from global leadership has wider implications as well. Democratic countries in Europe are working together to combat and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. They are coordinating efforts to reopen tourism and rebuild their economies. Many now view the U.S. as a pariah, seeing the administration’s refusal to cooperate and its pursuit of untested remedies with pity and bemusement. In the coming years, the European Commission will attempt to fill the leadership vacuum on global issues, seeking to hold together the remnants of multilateralism and global governance in areas such as trade, human rights and the advancement of science. Rather than stay in line with increasingly antagonistic and mercantilist U.S. policies, Europe will chart its own course.

Elsewhere, the U.S. seems intent on isolating itself from any effort to reduce international tensions and build a more peaceful world. The Trump administration’s dismantling of the decades-long efforts to reduce nuclear dangers by withdrawing from treaties and pursuing belligerent nuclear policies are viewed by many as reckless and dangerous. Its heated rhetoric with Iran after escalating tensions earlier this year, its association with Israel’s likely annexation of virtually all of Palestine, and, until the recent oil price war, its continued support of Saudi Arabia isolates us further from our NATO allies and moderate Arab regimes. 

Even in Latin America, the Trump administration’s feckless efforts to topple the Maduro regime in Venezuela and support for governments that seem uncaring about the pandemic’s toll on their populations further antagonize the majority of governments struggling to work together to overcome the crisis.

Meanwhile, some of the trillions in deficit spending on a forward-deployed, technologically advanced military posture to defend allies abroad — which could have been used to strengthen our health, education and social systems at home — instead left us defenseless against what proved to be a deadly threat to our own national security. As more Americans realize this, they will demand a shift in priorities and resource allocations. The U.S. military posture will shift over time toward token offshore garrisons and dependence on isolated strikes with kinetic, cyber  or electronic systems. 

Such a posture can preempt or respond to certain kinds of military threats to direct U.S. interests, but will be insufficient to guarantee the security of countries that now depend on the U.S. armed forces. (The recent announcement about reducing U.S. troop levels in Europe is a leading indicator of this eventuality.) Over time, these changes will accelerate the shift from a U.S.-led global order to a multipolar world whose security will depend on other states being able to work together to resolve conflicts and build cooperative structures — with or without U.S. participation. 

While its military and economic footprint will guarantee that the U.S. retains influence with some partners around the world for years to come, the U.S. increasingly will become one great power among many. The U.S.-led, post-war international order will be over, and the multipolar world will have been realized.

In short, COVID-19 will have profound implications — not only for the ways Americans live, but perhaps more significantly, for the international political system.

Barry M. Blechman is co-founder and a Distinguished Fellow of the Stimson Center. He has more than 50 years of service in national security in the public and private sectors, and has worked at the Departments of State and Defense and the Office of Management and Budget.

Tags China COVID-19 vaccine international treaties Iran Trump foreign policy World Health Organization

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