Cipher Brief Expert John McLaughlin is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He served as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director in 2004.
The COVID-19 crisis cries out for a coordinated global response. However, conditions in the United States and international politics generally do not favor that right now — all the more regrettable in light of other building threats, such as climate change, that will also demand multilateral action.
My March 19 OZY column on COVID-19 anticipated problems that have become more visible: turbulence in the medical supply chain, stresses within the U.S. military, divisions within alliances such as the European Union, rising illness totals in less-developed parts of the world. Now it’s time to look at some longer-term questions that arch over these specific developments. Here are three.
WILL NATIONS BECOME MORE CONNECTED OR GROW FURTHER APART AS A RESULT OF THIS CRISIS?
With COVID-19, everyone on Earth for the first time since World War II is touched by danger at a personal level. The 9/11 attacks had enormous impact, but it was localized, visible and ultimately manageable. The 2008 financial crisis spared many from its worst effects. With COVID-19, no one is spared the danger and social distancing is so far our only defensive tool.
The good news is that such a universally experienced crisis vividly demonstrates to governments and populations the need for transnational action. A number of things stand in the way, however. Someone has to organize and lead such an effort. Under the “America First” policy of the Trump administration, the U.S. has turned away from multilateral approaches, pulling out of agreements such as the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear agreement.
MORE LIKELY, MOST NATIONS WILL ACCEPT CHINESE MEDICAL HELP WHILE KEEPING DISTANCE FROM BEIJING IN FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY.
The Trump administration may ultimately wish to lead such a response, but it would first have to rebuild an institutional foundation and restore credibility that has been lost due to soured relations with NATO allies, indifference toward the U.N. and unpredictable policy swerves and disconnects between President Trump’s statements and his lieutenants’. For the U.S., the traditional global leader, to be so handicapped amounts to a fundamental change in the dynamics of international politics — which leads into a second key question:
WILL THE RELATIVE POWER OF THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA CHANGE AFTER THIS CRISIS, AND HOW?
China deserves censure for its early concealment and dissembling about the extent of the Wuhan outbreak — and for propaganda suggesting that COVID-19 is something the U.S. created and weaponized. But with countries desperate for help and international memories short, China, having emerged from the worst stages of its epidemic, is now shipping medical supplies and personnel to the United States and to a long list of countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.
China has long lagged behind the U.S. in cultural and values-based appeal, essentially “soft power.” But the leadership vacuum created by the U.S. gives China an opportunity to make marginal gains in prestige and influence. Such a vacuum is what gave Russia over the past five years the chance for new prestige and influence in the Middle East. If I had to bet, though, I would wager against a Chinese breakthrough. More likely, most nations will accept Chinese medical help while keeping distance from Beijing in foreign policy and national security. The net result is not likely to be China assuming an effective leadership role. If I’m right, this will leave the world with a near total absence of leadership for now on the international stage.
So, whether Trump retains the White House in 2020 or Democrats prevail, it is incumbent on a new administration to do what is necessary to reinvigorate multilateral collaboration and restore trust in U.S. leadership. Otherwise, we are looking at a period when countries increasingly go their own way. As a planet, we risk in such circumstances being as unprepared as with COVID-19 when climate change finally reaches a critical mass that erases public and political doubt, likely amid cries for global action.
Beyond these international-oriented questions are many that arise on the home front. Here’s one certain to be in our faces soon:
WILL COMBATING COVID-19 REQUIRE WIDESPREAD PERSONAL SURVEILLANCE THAT REINVIGORATES DEBATE OVER PRIVACY VERSUS SECURITY?
The short answer is yes. It is hard to see otherwise, because to defeat the virus and block the spread we will need to know who has immunity, who is still vulnerable and who might be carriers. This will require a massive testing program and the ability to use the results and technologies like our smartphones and GPS to know where various categories of people are, what is being called contact tracing. Google and Apple are already collaborating on tools to accomplish this.
America has never had to face anything remotely like this before. After 9/11, National Security Agency practices that did not approach this level of intrusion sparked an enormous media and public outcry. It may turn out that simple fear of the virus will neutralize that, but any such program will have to be enacted against a backdrop of low public trust in government. This has fallen substantially from 1964, when 77 percent of the U.S. public trusted the government to “do the right thing” — today, only 17 percent say that. Add to this the Trump habit of firing many who disagree with him, a practice that will make faith in the oversight of such a program hard to sustain.
If there is a game-changer in all of this, it could be a vaccine that protects us against COVID-19 — or therapeutics that reliably and sharply limit its effects. In addition to earning international gratitude for whoever gets there first, this would gradually shrink the need for contact tracing, and the controversies likely to result.
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