COVID’s New Leadership Challenge

September 30, 2020

By Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

COVID-19 has produced a health crisis, an economic crisis and a social crisis. But it has also exposed a crisis in American foreign policy leadership.

Under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics has changed in a way that means that even if the United States remains the largest power, we cannot achieve many of our international goals acting alone. But our national security debate and budget are focused almost entirely on great power competition, particularly with China.

As the pandemic has demonstrated, this century is witnessing a dramatic increase in transnational interdependence. Regardless of potential setbacks to economic globalization, environmental globalization will continue to grow. Climate change and rising sea levels will affect the quality of life for everyone, but Americans cannot manage the problem alone. In a world where borders are becoming more porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, the United States must lead in developing networks and multilateral institutions to address shared threats, challenges, and collective action problems.

The relative size of the United States is critically important in international leadership. A classic problem with public goods (like clean air, which all can share and from which none can be excluded) is that if the largest consumer does not take the lead, others will free-ride and the public goods will not be produced.

As technology expert Richard Danzig, Senior Advisor to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, summarizes the problem, “21st century technologies are global not just in their distribution, but also in their consequences. Pathogens, artificial intelligence (AI) systems, computer viruses, and radiation that others may accidentally release could become as much our problem as theirs. Agreed reporting systems, shared controls, common contingency plans, norms and treaties must be pursued as a means of moderating our numerous mutual risks.

Tariffs and walls cannot solve these problems. The United States will have to work more closely with Europe, China, Japan and others. In this context, power becomes a positive-sum game. It will not be enough to think in terms of American power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals which involves power with others. On many transnational issues, empowering others can help the United States to accomplish our own goals. The United States benefits if China improves its energy efficiency and emits less carbon dioxide. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power. In a world of growing complexity, the most connected states are the most powerful.

If the key to America’s future security and prosperity is learning the importance of ‘power with’ as well as ‘power over’, our response to the current COVID-19 crisis is not encouraging. Every country puts its own interests first, but the important question is how broadly or narrowly our leaders define those interests. We have paid too little attention to institutions, reciprocity and a long shadow of the future. The United States has stepped back from our tradition of long-term enlightened self-interest.

American leaders should recall the success of the post-1945 American presidents that I describe in my new book Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. The United States should launch a massive COVID-19 aid program like the Marshall Plan. Instead of succumbing to vaccine nationalism, our leaders should announce that we will reserve twenty percent of vaccines produced in America for distribution to poor countries that have inadequate public health systems, particularly aiming at their first responders in the anti-COVID-19 campaign.

Instead of competitive propaganda, leaders could articulate the importance of ‘power with’ rather than ‘over’ others, and set up bilateral and multilateral frameworks to enhance cooperation. Our leaders should realize that new waves of COVID-19 will affect poorer states that are less able to cope, and that such a reservoir in the Southern half of the globe will hurt everyone when it spills northward in a seasonal resurgence. Remember, the second wave of the 1918 Great Influenza pandemic killed more people than the first did. Both for self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the United States should lead the Group of 20 major economies in generous contributions to a new COVID-19 fund for poor countries.

If an American leader were to choose such a policy, the pandemic could provide a geopolitical path to a better world. It would also help to restore our attractive or soft power. But if our leaders continue on the current path, the new virus will simply accelerate existing trends towards nationalistic populism and authoritarian uses of technology.


About the Author:


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.




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