Over the course of my diplomatic career, I learned to be humble about America’s ability to anticipate the consequences of crises like the coronavirus pandemic. I also learned that massive jolts to the international system, like the virus, tend to exacerbate preexisting conditions and clarify future choices.
The post-pandemic world will pose a massive test for American statecraft, the biggest since the end of the Cold War. If policy makers are able to see the landscape before them as it is, and not as they want it to be, and are also able to draw the right lessons from our missteps over the past three decades, recovering a healthy and disciplined foreign policy is still possible. It is also essential to navigating the aftermath of this terrible storm.
In recent days, I looked through old commentaries from the last global shock—the financial crisis of 2008. They are full of confident predictions: America would consolidate its leadership, China would remain inward-focused, Europe would grow more unified, and closed political and economic societies would open. For all the talk of an “axis of upheaval” emerging across the developing world, commentators largely failed to foresee how the same winds of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-globalization would batter our own backyard, or how our rivals would turn America’s crisis into their strategic opportunity.
In retrospect, the financial crisis didn’t so much introduce new variables into the equation of global politics as intensify trends already under way and expose nascent vulnerabilities. A “democratic recession” preceded the global economic recession. America’s dominance was already fading.
As the coronavirus moves toward its destructive peak in this country, its lethality deepened by the White House’s early failures, the full human and economic toll is hard to predict. But the wider geopolitical effect of the pandemic will likely turbocharge trendlines that were already creating a much more complicated and competitive landscape for the United States.
The liberal international order will become less liberal and less ordered. Following the greatest economic blow since the Great Depression, the flow of goods and people across borders will become less free. A shared sense of insecurity will intensify great-power competition, accelerate regional disorders, and worsen humanitarian crises in parts of the world already brimming with conflicts and refugees. New technologies will solidify authoritarian control and challenge democratic governance. International institutions will teeter, split apart by major-power rivalry and starved for resources, undermining prospects for a coordinated response to other looming global challenges—none more existential than climate change.
America’s moment of reckoning has been building for years, long before the Donald Trump era. Our dominance after the Cold War was never going to be a permanent condition. But the choices we made hastened the arrival and intensified the pain of the moment before us.
The impermanence of American dominance was visible before the scale of our post–Cold War primacy was apparent. In a now-declassified January 1993 memo, which I drafted as head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, we warned the incoming Clinton administration that the unfolding international landscape would prove “enough to almost—almost—make one nostalgic for the familiar discipline and order of the Cold War.” We flagged several traps.
The first was “the danger of hubris” born of the simple fact that “for the first time in fifty years we do not face a global military adversary.” America’s commanding position, I wrote, “did not imply American dominance of a unipolar world. Power, especially economic power, is too diffuse for a simple construct.” As I looked ahead, it seemed “certainly conceivable that a return to authoritarianism in Russia or an aggressively hostile China could revive such a global threat.” And while democracy seemed ascendant, “democratizing societies that fail to produce the fruits of economic reform quickly, or fail to accommodate pressures for ethnic self-expression, may slide into other ‘isms’, including nationalism or religious extremism or some combination of the two.”
The second was the trap of bumper stickers—the doomed search for a neat framework to replace the Cold War’s strategy of “containment,” which for decades had provided intellectual clarity and mobilized popular support. A strategy premised on “enlargement” of the coalition and ideas that had won the Cold War was enticing, although as one commentator pointed out at the time, the term sounded more like a prostate condition than a political rallying call. It was also a comfortable oversimplification, with inherent limits in a world in which challenges to regional order were bound to emerge, globalization would produce its own contradictions, and America’s temporary dominance would inevitably be contested by the rise of others.
The third trap was losing the connection between our global leadership and our domestic priorities. We were “in a moment in our history when many Americans will be preoccupied with domestic problems, and when budgetary constraints … are likely to be tighter than at any point in the last half century … It was relatively easy during the Cold War to justify national security expenditures and build support for American engagement overseas. It is infinitely harder now.”
Despite important diplomatic triumphs in the years that followed, we as policy makers and leaders stumbled into each of those traps. End-of-history triumphalism inflated our ambitions, clouded our judgment, fed our complacency, and militarized our diplomacy, especially after 9/11. We misread the landscape, assumed too much about our transformative powers in the Middle East, shoehorned foreign policy into the War on Terror and the “freedom agenda,” and lost the trust of much of the American public. Our optimism about globalization blinded us to the dislocations building alongside it, and our indiscipline and dysfunction brought about a global financial crisis that further polarized our politics and corroded America’s example and influence.
To regain our footing after the pandemic and avoid fumbling what’s left of our primacy, American leaders will have to avoid the snares and delusions of the post-pandemic world. Most dangerous among them is the Trumpian hubris of “America first,” the reckless conviction that American power is best served unilaterally, unencumbered by allies who only take advantage of us or the enlightened self-interest that has animated U.S. statecraft at its best.
In past global-health crises, such as the AIDS epidemic or Ebola, disciplined American leadership and strong partnerships proved an invaluable force multiplier. In this one, the Trump White House’s blend of arrogance and ineptitude, against the backdrop of more than three years of diplomatic disarmament, is a force divider—exposing our citizenry to greater peril.
Even if Americans decide against doubling down on President Trump’s destructive narcissism in November, the new administration will still have to steer through a fog of anxieties and uncertainties about America’s role in the world, in which Trump has been more symptom than cause. It will not be easy to persuade Americans, struggling through the human and economic wreckage of the pandemic, to resist the temptation to pull up our national drawbridges and retreat. Nor will it be easy to be honest about the colossal failings of the Trump era, as well as the shortcomings of all of us in the Washington establishment for many years before.
There will be plenty of other pitfalls. Replacing old bumper stickers with new ones will be alluring, but simple frameworks often distract more than they clarify. If “America first” is discarded, a new administration will obviously want to renew the alliances that set the United States apart from lonelier authoritarian rivals, and reinvest in solidarity with other democracies. But distilling today’s disorder into a stark global contest between democracy and autocracy would be wrong-headed. That risks conflating distinct brands of authoritarianism, limiting America’s ability to play on those governments’ differences and competing interests, diverting us from the imperative of getting our own house in order, and launching another global struggle, for which little domestic support exists.
Many in Washington may also be tempted to apply a similarly reductionist approach to “containment” of China. The risk here is that the same lazy fatalism that led America to assume too much about the benefits of engagement with China will lead us to assume too much about the workability of containment, or the inevitability of conflict. There is a lot to be worried about in managing mounting friction with China, but containing its rise altogether is beyond America’s capacity. What U.S. leaders can do, however, is shape the environment into which China rises—working with allies and partners across Asia who share a profound interest in making sure China’s ascendance does not come at the expense of their own security and prosperity. That’s what diplomacy is all about, and why its revitalization is so pressing.
Finally, we ought to lay to rest the notion that we can resurrect the era of uncontested American primacy, or that our diplomatic relationships and tools can be willed back into exactly their pre-Trump, pre-pandemic shapes. America can’t simply reboot to a normal that has long been corrupted.
Rebalancing America’s national-security instruments, and rebuilding both hollowed-out institutions and the dignity of public service, will be urgent priorities. Leaders in Washington will have to shift the terms of engagement with allies, expecting more but also listening more. They will also need to level with the American people about the limits of our power, avoid the ideological fever dreams that have done so much harm to our interests, and demonstrate in practical terms that our leadership abroad is accelerating—not undermining—renewal at home.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that you can’t step in the same river twice—and the same thing is true of the shifting currents reshaping today’s international landscape. For all the damage of recent years, and the body blow of the coronavirus, I still believe that the United States is better equipped than any of its rivals to help shape the course of those currents. Doing so, however, will require taking a hard look at where they’re heading, and at our own reflection in them.