The Perfect Storm
The modern world faces a perfect storm: the combination of a deadly and highly infectious virus, an emerging worldwide economic depression, the collapse of global governance, and an absence of coordinated and effective international response. Yet in this crisis there is also an opportunity.
A PRUDENT international response is also required. It is clear that America’s primary foreign policy focus should be on stopping the pandemic, that steps such as travel bans and quarantines must continue, and that some limits on exports of essential medical supplies are appropriate and inevitable. But, in trade policy as in life, there can be too much of a good thing. The last thing America needs is to allow necessary restrictions to produce further animosity, and particularly trade wars, with other major powers. China is the most obvious point of concern. While America’s excessive reliance on Chinese medicine and manufacturing clearly must be addressed, these problems must be attacked with a scalpel rather than an axe to avoid triggering a global economic depression through further U.S.-China trade confrontation.
Of course, China remains a potent geopolitical rival to the United States and each side bears some blame for the erosion in the longstanding ties between the two nations. Beijing may even emerge as a stronger one from the coronavirus crisis and Washington must seek to ensure that it does not supplant its influence and power in the Pacific. Then there is Russia. American actions may have contributed to a deterioration in our relations with Russia, but that does not mean that it should lurch to the extreme of dismissing the challenge posed by Moscow. Nor does it imply that America should hesitate to defend NATO members in the face of genuine Russian aggression. Quite the contrary.
Furthermore, American politicians must be realistic about the potential consequences of its foreign policy. We must recognize at long last that, since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has lacked a true strategic direction. Indeed, American triumphalism after 1989 boomeranged. Too often Washington defined countries as enemies not on the basis of clashes of military or economic interests, but merely if they subscribed to a disagreeable political system. Nations such as Russia bridled at America's claim to primacy, partly due to predictable pride, partly on the basis of real national interests. The irony was that in cavalierly treating these nations as adversaries, America made it difficult to work with them in international institutions to create a new and stable global framework. America became preoccupied with parochial pursuits at the expense of the issues which are truly essential for American prosperity and security. It was in this climate that existential global threats such as the current pandemic were left unaddressed in favor of the unilateral pursuit of short-term objectives and outright posturing, often producing results that proved inimical to America’s national interest.
For instance, the administration’s campaign against Nordstream II, which Russia perceives as an effort to elevate the United States as the global leader in oil and gas production, has contributed to Moscow rejecting the continuation or expansion of current OPEC-initiated constraints on oil production, which established limits on Saudi Arabia and Russia that allowed American energy growth to skyrocket. While the resulting collapse in oil prices is beneficial in the short term to the American consumer, they are devastating to America’s Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and damaging in the long run to the U.S. shale industry, which cannot survive if oil prices remain anywhere near their current low levels. That this dramatic decline in oil prices has upended international markets at the least opportune moment for the United States is particularly frustrating, since America’s primary interest in stopping Nordstream II (forcing Russia to continue using Ukrainian pipelines), pales in comparison to its interest in a stable oil market.
Reforming American foreign policy requires nothing less than the recognition that the liberal world order—the battle cry of global elites on both sides of the Atlantic—was largely a myth rooted in illusions and double standards. Since the times of Aristotle, there has always been a debate over the relative merits of democracy and autocracy and what combination of the two is the most appropriate for a particular society under particular circumstances. Rendering democracy promotion one of America’s defining foreign policy objectives was always bound to create a powerful international backlash. It ensured that China and Russia would combine against American interests and forced the United States and Europe to whitewash misbehavior by their allies as they proclaim loyalty to the new Atlanticist hegemon.
By what perverse logic, for instance, could it be considered a priority for the West to demand Crimea’s return to Ukraine when Crimea was not only historically a part of Russia, but had an overwhelming Russian-speaking majority which repeatedly indicated its preference for association with Moscow, including in elections under Ukrainian control? America should have anticipated that Russia would consider it unacceptable to return Crimea to Ukraine in the interest of Ukrainian unity, just as it would be unreasonable to support a proposition that Ukraine be returned to Moscow’s control in the name of Russian unity. That America would actively pursue this objective knowing full well that Russia would not relent barring a massive military defeat or an outright collapse is especially perplexing.
America’s entire system of alliances, particularly NATO, appears increasingly obsolete in their current form. A variety of statesmen and experts, most notably George F. Kennan, warned that NATO expansion into the Baltics would turn Russia, a nation after the Soviet collapse was eager to join forces with the West, into a dangerous adversary. The United States did not heed these cautions and instead created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which NATO’s expansion ironically enhanced the threat posed by Russia to the very states it sought to guarantee. These alliances currently serve primarily to entangle the United States in the internecine disputes of European nations. As George Washington presciently asked in his farewell address, “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
As a candidate, Trump correctly identified the fundamental deficiencies of America’s European alliances, which are based on pretenses of moral superiority and are bereft of a strategic vision. European elites became habituated to a relationship in which America advances their parochial objectives without question, leaving them free to introduce new tariffs and taxes against American companies and openly challenge the United States on issues like climate change or immigration. The infamous “European solidarity” was a myth championed by Poland and other Eastern European states seeking to gain NATO support against Russia. As the pandemic crisis made particularly clear, however, European nations are not only reluctant to assist the United States, but even each other, as many rapidly moved to limit exports on medical supplies as the coronavirus crisis took shape. It is only in its historical animosity to Russia that most of Europe truly remains united. And signs are that even that unity may prove elusive if tested by a real confrontation.
Make no mistake: withdrawing from NATO or undermining its foundations is not a sensible approach. America cannot not remedy one extreme by going to another. What is needed instead is a keen appreciation of the status of American alliances, their relative costs and benefits, how each supports America’s national interest, and how to reform them effectively. In place of a preoccupation with parochial alliances, the United States must focus, in addition to its unilateral efforts and bilateral diplomacy, on working with institutions from the G20 to a reformed WHO. Neither America nor the rest of the world can afford to again fall prey to emotionally appealing, but less than essential distractions that impede them from addressing key threats to global stability. And indeed to the very survival of millions of people in civilized societies.
WHAT THE United States confronts, then, is a moment of truth. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that we are learning lessons about the imperative of strategic thinking. It’s encouraging that Trump played a key role in helping to reach a useful, if uncertain, deal in reducing foreign oil production with Russia and Saudi Arabia. Less encouraging are the strident voices in Congress and elsewhere about the need to punish China for the coronavirus, which would lead to a resumption of the trade war at the least opportune moment. Old habits are dying hard: little attention is being paid to averting a closer alignment between Beijing and Moscow. In addition, the nuclear arms-control regime is collapsing and signs of animosity between great powers are growing. The perils of an outright conflict should not be wished away for the current pandemic demonstrates how the unthinkable can quickly occur.
America was and remains an exceptional nation in terms of the spirit of its people, creativity of its economic system, and ability to adapt to new circumstances. But exceptionalism is not a mandate for the reckless pursuit of peripheral objectives at the expense of real global priorities, nor for championing short-term gains over America’s long-term interest without anticipating predictable consequences. The Chinese character for “crisis” famously carries a second meaning: “opportunity.” Although the world currently finds itself in the center of an existential crisis, a promising opportunity may well rest just over the horizon.