U.S. President Donald Trump with members of the administration's coronavirus task force at the White House, March 2020
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A single event can reset U.S. foreign policy for decades in ways both good and bad. The 9/11 terrorist attacks created a brief moment of national and international unity that could have inspired an era of deeper global cooperation, but the United States squandered the opportunity. In the name of preventing another large terrorist attack, it launched unnecessary wars that cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians—not to mention the wars’ exorbitant financial toll and the immeasurable damage they did to the country’s global image. The United States and the world are still grappling with the fallout almost 20 years later.

Those catastrophic policies were not inevitable; they were the work of individuals who had long advocated for a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy and took advantage of the crisis to enact one. U.S. officials began planning for war with Iraq just weeks after 9/11 and falsified intelligence to justify the invasion. They moved quickly, believing that the geopolitical earthquake caused by the terrorist attacks would enable them to reshape the world in their image.

“The reality is that these times bring not only dangers but also opportunities,” then Vice President Dick Cheney declared in a speech about how regime change in Iraq would supposedly benefit the entire Middle East.  

The changes to U.S. foreign policy went far beyond the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington’s new “freedom agenda”—to promote democracy across the world and to do so by force if necessary—was global in outlook. The United States made terrorism a main focus of international organizations, from the G-7 to NATO to the UN Security Council. The U.S. government itself underwent restructuring: one year after 9/11, Congress reorganized roughly 20 government agencies and offices under the rubric of the new Department of Homeland Security; after the 9/11 Commission report was released in 2004, Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee the country’s 17 intelligence agencies. U.S. President George W. Bush also pointed to 9/11 as one of the reasons for launching new foreign aid programs, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (which—unlike the disastrous wars—were positive developments).

The current pandemic has the potential to spark even greater changes in Washington. The journalist Irving Kristol once said that a “neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” The novel coronavirus is now mugging everyone. Just about every human being on the planet has been affected, either by the virus itself or by its social and economic consequences. This time, liberal internationalists must move quickly to define a new order—not least because illiberal forces are already doing the same. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who over the last decade gutted his country’s democracy, has used the pandemic to seize the power to rule by decree. China is sowing disinformation about the pandemic in the United States while portraying itself as a global leader in responding to the crisis. And U.S. President Donald Trump is curbing legal immigration and scapegoating China to deflect from his botched response to the pandemic.

Liberal internationalist policymakers and scholars have long argued that the greatest threats facing the country, including pandemics and climate change, are transnational in nature and require transnational solutions—above all, diplomacy, multilateralism, and a foreign policy that empowers other countries to tackle their domestic problems before they spill across borders. Washington has failed to heed that advice in a sustainable way and at the necessary scale, and the consequences are on grim display. U.S. leaders can still rectify that mistake going forward. But they must move quickly, because this moment of clarity will not last forever—and because others will try to push the country and the world in more dangerous directions.

Beyond the demagogues and dictators, liberal internationalists will have to contend with good-faith skeptics. Some in the United States and around the world will argue that the right answer to the pandemic is not to further empower global bodies but to sap them of what little authority they have. In the United States, moreover, some may argue that the country should focus on recovery at home, not on ambitious campaigns to reshape the world. But that recovery will not last if the country ignores problems beyond its borders. As Americans work to fix their own country, they will also have to take their foreign policy in a fundamentally new direction. Complicating matters is the fact that unlike 9/11, the pandemic has not created a rally-round-the-flag effect; Trump’s response to the virus is stoking divisions rather than uniting Americans. Forging a new U.S. foreign policy will, at a minimum, require a new administration in 2021. But doing so is feasible—and necessary.

WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

What would such a rethink look like? Washington must quickly reorient its foreign policy toward the gravest threats—with climate change, pandemics, and the erosion of democracy and human rights at the top of the list—and invest the requisite resources and attention. Over the last 20 years, the United States has spent upward of $6 trillion on the global “war on terror”; its investments in the fight against pandemics (and other “soft” challenges, such as climate change and combating poverty) have been negligible by comparison. But since 9/11, terrorism has taken the lives of fewer Americans than the coronavirus did in a single day in New York City at the height of the pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 killed more Americans in the first few months of the pandemic than all of the United States’ military conflicts since the beginning of the Korean War combined.

Against that backdrop, the first question for Washington must be how to prevent the next pandemic from causing so much destruction. But the current crisis is also a wake-up call to begin preparing to meet a wider range of transnational threats, some of which might one day make the coronavirus look mild by comparison. During the pandemic, billions of people were convinced that their lives literally depended on staying home. Absent urgent action on climate change, not even sheltering at home will help when disaster hits.

The journalist Irving Kristol once said that a “neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” The novel coronavirus is now mugging everyone.

A new White House could achieve a lot on its own, sending out directives, beginning initiatives, creating new positions, and more. But the biggest reforms will require congressional action. Lawmakers will need to increase foreign aid budgets. They will need to restructure government agencies. Above all, they will need to spend less time arguing over the size of Pentagon budgets (which need to be significantly reduced) and more time investing in the management of nonmilitary threats.

That last change may sound ambitious, but it is within reach. The pandemic has softened rigid orthodoxies and widened the window of what is politically possible. After the U.S. economy virtually shut down in March, even die-hard fiscal conservatives in Congress supported trillions of dollars in government stimulus spending. Politics will likely eventually revert to the polarized norm (and in many respects it already has), but there is still a window of opportunity for bold action. Tackling climate change, for instance, requires massive domestic investments in green energy development and installation, all of which will create jobs and economic growth. At a moment of record unemployment, this is exactly the kind of policy that should have the support of elected representatives. 

Even boosts to foreign aid are more achievable than they seem. Conservatives have railed against foreign assistance for years, but congressional Republicans have repeatedly sided with Democrats to protect the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from the cuts that the Trump White House has proposed in every annual budget. More and more military leaders have come around to this view, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, who in February wrote to Congress, “The more we cut the international affairs budget, the higher the risk for longer and deadlier military operations.” The pandemic will lend additional support to the age-old case that large investments in foreign assistance—which would still be relatively small compared with U.S. military spending—can yield outsize returns. More and more people will come to understand that reality as they learn that even simple programs, such as a fully functioning Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Beijing, can help prevent and prepare for a pandemic.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS 

At the international level, the next administration should work to defend and upgrade multilateral institutions that have come under strain. The European Union has just agreed to a large bailout package to help member states get back on their feet, but amid the pandemic, Brexit, and democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, the bloc’s future is still uncertain. Meanwhile, UN agencies face the herculean task of reducing poverty, supporting human rights, and helping record numbers of migrants and refugees in the age of COVID-19. There are genuine substantive disagreements and problems inside many of these institutions, but they all suffer from the same central challenge: no international body can work properly when the world’s most powerful countries do not play their part by investing the time of senior officials and the resources that effective reforms require. The World Health Organization, for instance, has come under serious criticism for its indecisive leadership during the pandemic, but as Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior USAID official, has written, the WHO ultimately has to defer to its member states, who have saddled it with “an expansive global mandate, but an annual budget of $2.2 billion, smaller than many major U.S. hospitals.”

The United States must lead the charge in strengthening these institutions. The WHO needs more funding and the ability to move quicker in responding to outbreaks. The United States should also push the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to help the global economy recover in ways that reduce inequality among countries and within them. It should continue to promote regular and safe migration through the Global Compact on Migration, an intergovernmental agreement endorsed by the UN General Assembly; forge a new series of global climate arrangements; and redouble efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. It should also transform the Community of Democracies, an international body founded in 2000, into a robust institution for coordination among democratic governments. Some challenges, including cybersecurity and Internet governance, may require entirely new international arrangements, and some attempts at reform may not be successful. But multilateralism is the only way the United States can hope to solve these challenges.

The pandemic has softened rigid orthodoxies and widened the window of what is politically possible.

Finally, the pandemic may have intensified the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, but it has also driven home the importance of preserving some space for cooperation between great powers. Both SARS and COVID-19 first emerged in China, and the next pandemic, wherever it originates, can be stopped only if Washington and Beijing join forces. History shows that this is feasible. The United States and the Soviet Union worked together to create the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In the past decade, the United States, Russia, and China have at various points cooperated on nuclear issues and climate change. To be sure, Washington will need to ramp up pressure on China in response to Beijing’s concentration camps in Xinjiang, its repressive behavior in Hong Kong, its aggression against China’s neighbors, and much more. At the same time, cooperation on existential threats such as climate change and pandemics must be a priority as well.

Such a broad international agenda will require money, the personal dedication of the president, and serious diplomatic elbow grease. Washington will need to address issues such as global migration with the same intensity and commitment as the Iran nuclear deal. Just as U.S. presidents look for high-profile leaders with political sway to fill cabinet positions, they should appoint people of stature and influence to represent the country in international organizations. Washington must also learn that threatening to walk away from or defund international institutions is not a viable option, especially when China and others stand ready to fill the void.

THE FIGHT AHEAD

In a world reeling from the pandemic, liberal internationalism has something for everyone. For those who advocate a more restrained U.S. foreign policy, it offers more multilateralism and less militarism. For those who yearn for American leadership, it offers a United States that once again makes proper use of its diplomatic power. And for those who view authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia as growing global threats, it offers a way to use alliances and international norms as tools to push back against autocratic encroachment.   

Of course, the pandemic could easily push the world in the opposite direction, toward populism and democratic backsliding. Trump’s reaction so far, which has consisted mostly of a search for a scapegoat, illustrates what liberal internationalists are up against. Expect other authoritarians, in the United States and elsewhere, to use this crisis to advance their own long-standing autocratic and xenophobic agendas.

But that outcome is not inevitable. At the end of World War II, it was hardly preordained that Western Europe would be free, united, and prosperous. When the Cold War ended, a peaceful transition was anything but guaranteed. Those moments took American leadership and a belief that cooperation pays off. In our own era, that belief may seem naive or outdated, but it is still the right way to keep the United States safe and prosperous.

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  • MICHAEL H. FUCHS is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to 2016.
  • More By Michael H. Fuchs