How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Washington was coalescing around a new bipartisan consensus: great-power competition, especially with China, ought to be the main organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. For some, the pandemic called that notion into question by suggesting that transnational threats pose an even greater danger to the American public than ascendant rival powers. Skeptics of great-power competition, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, argued that the United States should seek to de-escalate tensions with China so that the two countries can work together to manage borderless risks such as pandemics and climate change.
But the debate over whether great-power competition or transnational threats pose the greater danger to the United States is a false one. Look back at strategic assessments from ten years ago on China and Russia, on the one hand, and those on pandemics and climate change, on the other, and it is clear that Washington is experiencing near-worst-case scenarios on both. Great-power rivalry has not yet sparked a hot war but appears to be on the brink of sparking a cold one. Meanwhile, the worst pandemic in a century is not yet over, and the climate crisis is only accelerating.
What COVID-19 has made powerfully clear is that this is an age of transnational threats and great-power competition—one in which the two phenomena exacerbate each other. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Chinese government has been obsessed with maintaining its grip on power and has refused to cooperate with the international community to fight the virus. For its part, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump framed the international dimensions of its pandemic response almost exclusively in terms of competition with China, extinguishing any hope of a multilateral cooperation, even with other democracies. At the height of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) became an arena for U.S.-Chinese rivalry, leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself.
Great-power rivalry and transnational threats will both shape U.S. foreign and national security policies in the years to come. Washington cannot downplay one in order to better deal with the other. Attempting to ease tensions with China to make cooperation on global public health possible won’t work, partly because Beijing cannot credibly commit to being more transparent and cooperative in the future. By the same token, ramping up competition with China without a plan to rally the world to deal with transnational threats (which can themselves fuel rivalry between great powers) would only guarantee future disasters.
The United States needs a strategy to address transnational threats under the conditions of great-power competition. It must aim to cooperate with rivals, especially China, to prepare for future pandemics and to tackle climate change. But in case cooperation fails, it must have a backup plan to rally allies and partners to provide a much greater share of global public goods, even if that means shouldering more of the costs. None of this will be easy, but all of it is necessary.
Competition between the United States and China has made the pandemic worse, and the pandemic, in turn, has deepened U.S.-Chinese rivalry and inhibited international cooperation more generally. But the negative synergy between great-power rivalry and transnational threats was evident even before COVID-19. In the decade after the SARS epidemic of 2002–4, the United States and China had developed a working relationship on global public health. On the eve of the current pandemic, the United States had dozens of public health professionals stationed at the U.S. embassy in Beijing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. Among them was a team of approximately 12 CDC officials working on infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness. (The Trump administration had redeployed a number of CDC officials working on AIDS funded through the President’s Emergency Plan for aids Relief to countries such as Uganda, but the embassy team working on pandemic preparedness remained in place.)
But as a number of U.S. embassy officials told the foreign policy analyst Colin Kahl and me for our book Aftershocks, this team’s cooperation with the Chinese government became more challenging as U.S.-Chinese rivalry intensified, largely because of China’s actions. In 2018 and 2019, for instance, Chinese officials refused to fully share samples of a strain of bird flu known as H7N9 with the WHO’s “collaborating centers” for influenza, frustrating their U.S. counterparts. At the time, public health experts believed that this form of influenza, or some variant of it, could potentially be the source of the next global pandemic.
Chinese public health officials also grew more reluctant to engage with their U.S. counterparts. In 2019, the U.S. embassy in Beijing hosted an event to mark 40 years of U.S.-Chinese relations. U.S. officials had planned to highlight public health cooperation—widely regarded as a success story in a sometimes tumultuous bilateral relationship—and several Chinese public health officials were slated to speak. But 24 hours before the event, amid rising trade tensions, all the Chinese officials canceled. It was a harbinger of things to come.
When COVID-19 hit, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintained near-absolute secrecy. All channels of communication between Beijing and Washington went silent, as they did between Beijing and other governments. Chinese leaders sought to conceal vital information about the emerging epidemic in China from the rest of the world, even attempting to prevent Chinese scientists from sharing the genetic sequence of the virus with scientists in other countries. (A Chinese scientist deliberately disobeyed the order and collaborated with an Australian counterpart.) Beijing also pushed the WHO not to declare the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” an official designation that would have required a coordinated international response, and not to support or even remain neutral on placing travel restrictions on China.
What COVID-19 has made powerfully clear is that this is an age of transnational threats and great-power competition.
The Chinese government’s actions put the WHO in a difficult position and constrained its choices. During the SARS epidemic, Gro Brundtland, the director general of the WHO, called out the Chinese government for covering up the outbreak and refusing to cooperate fully with the international community. The strategy helped persuade Beijing to shift course and eventually to engage with the WHO. The United States had hoped the WHO would use the same playbook with COVID-19 and publicly criticize—or at least refuse to praise—Beijing for withholding cooperation.
But senior WHO officials believed that Chinese President Xi Jinping was more dictatorial and less susceptible to outside pressure than his predecessors. If they tried to call him out, he was likely to shut them out completely. WHO officials also believed that working with China offered the only hope of stopping the virus. If that required publicly flattering Beijing, then so be it—a calculation that put the WHO on a collision course with the United States.
It is impossible to say for certain why the Chinese government behaved the way it did, but secrecy and control make sense in light of what the vast majority of China experts believe to be Xi’s top priority: regime survival. Xi did not want to facilitate an international response to COVID-19 that could have attributed blame to China or isolated it through travel restrictions, either of which might have damaged the regime’s domestic legitimacy. Instead, Xi leveraged the pandemic to his advantage: China’s suppression of the virus became a matter of national pride, held up by Beijing in sharp contrast to the experience of the United States.
Once it had controlled the virus at home, China became more assertive in its foreign policy. It linked pandemic assistance and, later, access to its vaccine to public praise for China and to favorable policy choices, such as participation in the health component of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also retaliated against Australia for seeking an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19. As the world reeled from the pandemic, China imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, provoked a deadly border spat with India, and engaged in combative “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy around the world—aggressively responding to criticism, including by peddling falsehoods and disinformation. For China’s leaders, the pandemic revealed the inexorable decline of the West, confirmed Beijing’s power and capabilities, and created more latitude for the CCP to do as it wished.
Geopolitics also shaped the U.S. response to COVID-19. Contrary to popular belief, some senior Trump administration officials grasped the national security threat posed by the virus faster than their European counterparts did. Top officials in the National Security Council began focusing on the pandemic in early January, just days after news of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, became public. They were primed to pay attention in large part because of their suspicions of the Chinese regime: Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, had covered the SARS epidemic as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, and he viewed the news trickling in from Wuhan in early 2020 through the lens of Beijing’s previous coverup. But even though Pottinger and other NSC officials were wise to the danger, they ultimately failed to persuade Trump to make the necessary preparations to deal with the pandemic when it inevitably reached the United States.
Throughout 2020, the Trump administration saw the international dimensions of COVID-19 almost entirely in terms of the U.S. rivalry with China. As the administration began to formulate its response, those who favored a more comprehensive public health approach both at home and abroad were excluded or marginalized at crucial moments. The result was that the Trump administration focused more on holding China responsible for the outbreak and reducing U.S. reliance on Beijing than on the minutiae of global public health policy or the hard work of rallying the world to tackle the pandemic.
COVID-19 also galvanized the Trump administration to intensify the contest with China. When it signed the Phase One trade agreement with China in January 2020, the Trump administration was split into two camps: one that wanted to contain China and one that wanted to focus narrowly on economic differences with China and not pursue a broader strategic competition. Trump spoke in the hawkish terms preferred by the containment faction, but he sided with the camp focused on economic issues in concluding the trade agreement. By mid-March, however, Trump had joined the containment faction, convinced that the crisis—and the lockdowns it necessitated—now threatened his personal political prospects.
COVID-19 galvanized the Trump administration to intensify the contest with China.
Two Trump administration officials who favored continued engagement with China told me that before COVID-19, Trump was something of a check on the containment faction. Once he saw the virus as a threat to his reelection chances, however, he became willing to endorse the containment faction’s preferred policies to counter China’s assertiveness. According to another senior official associated with the containment faction, the pandemic and China’s response to it helped unify the administration behind a more comprehensive strategy to push back against Beijing. Between March 2020 and the end of the year, the senior official said, the United States put in place more containment measures than it had in the previous three years, including restrictions on Chinese technology firms, sanctions on Chinese officials, looser regulations on diplomatic contacts with Taiwan, and recognition of the repression in Xinjiang as a genocide. In this sense, the pandemic was a pivotal moment in the U.S.-Chinese rivalry.
Competition between the two countries overwhelmed everything else, including U.S. cooperation with allies on the pandemic, leaving a global leadership vacuum that no one could fill. The foreign ministers of the G-7 countries were unable to agree on even a communiqué in March 2020, and the G-7 leaders’ summit in June was canceled and never rescheduled during Trump’s presidency. The EU tried to step up by increasing funding for the WHO and for COVAX, the global initiative to share vaccines, but it never came close to organizing a global response. China’s assertive foreign policy, and its attempts to use pandemic assistance to advance its interests, aggravated European leaders and convinced them to harden their positions toward China throughout the course of 2020.
During this period, there was hardly any international cooperation on vaccine development or distribution, no coordination on travel restrictions or the distribution of medical supplies, and limited cooperation on achieving a cessation of hostilities in conflict zones. The economic disruption caused by COVID-19 devastated low-income countries, which received little in the way of international assistance. Especially hard hit were countries, such as Bangladesh, that had made significant development gains in the last two decades and were propelling themselves into the lower tier of middle-income economies. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that in just 25 weeks, the pandemic reversed 25 years of progress on vaccination coverage, a key public health indicator. And according to the UN, the pandemic could force a total of 490 million people into poverty—defined as the loss of access to clean water, adequate food, or shelter—pushing the global poverty rate to around seven percent by 2030, compared with the pre-pandemic target of three percent.
Pandemics are not the only transnational threat that promises to intensify great-power rivalry and diminish the prospects for much-needed cooperation. Climate change could do the same. The global economic downturn caused by the pandemic occasioned a brief and modest reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, but those emissions have already begun to increase again. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body of experts that represents the scientific consensus on the climate, the world is on track to warm by around three degrees Celsius by the end of the century—a rate and magnitude of change that scientists warn could be cataclysmic. Absent drastic, cooperative action, the world will see more frequent droughts and wildfires; more intense hurricanes, storms, and flooding; more transmission of diseases from animals to humans; the inundation of many coastal areas and low-lying nations due to sea-level rise, leading to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people; and the devastation of ocean and terrestrial ecosystems.
Rather than unite the world around a common purpose, climate change is likely to deepen competition between major powers, especially as the transition away from fossil fuels creates economic winners and losers. Countries that aggressively decarbonize could place sanctions and other trade restrictions on countries that do not, leading to counterresponses and new trade wars. In a recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Janka Oertel, Jennifer Tollmann, and Byford Tsang argue that the impediments to cooperation between Europe and China on climate change “are becoming higher” and warn that “decision-makers must not underestimate the highly competitive aspects of how China is changing its energy production and consumption.”
The United States and Europe will both compete with China for access to raw materials and in developing the technology needed to make their economies carbon neutral: magnets, batteries, high-performance ceramics, and light-emitting diodes, among other things. In some of these areas, the United States and Europe are at risk of dependence on China, so they will want to make themselves more self-reliant as they develop clean technology.
Climate change could even drive a wedge through the transatlantic alliance if the United States elects another president who seeks to undermine efforts to reduce carbon emissions, as Trump did. And even if the U.S. government remains broadly aligned with Europe on climate policy, the Europeans could still become disaffected if Congress blocks meaningful climate action, such as commitments to cut carbon emissions or invest in clean technology. This, in turn, could diminish Europe’s willingness to help uphold the U.S.-led international order.
Some analysts, mainly on the right, care about the foreign aspects of transnational threats only to the extent that they can blame China for them, effectively wielding China’s malign influence on the WHO or its centrality to the problem of climate change as a cudgel in the geopolitical rivalry. They do not even try to provide an affirmative agenda for international cooperation on these threats—all but guaranteeing that they will exact a heavy human toll and heighten geopolitical tensions. The disease that causes the next pandemic could be just as contagious as COVID-19 but much more lethal and impervious to vaccines. Climate change is only getting worse.
Other analysts, mainly on the left, argue that the United States should set aside its contest with China or at least attempt to ease tensions in order to cooperate on shared challenges. It is unclear what exactly they intend. If, on the one hand, they mean softening U.S. rhetoric without conceding much of substance to China, they would do well to look to Europe, where governments were much more inclined than the Trump administration to cooperate with China, but China did not take them up on the offer. To the contrary, China became much more assertive and confrontational in its approach to Europe. If, on the other hand, they mean unilaterally making major geopolitical concessions to China—on its territorial acquisitions in the South China Sea, for instance, or the status of Taiwan—the United States would not only pay an extremely high price but also likely embolden Beijing further without actually securing cooperation on pandemics or climate change beyond what Beijing has already offered. Deliberately undercutting U.S. interests on matters unrelated to transnational threats is not a sound strategy.
Outright confrontation with China can be avoided—but competition cannot.
There is no getting around strategic competition with Beijing: it is deeply embedded in the international order, mainly because China seeks to expand its sphere of influence in Asia at the expense of the United States and its allies, which are in turn committed to thwarting Beijing’s plans. The United States and China are also engaged in what Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, recently called “a competition of models.” China is seeking to make the world safe for the CCP and to demonstrate the effectiveness of its system. This entails pushing back against what it sees as pressure from liberal democratic countries that could thwart its objectives. For its part, the United States worries about the negative externalities of Chinese authoritarianism, such as censorship of international criticism of Beijing or the export of its tools of repression to other countries. The United States also worries about what would happen to the military balance of power if China secured an enduring advantage in key technologies. Even in diplomacy, friction will be endemic to the U.S.-Chinese relationship and will affect the broader international order for the foreseeable future. Outright confrontation can be avoided—but competition cannot.
This competition places real limits on cooperation. Take the arena of global public health: many studies on how to improve pandemic preparedness call on world leaders to dramatically strengthen the WHO, including by giving it the same power to enforce international health regulations as the International Atomic Energy Agency enjoys with nuclear nonproliferation rules. This recommendation is not new. Several reviews of the WHO’s performance during previous health emergencies, including the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014–16, have recommended sanctions in the event of noncompliance with international health regulations by member states, but the member states have not granted that power to the WHO.
The problem is getting every government to agree to a universally applicable mechanism for sanctions or some other enforcement mechanism. China will not agree to any reform that would involve intrusive inspections of its scientific research facilities. And even if Beijing were to agree to vague language that could be interpreted as allowing these actions, the lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it will not live up to its word when a crisis occurs.
The need for cooperation on transnational threats must change how the United States competes with China—not whether it competes. U.S. officials should not give up on China entirely; instead, they should make a good-faith effort to work with Beijing, both bilaterally and in multilateral settings. Recognizing that there are strict limits on U.S.-Chinese cooperation is not the same as saying that no cooperation is possible. China has an interest in tackling pandemics and climate change, and diplomacy may help incrementally. But the real challenge is determining what to do when cooperation with China and other rivals falls short of what is required. The United States needs a backup plan to tackle shared challenges through coalitions of the willing.
When it comes to pandemic preparedness, this means fully supporting the WHO (including by pressing for needed reforms) but also forging a coalition of like-minded states: a global alliance for pandemic preparedness that would regularly convene at the head-of-state level and work alongside nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. Any country that accepts the conditions of membership should be able to join. But those conditions should be strict and include a commitment to transparency beyond what is currently required by the international health regulations—for instance, granting WHO inspectors the kind of authority enjoyed by their counterparts at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Crucially, whenever the WHO declared an international public health emergency, alliance members would coordinate on travel and trade restrictions, as well as on public messaging and financial penalties and sanctions. Those penalties and sanctions would be aimed at those states that failed to provide sufficient access to or fully cooperate with the WHO. The alliance would support, not supplant, the WHO.
For any such coalition to succeed, the United States and its allies and partners would have to take on a far greater share of the burden of providing global public goods. The G-7, for example, could have committed to vaccinating the world against COVID-19 at its June summit, instead of just promising to purchase and distribute 870 million vaccine doses, approximately ten percent of the global need. A coalition could also step up in a big way to help developing nations build the capacity to prepare for future pandemics and invest in therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines.
The situation is more complicated with respect to climate change. The United States is a less reliable partner in this arena, and China’s survivalist instincts could in theory make it more willing to mitigate climate threats than to strengthen the WHO. Sustained, managed competition with China could potentially help the United States build bipartisan support for investments in clean technology that would prevent Beijing from gaining an enduring advantage in this area. But the United States and the European Union will also need to build coalitions of the willing to deal with the international security consequences of accelerated climate change, such as extreme weather events that threaten large numbers of people, and to address the foreign policy dimensions of climate action, including managing the risk that a shift away from fossil fuels could destabilize countries and regions that are dependent on oil exports.
Two separate constellations of powers are steadily emerging, one largely democratic and led by the United States and the other authoritarian and led by China. These constellations are interdependent but riven by distrust and rivalry. Cooperation across this divide should always be the first choice in times of shared crisis, but as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the U.S.-led constellation must always have a backup plan. It did not have one in 2020. It needs one for the next crisis.
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