Washington – Geopolitics doesn’t stop during a pandemic, even if life as we know it does.
Before the new coronavirus, the United States was fighting trouble on several fronts at once, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to East Asia. Since the outbreak began, American energies have been diverted, but the challenges have hardly ceased. Coronavirus is reminding us that the U.S. can’t do well in the world if it isn’t doing well at home; it is also showing that the longer the U.S. is hobbled, the messier that world will get.
To compare domestic and foreign affairs today is to observe a remarkable disjuncture. Countries on every continent have deliberately brought their economies and societies to a standstill. The pace and frequency of normal interactions have slowed to a crawl. Yet in the realm of international politics, the normal patterns of competition haven’t necessarily stopped or even abated.
China certainly hasn’t taken a break from trying to dominate the Western Pacific. Over the weekend, it carried out mass arrests of pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong, trampling on the “one-nation-two-systems” Basic Law. Its expansionism in the South China Sea has intensified, with encroachments on disputed features, the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, and the creation of new administrative structures meant to solidify its control of contested holdings.
Chinese aircraft have menaced Taiwan with exercises meant to test its defenses. The aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escort vessels conducted a show of force by steaming past the island, having previously sailed through the strait separating the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako.
In the Persian Gulf, Iranian boats have harassed U.S. Navy vessels, and Iranian-backed militias attacked U.S. facilities in Iraq last month as part of a tit-for-tat cycle of provocation and response. North Korea has set a new pace for missile tests, firing off eight or perhaps nine rockets in March. Rather than take a coronavirus respite, the Taliban mounted attacks in several provinces. And Russia is up to its usual tricks — preparing to dispatch additional mercenaries to Libya, testing an antisatellite missile, spreading conspiracy theories to play on tensions within Europe, and presumably preparing to meddle in U.S. elections once again.
It is hard to know whether these actors are deliberately exploiting a coronavirus-created window of opportunity, or simply doing what they normally do as the pandemic rages. What is apparent is that they are pressing as the U.S. is seriously distracted.
The diversion of the U.S aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to Guam was justified given the severe health crisis onboard, yet it nonetheless pulled a carrier strike group out of the Western Pacific at a sensitive time. The other carrier in the region, the Ronald Reagan, is stuck in port because its crew is also afflicted by coronavirus. U.S. troops in South Korea and elsewhere have had training and readiness disrupted by health restrictions; the Pentagon has suspended most domestic and international travel.
And the devastation the pandemic has caused within the U.S. is monopolizing another scarce resource: the attention of the nation’s leaders. The more time that top officials in the White House, Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council have to devote to dealing with the fallout from coronavirus, the less time they can spend on existing challenges.
We shouldn’t assume that only the good guys are getting hurt, of course. Coronavirus has devastated Iran’s population. Russia may also be absorbing serious damage, concealed by its comparative lack of transparency and testing. One suspects that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is suffering, as well.
The U.S., meanwhile, is trying to signal that it is hardly out of the game. The Air Force recently demonstrated its ability to sortie B-52 bombers in rapid succession from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, as a warning to China and North Korea. The U.S. struck back at Iran’s proxies after their rocket attacks on a U.S. base north of Baghdad.
Yet in part because the U.S. has so many commitments, it must balance them even under relatively normal conditions. And in part because America’s traumas are on display in a way that the traumas of authoritarian regimes and militant movements are not, it is only natural to question how engaged and effective Washington can be right now. The normal rhythm of U.S. policy has been interrupted, even though what George Kennan called “the perpetual rhythm of struggle” in global affairs has continued.
The Chinese certainly seem to have noticed. The PLA’s English-language website obliquely reported that the coronavirus “has significantly lowered the U.S. Navy’s warship deployment capability in the Asia-Pacific region.” Although it is hard, and perhaps wrong, to draw a straight line between that temporary retrenchment and Beijing’s behavior, a perception that Washington is preoccupied or weakened will eventually influence friendly and hostile players alike.
The implications are twofold. First, the coronavirus confirms in a dramatic way that if the U.S. is in disarray internally, it won’t fare well as a global power. Even if we assume a rapid recovery from the pandemic, there is the long-term cost to U.S. policy of consuming so much money that will eventually have to be repaid — in part by raiding the Pentagon’s budget. If the U.S. struggles or stagnates over a longer period, there will be cascading effects on its involvement overseas. Domestic health and prosperity are the bedrocks of American statecraft; when they crumble, so will the system America leads.
That would be tragic, because a second takeaway is that a crippled or inwardly focused America will result in an extremely turbulent world. Global affairs consist of a continuing competition between opposing forces. There will always be predatory actors looking to exploit weakness and disorder, even if that disorder affects them as well. If the guardians of order are absent, the balance will be broken, and the results will not be pretty.
We already knew that getting through the pandemic as quickly as possible is both a public health and an economic imperative. It turns out to be a strategic necessity, too.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist.