Washington – Is the global balance of power passe after COVID-19? It’s easy to see why smart observers might think so. The pandemic has rendered some of the world’s largest countries more helpless than some of the smallest. It has shown that some threats cannot be contained without cooperation across geopolitical and ideological lines. And so the coronavirus has tapped into a longstanding American hope that the grim realities of geopolitics might give way to something better.
Alas, such hopes are going to be dashed. The current crisis is not an argument for getting over geopolitics. It’s a reminder that preserving a favorable balance, in which the ambitions of predatory actors are checked by the power of more benign actors, is the only way of getting international cooperation, and international stability, on terms Americans will find appealing.
The argument that the concept of a balance of power is becoming an anachronism runs as follows: Military might can’t save countries from transnational scourges such as pandemics. There are an increasing number of issues — terrorism, disease, climate change — that threaten countries around the world. And given that COVID-19 has disrupted the everyday lives of Americans to a greater degree than any hard security threat since World War II, it makes sense to put the pursuit of international cooperation over the imperatives of geopolitical competition.
“Today and for the century ahead,” writes Richard Haass, the president on the Council on Foreign Relations, “the most significant threats we face are less other states than a range of transnational problems.” In the coming decades, agrees former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, “security depends more on exceeding a threshold of cooperation with allies and adversaries alike than on maintaining a balance of power.” Peter Beinart of the Atlantic argues that the coronavirus pandemic shows “the safety of ordinary Americans is often better protected by intensifying global cooperation than by buttressing national sovereignty.”
It may seem like a bold new argument, but it’s actually the echo of an old one. Americans have long been ambivalent about the global balance. They have been skillful, even ruthless, practitioners of power politics; The United States has amassed, over its history, more influence than any other country. Yet after every great global trauma of the last 100 years, prominent Americans have hoped that the old ways of statecraft could be left behind.
Amid World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson argued that a balance of power that had buckled catastrophically in 1914 must be replaced by a “community of power” on behalf of peace and cooperation. In 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (somewhat disingenuously) hailed the advent of the United Nations as “the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries.”
When the Cold War ended, it was U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s turn to promise a “new world order” in which “the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.” After the Sept. 11 attacks, and again after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, there was hope that shared dangers — whether terrorism or economic collapse — would bring the great powers together rather than driving them apart.
This tendency reflects a certain utopian strain in American thinking. It also recognizes that geopolitical struggle has, in many cases, led to disaster. But in the end it’s unrealistic and even naive: There’s no escaping a balance-of-power world, and trying to do so would produce neither security nor cooperation.
For one thing, the major countries of the world do not all fear the same threats or want more or less the same things. It should be obvious by now that the U.S. and China have fundamentally divergent aspirations and worldviews, which reflect their vastly different national interests and systems of government. The only way to ensure that America’s vision of personal liberty and rule of law prevails is to ensure that the configuration of geopolitical forces favors Washington rather than Beijing’s autocratic model. Put differently, those who decide that competition is irrelevant will soon find themselves at the mercy of those who take competition seriously.
The period after World War I is the classic example. The international system created at Versailles was, at the time of its founding, the most progressive ever designed. It featured creative new mechanisms, such as the League of Nations, for tackling matters of shared concern. Yet the system collapsed within a generation, taking with it hopes for international cooperation as well as basic international security. The reason is because the system was challenged by revisionist powers — Germany, Japan and Italy, primarily — that wanted radical changes in the status quo. Those who had the most to lose from such changes were slow to react.
The lesson is not that we are once again on the brink of global war. Not every crisis is the 1930s all over again. But conflict and rivalry are endemic to international affairs, and we forget that at our peril.
We also do ourselves a disservice when we frame a balance of power as the antithesis of international cooperation. After all, virtually nothing is truly apolitical in world affairs. The institutions through which countries organize for collective action are shaped by geopolitical power dynamics. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are often considered tools of U.S. policy, not because they always do America’s bidding, but because they are pillars in a global structure that favors Washington. And all things equal, the country or countries that have the better part of the balance of power will be better able to negotiate the terms on which they cooperate with others.
The COVID-19 crisis makes this quite clear. China has used its growing influence to bully institutions such as the World Health Organization and to win the silence or acquiescence of countries that rely on its money and goodwill. The crisis is thus a warning that if the U.S. neglects the balance of power, the contours of international action to address global problems will increasingly be set by others.
That we can even talk seriously about de-emphasizing the balance of power is an ironic testament to just how much the global environment has favored the U.S. The geopolitical dominance Washington and its allies have long enjoyed gives them the luxury of not knowing what it is like to live in a world shaped by someone else’s dominance. Deciding that the balance of power is an anachronism is probably the best way of re-discovering, sooner or later, just how critical it truly is.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."