Stephen M. Walt: The Post-Pandemic International Order

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He has been a Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also served as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign PolicySecurity StudiesInternational Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. Additionally, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.

His book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007, co-authored with John J. Mearsheimer) was a New York Times best seller and has been translated into more than twenty foreign languages.   His most recent book is The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018).

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Q: What trends have been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic? In your opinion, what are the most pressing geopolitical and international security-related challenges facing the West in the coming decade?

A: The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already underway. We’ve seen what I would call a backlash against globalization. Examples of this include the U.S – China trade war and Brexit. The world is becoming less connected than it was before. The pandemic has encouraged this, as well as the shifting of supply chains, it has cut tourism by about 70%, and international travel has declined significantly. Businesses are hedging more— don’t want to be as dependent upon single suppliers far away. The pandemic has contributed towards the backsliding of democracy, with an increase in authoritarianism or at least stronger states. 

Democracies and dictatorships around the world are exerting more control over their citizens through lockdowns. Some of are going to be temporary—travel will eventually resume, not quite at the same levels, and some of the lockdowns will eventually be lifted. Generally, we are veering towards a less free or less open world.

I think the biggest security challenge over the next 10 – 20 years will be the management of the growing rivalry between the U.S and China, which has prevented cooperation on areas between these two very large, powerful countries where it is needed the most. Climate change and future pandemic preparedness are two examples. I think going to be a serious challenge for both Beijing and Washington.

Q: In your opinion, which countries have managed the pandemic most effectively? What are the consequences for countries that have been unable to get the pandemic under control quickly enough?

A: Interestingly, there are no clear patterns. Initially, China handled it very badly but has since put forth a good effort to control the disease domestically. Dictatorships or one-party states, such as Vietnam have performed decently well. In some cases, authoritarian governments have done a good job. But again, some countries like Russia, Belarus, and Iran have handled the pandemic quite poorly. The same mixed pattern holds for democracies. New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan have done well managing the pandemic, but other democracies, like the U.S and UK, have done quite badly. There don’t seem to be any obvious and clear patterns here.  Performance also varies depending on what measures you look at, i.e. total number of cases, cases per capita, or mortality rates. The U.S performs very poorly on cases per capita, but well on mortality. Some people the U.S have had access to good treatment as well. 

The longer the pandemic lasts in a given country, the greater the long-term and lasting effects. This takes a whole series of interesting forms. Lockdowns, in one form or another, have culminated in reduced economic growth. Educational achievement will be lower as students can’t go to school. Long-term, that means a less productive, well-educated population. A consequence of lockdowns has been upticks in partner and child abuse. Since it’s hard to detect you have a greater, society-wide mental health problem emerging. There’s been some fascinating research on what prenatal maternal stress does to children after they’re born—lower educational achievement, reduced life expectancy, poorer health are a few long-term consequences. This is happening everywhere around the world. But the longer the pandemic lasts in a given country, the bigger those effects are going to be. Failure to deal with the pandemic aggressively and get it under control has lingering effects. But won’t necessarily look the same in every country.

Q: What sorts of challenges has COVID-19 presented to democracy and human rights worldwide? Will these challenges persist when the pandemic ends?

A: The pandemic has highlighted the tension between certain ideals of individual liberty—that the government shouldn’t tell us what to do—and competing notions of collective responsibility. To some, freedom means “I don’t have to wear a mask”. That’s not just an expression of individual freedom though. Refusing to wear a mask potentially puts those in proximity at greater risk. In many instances, countries with a greater sense of collective responsibility and belonging have responded better, because there was not a lot of disagreement over following rules or government directives. In the U.S and other democracies, some political leaders have actively encouraged defiance, apparently in the name of “liberty.” But a virus doesn’t respect political ideology one way or the other. One of the great mistakes here has been confusing the desire for freedom from government constraint, and notions of social responsibility.

Q: How has the pandemic impacted competition between China and the United States. Is either country positioned to emerge from COVID-19 in a way that could dramatically shift the balance of power in its favor?

A: I think it’s pretty clear that China will come out of this looking better than the U.S. The initial Chinese response was quite bad. It’s one of the reasons we ended up with a global pandemic. China didn’t recognize what was happening, individuals within China didn’t report what was going on, and they misled the outside world. China does bear some real responsibility for what happened here. As the pandemic progressed though, China’s management of the pandemic improved.

The U.S response, as we all know, has been embarrassingly incompetent. In the aftermath, our economic growth will be lower than it would have been, and that’s going to shift things in China’s favor to some degree. I think the U.S has damaged its reputation for competence by its mismanagement of the pandemic. America’s reputation may improve under a different president, but it will take some doing.

Although I think China will come out of this in better shape than the U.S, this is not going to have a decisive effect on the balance of power all by itself. The pendulum hasn’t suddenly swung in China’s favor. The U.S will still have an economy the size of China’s, we’re still going to have military superiority and a lot more allies around the world. We have lots of other advantages as well.  If a decisive shift occurs in China’s favour, it will take place over multiple decades.  And it may not happen at all. 

Q: What challenges and opportunities do middle powers such as Canada face in the years to come? What role can they play in the world amid the re-emergence of great power competition and in the aftermath of the pandemic?

A: Many countries will have to navigate between the U.S and China.  There isn’t a lot of wiggle room for Canada, however, because of where it’s located and because of the deep integration between the U.S and Canadian economies.  I think Canada will and should continue following the policy it has had for decades, which is to be very close to the U.S and use its influence to ensure that American power is employed judiciously and wisely. That’s not always easy to do. But I think that will be Canada’s role.

Some other medium powers have greater latitude. What is interesting in this regard is that the U.S and China have been competing to see which country can alienate other people more rapidly. Donald Trump has done a good job of that, although he didn’t fully succeed. In recent years, China has taken a more bellicose approach to diplomacy; coercing or punishing countries like Australia, when they did things China didn’t like. This generated more international notice about what China’s long-term intentions might be.  I think we’ll see medium powers like Germany, the EU more generally, and some Asian countries try to hedge a little bit. They’ll maintain ties with the U.S but refrain from relying solely on those relations.

Q: In what ways can we afford to be optimistic about the post-pandemic world? Are there opportunities for positive global cooperation despite maybe the prospects of more nationalism, less prosperity, and increased global competition?

I’m by nature an optimist. Let me give you several reasons why you could be somewhat more upbeat. One is generational change. We are witnessing the waning power of my generation, notwithstanding the age of our president-elect. If you look at the political attitudes of young people, not just in the U.S but around the world, they are substantially different than previous generations, and in ways that are quite encouraging. Some of the worst forms of populism around the world tend to be associated with older populations, rather than younger populations. Support for Brexit in the UK was primarily among older Britons, not younger ones. 

Science and technology will continue producing extraordinary things for us. The most obvious recent example is the speed with which we have developed vaccines to deal with COVID-19. We’re going to see some amazing developments, and most of them will benefit human welfare. COVID-19 has also helped reinforce awareness of what I would call “issues of the global commons”. This is a virus that does not respect borders, does not carry a passport, and does not have a national label. It affects all human beings. It’s a reminder that if you don’t have effective global public health institutions, something like this can get out of control. I’d say the same thing concerning climate change. There is a greater global awareness that we are facing a common danger, which will require collective action. 

Finally, I’m hoping that all of these problems—but in particular, the pandemic—reminds people that having effective government institutions is really important. I don’t mean a massive, centralized bureaucracy, but we’ve learned we can’t just rely on a Twitter account or the free market to solve problems like this. We need public institutions, staffed by competent people, to manage problems like COVID-19. I’m hoping that’s one of the lessons people draw from this once the pandemic is over.

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