The COVID-19 pandemic is having a far-reaching impact on every facet of the American government, from health care and education to the military and foreign service. The unprecedented response to the crisis has changed everyday routines for millions of Americans and the world at large, with many assumptions about “normal life” as we have known it since the end of the Cold War now being re-examined or extinguished.
One of the assumptions that should be seriously reconsidered during this time is the role the United States has played in the world over the past three decades — that of global hegemon and unilateral protector of world order. And while the executive branch is rightly working with state and local governments to lead the immediate pandemic response, Congress has the responsibility and resources to conduct assessments and drive policy changes on long-term issues including foreign policy and national security.
The pandemic has exposed what a vocal minority of experts and analysts have been concerned about for years — that the defense and statecraft tools which the United States uses to advance our international concerns have been overburdened at the expense of our vital national security and economic interests. It has also shown that we have put too much trust in the vaunted alliance structures, confusing interests for allegiances and being too idealistic about our ability to change the behavior of other international actors.
Case in point is our relationship with China, where the COVID-19 outbreak started and perhaps could have been controlled before it became a global pandemic. For decades, U.S. policy toward China under both Democratic and Republican administrations has been a series of contradictions that have blinded us to making realistic assessments and sound decisions. Western consensus held that the carrot of economic prosperity combined with the stick of military alliances surrounding China could transform the communist dictatorship into a responsible contributor to the world order. But in some senses, the pandemic proves that such policies have pushed the Chinese government in the opposite direction.
While increased trade has been mutually beneficial to Chinese and international interests, Beijing has reacted to military pressure by significantly investing in its own military expansion and modernization efforts while becoming more aggressive in the western Pacific. Authoritarian governments are primarily concerned with their own survival, not the well-being of their people and certainly not with being a responsible international leader. The presence of Western military alliances on its doorstep is perceived as a threat to survival and is predictably met with belligerent responses, leading not to a positive change in behavior but a heightened chance of international conflict and increasingly repressive activities at home.
The continued aggressiveness of Chinese military activities in the middle of the global crisis is further proof of our failed idealism.
A prime example of how our assumptions can be improved through congressional activity relates to the current uncertainty surrounding North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Kim family has been a geopolitical challenge to the global community for seven decades, and Kim has been especially provocative since coming to power in 2011. His recent absences from state functions and rumors of grave health problems give many Western leaders hope for regime change and democratic revolution on the peninsula.
The standard U.S. response would be maximum pressure through a combination of military, economic and diplomatic measures all aimed towards weakening the government and military, turning the North Korean public against its leaders and empowering reform-minded opposition. Yet the problem with this, which many experts fail to see, is that the specter of U.S. interference is a powerful strawman employed by authoritarian regimes like Venezuela, Iran and even China to unify the country against a common boogieman and crush opposition. There is no reason to expect the North Korean government to act any other way in the event of a crisis, and aggressive action from our end could squander the rare opportunity for a peaceful resolution.
In the fog of war against COVID-19, the executive branch is too reactive to address such enduring issues. But the legislative branch and congressional committees have the ability to look further over the horizon. Early American leaders recognized this paradigm, which is why significant policymaking powers were rendered to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. Examining U.S. strategic interests and our international policies should be a high priority for the House and Senate as they begin to hold hearings on the COVID-19 response.
Robert Moore is a public policy adviser for Defense Priorities who worked for nearly a decade on Capitol Hill, most recently as the lead staffer for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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