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The new dangers of international enmity: How pandemics change the geopolitical calculus

Concerted efforts to systematically weaken nations can no longer be considered responsible governance by national leaders.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Those who fear and despise Iran have reason to be more afraid now than ever. For years, Tehran’s efforts to develop nuclear technology and field legions of loyal armed groups across the Middle East have fostered dread and rage among regional leaders and Washington officials.

But the most terrifying thing to emerge from Iran yet has nothing to do with the aims of the regime in Tehran. Iran — with its economy and healthcare system hobbled by decades of sanctions — has become ground zero in the Middle East for the coronavirus pandemic. Iran’s neighbors are now helplessly watching and no doubt wishing on some level that a country long reviled in the Arab world were strong enough to help itself, and in so doing, everyone else at risk of falling victim to COVID-19.

The coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East will undoubtedly be more severe than it would if Iran were not under sanctions, which the Trump administration remains intent on pursuing despite the humanitarian imperative of aiding countries struggling against the pandemic. Iran’s economic weakness, a direct result of U.S. actions against the country since 1979, has reduced its ability to cope with the pandemic by creating shortages of virtually everything needed.

Some scarcities have clear measures, like the number of ventilators Iran lacks. Other tolls that sanctions have taken are more difficult to discern but no less dire. How many would-be doctors and healthcare professionals have left Iran over the years for other countries seeking economic opportunity? Had they stayed, in hope of a prosperous life for themselves and their families, how many lives could they save now?

However, when you tally the damage from sanctions, the bottom line is that Iran and its neighbors, including U.S. allies in the Middle East, face greater peril than they otherwise would if Iran had a working economic system. That fact is more than bitter irony. It represents a new geopolitical reality.

Keeping states weak with tactics like sanctions and proxy wars, a standard foreign policy approach by Washington toward a long list of enemies over the years, now represents a major liability for international security instead of potential geopolitical gain in some grand strategy.

The United States and other global powers can no longer afford to view the world as a kind of chessboard where rival states undermine one another in pursuit of prizes like markets and natural resources. All states, regardless of their nature, need to be able to develop capacities to deal with transnational crises like the current pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented but not unpredictable. Public health researchers have long warned that infectious disease outbreaks are increasing in frequency around the world. Urbanization, migration, interlinked markets, antibiotic resistance and a host of other factors combine to create a global realm where diseases like COVID-19 can arise with the kind of sudden ferocity we have seen in recent months.

The uniqueness of the scale and impact of the coronavirus is undeniable, but the fundamental problem it represents for governments is not new. Similar dilemmas exist in the form of transnational threats such as human trafficking, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change, among others. Like pandemics, these types of threats defy conventional notions of national security because no one state produces them, and no one state can halt them. And, crucially, the only hope of addressing such threats is effective collaboration among high-capacity states. That means countries with healthy economies, working markets, and governments able to marshal resources and manage public goods effectively.

The ongoing psychodrama between Washington and Tehran underscores the paradox of states seeking to weaken or cripple one another exactly when they need cooperation more than ever. But the logic of abandoning geopolitical rivalry extends to other nations as well. All the energies and resources India and Pakistan spend confronting each other over Kashmir now represent lost resources in an existential fight against the coronavirus. Any attack Moscow might unleash against Ukraine opens a pathway for infections to reach across Russian borders, and so on.

None of this is to suggest that the coronavirus is going to allow nations to set aside their differences. Rivalries and hostilities will not vanish in the face of a pandemic. But concerted efforts to systematically weaken nations can no longer be considered responsible governance by national leaders. Manichean worldviews and purely adversarial geopolitical strategies like the United States pursues against Iran are dangerously obsolete. Plenty of policymakers in Washington in fact already recognize this in principle, which is why the United States chooses to cooperate with Pakistan instead of confronting a nation with a history supporting terrorism and spreading nuclear weapons technology.

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is complex, to put it mildly. The term “allies” does not really apply. The neologism “frienemies” better describes how Washington and Islamabad regard one another.

Since 2002, the United States has given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid, much it devoted to combatting terrorism. Yet over the years U.S. military officials have repeatedly complained that Pakistan aids the Taliban and other militant groups attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

For their part, Pakistani leaders have long smoldered at the hundreds of U.S. drone strikes in their country over the years and other objectionable U.S. actions. Perhaps nothing illustrates the fraught nature of the relationship more than the fact that the 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden happened without Pakistani cooperation.

An honest look at U.S.-Pakistani relations reveals two countries sharing both hostilities and mutual interests at the same time. Yet despite many serious problems, three successive U.S. administrations to date have remained committed to engaging with Pakistan nonetheless. The reason is simple: Making Pakistan an outright enemy is far more dangerous than having Pakistan be a difficult partner against the transnational threat of terrorism.

The United States should apply the same logic to its relationship with Iran — and every other country. The old U.S playbook of undermining and antagonizing nations in the hopes that they change or collapse now poses real-time risks that outweigh any hope of future benefits. American officials may wish to alter the nature and behaviors of any given government, and there are ways to peacefully pursue that. But the United States cannot afford the dangers posed by endless feuds that leave states such as Iran unable to be partners when needed. No nation can, and all would be wise to make this early lesson of the coronavirus pandemic a new governing principle.

Donald Trump signs an Executive Order reimposing sanctions on Iran that had been lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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