Coronavirus has shown the U.S. to be ill-equipped for the future
The most devastating impact of coronavirus may stem from its function as a threat multiplier, much like climate change, which provides a stress test for the United States and for the global order — one that both are failing miserably.
In a matter of weeks, Americans have watched the coronavirus pandemic evolve from a distant crisis to a rolling catastrophe that has upended the most basic elements of our lives. The present emergency, and its impact on Americans’ well-being can hardly be overstated. But what the pandemic — and the U.S. government’s atrocious response to it — suggest for our future is even more terrifying. Coronavirus has already kicked off a global economic downturn that will be at least as severe as the Great Recession, and depending on the success of mitigation efforts, the pandemic could kill millions worldwide. Beyond that, it is certain to exacerbate existing problems; it will likely devastate crowded refugee camps, create more failed states, escalate violent conflicts, spur waves of migration, and intensify the reactionary and xenophobic politics that reliably come with that. In other words, the most devastating impact of coronavirus may stem from its function as a threat multiplier, much like climate change. In this way, coronavirus provides a stress test for the United States and for the global order — one that both are failing miserably.Far more than traditional military threats, rogue states, or international terrorism, phenomena like the coronavirus pandemic will represent this century’s greatest challenges to both U.S. policymakers and to the international system. Pandemics, natural disasters, droughts, and sea level rise are all expected to increase in coming decades, largely due to climate change. These threats pay no mind to geopolitics, state sovereignty, or borders, and cannot be addressed by military force. This assessment is neither new nor outside the mainstream. The Pentagon has identified climate change and its attendant problems as a primary national security threat since 2010. Numerous Democratic presidential candidates — including Joe Biden, the relatively-conservative presumptive nominee — identified climate change as the single greatest threat to U.S. national security.Last week, a report from The Nation revealed that a 2017 Pentagon plan had cited “a novel respiratory disease” as “the most likely and significant” near-term threat to the United States. Why, then, were we so woefully unprepared for such a threat to actually strike?There is the matter of our president, of course, who dithered away precious months of preparation and even now is more concerned with the trajectory of the stock market than with the considerable number of lives at stake in the United States and around the world.Yet not all the blame can be placed on Donald Trump. Our unpreparedness for this crisis is a symptom of deeper structural problems that preceded his presidency, and if we do not act, will persist well after he has left the White House.Despite the fact that a major conventional war remains unlikely, and the broad recognition that non-military threats pose a greater and more probable danger, the U.S. government continues to act, and to spend, as if the situation were reversed. In 2016, before Trump took office, our military budget was already an extravagant $611 billion, compared to $11.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Trump administration has greatly exacerbated this gap, bringing military spending to a proposed $740 billion for 2021 while cutting spending on the CDC, World Health Organization, and other public health programs.Furthermore, even the massive $2.2 trillion stimulus that passed the Senate several weeks ago is dwarfed by the $6.4 trillion the U.S. has spent on its disastrous and counterproductive “War on Terror” over the last two decades. To put it another way, the amount the U.S. is willing to spend to mitigate the largest economic collapse since the Great Recession amounts to only twice what it spent on a single, dysfunctional line of fighter jets.Clearly, the concept of national security has been unmoored from the goal of protecting American lives. It has instead become a magical phrase deployed to justify lavishing endless public funds on defense contractors while our tools for addressing actual existential crises wither. Consider that our “Strategic National Stockpile” of medical supplies holds roughly 1 percent of the N95 masks we will need to address this pandemic, according to The New York Times. Similarly, we possess only a fraction of the necessary ventilators to meet anticipated demand, making it likely that a significant number of Americans will die preventable deaths over the next few months.Still, President Trump stalled for weeks in using his powers under the Defense Production Act to boost production of masks and ventilators, falsely claiming that this would be tantamount to nationalizing certain industries. The free market can handle the government creating demand for tanks that the Pentagon has explicitly said it doesn’t need, apparently, but to do the same thing with surgical masks during a pandemic would turn us into Venezuela.If the United States is to have any hope of addressing the threats of the future — climate change, pandemics, and natural disasters, among other things — we must abandon these attitudes, and fast. There is no reason why the government can’t or shouldn’t use massive public spending, coordinated industrial policy, and DPA-type powers to stimulate the production of green technology, medical supplies, sustainable and disaster resilient infrastructure and housing stock, and a secure food supply.We must also build up civilian institutions that are equipped for pandemic and disaster response on a large scale. While it is tempting to turn to the military to fulfill these functions, as it has shown capability in events such as the Ebola crisis of 2014, we should not give in to this impulse. We have already seen, through our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dangers of saddling the military with massive and ever-expanding non-military objectives.Instead, we should invest in institutions like the CDC, NIH, FEMA, and the United States Public Health Service, expanding their budgets and, where appropriate, the number of personnel they have ready to deploy in a national crisis.We should frame these efforts in a reimagined conception of national security, one that centers human security and wellbeing instead of the idea of achieving security through global military domination. It is also crucial that we internationalize these endeavours, as none of the aforementioned threats will strike the U.S. alone, nor can they be reliably contained within other countries, friendly or adversarial. We must be willing and able to provide aid in terms of funding, equipment, technology, and personnel when other nations are struck by pandemics, natural disasters, and other calamities, or we will inevitably see the fallout reach our own country. If our future is to be defined by global, non-military threats, then our response must be defined by international cooperation and mutual aid. The principal alternative — the return to great power competition currently being cheered on by the Trump administration and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment — would be an unmitigated disaster. For a preview, look no further than the foolish war of words that has been waged between the U.S. and China as each jostles to turn a pandemic into a geopolitical victory. Surely we can do better than that.
Sam Fraser is a researcher and senior communications associate at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from Claremont McKenna College. His studies there focused on U.S. foreign policy and Latin America, and he has conducted field research on human rights and transitional justice in Argentina. He has also studied the issue of impunity for U.S. foreign policy officials for his undergraduate thesis entitled “The Catastrophe Artists: Understanding America’s Unaccountable Foreign Policy Elite.”
President Donald J. Trump listens to a reporter’s question during the coronavirus update briefing Friday, April 3, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.