The COVID-19 pandemic has told us something, in awesomely lethal fashion, about where the greatest threats to the physical well-being of Americans lie. At last count, the number of Americans who have died from the disease exceeds by tens of thousands the 508,104 U.S. deaths in all U.S. wars, from all causes, since the beginning of World War II. The virus has been far deadlier than the guns of foreigners.
Given that many of those war deaths could be said to have been at least as much a product of U.S. action as of a threat from an adversary — especially in a war of choice such as the Iraq War — some finer-toothed questions about the supposed threats are in order. How many Americans have died at the hands of the Russians? Or of the Chinese, since the Chinese intervention in the Korean War? Or of Vietnam, since all of Vietnam fell to the communists? Or — given the preoccupation with international terrorism over the past two decades — at the hands of terrorists? Here’s one answer to the last question: if the American death toll from COVID-19 is averaged out over the whole year of the pandemic, that works out to the equivalent of a 9/11 every two days.
The traditional American way of perceiving threats makes it uncertain how much of the requisite lessons will be absorbed. As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich describes that traditional perception, it comes through a military lens and focuses primarily on far-away nation-states. This manner of perceiving enemies is engrained in American attitudes and has roots in history such as the fight against the Axis in World War II.
The military lens colors even some discussion of the non-military threat that is enormous enough to rival a global infectious disease — viz., climate change. Ask about the national security implications of climate change, and the answer is likely to focus on something like how the rise in the sea level threatens the U.S. naval base at Norfolk, home of the Atlantic Fleet.
But that is a badly truncated view of national security. Security for the nation includes Americans being able to practice their non-military vocations without, say, farmers’ crops withering under increased drought. It includes Americans being able to live in the communities where they and their families have always lived without the place becoming oppressively hot.
Another feature of the all-too-persistent American habit of threat perception is to zero-sum everything. Whatever is bad for the adversary — one of those far-away nation-states — is assumed without justification to be good for the United States. A recent example of this in the context of COVID-19 is an argument by Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh that the United States has been having a rather good pandemic because adversaries such as Russia, China, and Iran have had an even worse year — for several reasons, including not just COVID-19 but also U.S. sanctions. Nowhere do they acknowledge how, for example, the additional suffering that the United States inflicted on Iranians has brought no benefit to the United States on an issue such as Iran’s nuclear activities and instead has been counterproductive.
The extreme zero-sum approach in this piece is especially remarkable in the context of COVID-19, given that a pandemic resulting from a virus that respects no international boundaries is the most vivid possible demonstration of the fallacy of that approach. A worry of even epidemiologists who are relatively optimistic about the United States getting the disease under control within its boundaries is that the pathogen elsewhere will represent a constant threat of the situation spinning back out of control. The ineffectiveness of travel bans in checking international spread of the virus was illustrated by the Trump administration’s actions in this regard, which were part xenophobic gesture and part a closing of the barn door after a herd of horses had already run wild.
The pandemic has underscored the worth of soft power as a means of winning friends and influencing people, in ways often better than what military power can achieve. China and Russia jumped ahead of the United States in vaccine diplomacy, although that lead is likely to be reversed in the months ahead.
U.S. soft power has taken its biggest hit from the image of incompetence that results from the United States having by far the most COVID-19 infections and deaths in the world. Even when viewed on a per capita basis, the record of such a large, wealthy, powerful, and scientifically advanced country in handling the disease has been an embarrassment.
Much of the cooperation the United States receives, on a wide range of issues, from other countries is grounded in the other country’s perception of the United States as a successful and effective power that can get things done. The tarnishing of this image will have subtle but possibly significant effects on U.S. foreign relations in the months ahead.
The uncertainty about how much most Americans will absorb the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is due not only to the engrained habitual American way of looking at threats but also to the rampant politicization of management of the pandemic. It began with the previous president’s minimizing of the epidemiological threat, active undermining of protective measures imposed by state and local officials, and making defiance of such measures a political or cultural statement. It continues with a conspicuously divided country in which political urges in some parts of it have led to abandonment of the protective measures even when the virus is far from being tamed.
Foreign publics and governments observe all of this, adding to the image of American mismanagement of the most serious public health crisis in decades. The United States has not had a good pandemic, and the costs to the nation will go beyond death and disease among its own citizens and extend to its relations with the rest of the world.