Watch: Debating COVID-19’s impacts on the international system

Map showing COVID-19 outbreaks around the world.
Editor's note:

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We are pleased to launch a new online debate series — “More or Less: Debating America’s Role in the World” — in cooperation with the Charles Koch Institute. Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel and in-person gatherings to a halt, the two organizations convened a series of debates on America’s role in the world in cities around the United States. Now, we’re producing short, one-on-one video debates with the aim of fostering a vigorous and civil national discussion on whether America should take on more — or less — overseas.

To kick off the series, Will Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, and Bruce Jones, senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, discuss how — if at all — the COVID-19 pandemic will fundamentally affect the nature of the international system.

Ruger began by arguing that COVID-19 will change the international system less than some might expect. “When I look at the nature of the international system, I think a lot about the relative power of states in the system,” he said, and “the balance of power [still] significantly favors the United States.” Ruger referenced America’s significant military power, technological prowess, and other important characteristics such as a large population that enjoys access to a lot of capital and displays a great degree of dynamism.

However, Ruger pointed to factors that could impact American hegemony, including questions about its social stability and its large national debt. He also pointed to several “own goals” in foreign policy, contending that the United States has squandered blood and treasure in wars of choice, rather than securing its vital national interests. He recommended three measures to “right the ship”: Address the debt crisis; reform the domestic institutions responsible for social instability in the country, including the criminal justice system; and fix its foreign policy by remaining engaged with the world culturally and commercially, while rebalancing its military power.

Jones asserted that the world is nowhere near the end of the COVID-19 crisis, with the United States and other countries with weak or inadequate healthcare systems still vulnerable to growing rates of infection. He argued that the pandemic doesn’t change the fundamentals of the international system, but takes preexisting dynamics and amplifies them. For instance, he noted that U.S.-China and U.S.-Europe relations were already deteriorating; humanitarian crises in places like Yemen were already dire; and already-stalled poverty-reduction efforts are now going into reverse as multilateral institutions become even more stymied.

On foreign policy, Jones argued that one positive effect of the crisis is that it will provoke a renewed emphasis on global and transnational threats such as biosecurity and climate change, which have been drowned out by geopolitics in recent years. On the other hand, one clear negative is that U.S. relations with China are descending into outright enmity. While Jones stressed that he agreed with Ruger that U.S. military engagement has sometimes worsened problems, he argued that there are also situations where less American engagement can produce negative results. What the United States needs is more diplomatic leadership and statecraft, backed by the threat of force occasionally, and more international coalitions to confront these problems.

Ruger responded by emphasizing that U.S. engagement can often provoke unintended consequences, such as free-riding, and therefore the United States should not necessarily be leading in areas where other partners should take the initiative. Jones then concluded by saying that the choice “shouldn’t be between the United States doing it all or the United States doing nothing. We need to get better at creative approaches to tackling problems, led by statecraft, but not walking away from those problems.”