Covid-19: The Latest Threat to American Democracy

By Max Forbes (’23)

For Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating and caused many to fear for the safety of themselves and their families. It must also cause American policymakers and statesmen to worry about the safety of the country in an increasingly chaotic post-pandemic world. COVID has shed light on the real threats to our nation: the spread of terrorism has become less important than the spread of infectious disease, while our relationship with China has worsened significantly. The Trump administration called for retribution against China, where the first cases were identified, which has raised tensions into “hot war” territory (1, 2). Despite closed borders and halted world trade, the international cooperation necessary for slowing the spread and distributing the vaccine proves globalization will continue for the foreseeable future. If the United States is to protect its national interests and security going forward, it will need to consider what it is willing to sacrifice and change in order to do so. 

Though COVID has been called the first of its kind as the only “modern” pandemic, I will begin by using evidence from prior epidemics and health emergencies to establish the importance of referring to such events as foreign policy concerns. I will then show the recent pandemic’s negative effect on U.S.-China relations and related repercussions on the ability of the U.S. to be a world leader. Informed by Robert Putnam, I will illustrate the interplay between the international problem of COVID and domestic politics. Finally, I will propose concrete solutions that protect U.S. national interests and primarily call for increased international cooperation made possible only by an end to the idea of American exceptionalism.

  1. Threat Preparation

As COVID upended daily life in the United States in March 2020, a large point of contention was whether the federal government had adequately prepared for this crisis. Some claimed that then-United States National Security Advisor John Bolton had disbanded the Obama administration’s pandemic response unit as part of the National Security Council, though it was clarified that only the global health unit was dissolved (3). In 2017, newly inaugurated President Trump proposed an 18% budget cut for the National Institutes of Health and a 17% cut, or $1.2 billion, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (3). As the outbreak was officially termed a pandemic, Trump announced in May 2020 he would withdraw U.S. funding from the World Health Organization, an important body for the international cooperation of nations in controlling disease (4). Whatever the Trump administration’s motivations, it is clear neither public health at home nor abroad was a priority on their policy agenda.

Outside the United States, other countries have failed to contain diseases throughout history, leading to high death tolls and economic devastation. Since World Wars I and II, the effects of “public health emergencies” are routinely “dominating the consequences brought on by wars, conflicts, and large-scale disasters” (5). During COVID, news reports would often contextualize the infections and deaths with statistics from 9/11, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or other conflicts (6). The media found it reasonable to treat a public health crisis in the same fashion as any other national security issue, directly contradicting the Trump administration’s denial of the threat. In addition, states’ failures to prepare for infectious diseases have led to severe economic consequences. Cholera in Latin America in 1991 created a $770 million shortfall for Peru, while a plague outbreak in India in 1994 resulted in a $1.4 billion loss for India, due to restrictions in international trade and tourism (7). The HIV/AIDS epidemic has thwarted economic progress in developing nations while also “striking U.S. trading partners in Latin America and Asia,” inviting the possibility of labor problems and foreign underinvestment (8). Clearly, a robust foreign policy for any country must include provisions for dealing with the health issues that know no borders.

  1. U.S., China, & COVID Security Theory

Had COVID-19 originated anywhere other than China, it is unclear whether the U.S. may have ended up on more positive terms with the country by now. However, public perception of China alone has trended downward enough to signal a severely frayed relationship. China’s ability to seemingly contain the novel coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic “as the United States and its major allies were slogging through the toughest phase of the lockdown reinforced the impression of waning Western and especially American power” (9). Predictably, American “outrage” against China was ignited, notably in President Trump and his staff’s xenophobic labeling of the coronavirus as the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus (10). In June 2020, as he campaigned for re-election, Trump’s hateful rhetoric peaked with his coinage of the term “Kung Flu” (11). More problematic was the U.S.’s inability to issue any meaningful punishment, given American strategic dependence on hundreds of categories of goods, personal protective equipment, and important health-related commodities from China during the crisis (12). Rather than “establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries,” the U.S. found itself in a position of weakness as it closed itself off from China (13).

Traditional security theory further explains American slippage from power at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand why the U.S. reacted as they did in the face of a rapidly spreading virus, one must analyze policy makers’ perceptions of COVID: were they aware of the magnitude of the threat? After all, “threat perception is the decisive intervening variable between action and reaction in international crisis” (14). Journalists say that the United States should have known a pandemic was coming and that we were well-equipped to predict such an event based on historical trends (15). By November 2019, U.S. intelligence officials were aware of a “contagion” in China that could turn into a “cataclysmic event” (16). Despite these warning signs, security theory leaves the possibility open for U.S. actors to fail to perceive the novel coronavirus as a threat. Actors consider geographical relevance, tension and mistrust factors, and sense of vulnerability when perceiving the level of a threat (14). Each of these elements may have played into American misunderstanding of the reality of what COVID could mean for the world. The relative remoteness of Wuhan, mistrust of Chinese information, and the U.S.’s weak relationship with China all likely contributed to American misconstruing of the gravity of a modern pandemic. The longer the U.S. ignored the threat, the more it grew, confirming how critical threat perception is in maintaining a strong foreign health policy. Security theory further emphasizes the importance of leadership in decision-making, which becomes magnified in times of crisis, when many decisions are made on an ad-hoc basis (17). Quick decisions such as Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the WHO or the Federal Reserve’s deflation of interest rates show how authority figures can play an outsized role in making decisions for their nation-state, for better or worse. The U.S.’s misperception of threat and natural over-dependency on leadership both impacted its handling of COVID and, in turn, its positioning relative to China.

American weakness because of COVID-19 also stems from the demonstration effect of an autocracy like China and a democracy like the U.S. affected equally during a crisis. Information on actual infections in China is scarce, but most evidence suggests the nation has done demonstrably better than the U.S. at curbing the spread of the virus (18). On the other hand, the lack of cross-border cooperation by Chinese officials and inaccuracies surrounding their case counts paints their nation in an exceedingly unfavorable light (19). More encouraging for the U.S. is the West’s superiority in developing and distributing an approved vaccine (20). Even so, autocracies are not supposed to be as equipped as democratic nations for handling health crises. Countries with “scant investment in public health infrastructure and protections” usually “suffer the most under autocratic regimes” (21). Why did Americans become infected at a higher rate than citizens of China, an autocracy that has “ignored to date” WHO public health requirements? (21) The answer is that the U.S. has shown tendencies characteristic of autocratic nations and must veer from its current  trajectory if it is serious about containing future pandemics. When confronted with the COVID threat, President Trump “embraced authoritarian leaders” and “set up a narrative that will impair the US’s ability to manage any serious outbreak” (21). While autocratic regimes in quickly developing nations such as China fail to invest in public health infrastructure in the first place, the U.S. gave up its head start over these states by cutting funding to areas meant to deal with pandemics, such as health and science. This strategy, promoted by Trump’s brand of populism, amplified the national security threat and led to more lives lost than was necessary. This result was consistent across countries ruled by populists, which had the highest death rates, like Brazil, Mexico, India, and Britain, where leaders “oversimplified” the pandemic (22). Luckily, this is good news for those who share the U.S. national interest to promote self-government. The challenge for the U.S. is to depart from the backwards course it has set for itself and rejoin the ranks of true democracy.

  1. Domestic Politics & International Threat

A possible course correction away from populism is just a single example of how the international security threat posed by COVID interacts with domestic politics. Stimulus packages and implementation of restrictive measures represent ways a thorough COVID response “has dramatically increased government intervention in society” (23). Government leaders had to be conscious of both the domestic political implications of fighting the virus and the real implications the virus held as an international threat. A game theory-like analysis surely ensued as leaders weighed the consequences of their actions on these separate playing fields. In other words, Robert Putnam’s “Two-Level Games” still applies, even though states had no way to directly negotiate with an inanimate virus. Decision-makers dealing with the pandemic had to “maximize their own ability to satisfy domestic pressures, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments” (24). Domestic policies such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and other infringements on personal activities were closely interrelated with states’ abilities to cooperate on the international stage. For example, President Trump was surely influenced by his coalition of followers and voter base in his perception of COVID as a real security threat. Republican governors in general were more reluctant than their Democratic counterparts in aggressively pushing for restrictions that could upset their party. Going forward, it remains to be seen if domestic politics will be permanently altered. However, international leaders could be better prepared for future pandemics knowing the dual levels of domestic and international pressures apply with any kind of security threat, a contagion or otherwise.

Further, the intrusion on civil liberties that occurs during a pandemic brings with it an additional threat to national security. Coupled with the health and economic crisis that is COVID-19, the response to a pandemic can be just as disastrous to American welfare. Many U.S. industries that depend on travel and tourism were battered by quarantine measures, capacity limits, and forced shutdowns. For instance, retail and leisure/hospitality posted 17.1% and 39.3% unemployment rates, respectively (25). To be sure, many of these policies were necessary to prevent infection. As a pandemic spreads, policymakers are forced to choose whether to deal with the threat to American liberties or American lives. For different individuals, one may be more important to preserve than another. A “better safe than sorry” approach is unlikely to be unanimously accepted – if the mediocre results of the current massive COVID vaccination campaign is any indicator, a large portion of Americans are unwilling to submit to a mandatory injection. As Professor George J. Annas of Boston University asserted in 2007, “sacrificing human rights under the rubric of national security is almost always unnecessary and counterproductive in a free society” (26). Many would argue that a slippery slope situation ensues when governments begin to strip any number of basic rights at the mere appearance of an emergency. Problematically, government intervention of any kind during a pandemic “provides a pretext to justify unprecedented intrusions into the daily lives of citizens, which can strengthen the hand of autocrats and further erode democratic institutions” (23). Both American life and liberty are well within the national interest to defend, and the ability of a modern pandemic to put either in jeopardy incentivizes the United States to be vigilant in ensuring our preparedness for the next health crisis.

  1. Collaborative Strategies for the Future

The United States grand strategy for solving the global health problems that will only increase in frequency into the 21st century is one of cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. Viruses, cancers, and other health issues that plague society affect us all equally, no matter our nationality or citizenship. Barry Posen, in his 1996 landmark work, suggests four grand strategies for the U.S. going forward: neo-isolationism, selective engagement, cooperative security, and primacy. None of these are perfect, but a cooperative security strategy is most ideal because world health is an “indivisible” goal, encompassing all nations (27). A cooperative security approach makes the most sense because it meshes well with the contagiousness of communicable disease, or in security terms, “strategic interdependence” (27). States need to cooperate because a disturbance in one state, however distant, will eventually lead to disturbance in potentially every other state. To accomplish this strategy, much “depends on international organizations to coordinate collective action” based on their independent credibility (27). The importance of transnational organizations such as the WHO cannot be understated to coordinate action and balance successfully against the serious security threat of a global pandemic.

This is not to say a cooperative security strategy should set the broad agenda for handling every national security threat. Much has changed surrounding the liberal international order since Posen defined these four suggestions for U.S. grand strategy. The great power security competition is the most intense it has been since the end of the Cold War, and Posen’s assertion that most states “are democracies, or on the road to democracy” is no longer true (27). In fact, “this is the first time in the modern era where we have the fewest democracies,” many of which are “flawed democracies” (27). While this partly explains why the world was in such a vulnerable position at the onset of COVID-19, it also shows how a cooperative security strategy would be no easy task. What Posen described as “a transitional Russia” is now a Putin-led force and “troublesome” China is now nearly the U.S.’s equal (27). A mindset of cooperative security will allow nations to optimize states’ effectiveness against another pandemic, but it will be admittedly difficult to accomplish.

The United States can take an important first step by decisively stepping away from Posen’s other three grand strategies, especially his neo-isolationism. Such a policy “is not a rational way of addressing the transnational threat of new and re-emerging communicable diseases. Communicable diseases do not respect national boundaries” (28). Instead of going it alone and depending on itself, the U.S. should take the lead in an international coalition of pandemic preparedness. As previously mentioned, emerging health issues abroad are issues at home. The U.S. would additionally benefit from an increased “international information and scientific exchange” possible only through a firm rejection of neo-isolationism (28). Taking lessons from the HIV/AIDS epidemic again, democracies could “learn from public health leaders in Africa about what has worked and to adapt it to the U.S. context” (29). Whether through contribution to independent organizations like the United Nations or the WHO, or traditional alliances and agreements, the U.S. pandemic foreign policy must be one of solidarity rather than singleness.

An anti-isolationist strategy in the fight against COVID-19 and other future health crises would abandon U.S. hegemony. The U.S. stance as world hegemon was already “unraveling” leading up to the pandemic, but a post-COVID world would further push the U.S. to accept its multipolar surroundings (30). Trump’s disinterest in the liberal international order and the sanctity of once-heralded alliances such as NATO led many fellow democracies to question U.S. intentions. To restore trust and accelerate coalition formation necessary for pandemic preparedness, the U.S. would do well to retire the old breed of American exceptionalism. Exposed by its “inability to curb the spread of new cases,” U.S. leadership failed “compared to other liberal democracies” (30). Already consumed by poor race relations, harsh income inequality, and a failing education system, the U.S. handling of the pandemic dealt another blow to the myth of American exceptionalism. A key facet of American perceptions of self-superiority comes from the U.S.’s apparent position as world leader. Yet, in the face of a global health crisis when global direction was sorely needed, “U.S. leadership has been restricted to the exercise of monetary hegemony” (30). For the sake of national security, the U.S. would serve itself best by leaving behind its misconceived notions of world dominance in favor of multilateral assembly.

The potential de-escalation of U.S.–China tensions is an added plus that would come with a cooperative strategy. So far, the U.S. has failed to curb Chinese ambition by itself, and a renewed relationship with fellow democracies would outweigh the power of a single rival. The U.S. failure to contain infections balanced with its success in distributing vaccines has created a psychological power ambiguity. Neither China nor the U.S. is emerging from the pandemic unscathed. This is an opportunity for the U.S. to take the upper hand by recommitting to its alliances and leveraging its old relationships to overtake China. In other words, opportunity exists for policies of “responsible competition with China” (9). Abandoning U.S. hegemony does not mean allowing China to concentrate its power and establish its own regional hegemony; instead, a newly fluid situation has emerged. With the recent inauguration of President Biden and China’s temporary weakness from its role in the pandemic, the U.S. can turn the grave national security threat of COVID into a catalyst for new world order.

To be sure, responsible international surveillance is of paramount importance for controlling future pandemic threats. This would be a core strategy for any international cooperative that would be made up of the U.S. and other participating nations. Surveillance as a preventative “early warning” measure would only function as part of a collaborative strategy. On the other end of the spectrum, “foreign policies based on national self-interest and isolationism will diminish the global surveillance capacity for communicable diseases” (28). Every state engaged in isolationism would have to be treated as a black box of possible emerging disease. The U.S. would be able to boost the growth of health surveillance programs by setting an example for other nations, allowing it to function in its familiar role as world leader. Surveillance measures would of course raise privacy concerns and rouse the suspicions of American citizens. Even so, enough historical precedents exist to successfully advocate for concerted surveillance efforts. The “continuous surveillance mandated by the World Health Organization of wet markets in China that launched SARS in 2008, is an example of a critical monitor that was ended prematurely” (21). A wet market in China was again the suspected source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether or not wet markets are the true sources of SARS-like disease, the U.S. must balance against the threat and enlist the cooperation of other nations to do so. Open communication between nations about emerging disease and potential threats would be an important piece of the cooperative security puzzle.

To successfully employ new grand cooperative security strategies, policymakers must first perceive pandemics as valid threats. In the case of COVID-19, the associated ripple effect touched the U.S.’s greatest security dilemma it faces today in its tense relationship with China. COVID also illustrated how pandemics can pose an additional risk to personal liberties, among other influences international threats can have on domestic politics. In the future, health crises can only be averted with surveillance efforts imposed by international organizations. The WHO and other groups must be backed not by a self-interested United States but rather an alliance of countries that views one another as equals.

Max Forbes is a Finance and American Studies major. His essay was originally written for Professor Daniel Lindley’s Political Science course ‘US Foreign Policy.’


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