With economic fallout continuing amid an ongoing global public health crisis, we wondered: how are global power dynamics and military strategies being affected by the coronavirus pandemic? We asked SIS professor Joshua Rovner, who served as scholar-in-residence at the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command in 2018-2019, to share his views on how COVID-19 is affecting international security.
Q: The Trump administration has pledged to engage in "great power competition" with China and Russia. How does the pandemic affect the US ability to compete?
It depends on what we mean by “competition.” To hawks, it means an open-ended struggle to maintain relative US power over its nearest rivals. This requires a conspicuous forward military presence in Europe and Asia. Visible US forces are needed to deter Russia and China from overt aggression and lower-level efforts to undermine the US-led international order. Hawks worry that any kind of retrenchment will signal weakness.
The problem is that COVID-19 makes it difficult to maintain ready forces. Pandemics encourage militaries to stand down, just as they encourage people to stay home. Naval patrols are especially hard because ships are at risk of becoming hot spots for the virus, as we saw with the USS Theodore Roosevelt. But the problem doesn’t stop with the Navy; land forces also are struggling to maintain training and exercise routines. The military likes to say it can “fight tonight,” but for the time being it will struggle just to maintain a semblance of normality. The longer the plague lasts, the harder it will be to maintain a large forward military posture.
That does not necessarily mean giving up on great power competition. A more modest approach would rely on other US advantages and put less stock in military swaggering. For decades, the United States has reaped the benefits of political stability, economic strength, and educational excellence. The pandemic may inspire a serious effort to shore up these sources of power, even it if means reducing our foreign military footprint. The blessings of geography give us the time and space to make this happen. Of course, this requires that we view great power competition as a long-term effort to ensure national security, not a daily struggle to demonstrate military might.
Q: The United States and China are in an escalating war of words over COVID-19. Does the pandemic make military conflict more likely?
Probably not, at least in the short-term. Organizing military action in the midst of a pandemic is extremely difficult, and both countries’ military forces will need time to recover. Both sides would need to be cautious in any case, because conflict among nuclear-armed great powers is gigantically risky.
However, I am somewhat concerned about the domestic political effects of the pandemic. For example, observers have long wondered what will happen when China’s economy slows down. Will economic turmoil cause the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to exploit nationalism to remain in power? And will its embrace of nationalism increase the chance that it lashes out to settle old scores? COVID-19 caused the Chinese economy to shrink over the first three months of the year for the first time in decades. It has slowly begun to rebound, but economists are unsure it will recover smoothly, especially if new outbreaks occur this year. If the CCP becomes more bellicose as a result of more economic and social turmoil, then the chance of a crisis will rise.
Q: The director of national intelligence recently pledged to "rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan." Is this the right question to ask?
A thorough understanding of the history of COVID-19 will be important for global health policy, but reconstructing the outbreak will be politically fraught, given the US-China rivalry. Neutral third-party investigators probably have the best shot of performing such an investigation and delivering credible results. Even then, the outcome may not be satisfying: it may be impossible to know how transmission first occurred.
I can think of better questions for intelligence agencies. How will the virus affect foreign states’ abilities to mobilize military forces? How will it affect their willingness to take risks, if at all? How will the experience affect their views about international institutions and international cooperation? Answers to forward-looking questions like these would be of real value to policy makers, diplomats, military officers, and other consumers of intelligence.
Q: What are other implications for the intelligence community?
COVID-19 has already taken a serious economic toll in the United States, and a huge amount of federal funds will be necessary to keep the economy afloat. If this leads to pressure to reduce the military budget, then the intelligence community will likely play a larger role in US grand strategy. Investing in intelligence is one way of compensating for a smaller military, which is already strained from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Put another way, the pandemic may encourage the US to trade power for knowledge.
The other major implication has to do with what issues will occupy the intelligence community going forward. For years the community has been under pressure to address issues beyond the balance of military power, including climate change, human trafficking, transnational crime, and global health. The more that it stretches its analytical resources to address these questions, the less time it can devote to any particular issue. The danger of being pulled in too many directions will increase if, as I suspect, policymakers increasingly turn to intelligence to fill in gaps left by overstretched military forces.