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UT national security expert: COVID-19 accelerating some global trends, changing the direction of others 

A Conversation with William Inboden, Executive Director of UT’s Clements Center for National Security

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William Inboden
Inboden moderates a panel at the Intelligence Reform and Counterterrorism Conference in 2014

William Inboden is the executive director of UT’s Clements Center for National Security, where he holds the William Powers, Jr. Chair. He is a distinguished scholar at UT’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Policy. He is also a National Intelligence Council associate, is on the CIA Director’s Historical Review Panel, and is a former senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. His commentaries have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on NPR, CNN and BBC, among others. We spoke on May 21, 2020.

The Clements Center is about bringing history to bear on national security. How is the historical event we’re living through now changing international relations?

I put the changes in two categories: trends that were already in place that the coronavirus is accelerating, and things that are changing directions substantially, where the world was going in a certain way, and now the coronavirus is turning it in a different direction.

In the first category would be the U.S.–China competition. The coronavirus just threw kerosene on the flames that were already there. Before coronavirus came along, the U.S. and China were already in a growing strategic competition. The relationship between our countries was deteriorating, and this had been going on for several years. COVID-19 has accelerated that, but it hasn’t changed the direction.

Another preexisting trend would be tensions or frustrations between the U.S. and our allies, with the U.S. stepping back and not playing as active a leadership role in the world — a diminishing of America’s power, a lessening of America’s standing in the world. That was already going on before, and coronavirus has just accelerated that as the United States is focused even more now on this major crisis we’re dealing with at home.

A third one would be concerns the United States has over the nuclear programs or the behavior of rogue states that are bad actors in their neighborhoods like North Korea and Iran.

A fourth example would be tensions between the U.S. and Russia, including Russia meddling in our elections and conducting information warfare against us. That’s actually accelerated, and we’re afraid it may get worse.

Then, areas where I see changes or discontinuities: The big one is the global economy. Before coronavirus, the U.S. economy was quite strong, entering record months of growth, and was a big driver of global growth as well. Now we’re seeing a major turnaround as the U.S. enters a recession and unemployment surges to unprecedented levels.

A second area of change is — and this is one where I’m a little more hopeful — before coronavirus, there was a growing sense around the world that democracy as a system was in retreat, that democracies were failing their people. This is partly why you saw the rise of the populist movements on the left and right. These populist movements seized on some legitimate concerns, but also embodied many problems. Whether democracies will revitalize remains to be seen, but in the wake of coronavirus we may be seeing some of the democratic advantages.

Why would a democratic nation have an advantage in a pandemic?

The infection originated in China, and it grew so quickly because China is a closed, authoritarian society that suppressed the dissenters. It suppressed the people trying to bring the concerns and the news of infections to light. When something seems to be amiss in a democracy, you have early warning indicators, whether it’s a physician or a journalist saying, “Hey, hey, something’s going wrong here!” and that information then goes up to the governing authorities. Now, it’s up to the governing authorities to respond appropriately. But in an authoritarian society where any voices of dissent are not welcome at all, the contrarians get silenced or even get thrown in prison. China’s repression of its coronavirus alerts showed right away the difference between democracies, which have early warning systems, and authoritarian systems, which don’t. 

Likewise when you look at some of the more effective initial responses to coronavirus, the countries that by and large are models, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Germany, are democracies. Of course other democracies have struggled with their responses, but on the whole I think the pandemic may be recasting that debate and showing that there are  advantages to free societies.

It’s too early to tell, but Iran, Turkey and Russia, all authoritarian systems, have really bungled their coronavirus responses, and you’re seeing the authoritarian leaders in those countries quite worried, realizing that their people are very upset with them because of how they have mismanaged this, suppressing information and not responding soon enough. We’re seeing the brittleness and vulnerabilities of those authoritarian societies as well.

Democracies have built-in feedback loops to see what works and what doesn’t, to let legislators and governors come up with creative ideas. Experimentation is a little messy, but democracies are usually better when there’s an unprecedented challenge and eventually are going to find the right solutions sooner.

Experimentation is a little messy, but democracies are usually better when there's an unprecedented challenge and eventually are going to find the right solutions sooner."

Just to play Devil’s advocate, in societies like ours with relatively strong civil liberties, there’s a lot of pressure to open up, which might accelerate the spread again. Is that not a downside of a democracy in our current predicament?

It certainly is a challenge, and I don’t want to overstate the case that every aspect of a democracy will automatically guarantee a more effective response to a pandemic. In China, they were able to build that 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days! I don’t disregard those at all.

But a couple of points about the U.S.: I do think our federal government’s initial response was rather clumsy and confused and not terribly effective, and that accounts for why we had the faster spread initially and why we then had to respond with even stronger measures, whereas if we had more effective testing and some milder suppression methods in place sooner, then we wouldn’t have had to take the stronger ones. We’re seeing in some areas an understandable reaction that these extra-strong measures can’t go too far.

And democracies with decentralized authority are laboratories for policy experimentation, and there is something to be said for some parts of the country perhaps opening up sooner. We’ve seen the awful ravages of what the coronavirus has done; we’re now at 100,000 deaths. It’s just a terrible tragedy. But we’re also seeing the real human costs in joblessness and despair and a lot of other medical and social pathologies that are a consequence of the responses we’ve imposed. There is something to be said for making sure the cure is not worse than the disease. Democracies give us the chance to try different things and see what works. Ohio’s been a great model for an early aggressive response. Maybe Texas can be a model for a reopening with safety measures in place that gets the economy going again. I certainly hope so.

William Inboden
Inboden moderates a panel discussion at the Intelligence Reform and Counterterrorism Conference in 2014

In a recent article, you defended the foreign policy establishment against claims that it’s hawkish, elite and insular. What is the foreign policy establishment, and what do you think it stands for?

The U.S., with our very strong higher education system and our strong national security system, has developed a group of experts, people who know foreign and defense policy well, who have spent their lives studying it and working on it and who bring that experience to bear. Our recent article defends expertise and professionalism. If you need heart surgery, you’re not just going to go to some random guy on the sidewalk; you’re going to go to a surgeon who is credentialed and experienced. Some aspects of foreign and defense policy frankly are as complex as heart surgery.

Among that community of experts who work in the Defense Department, the intelligence community, State Department, Congress, a lot of the think tanks and some universities, there are some fundamental principles that have emerged. Those include that American international leadership is good for the world and good for America, that American economic and military power by and large is a force for stability and even advancing liberty in the world, that the international order that the United States helped establish at the end of World War II and then expanded at the end of the Cold War has by and large been a tremendous accomplishment.

But there’s much less groupthink in that establishment than it’s often accused of. When group consensus has led to big policy failings, the Iraq War being one example, there are corrective measures such as the several post-mortem accountability reports, and eventually the 2007 new strategy and troop surge that restored stability in Iraq. When the experts get something wrong, there’s an effort to correct it and to learn from those mistakes and make sure they’re not repeated. Getting to a more effective public policy is part of what we try to do here at UT with our teaching of history and its insights for current policy challenges.

You’ve developed a typology of 10 distinct ways in which understanding history can improve government policy. Could you share a few examples?

First would be understanding the history of other countries and other leaders. When the United States is right now trying to develop a policy and strategy toward China, well, let’s understand what China’s history is: an ancient, very successful civilization that then went through a century of humiliation — the 19th century — as it started to fall apart from internal dissension and then European imperial pressures, and then through the first half of the 20th century was plagued by civil war and Japan’s invasion, and then the Chinese Communist Party taking power in 1949 and imposing very brutal, vicious rule. It reformed its economy in the 1980s but still maintained its monopoly on power. You need to understand all of that to understand how Xi Jinping is looking at the world and his efforts to hold onto power today.

Second, history can be a laboratory for policy experimentation. Policymakers can’t step into laboratories the way scientists do to conduct experiments. They have to look at history as a laboratory of the past to see what previous presidents or prime ministers or other rulers tried. Can we learn from some of those and borrow from them?

Third, I’m especially drawn to history as a source of values and inspiration. Particularly in the United States right now, as we’re feeling divided and demoralized, we need to look to some of the better, more noble elements of our nation’s past — of us being a great experiment in democracy, of being an inspiring lodestar for other people around the world who lived in authoritarian societies and saw the United States as a model for what a free and flourishing society looks like, looking to some of our past inspiring leaders who were able to bring the country together during times of great crisis and challenge — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt being obvious ones, as well as President Reagan. I think history can be a source of inspiration and guidance.

Particularly in the United States right now, as we’re feeling divided and demoralized, we need to look to some of the more noble elements of our nation's past."

You’ve written about “the American grand strategy.” What do you consider that to mean?

It describes the use of all of the nation’s resources and power for the end goals it wants to achieve in the world. It’s not just about using the military. It’s not just about the economy. Rather it’s drawing on all those elements and resources a country has — its ideas, its values, the military, its economy, its diplomatic expertise, its intelligence community — drawing all those together and then saying, what are the big threats and big opportunities we face in the world and how do we align all of those resources and choose our priorities? Because you can’t do everything. You can’t stop all the threats. You can’t seize all the opportunities. How do we identify the most severe threats and the most attractive opportunities and how do we act on them?

In the case of President Reagan, he had a grand strategy of winning the Cold War peacefully. It involved identifying the weaknesses in the Soviet system: its oppression of its people and decrepit economy, the blowback it was experiencing for being an aggressive imperial power in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world, and also the vulnerabilities in its military. He then looked for ways to bring pressure on that Soviet system, with a military buildup, with an economic expansion, with deepening partnerships with our allies. America’s allies are a vitally important source of our national strength and our grand strategy. Reagan wanted to bring pressure on the Soviets but pressure in which they would feel like they needed to negotiate. He always sought to negotiate with the Soviets. He wanted to put pressure that would produce a more reform-minded leader with whom he could negotiate. Then Gorbachev comes along, and Reagan says, “There’s my guy.” That combination of pressure and diplomacy working together, that’s how he had a grand strategy to expand freedom in the world and bring the Cold War to a peaceful end through the dissolving of the Soviet Union.

You’ve said Reagan embodied a philosophy of “conservative internationalism.” How do each of those words distinguish it from other foreign policy strategies, and are you a fan?

Yes, I would identify myself as a conservative internationalist. I’ll start with the “internationalist” part. That advocates American engagement with the world. It’s very opposed to isolationism. The United States needs to be active in the world, lead the world, be involved in international institutions with allies.

The “conservative” part emphasizes America’s distinctive values. This embraces some notion of American exceptionalism and also emphasizes the roles that military and economic strength play. I don’t think it’s a belligerent philosophy, looking to start unnecessary wars, but it understands that the presence and use of a strong military can strengthen diplomacy. That’s often best done through America’s cooperation with its allies and less so through formal international institutions, which too often can be bureaucratically gummed up or hijacked by malevolent powers such as Russia and China. It’s a big-tent philosophy, and conservative internationalists will differ among themselves about what to do about specific issues, such as the Iranian nuclear program. 

Was JFK a conservative internationalist by that definition?

He certainly had elements of conservative internationalism, yes. JFK is an endlessly fascinating figure. It’s hard to evaluate Kennedy’s foreign policy because he had less than three years in office, and there are endless debates about what a full Kennedy presidency of one or even two terms would have looked like. He had his share of missteps, like the Bay of Pigs. And he certainly wasn’t using conservative internationalism in 1961 when he sent signs of weakness to Khrushchev and didn’t respond assertively enough when Khrushchev put up the Berlin Wall.

But his management of the Cuban Missile Crisis, combining the threat of force and naval blockade with some creative diplomacy to avoid a war, was a masterpiece of it. And he certainly had a very lofty vision for America’s unique role in the world as an exemplar of freedom and supporter of those who aspired to freedom. Those would also be part of his conservative internationalism. Recently, there have been more conservative internationalists among Republicans, whether a Marco Rubio or a Mitt Romney. But it’s by no means exclusive to the Republican Party. Harry Truman would also be a conservative internationalist by this definition.

So in this case, conservatism does not signify preference for small government; it signifies willingness to use the military.

Right. It starts with a philosophy that if one of the main constitutional responsibilities of a government is to provide for the defense of the country, then conservatives want to put enough resources into the military to ensure that. So it’s one of the few areas where conservatives will be more supportive of government spending, even if they are not as supportive of expansive government spending on all domestic programs.

There seems to be a popular notion that Reagan underwent a change of heart in office, moving from “evil empire” rhetoric to arms reduction treaties. Did he?

No. In my forthcoming book, I argue very much against the belief that there was a Reagan reversal, that he underwent a change of heart. From the day he took office, it’s very clear he wanted to pursue this two-pronged strategy of confronting the Soviet Union and also reaching out. In March 1981, just two months into office when Reagan is in a hospital bed recovering from the assassination attempt, he writes a letter to Brezhnev saying in effect, “We really need to talk. I really want to have a meeting with you. Let’s do some negotiations.” The problem was, he also knew that for it to be effective, he had to have a willing negotiating partner, and that doesn’t come along until Gorbachev.

Throughout his life, Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist. He was terrified of nuclear weapons, but he first wanted to get rid of Soviet communism. He knew that in a fallen world — if I can use a theological term, where there are aggressive, malevolent forces who also have these destructive weapons, sometimes you first need to build up your nuclear arsenal in order to confront the evil adversary, and only then can you build down your nuclear weapons.

Where I do see a change or evolution in Reagan is this: When he first came into office, he was interested in supporting democracy and human rights in communist countries, but was less interested in doing so with right-wing authoritarian countries who were America’s anticommunist allies. But by his second year in office, particularly with his June 1982 Westminster address in London, he became much more interested in supporting democracy and human rights globally. Then by his second term, he engaged in pretty assertive diplomacy with American allies like South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile and others to democratize. Authoritarian governments supported by the U.S. were getting pressure from the Reagan administration to transition to democracy. He tied this back to the Cold War. He realized it’s not enough to just criticize communism; you need to show a positive alternative. You need to show what a free society looks like, the human flourishing that’s possible in societies that have political, religious and economic liberty. He also realized the need for moral consistency, that standing for freedom should not be hobbled with exceptions.

When we think of national security, we overwhelmingly think of four countries: China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran. Are there others out there we should be keeping one eye on?

Between coronavirus and those four countries you mentioned, we certainly have enough on our plate. I don’t want to sound too alarmist. That said, jihadist terrorism is still a threat. We’ve enjoyed some tremendous counterterrorism successes under presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, with the killing of Bin Laden and Al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader. We’re now 19 years after 9/11 and have not had another mass-casualty terrorist attack in the United States. However, ISIS has reconstituted itself in parts of Iraq and Syria. Al Qaeda is still alive and active in parts of South Asia, with franchises on the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa. I don’t want us to lose sight of the terrorist threat. We’ve managed it pretty well, but all it takes is one set of bad guys getting through, and great harm could be done.

I also worry about some fragile states. Pakistan comes to the top of mind. They have a large number of nuclear warheads and a fragile government living in a difficult neighborhood. And some pretty compromised members of its intelligence community have been supporting the bad guys.

You mentioned the need for moral consistency a moment ago. Do we risk moral inconsistency in our relationship with Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other?

Speaking as a recovering policymaker, hard choices, compromises and even some hypocrisies are always going to be a part of the landscape. Those are the messy trade-offs of policymaking. I now have the luxury of being a professor and opining without the responsibility of policymaking, so I want to be very careful not to sound too sanctimonious.

I appreciate historically that the American-Saudi partnership was very important during the Cold War. I also appreciate that in the contemporary moment they are a counterweight to Iran because I’m pretty hawkish on Iran. Whether it’s in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or any number of other places, Iran is still pursuing an aggressive, violent, destabilizing approach. The regime supports terrorism that has killed a number of Americans going back to 1983. Insofar as the United States should oppose Iran’s bad behavior, the Saudis are partners in that respect.

With all of that said, back in my time in government, I worked occasionally on U.S.-Saudi relations. I traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times and have seen the oppression of their people, of women, of religious minorities, even of Shia Muslims, which is appalling. Then there is the regime’s support for a pretty extremist version of Islam; it’s no accident that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.

For the last few years I have thought that perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia. I do not want us being as supportive of the Saudis as we have been. Many years ago on a trip to Riyadh, I had dinner with a journalist named Jamal Khashoggi, who was gruesomely murdered last year reportedly at the behest of Mohammed bin Salman, so there’s a personal element for me to this. MBS’s orchestration of the war in Yemen has been appalling. His blockade of Qatar has been reckless and destabilizing. He’s certainly been very despotic in his treatment of a lot of his own people.

Thanks to the shale revolution and America’s much more diversified energy sources, the world is not as dependent on Saudi petroleum as it once was. It’s time for the U.S. to rethink and potentially distance itself more from Saudi Arabia.


More on William Inboden: Reared in Tucson and educated at Stanford and Yale, in 1995, he began working in Washington, D.C., first as a staff member for Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), then for Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). In 2002, he became a special adviser in the State Department for international religious freedom and later joined its policy planning staff. In 2005, he began two years of service on the National Security Council as senior director for strategic planning. Inboden’s think-tank experience includes the American Enterprise Institute and leading the London-based Legatum Institute. His classes, Ethics & International Relations and Presidential Decision-Making in National Security, have been selected in recent years as the “Best Class in the LBJ School.”