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.