A Viral New World

Contributions from Archit Oswal, Madison Lockett, Peter Denham, Nicholas Romanow, Soren Ettinger Decou, and Caroline Nicholson, Undergraduate Fellows with the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin.


A Lesson from the COVID Economic Shock by Archit Oswal

Over the course of two days, Halliburton, an oil services company, laid off 1,000 employees at its corporate headquarters in Houston. Ever since oil prices fell through the basement, my father, a senior manager at the company, knew that this day would come. Knowing that his senior position would not exclude him from the upcoming layoffs, he braced for the worst.

Many of these reductions will be permanent, but they only hint at the larger story. As COVID-19 destroys global demand for the commodity, once known as "black gold," countries that depend on oil revenue to cover their budgets must now contend with the frightening consequences of a prolonged depression in oil prices. Middle Eastern oil producers will struggle to carry out plans for economic diversification that require lofty oil prices. Countries with challenging economic and political situations before the pandemic now face catastrophe. Venezuela, Nigeria, Libya, and Iraq could see heightened social unrest in the coming months as their already feeble governments run out of money. Without loans from the IMF or rich countries, all four countries and others like them face economic disaster.

My father survived the mass layoffs at Halliburton, but many of his counterparts around the globe weren't as lucky. COVID-19 and the subsequent economic meltdown prove that economies oriented towards the production of a single commodity shoulder massive risks that threaten global economic stability. After the Cold War, economic liberalization promoted by our government incentivized some countries to specialize in the production of a single good or commodity. While economically efficient, liberalization also encouraged lopsided economic development, thereby creating vulnerabilities that opportunistic rivals can exploit during an unexpected crisis. Because well-diversified economies strengthen the global economy by withstanding shocks better than their highly specialized counterparts, we must temper our desire for narrowly efficient markets by committing to economic diversification in the developing world. 

Biosecurity Strategy by Madi Locket

The coronavirus's intensity and scope surprised the United States' government, spreading sickness, economic instability, and fear. As a healthy, young adult, I also dismissed the dangers of COVID-19, and naïvely assumed it would blow over. While I do not fear the coronavirus like I do Iran's growing nuclear program, I have quickly recognized its profound security implications. Viruses do not discriminate and can leave us completely vulnerable. As a budding national security scholar, I am convinced we must defend ourselves against this possibility if we want our other defenses to hold. COVID-19 galvanized the national security apparatus and motivated the incorporation of biosecurity threats, which necessitates a lasting strategy for future pandemics.

Creating an actionable pandemic response strategy does not require intense preparation, the majority of our focus, or a large portion of the budget. An effective strategy to fight future pandemics should include two simple aspects: a designated leadership council and collaboration between the Intelligence Community (IC) and health agencies. Instead of creating a standing office, which could succumb to bureaucratic inefficiency, we should designate specific officials to assemble in the event of another pandemic. This committee should include medical, security, economic, and legislative leaders to streamline communication and coordinate action toward each facet of the viral threat. Another appropriate step to improve biosecurity strategy would be to include the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service in the IC. With a unified front, these experts can produce more comprehensive threat assessments for our leadership.

While the government cannot ensure perfect health, I hope this organizational strategy will mitigate fear, death, and uncertainty in future pandemics, ultimately preparing our society to respond confidently. By protecting our health, we protect our ability to continue good work and defend against other threats. If the United States acts on this crisis with motivation to assemble for future pandemics, we will emerge from this crisis ready to help other nations, re-establish global leadership, and contribute to a safer world.

Rising to Meet Great Power Competition by Peter Denham

At this year’s annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting, I was heartened to hear Warren Buffet make the historical case for the resilience and competitiveness of the American economic and political system. “Never bet against America” was his message to long term investors. These traits seem especially critical as Russia and China offer the world alternative definitions of leadership. 

Domestically, America's response has been characterized by a predictable balancing act between public safety and personal liberty. But on the global stage, silence and dismissal of hegemonic duties replaced a traditional American voice of unity and confidence in mutual benefit. Meanwhile, China has taken a different approach with the hope of transforming economic and medical assistance into trust and influence. As a leading producer of high-demand medical equipment, Beijing asserts itself as a benevolent power with a transnational aid project, it has dubbed a "health silk road."

America’s withdrawal from organizations like the World Health Organization can be cast as an assertion of autonomy. But leaving China to puppet-master international institutions once guided by U.S. leadership seems a sure way to cede that very autonomy. The most proactive and engaged power will lead the post-pandemic world and set norms for everything from medical aid, to economics, to human rights.

My generation's challenge is proving again that the American ethos of liberal, conscientious economic competition is the best bet. In past great power competitions, our economic system has served as the great ambassador of our political values. Buffet's confidence in America is rooted in a pattern of confronting colossal challenges like a worldwide pandemic by embracing American society's competitive spirit.

Alliances without Adversaries by Nick Romanow

Alliances are often formed because “the enemy of our enemy is our friend.” NATO was established to “keep the Russians out.” The “Global Coalition Against Daesh” directly names its common enemy in its moniker. But what if we cannot see or identify our enemy? Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is not an armed adversary, alliances remain essential to facilitating the best collective action against this global threat.

As a young Canadian American, I grew up understanding that many challenges transcend nationality and that many values must be protected and promoted through multilateral cooperation. But today, multilateral organizations are treated as relics. Some populists suggest that cooperation writ large undermines America’s security. However, cooperation can help deliver many populist demands, including increased responsiveness, accountability, and transparency. Populists are right to be skeptical of cycles of elitist summitry and self-applause. But what if post-pandemic alliances can address common problems in a way that both enhances sovereignty and better secures the daily lives of U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries? 

A good example is NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC), which provided critical supplies in response to COVID-19 outbreaks across Europe. NATO’s centralized structure harnessed latent capacity in states facing less severe outbreaks to “bend the curve” in hotspots and adjust assistance as some outbreaks got better while others got worse. Moreover, their experience with humanitarian assistance to the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa was applied to current situations, and NATO’s COVID response will build institutional expertise that will be utilized during the next transnational disaster. The ability to rapidly react to a sudden crisis and assist citizens on the ground gives multilateral coalitions a significant comparative advantage over states working independently. 

Instead of strategic balancing against a common enemy, alliances in the twenty-first century can also be agile partnerships capable of detecting and responding in real-time to elusive threats like terrorism, cyberattacks, natural disasters, and pandemics.

Defending Democracy during a Crisis by Soren Ettinger Decou

We are (still) awash in a disorienting crisis of information during this pandemic. Compounding the confusion are efforts by the Chinese government to execute a disinformation campaign aimed at the United States. China hopes to capitalize on a narrative that amplifies the merits of an autocratic system while ridiculing democracy’s inability to produce a unified response. Disinformation and anti-foreigner propaganda are not new tactics for the Chinese Communist Party, but the pandemic has provided a singular opportunity to sow division, distrust, and doubt among U.S. citizens and among traditional U.S. allies.

It is deeply unsettling as a young person to see the U.S. falter on the international stage and witness the Chinese government hailed as a global success story that somehow puts people first through a party-first system. The juxtaposition of American failure and Chinese success has shaken my faith in the fundamental, enduring promise of democracy to preserve our lives and our liberties.

As the next generation of national security leaders, our path is rooted in our foundations as a country. Although China's invasive measures succeeded in some respects, I would still choose the apparent chaos of democracy over the forced harmony of Chinese technocracy. Our form of government has allowed for private leadership, citizen-driven initiatives, and frontline decision-making by local governments – powerful evidence of a substantive civil society that is capable of managing its own problems.

However, if we draw our power from our democratic institutions, we must treat a collective loss of trust in them as our greatest threat. Our political leaders and institutions must do better. My generation must restore public and international confidence that the U.S. government will effectively coordinate private initiative rather than command subjects.

Leadership is Taking Responsibility by Caroline Nicholson

Americans are bearing the rising costs of the COVID-19 pandemic and looking to government leaders for direction. However, strong partisanship at the national level has hindered recovery throughout this crisis. State and local leaders have filled the gap, sometimes too eagerly, yet they remain precariously vulnerable without federal resources. As other countries recover, and we wait for transparency, the viral crisis has underscored the necessity for effective leadership that is demonstrated by taking responsibility at all levels.

The federal government has, in fact, exercised some meager authority during the pandemic. While the Coronavirus Task Force and other federal agencies have provided guidelines rather than rigid directives, the states have maintained remarkable autonomy in implementing a range of policies. Thus, states have managed risk consistent with their understanding of their particular circumstances. This general arrangement should make our national security enterprise more efficient: top-down guidance, bottom-up refinement. But it hasn’t. Why? The disposition of federal and state leaders towards each other is largely acrimonious, politically and personally, which compromises the common good. This arrangement may work under normal circumstances, but not against an authentic security threat that spreads unpredictably and is oblivious to jurisdiction.  

The character of each crisis ultimately dictates the momentary balance of federalism. Every crisis does not demand the same arrangement, a fact which ought to be our great strength. But whatever the balance, coordinated government action is vital for our national security and, in this case, our personal safety, too. Leadership, with malice toward none, would demonstrate extreme ownership while acknowledging the limits of personal and political power. It would expand coordination and dialogue, not deliberately truncate them. Leadership puts political posturing aside to solve problems optimally, not sparingly. 

The COVID-19 crisis became another political playground at the expense of American security and health, causing future federal public servants like me to reflect on the states’ role in our national security and the federal government’s responsibility to give the states its best effort. Our national security requires all federal, state, and local governments to act in concert, responsibly. 

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