The Future of the State

Ten leading global thinkers on government after the pandemic.

Brian Stauffer illustration for Foreign Policy
We are all statists now. Since the coronavirus pandemic struck and the global economy unraveled, we have looked to governments to mobilize medical resources, implement containment measures, and spend previously unimaginable sums to support workers and businesses. Out of these emergency policies could arise new institutions and ways of solving problems that will benefit us long after the pandemic.

There is a dark side, too. Governments have assumed new powers to trace, track, and control. Some of them have already abused these powers, and it is entirely conceivable that they may never give them back.

To help us understand how the pandemic will permanently expand government powers—for good or for bad—Foreign Policy asked 10 leading thinkers from around the world to weigh in.

In the Post-Pandemic World, Big Brother Will Be Watching

By Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University

Governments around the world have assumed unprecedented control over their citizens’ daily lives in response to the coronavirus. Get ready for the new normal: Opportunism and fear will lead many governments to leave some of their newly acquired powers in place.Democracies and dictatorships alike have closed borders, imposed quarantines, shut down much of the economy, and implemented a variety of testing, tracing, and surveillance regimes in order to contain the infection. Those that acted fastest and adopted more stringent measures have been most successful. Leaders who denied, dissembled, and delayed are responsible for thousands of preventable deaths.

As infection rates decline and effective treatments become available, many countries will gradually relax most of the restrictions that are now in place. Some of the leaders who assumed emergency powers during the crisis may relinquish them. But get ready for the new normal: Political opportunism and fear of a new pandemic will lead many governments to leave some of their newly acquired powers in place. Expect to have your temperature taken or throat swabbed when you travel, and get used to having your phone observed, your picture taken, and your location tracked in many countries—with the use of that information not always restricted to matters of public health. In the post-coronavirus world, Big Brother will be watching.

The Pandemic Will Be a Boon for Good Government

By Alexandra Wrage, president of TRACE, founded to advance commercial transparency worldwide

First, the bad news: As the world pours trillions of dollars into stimulus programs and the medical sector, there will be endless opportunities for corruption and graft.Authoritarian governments will almost certainly face a backlash for concealing the scope of the problem.

The good news is that the inevitable stories of squandered resources and opaque dealings will ultimately turn the pandemic into a boon for good governance and increased accountability. From the Arab Spring and other movements, we know that societies have little patience with corruption when the population is suffering. This will be especially true for authoritarian governments, which will almost certainly face a backlash for concealing the scope of the problem and allowing officials to profit from the pandemic.

By comparison, governments that are responsive, data-driven, energetic, collaborative, and innovative will have proved superior to autocracies in delivering their societies from the coronavirus and its economic costs—leaving these governments strengthened and enjoying greater public trust in the future.

The Shape of Future Government Will Be Forged in Asia

By James Crabtree, associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj

The coronavirus pandemic is set to usher in a new era of bigger, more intrusive government in almost every advanced economy—but that change will be felt most dramatically in Asian nations that have long prided themselves on their relatively lean, minimal states.The pandemic will usher in a new era of bigger, more intrusive government in almost every advanced economy.

Most rich countries have moved quickly to turn on the spending taps, protecting their citizens and businesses with wage support schemes and cash payouts. That is true in the United States and Germany, but also in places like Singapore and Malaysia whose leaders have traditionally shied away from expensive fiscal expansions.

Future pandemic management will clearly require larger governments, too, as states rush to create expansive new tools of disease control, workplace management, and social surveillance in the hope of curbing future outbreaks in advance of a vaccine. Again, this is an area where Asian governments such as South Korea and Japan are likely to take the lead, given their mixture of high state capacity, technological knowhow, and relatively relaxed approach to privacy regulation.

In short, the era of big government is returning, but it will manifest itself in in ways that are quite different from the previous era of large states during the 1960s and 1970s—and much of its new shape will be forged not in the West, but in the East.

Industrial Policy Is Back

By Shannon K. O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead

This is likely just the start of a raft of public schemes to shape the production of goods and services deemed essential.As countries and companies struggle with the effects of COVID-19 on work and production, industrial policy is making a comeback. After decades of free-market momentum, governments in developed countries and emerging markets alike are embracing influential and long-lasting roles for themselves in the basic workings of their economies.

So far, this has involved increasing the management of trade by means of tariffs, licenses, quotas, product standards, and even outright export bans, particularly in food and medical supplies. It has also included billions in cash and other public benefits to companies to “bring home” manufacturing currently done abroad, such as the $2.3 billion Japan is now paying its companies to leave China.

With the World Trade Organization faltering, this is likely just the start of a raft of public subsidies, tax breaks, government purchases and stockpiling, buy-local requirements, and other schemes that many nations will put in place to shape the production of and access to a much wider array of goods and services deemed essential on national security grounds—now defined ever more broadly to include risk of disruption, overdependence on China, or the provision of jobs. To be sure, efforts to maintain and perhaps even expand free trade won’t end. But many of these negotiations will assume, condone, and sometimes even codify more, rather than less, direct government intervention in markets.

A New Age of Overbearing Government

By Robert D. Kaplan, author of 19 books on foreign affairs, including The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian, forthcoming in October

Like other life-transforming crises such as World War II, the coronavirus pandemic will likely ignite an urge for the protective embrace of big government.

After three decades of wealth creation on a historically unprecedented scale, we may now be on the cusp of an unprecedented period of wealth redistribution in the form of higher taxes to fund an expansion of health care and other services.We may be on the cusp of an unprecedented period of wealth redistribution.

The new kinds of surveillance of individuals with which some countries have successfully battled the pandemic may be a harbinger of the future. Privacy will increasingly become an issue in this new age of overbearing government. And so will government debt, which is already mushrooming out of all proportion. With the pandemic heating up the U.S.-China rivalry, calls for increased U.S. defense spending loom just over the horizon. How will we pay for it all? That will constitute the real debate.

A bigger government with a larger role for experts on public health and other subjects may be on its way, along with an intensified populist backlash against it. With the pandemic response in the United States and many other countries rather uncoordinated, there will be a tendency to strengthen the role of national governments in the post-coronavirus world. As a result, our lives may soon become more regulated than ever.

Some Governments Are Using This Crisis to Silence Critics

By Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch

A crisis need not lead to a permanent expansion of government powers—as long as the public remains vigilant.

In times of crisis, international human rights law allows all governments to temporarily limit certain rights—by means of travel restrictions and social distancing rules, for example—as long as the restrictions are strictly necessary, proportionate, and nondiscriminatory. Some governments, however, are trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to silence critics, expand surveillance, and entrench their rule. Whether they succeed will depend on whether the public understands that this would only increase the likelihood and severity of future public health disasters.A crisis need not lead to a permanent expansion of government powers—as long as the public remains vigilant.

Censorship restricts the free flow of information that is so essential in recognizing and effectively responding to health threats. Surveillance that fails to protect privacy discourages voluntary cooperation, a prerequisite for any successful public health initiative. Checks and balances on executive power—an independent legislature, judiciary, media, and civil society—ensure that governments serve the public’s welfare rather than their own political interests.

In short, the pandemic makes it clear that human rights should be upheld not only out of principle, but for powerful pragmatic reasons as well. If the public appreciates these reasons, sufficient pressure can be put on governments to prevent them from profiting from tragedy. If not, we may find ourselves in a world with both greater risk of disease and less regard for human rights.

Local Government Will Emerge Stronger After the Pandemic

By Robert Muggah, founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group, and the co-author of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the quality of governments around the world. Many national leaders have failed the test—in contrast to the leaders of regions and cities, who have faced the pandemic head-on in their communities, showed greater competence, and earned the trust of their constituents. In the process, the virus is clarifying the division of powers between different levels of government and strengthening the hand of regions and cities.The virus is clarifying the division of powers between different levels of government—and strengthening the hand of regions and cities.

The current focus of governors and mayors is on saving lives, delivering essential services, maintaining law and order, and supporting economic recovery. But already, there are local leaders looking beyond the pandemic and actively reimagining life in their communities. Limited finances will favor cost-effective policies that generate multiple benefits—including better ways to provide health care to the most vulnerable and promoting greener economies. Future government services will be more digitalized, leaner, and more distributed.

Throughout history, infectious disease outbreaks have had a profound effect on local governance. The bubonic plague in the 14th century led to a rethinking of squalid urban spaces. Cholera outbreaks in the 19th century triggered massive urban redevelopment schemes and a dramatic buildout of sewage systems. The current coronavirus pandemic will likewise generate transformations in governance—from invasive surveillance technologies to track infections and enforce quarantines to major spending on health care to keep this and future diseases under control.

The Technocrats Will Get Their Hands Dirty

By Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics

Past macroeconomic policymaking focused on key variables: growth, inflation, unemployment, debt. This allowed central bankers and the like to tell themselves and their publics that they were only looking after the general welfare, not making distributional choices. The pandemic and its fallout, however, have compelled the economic technocrats to get their hands dirty with allocative decisions—which companies get bridge loans, which work arrangements get subsidized, which assets get purchased. This makes crisis policies both more effective and, as long as the loans and purchases are transparent, more accountable.Central banks and finance ministries will come out of this crisis with new forms of intervention.

It also removes the gloves that previously kept policymakers somewhat clean but with a looser grip on events. Central banks, finance ministries, and financial regulators will come out of this crisis with new forms of direct intervention, and some old ones unseen in decades and previously abandoned as distorting markets. But the global economy we live in today, where markets are recurrently disrupted by crises, requires strong hands, not laissez faire.

Lines between fiscal, financial, and monetary policy will be blurred to good effect—it was always disingenuous to pretend that there were strict divisions. Norms that previously prevented cooperation across government agencies will be replaced in response to the economic realities. Independence is nice to profess, but it is little comfort when you cannot deliver the desired outcome in splendid isolation.

After We Beat the Pandemic, We Must Cure Affluenza

By Kumi Naidoo, former secretary-general of Amnesty International and the co-founder of Africans Rising

We must make sure this rollback of civil rights does not become a permanent fixture of life in the post-coronavirus era.Shaping the post-pandemic world starts with the acknowledgment that we are all infected by affluenza: We consume too much and equate conspicuous consumption with success and happiness in life. Valuing economies purely on the basis of GDP has been recognized as a failure that must be addressed if we are to have a chance at creating a more equitable world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we need a radical rethink of the production and distribution of food and other essential goods for all of us in society to live in good health, peace, and prosperity. We should now be pushing for local, decentralized ownership and co-creation of social goods and services.

Governments are using the military-industrial complex to reduce citizens’ participation in the democratic processes, and we must make sure this rollback of civil rights does not become a permanent fixture of life in the post-coronavirus era.

The Public Good Requires Private Data

By Bruce Schneier, a fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World

There’s been a fundamental battle in Western societies about the use of personal data, one that pits the individual’s right to privacy against the value of that data to all of us collectively. Until now, most of that discussion has focused on surveillance capitalism. For example, Google Maps shows us real-time traffic, but it does so by collecting location data from everyone using the service.It’s the same trade-off: Individually, private health data is very intimate, but it has enormous value to us all.

COVID-19 adds a new urgency to the debate and brings in new actors such as public health authorities and the medical sector. It’s not just about smartphone apps tracing contacts with infected people that are currently being rolled out by corporations and governments around the world. The medical community will seize the pandemic to boost its case for accessing detailed health data to perform all sorts of research studies. Public health authorities will push for more surveillance in order to get early warning of future pandemics. It’s the same trade-off. Individually, the data is very intimate. But collectively, it has enormous value to us all.

Resolving the debate means careful thinking about each specific case and a moral analysis of how the issues involved affect our core values. The answers for law enforcement, social networks, and medical data won’t be the same. As we move toward greater surveillance, we need to figure out how to get the best of both: how to design systems that make use of our data collectively to benefit society as a whole, while at the same time protecting people individually.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing series about the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. Other installments include:

How the Global Order Will Be Changed Forever by John Allen, Nicholas Burns, Laurie Garrett, Richard N. Haass, G. John Ikenberry, Kishore Mahbubani, Shivshankar Menon, Robin Niblett, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Shannon K. O’Neil, Kori Schake, Stephen M. Walt

How the Economy Will Look After the Pandemic by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Robert J. Shiller, Gita Gopinath, Carmen M. Reinhart, Adam Posen, Eswar Prasad, Adam Tooze, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Kishore Mahbubani

How Urban Life Will Be Transformed by Richard Florida, Edward Glaeser, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Kiran Bedi, Thomas J. Campanella, Chan Heng Chee, Dan Doctoroff, Bruce Katz, Rebecca Katz, Joel Kotkin, Robert Muggah, Janette Sadik-Khan

The Future of Travel by James Fallows, Vivek Wadhwa, Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Elizabeth Becker, James Crabtree, Alexandre de Juniac

The Future of Entertainment, Culture, and Sports by Audrey Azoulay, Rahul Bhatia, Rick Cordella, Mark C. Hanson, Baltasar Kormakur, Jonathan Kuntz, David Clay Large, James S. Snyder

The Future of Schools and Universities by Arne Duncan, Andreas Schleicher, Mona Mourshed, Jennifer Nuzzo, Ludger Woessmann, Salvatore Babones, Davesh Kapur, Michael D. Smith, Dick Startz