Voice

The Pandemic’s 5 Silver Linings

The coronavirus has exacted a terrible toll—but some good things may come of it yet.

Shafts of sunlight beam down from behind clouds  in Tokyo on Aug. 14, 2019.
Shafts of sunlight beam down from behind clouds in Tokyo on Aug. 14, 2019. Carl Court/Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

You don’t need me to tell you that life is pretty grim these days. Nor will it help if I remind you that the negative consequences of the pandemic will persist long after it is over. But even a realist can see glimmers of hope in today’s gloomy circumstances and believe that what we are going through today could eventually have some positive consequences.

In my previous column, I offered a glass-half-full assessment of the pandemic’s impact on the risk of war. In a similar spirit of optimism, and mindful of the considerable suffering with which millions of people are now dealing, this week I offer the top five silver linings from COVID-19.

  1. Climate change slows down (a bit).

Putting the world economy in a coma has cut fossil fuel use dramatically, thereby reducing the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases and slowing the rate of global warming. Skies are visibly clearer, and those deeply worrisome forecasts about future warming will probably have to be revised in slightly more optimistic directions. The discovery that we can get a lot of useful work done on Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms is likely to dampen business travel in the future, thereby cutting commercial jet traffic even after recovery begins. Meat shortages resulting from the shutdown of slaughterhouses may encourage some people to shift to less carnivorous diets, which would improve public health and reduce methane emissions by all those cows.

Don’t get me wrong: COVID-19 won’t solve the problem; at best, it has just bought us a bit more time to deal with the problem. It’s possible that it could even make things worse, either by encouraging a false sense of complacency or by poisoning Sino-American relations to the point that meaningful progress on this vital issue becomes impossible. But for the moment, the present reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a silver lining that we should appreciate. If our leaders were smarter, we’d be moving to exploit the additional time we’ve gained. Maybe after November.

  1. Repeat after me: Women are better at politics.

By now, just about everyone may be aware that countries led by women have handled the pandemic far better than countries led by men. That is not to say that some male leaders haven’t done very well, but it is striking that New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Finland’s Sanna Marin, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen have outperformed the vast majority of their male counterparts. And the contrast couldn’t be clearer: By far the worst responses have come from chief executives such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Britain’s Boris Johnson, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and America’s Donald Trump, each one a poster child for macho male posturing. One can almost see a pattern here.

So maybe, just maybe, COVID-19 will teach people—and especially Americans—that a greater role for women in our public life would be both fair and smart. Plenty of other countries have figured this out already, and if COVID-19 convinces Americans to discard their antiquated bias against women in politics, it would be a step forward for equality and more effective leadership.

  1. Who knew? Effective public institutions are a good thing.

I’m no fan of ponderous and inefficient government bureaucracies (who is?), and I recognize the importance of incentives and the virtues of competitive markets. But the American right has waged a five-decade war against virtually all public institutions—except the military, of course—and the results of that all-too-successful campaign are now plain to see. The United States has a military that is still the world’s most capable and generously funded, while its other public institutions lack the means to deliver what Americans expect of them. Worse yet, they have a president who is contemptuous of expertise, prizes loyalty over competence, and whose former political strategist said one of the administration’s primary goals was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

We’ve now seen what this approach produces. Having effective public institutions turns out to be pretty useful—nay, indispensable—when you are suddenly facing a complex global crisis. Countries with competent leaders who listened to trained professionals are now in much better shape than countries where key agencies were run by political hacks, major responsibilities were handed out to unqualified family members, and leaders indulged in fantasies rather than facts.

I may be overly optimistic here, but COVID-19 could remind Americans that having competent, well-trained, dedicated, and well-compensated public servants is essential to national success, and convince them to rebuild the highly effective public institutions that played a critical role in America’s rise. If so, that would be an extraordinary positive result from an otherwise bleak episode in U.S. history.

  1. Here’s a crazy idea: Let people vote!

The essence of a true democracy is a set of institutions that allows citizens to select their leaders in a free and fair process. Many democracies fail to live up to that standard by making it harder for some people to vote than others or by rigging districts or electoral procedures in order to stack the deck in favor of some groups over others. Unfortunately, such anti-democratic shenanigans have become especially prevalent in contemporary America and are likely to be at an all-time high this November.

Might the pandemic help us address this? Although public health concerns will create some opportunities for election tampering (as we have already seen), the coronavirus is also forcing Americans to take options such as early voting or voting by mail more seriously. (For a good discussion of these issues, see here.) Politicians who benefit from keeping people away from the polls (i.e., those who cater to impassioned minorities and who are likely to lose if more citizens actually vote) won’t like this development, but my guess is that Americans will realize that there are better ways to run a free and fair election.

I would like to believe that expanding turnout would increase the impact of independents and moderates, make elections less hostage to extremists at either end of the political spectrum, and reduce the current level of polarization in U.S. politics, but there are reasons to be skeptical of that hope. Of course I’d also like to believe that my preferences are broadly shared by a majority of Americans and that getting more people to the polls would make it more likely that the policies I favor would be adopted. But I have no idea if that is really true. I shall therefore don the Rawlsian veil of ignorance: In a democracy, it is ipso facto preferable if more citizens are able to express their political views fairly via the electoral process, regardless of the results.

  1. U.S. grand strategy might actually get fixed.

We are all prone to conclude that the current pandemic offers additional reasons to favor whatever positions we held beforehand. I might be somewhat biased, therefore, but I still believe the pandemic will accelerate the inevitable shift toward a more sensible U.S. grand strategy. Not only does the pandemic offer compelling evidence that Americans neglected some important dangers while they obsessed about some minor ones, but the heroic efforts being undertaken to keep the U.S. economy afloat are piling up massive levels of public debt. The United States was overextended before COVID-19 hit, and the gap between resources and commitments will be an enduring constraint on its international ambitions.

To be sure, the United States will remain a formidable great power and will remain actively involved in many global issues. But looking ahead, Americans are going to care a lot more about having a job, having their kids be able to attend school, or being able to get medical treatment if they need it than they will care about which corrupt politician is in power in Kabul or Tripoli. This tendency will be especially apparent among young people, who were already skeptical of some of America’s ill-considered foreign crusades. Spending billions of dollars on costly military programs is going to be harder to justify.

I doubt COVID-19 will lead to radical disarmament or isolationism—and I don’t think it should—but trying to be the indispensable nation in every corner of the world will be a hard sell in the years ahead. If economic growth is sluggish and U.S. allies continue to spend a much smaller percentage of their GDP on defense than America is, support for the ambitious international agenda pursued by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and, yes, even Trump—will be in short supply.

The bottom line: COVID-19 will accelerate a rethinking of U.S. commitments abroad. In The Hell of Good Intentions, I argued that the United States would eventually abandon liberal hegemony—i.e., the bipartisan effort to use American power to create a liberal world order—and return to its earlier strategy of “offshore balancing.” In particular, I recommended that the United States gradually reduce its direct security commitments in Europe and the Middle East and focus primarily on balancing China in Asia and elsewhere. I thought it would take 20 or more years to make that shift, and I wrote the book to try to accelerate it. I now think COVID-19 will get us there faster than I expected; I just wish it hadn’t taken a global or national catastrophe to do it.

I wish I were more confident that all of these silver linings will turn out as I hope, despite the obvious obstacles that some of them are bound to face. But this is a moment when maintaining hope for the future is damn near indispensable. More importantly, learning the right lessons and extracting whatever good we can from this difficult situation are the best ways to honor those who have already suffered and sacrificed and the many who will do so in the months ahead.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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