The Pandemic and the Protests

How Trump’s response to both endangers U.S. national security.

Police White House Fence
Police officers hold a perimeter behind the metal fence recently erected in front of the White House on June 2 as demonstrators gather to protest the killing of George Floyd. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

On June 3, Foreign Policy’s editor in chief hosted an FP Insider conference call with two leading U.S. national security experts: Kori Schake, currently the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jake Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an informal senior campaign advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden. On the agenda: how the twin crises, and the president’s response, are threatening America’s security. The following excerpt of the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Tepperman: How do you connect what’s happening in America’s streets right now with the country’s international interests? Are the protests and the underlying injustices and inequalities that inspired them affecting U.S. national security? Do they have the potential to do so?

Kori Schake: There are three kinds of consequences. The first is whether we can sustain American power, by which I mean to say America’s fundamental democratic institutions, from the pressure that the Trump administration has put them under for the last three-and-a-half years. Second, it will of course affect our standing in the world that we look no different and no better than the kinds of countries that we have sanctioned and tried to draw into more stable, liberal patterns of governance. American soft power takes a big hit here, as does our ability to criticize China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, for example, or the disgraceful behavior of the Sisi government in Egypt.

And the third way is that these challenges are going to expand our definition of national security to include health, for example, and the ability to track the spread of disease internationally. Meanwhile, the injustice and crackdown on peaceful protests will make our domestic compact a much more central part of how we think about national security.

JT: Jake, how worried you are about foreign powers exploiting this new crisis?

Jake Sullivan: The United States cannot be a secure country if we are not an equal country. For those who spend their time thinking about foreign policy and national security, there is no more urgent priority right now than to focus in on these really basic questions about what this says about who the United States is, what our institutions are made of, and what we’re delivering for all of our citizens.

For that reason, holding a mirror up to ourselves is a higher priority right now than thinking about how foreign powers might try to exploit and take advantage of it the moment. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important question.

Two factors concern me going forward. The Russian playbook is all about trying to take preexisting divisions and inflame them and create an information warfare campaign that seeks to drive further wedges between various segments of American society. I expect that we will see that in the months to come. It will not be the dominant story compared to what’s actually just happening on America’s streets. But it is something our intelligence community and international security professionals should be paying attention to.

JT: Do you mean foreign interference risks being ignored because we have so many other, seemingly more pressing, priorities?

JS: I’m not sure what’s happening today in the United States changes the basic equation, which is that the current administration does not believe that it should be at the top of its agenda to protect America’s democratic system and institutions from foreign interference.

More fundamentally, the things we have seen—from the invocation of the Insurrection Act to the scene in Lafayette Park to the way that the police treat African American citizens in general—they have given more than just a rhetorical tool to dictators, autocrats, and thugs in other parts of the world. I think it has led them to believe, in this moment of great contestation around democracy today, that they are righteous, that no longer should they have to listen to any of the countries who are complaining to them about human rights or freedoms or equality. And I think that has a profoundly corrosive effect.

JT: Kori, are you surprised that this eroding of American norms and values has happened so quickly? No institution in the United States is more famous than the military for the way it spends years and years inculcating these very values into our men and women in uniform.

KS: I wouldn’t take Secretary Esper’s and Gen. Milley’s comportment as the sole indicator of where the U.S. military establishment is on this. Adm. Mike Mullen—Milley’s predecessor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—made a very eloquent and heartfelt plea.

I know that there are lots of other senior military leaders and lots of rank-and-file military folks who are very concerned about this as well: the commandant of the Marine Corps banning the Confederate flag and Confederate symbols a few months ago, before the protests even started, because the military wanted everybody on the team to feel like full contributors. I would also note the exemplary behavior of the chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. Dave Goldfein, and the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, both of whom have spoken profoundly about the challenges facing the country. So I believe that Secretary Esper and Gen. Milley are outliers, and are getting an earful from the American military establishment.

JT: To pivot to the pandemic, Kori, if you’ll forgive the cliche, I want to ask you: When you think national security, what keeps you awake these nights (apart from the general existential dread we all feel)?

KS: My biggest concern is the damage the Trump administration has done to patterns and institutions for international cooperation that give the United States the ability to see and act on problems early on.

We don’t have to wait to start solving problems until they are already on our shores. In this sense, the most important missed opportunity recently involved the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which had a position in the Chinese health administration—until the Trump administration unfunded it as part of its 30 percent cut to U.S. diplomatic and international representation. That move removed America’s ability to see what was happening inside China’s health care system. And it damaged our ability to build alliances among health care professionals in the United States and China that would have made us safer.

JT: Has the pandemic allowed China to increase its strength, power, and threat relative to the United States?

JS: China has managed to secure some tactical gains. First, the United States picking up its ball and going home from a major international organizations like the WHO only serves China’s purposes. That vacuum that Washington leaves gets filled by Beijing. Second, the fact that the United States is No. 1 in the world in COVID-19 cases, in deaths, in unemployment claims, while the Chinese response did not produce those kinds of outcomes (even if the numbers are cooked), gives China the capacity to say, “Look, our system actually knows how to deal with this, and the United States is a complete and utter mess.” That has reverberating consequences. Third, I think China is positioning itself to take advantage of fiscal and debt crises around the world to continue to expand their economic influence.

But does that mean that China will emerge as the dominant strategic actor? That is by no means a foregone conclusion. China still has to contend with enormous domestic economic and governance challenges. And an authoritarian regime that relies on repression and an extreme set of policies to keep its own people in line is not going to be very attractive to the rest of the world. The United States still has an opportunity to emerge from this in a sound place, but that’s going to take sound leadership.

JT: How optimistic are you that the next president, assuming it’s not Trump, will be able to undo all of this damage? Clearly Vice President Biden’s initial sales pitch, which was competent management, is no longer going to cut it. What do you think his top national security priorities will have to be when he takes office? And how do you rate his chances in changing the broader narrative?

JS: Projecting confidence to the American people and to the world will make allies and partners want to work with us on meaningful reforms to the international order, from climate to reforming the WHO to updating the international economic and technology rules of the road. Coming out of a crisis like this creates an opportunity.

You ask what the priorities should be? Some of them do involve reversing steps that the Trump administration has taken, with respect to the Paris climate agreement, nuclear diplomacy, with Iran, reinvigorating our alliances and democratic partnerships, reasserting American leadership in international institutions. Those are fairly straightforward steps. But then beyond that, I think the vice president’s view is there is a set of enormous challenges that no one country can deal with on their own, that require collective action, and that the United States should be driving that action. Putting the United States back in a position of leading, mobilizing, and catalyzing cooperation around the big challenges that we all face will be a critical part of the vice president’s agenda.

JT: Our system has become so fundamentally broken in so many ways, particularly thanks to the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the Citizens United decision. Polarization seems baked into our system; how can anybody turn things around?

KS: I am still an optimist. You’re right that increasing polarization is in part the result of things like gerrymandering. But you already see the reaction to it: Ranked-choice voting is making progress in several states, and there are efforts to create a nonpartisan commission to align congressional districts. There are solutions to these problems, and the United States is actually really good on a 10-year timeframe at creating institutional fixes to the institutional problems we create. There’s no reason to believe that a political system tied so tightly to the beliefs and priorities of its voters is incapable of solving its problems.

I’m about two-thirds convinced that the Trump administration may actually prove to be good for democracy in America, because it is forcing all of us to confront what it looks like when we don’t vote, when we don’t encourage civil society to be a counterweight to government, and when we allow Congress not to exercise its constitutional prerogatives of balancing executive power.

Despite the catastrophic policy choices the U.S. government has made over the course of the last several years—and, in particular, during the pandemic—we shouldn’t underestimate the systemic sources of American dominance of the international order. Look at the independence of the Federal Reserve and the fact that it has moved in the last six months to become central bank to the entire world. Look at how fast Congress moved to pump $4 trillion of stimulus into the system, something that would have made John Maynard Keynes’s eyes pop out—and that interest rates remained at zero.

We make a lot of bad choices. But the dynamism of a society structured the way that ours is, with very limited federal power, and the strength of civil society and the experimentation that federalism brings us, and the vitality of immigration—all these things have helped us solve a lot of problems that countries like China haven’t even begun to address.

Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

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