The Pandemic Should Kill Regime Change Forever

If the United States can’t stop a virus at home, there’s no reason to think it should ever try running another country.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The USNS Comfort medical ship moves up the Hudson River past the Statue of Liberty as it arrives on March 30 in New York.
The USNS Comfort medical ship moves up the Hudson River past the Statue of Liberty as it arrives on March 30 in New York. BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I tweeted the following: “A country that cannot convince its own citizens to wear masks to halt a pandemic has no business toppling foreign governments and trying to remake whole societies that it barely understands.” It received more retweets and “likes” than I usually get, along with the usual amendments, endorsements, and snarky replies. The logic of my tweet should be fairly obvious, but since there are still prominent people and organizations who think regime change is a ready solution to vexing foreign-policy challenges, it’s worth unpacking the argument in a bit more detail.

Let’s begin with the nation-building side of the equation. Despite what you may have thought as the “forever wars” dragged on, the past 25 years have taught us quite a bit about why foreign-imposed regime change rarely works. For starters, toppling a foreign government inevitably damages or destroys whatever political institutions existed previously (which is the whole point of the intervention), which means there is no effective local capacity to keep order after the old regime is gone. Even a limited operation that removes a tyrant and his immediate henchmen but leaves lower-level officials in place would unravel lines of authority and patronage and thrust the country into uncertain territory.

By definition, regime change also creates winners and losers, and the latter (normally those who held privileged positions in the old order) are likely to be unhappy about their diminished status. They are bound to resist their loss of power and wealth and are likely to take up arms to try to regain their former positions. In societies riven by significant ethnic, religious, sectarian, or other divisions, some combination of fame, greed, or ambition encourage separate groups to begin jockeying for position and power. Foreign powers and transnational terrorist organizations are quick to interfere in various ways, aided by the breakdown of existing institutions and the chaos that is likely to result.

In response, the original intervening power may have to occupy the country and use its own armed forces to keep order while the new government is being formed. Unfortunately, a large foreign military presence usually triggers local resentments and encourages more violent resistance, which in turn requires the occupying power to send more troops to try to suppress it. And because this often takes place in a country that is some distance away from the intervening power and that may lack sophisticated transportation systems, it is expensive to keep the occupying forces supplied and fed.

Lacking knowledge of local customs and values (let alone a substantial number of officials who can even speak the local language), the would-be nation-builder is unlikely to pick the right leaders for key positions or to design new institutions that will be legitimate in the eyes of the local population. Its efforts to build local institutions and infrastructure to boost the economy inevitably fuel corruption and produce enormous unintended consequences.

The bottom line: Even in the best of circumstances, regime change and nation-building is an extraordinarily complicated act of social engineering. In essence, the intervening power is trying to get millions of people whose backgrounds are different to alter their core beliefs and norms about politics and society, in order to get them to change their behavior in fundamental ways. To succeed, foreign-imposed regime change requires efforts that are simultaneously massive yet subtle, conducted by knowledgeable and well-trained people. It is likely to be expensive and take a long time, so it will also require sustained political support back home. Plus a fair bit of luck.

Needless to say, these features were all lacking in the United States’ recent misadventures. Despite all the attention paid to counterinsurgency theory and to “winning hearts and minds,” U.S. efforts still relied overwhelmingly on kinetic operations and “hard power.” Back home, a bevy of right-wing cheerleaders and supportive think tanks kept insisting the U.S. could succeed if it just stayed the course. We now know that insiders were never confident of success, but they kept their doubts from the public and kicked the can down the road.

The United States’ unhappy record on regime change or nation-building is not unique. In the period since nationalism spread around the globe, no great power has ever been very good at running an empire (formal or informal) or at dictating the course of local politics in distant foreign lands. To repeat: The problem is that this sort of thing is really, really hard, even for a wealthy superpower.

Now consider the challenge of COVID-19, and especially the seemingly pedestrian issue of getting people to wear masks in public. Bear in mind that the masks do not weigh 20 pounds, are not painful to wear, do not transmit your location or other personal information to the government, George Soros, or Google, and do not cost a fortune.

In this case, the U.S. government is not trying to change the behavior of a foreign people; it is operating on its own territory, with the people that it knows best. Though some elements of pandemic response are challenging, the basic goals are pretty straightforward and well understood. To contain the epidemic, you need to slow the rate of transmission in the population. To do that you have to get people to practice social distancing, wear masks, and avoid other risky behaviors. It helps to institute a testing and tracing process that can identify hot spots and isolate those infected from those that are healthy, and to take special precautions in places such as nursing homes. And as we have seen, this requires shutting down those portions of the economy or society where distancing is impossible and the risk of transmission is high.

Although some of these measures are far-reaching and have profound short- to medium-term effects, none of these procedures require rewriting the U.S. Constitution, redrawing borders between the states, removing thousands of government officials from every branch of government, recasting the role of religion or the status of women in society, or abandoning the basic political or social values of U.S. society. In fact, the more successful the response, the less long-term political or social impact the pandemic is likely to have.

How do we know this? Because unlike foreign-imposed regime change and nation-building—which rarely succeeds no matter who does it—lots of different countries have done an impressive job of responding to COVID-19. I’m not talking just about relatively small nations such as New Zealand; I’m thinking of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Greece, and any number of others.

Compared with these countries, to be sure, much of the blame belongs squarely to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose head-in-the-sand belief that the virus would just disappear—“like a miracle”—delayed the U.S. response by at least a month and allowed the virus to spread far more widely. Since then, the administration’s chaotic and inconsistent response—and especially Trump’s own refusal to wear a mask himself or to use his bully pulpit to unite the country—has made things infinitely worse.

Even with a different president, however, the U.S. response might have fallen well short of what was needed. From the beginning, a chorus of right-wing pundits and politicians downplayed the danger, and not all of them—such as the New York Times’ Bret Stephens—did so out of a sense of fealty to Trump. The Republican Party’s hostility to science or other politically inconvenient bodies of expertise didn’t begin with Trump or with COVID-19; if anything, it’s become a defining part of the GOP brand. They don’t want to listen to atmospheric physicists and other scientists tell them about climate change, and they didn’t think they needed to understand Iraq or Afghanistan before trying to remake them in the image of the United States. Nor do they want to create and fund robust public health institutions that could handle a pandemic, or adopt an approach to foreign policy that makes diplomacy the country’s first impulse and the use of force its last resort.

Instead of knowledge, the U.S. right has fetishized liberty as its defining theme (unless you’re a woman and want an abortion, of course), and encouraged its followers to see most elements of government authority as inherently suspect. Instead of reminding the public that individual conduct sometimes affects other people—which is why the United States has laws against speeding, for example—and emphasizing that we are all in this together, the party of former Rep. Newt Gingrich, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and many others has increasingly based its political fortunes on sowing as much distrust and division as possible, mostly by igniting culture wars and demonizing anyone who doesn’t share their views.

Surprise, surprise: These sentiments are now inspiring all those angry people to regard rules requiring them to wear a mask or practice socially distancing as an infringement of their constitutional right to put the rest of us at risk. Bad as Trump has been—and let’s be clear, his handling of this emergency has been a catastrophe—even great communicators such as former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan would have had trouble, given the degree of polarization in the country and the polluted information environment that it both nourishes and reflects.

Dealing with COVID-19 would not have been easy under the best of circumstances, but the central task is still a damn sight easier than trying to create stable and effective democracies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or other countries in the wake of U.S.-led regime change. And that’s why a country that cannot persuade its own citizens to wear a mask should not begin to think that it can get people in some foreign country to remake their whole society according to its dictates.

One more thing: If you read this column and conclude that if the United States can figure out how to get Americans to put on masks and beat COVID-19, then it can confidently get back into the regime change business, you’ve missed the point. The two tasks are not in fact the same, and becoming much better at the entirely feasible goal of improving public health at home would not make the United States any better at the nearly impossible task of nation-building abroad. Even so, the United States’ COVID-19 failure does contain a timely warning: If the U.S. government cannot handle a large-scale but relatively straightforward act of public policy at home—such as getting enough people to wear masks when they should—it would be foolish to try to do something far more ambitious in societies that are very different from its own.

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