America’s Come-From-Behind Pandemic Victory
China was the global winner of the coronavirus disaster—until the United States beat the odds.
Local sheet metal worker Demetrius Buttelman gestures after being inoculated with the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site in Elmont, New York, on April 14 Mary Altaffer-Pool/Getty Images
All protracted crises have multiple phases, which means real-time assessments of who is winning or losing can change dramatically based on when one takes a look. An analysis of how the Allies were doing in World War II, written in February 1942, would not have been very generous. And the trajectory of the Cold War looked very different in 1949 or 1969 than in 1989.
The same is true of the coronavirus pandemic. In late January 2020, the conventional wisdom was that COVID-19 was mostly a problem for China: a “Chernobyl moment” for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By mid-March 2020, the conventional wisdom was COVID-19 was a disaster for the United States: a “Suez moment” for a declining superpower. In mid-2020, Europe looked like a relative winner in the crisis; today it looks like a loser.
COVID-19 has indeed inflicted a deadly, horrific toll on the United States—upward of 564,000 deaths and counting. But a little more than a year after COVID-19 fully erupted around most of the world, it is time to update—indeed, significantly revise—the conventional understanding of who is “winning” and who is “losing” the pandemic. We are now mostly through the part of the crisis that painfully illustrated U.S. weaknesses and (reputed) Chinese strengths. The world’s understanding of the pandemic’s impacts is likely to only become more favorable to the United States over time—and its fallout may ultimately prove disastrous for China’s global ambitions.
It is hard to remember now but in January 2020, U.S. officials were gloating about COVID-19. Then-U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross predicted the pandemic would devastate the Chinese economy and make it easier to cut China out of global supply chains. Starting in March 2020, however, it was Beijing’s turn to gloat.
China appeared to suppress a pandemic it had started relatively quickly by decisively mobilizing the resources of an authoritarian state, implementing draconian public health restrictions, and thereby creating a path to restarting an economy that had been battered in early 2020. By mid-year, large parts of China seemed to be returning to something like the pre-pandemic routine.
The United States, for its part, was floundering. It seemed paralyzed for long stretches of 2020 by ambivalent and sometimes destructive presidential leadership, shocking failures within technocratic institutions, the politicization of basic public health measures, and persistent problems in coordinating among local, state, and federal authorities. Roughly 13 months after the pandemic erupted, public schools were still closed in much of the country and the death toll had surpassed 550,000 deaths. Whereas China was able to make early forays into vaccine diplomacy—exploiting its low rates of infection at home to export COVID-19 vaccines abroad—a prostrate United States initially had little option but to pursue ruthless vaccine nationalism.
It wasn’t only the United States that struggled to control the pandemic: Outside of relatively small countries, many of which are either islands or functionally islands (like South Korea), there are few consistent democratic success stories. But the obvious contrast between the performance of the liberal order’s chief defender and its chief challenger created a widespread sense that an epochal shift was underway.
Distinguished analysts referred to the pandemic as a deathblow to the liberal order, a crippling setback for U.S. power, and a “hinge in history” presaging the rise of the authoritarian East at the expense of the decadent West. A Pew Research Center study from September 2020 revealed that international approval of the United States had fallen sharply (even by the standards of the Trump years), with the country’s COVID-19 response constituting a key vulnerability. “The world has loved, hated and envied the U.S.,” wrote Fintan O’Toole, an Irish Times columnist. “Now, for the first time, we pity it.” In early 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself cited COVID-19 as evidence “the East is rising and the West is declining,” a theme his subordinates have consistently echoed in their own remarks.
In some ways, this argument seems indisputable. Perception is power in international affairs: As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued, the psychological balance could be as important as the material balance. And that psychological balance has shifted. In Beijing, COVID-19 reinforced the view of Xi and those around him that the world was undergoing “great changes unseen in a century” and China could push for influence and an advantage on multiple fronts at once.
This is just what Xi’s regime has done—with striking abrasiveness—in areas from the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to the Himalayan frontier with India and diplomacy with Europe. An outwardly confident—indeed, overconfident—China, increasingly willing to accept risk and friction in its relations with Washington and other capitals, is also increasingly unabashed in its desire to achieve a fundamental reordering of Asia and perhaps the world.
COVID-19 also created a damaging overhang for U.S. foreign policy. It showed, among other things, a United States struggling to perform adequately in confronting a generational challenge, a country so polarized it couldn’t even agree on the severity of the threat, and a president who had simply abdicated his most basic responsibilities. None of these impressions were remotely helpful to a superpower whose relationships hinge not just on the reality of U.S. capabilities but on the perception of its competence and credibility.
Meanwhile, the United States failed early on to play its traditional role as catalyst for collective action in global crises, which contributed to the larger ineffectiveness of key institutions—such as the G-7—of the liberal order. Combined with the pandemic year’s other traumas—a season of sometimes violent unrest, a U.S. presidential election contested on utterly spurious grounds, and the sacking of the U.S. Capitol by the United States’ own citizens—COVID-19 showed a United States that was sick physically and politically, at home and absent, except for angry denunciations of China abroad. The pandemic has thus been the gift that keeps on giving for Chinese propagandists—and remains a worrying memory for the United States’ friends.
Yet this is not the whole story. Even at the depths of the pandemic, matters were more complex than they appeared. For one thing, China’s performance was often overhyped. Spring 2020’s “mask diplomacy” yielded few soft-power gains because it often involved selling shoddy medical goods at aggressive markups—after Beijing had earlier bought up as much quality personal protective equipment as it could on the world market while insisting, falsely, that the problem was contained. More broadly, it was always hard to compare the United States’ performance to China’s simply because the CCP has proven entirely unwilling to provide reliable information on the virus’s human or economic toll. The United States’ failings have been exposed to global attention; China has systematically deceived the outside world—and continues to do so, most recently with regard to the issue of COVID-19’s origin.
The impression of U.S. paralysis can also be misleading. The United States quietly provided a degree of critical global economic governance: The government’s move to open swap lines during the most panicked days of March 2020 probably saved the world from a much worse financial meltdown. The following year, the Federal Reserve injected trillions of dollars of stimulus into the U.S. economy—a move whose long-term effects remain unclear but one that substantially mitigated the near-term damage of the pandemic. And although Operation Warp Speed should not have dominated the Trump administration’s response, it was a gamble that paid off handsomely by facilitating the development of revolutionary new vaccines in record time.
Finally, just as it would have been foolish to stop updating the assessment of winners and losers in February 2020, it would have been foolish to do so in November 2020 or even February of this year. If there is already good reason to revise the “China won and the United States lost” narrative, there should be even better reason to revise it in the future.
Consider three key factors. First, the world has passed the point of the pandemic where the United States flails as China soars. The United States is now deploying an arsenal of sophisticated new vaccines at an impressive speed. Although distribution of those vaccines was initially sluggish, the United States is now averaging roughly 3 million shots per day as of early April. It is on pace to reach herd immunity faster than any other large country except the United Kingdom, which has less than one-fourth of the United States’ population, and perhaps several months (or more) faster than China. As the United States pulls out of the pandemic and the recession, it will find itself not in a position of weakness but in a position of growing strength.
Although this is only suggestive, the International Monetary Fund is now projecting the United States will attain a higher GDP by 2024 than was projected before the pandemic. No other major economy is expected to perform so well. The United States’ ability to tap a long-standing strength—technological innovation—to redeem itself from pandemic perdition shows U.S. resilience has not, in fact, been a casualty of COVID-19. Rather, COVID-19 fits within the historical pattern of U.S. responses to major challenges: agonizingly slow starts, as was also the case in World War I and World War II, followed by dramatic, war-winning surges.
Second, the United States now has an opportunity to thrive in pandemic diplomacy. For America, year one of the pandemic was a desperate struggle to get the domestic situation under control. Year two will, once the United States vaccinates its own population, increasingly feature an effort to deal with COVID-19 as a global health challenge. That’s a task tailor-made for the tradition of enlightened U.S. leadership—a tradition that has endorsed U.S. interests by promoting a relatively inclusive concept of the good, one the country can more aggressively pursue as it recovers at home.
Elements of this approach are taking shape. The United States has, with little fanfare, become the largest financial donor to COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX). It is working with allies and partners, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), to develop creative approaches to manufacturing and distributing vaccines globally. As the Quad vaccine initiative shows, the United States is now tackling vaccine diplomacy in a way that strengthens cooperation among countries threatened by China’s rise without being overtly confrontational toward China. More of this will, presumably, be coming—and sooner rather than later. What some analysts thought might be possible by the end of 2021—an ambitious program to produce and globally distribute U.S.-made vaccines—could be feasible by late summer or early fall.
China, by contrast, will soon find itself at a disadvantage. The fact that Chinese companies used a relatively unsophisticated approach to making vaccines and, in some cases, carried out clinical trials abroad meant that Beijing could quickly promise jabs to other countries. Yet the number of vaccines delivered has fallen well short of the number promised while nagging doubts about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines are dampening their appeal. In the United Arab Emirates, some Sinopharm vaccine recipients have been given third doses because the first two didn’t do the trick. The government of Singapore has opted to leave Chinese-made vaccines in storage for now and rely on Western alternatives. And residents of Hong Kong are showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Chinese jabs.
Reports that Beijing has sought to strongarm vaccine supplicants into making diplomatic concessions—such as Paraguay distancing itself from Taiwan—also indicate that China may struggle to win much goodwill, even if it does use some coercive leverage. As unlikely as it might have sounded just a few months ago, the United States still has a good chance to be the country that leads the world out of the pandemic—an opportunity that, if Washington can seize it, would surely cause the world to rethink who “won” the crisis after all.
Third, over time, we are likely to see China’s geopolitical offensive, conducted undercover of COVID-19, as an epic strategic blunder. In the near term, the pandemic created a window of opportunity that Beijing exploited. But in doing so, China may have generated severe long-term problems for itself. Just as COVID-19 accelerated China’s bid for primacy, it has accelerated a global trend toward countering China’s power.
In numerous democratic countries, negative views of Chinese have reached their highest levels in decades, in part because of the incredibly cynical, deceptive, and irresponsible approach Beijing took in handling the pandemic at the outset. (While xenophobia has also been at work in some negative portrayals of China, it does not appear to be driving the larger global trend.) COVID-19 also gave the world a preview of how an empowered China might act—coercing Taiwan, picking fights on multiple azimuths, even trying to suppress free speech and civil society in democracies thousands of miles away.
Admittedly, the international response has not always been as strong as U.S. officials might like, in part because there remains a high economic price to pay for antagonizing Beijing—and in part because of lingering doubts about the United States’ reliability. But the signs must look ominous when viewed from Zhongnanhai, China’s formal imperial garden, even if Xi’s subordinates are probably afraid to tell him so.
French President Emmanuel Macron may be stiff-arming U.S. President Joe Biden in public, but the French Navy is leading military exercises with the Quad, which is emerging as a hub of strategic cooperation to stave off Chinese primacy in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and Germany are pursuing high-level strategic dialogue, and India has moved further toward the United States. The United Kingdom has now put competition with China near the center of its Global Britain policy. Leading European countries have markedly, if not always explicitly, changed their stance on Huawei and 5G networks since early 2020. There are nascent, if halting, efforts to relocate certain supply chains out of China. Countries from the United Kingdom and France to Australia and Japan are starting to talk openly, if still quietly, about how to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. And, of course, there is now bipartisan consensus in the United States that China is a dangerous, menacing enemy. That development has typically not augured well for authoritarian regimes, even powerful ones.
How much of this is a direct result of COVID-19? Probably quite a lot. National security hawks had been trying to convince Americans for years that China was a dangerous rival, but it was only during COVID-19 that the proportion of Americans who see Beijing as the country’s greatest enemy more than doubled, from 22 percent to 45 percent. In 9 of 12 countries surveyed, negative views of Xi increased by double digits between 2019 and 2020. Granted, international audiences also think the United States did a horrible job handling the pandemic. But the United States has an opportunity under new leadership to rebuild its credibility. Xi is not going anywhere, and the worst characteristics of China’s COVID-19 response—particularly the secrecy and vicious dishonesty that have been there from the start—are intrinsic to the Leninist, one-party system he runs.
In retrospect, COVID-19 may loom largest as the moment when Beijing, in more openly revealing its ambitions and tactics, also unintentionally helped to derail them. This argument may sound ridiculous after a year when the United States lost so many of its own citizens. And the United States hinges on its ability to make the most of the opportunities before it—after a period when the country’s reputation for pursuing the bold, positive policies that are needed today has itself taken a beating.
But COVID-19 would hardly be the only example of an international crisis that ultimately produced geopolitical outcomes at variance with first, or even second, impressions. The pandemic is not done tormenting the United States just yet. It is, however, moving into a new phase that is less likely to reveal a struggling superpower and more an impressively resilient one.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @HalBrands
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.