Pandemic politics: Covid-19 and grand strategy

In August, International Affairs teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. This week in Pandemic Politics, Emma Campbell-Mohn and Suzanne Freeman’s introduction, as well as Rebecca Lucas’, Ryan Dukeman’s and Jayme Schlesinger’s blogposts discuss COVID-19 and grand strategy. The original post is here.

August 10, 2020 | International Affairs Blog | Emma Campbell-Mohn and Suzanne Freeman
Members of New York National Guard take calls on a hotline for pandemic
August 10, 2020

As the world attempts to cope with and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, policy-makers and citizens alike are questioning the role of the state, its goals and the tools it uses. Lockdowns, overtaxed health care systems, mass unemployment, increasing mental health crises and supply chain disruptions plague the global system. Citizens wonder whether we will see a change in how states conduct themselves after the pandemic, both internationally and domestically. Will the fundamental objectives and means of the state change? Or has COVID-19 merely exacerbated existing trends?

Grand strategy and COVID-19

In this section of the Pandemic Politics series, three members of the Future Strategy Forum cohort will examine what effect COVID-19 will have on the development of grand strategy. Grand strategy generally refers to how states align their resources to achieve their objectives in the long-term. At the heart of these objectives is protecting a state’s security and national interests. Although definitions vary, most focus on the tools at a state’s disposal — military, economic and diplomatic — and their purposive connection to the state’s objectives. Grand strategy examines states’ ends and means, creating a plan by which the means achieve the ends within a given time horizon.

Our authors tackle this daunting topic. First, Rebecca Lucas discusses global supply chains in a new take on the autarky versus interdependence debate, in a world where autarky has suddenly become more popular. While linking national security and supply chains, Lucas offers solutions for states to pursue a risk management and mitigation approach to global supply. Second, Ryan Dukeman asks readers to take a hard look at the US diplomatic toolbox, a historic but neglected part of American grand strategy. He offers a vision for reforming the US State Department that brings American diplomacy into the twenty-first century with data analytics and better leveraging of aspiring foreign service officers’ expertise. While Lucas and Dukeman focus more on tools of grand strategy, Jayme Schlesinger’s piece focuses on objectives. Schlesinger looks at the fight against institutionalized racism and refocuses our attention on the role citizens have in setting the agenda.

The pandemic has the potential to disrupt and alter a state’s grand strategy for three reasons: 1) the tools are depleted, 2) the state has discovered a new operating procedure or 3) the states’ goals have been re-evaluated, by necessity or by choice. In fact, during times of crises the state’s objectives may be tested at the same time as the means are constrained, resulting in uncomfortable trade-offs or changes to long established patterns of behaviour. The three pieces explore this new landscape.

However, a state’s grand strategy does not exist in vacuum. Before launching into these excellent pieces, we first take a quick look at China and Russia’s grand strategies as cases outside of the US of the impact of COVID-19.

China in focus

For China, COVID-19 has coincided with more assertive behaviour on the international stage. China has passed the national security law in Hong Kong, increased its flyovers of Taiwan, engaged in a violent border dispute with India, conducted military exercises in the South China Sea, lashed out at critics of the government’s pandemic response, and increased its soft power efforts by sending aid and supplies globally. However, none of these actions indicate a monumental change in grand strategy. All appear in line with prior established objectives. China’s slowing growth rate and bad debt were key concerns of the Communist Party of China before COVID-19, while the country was also already seeking to improve its technological infrastructure and capabilities. These factors have gained renewed emphasis in the midst of the pandemic. Therefore, COVID-19 may have accelerated, rather than changed China’s grand strategy.

Russia in focus

For Russia, the enduring impacts from COVID-19 appear likely to shape its grand strategy. Certainly the pandemic did not prevent Russia from holding a belated annual Second World War victory day parade and a plebiscite to pass constitutional amendments, which will allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036. However, the pandemic has curtailed the means available to the Kremlin, forcing it to push back timelines on its economic goals to 2030. These include halving poverty in Russia in six years, doubling non-resource exports, an advance in Russia’s technological and demographic capital, and bringing Russia on par with western European economies in terms of economic growth and real income. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund estimated in June 2020 that Russian GDP would fall by 6.6 per cent in 2020, but rebound by 4.1 per cent in 2021. This suggests that COVID-19 may also have a lasting impact on Russia’s economic tools. Russia has certainly come back from political and economic crises in 1991, 1998 and 2008, but it is still worth considering that COVID-19 may force the Russian government to re-evaluate the best way to achieve its goals in 2020 and beyond.

These examples demonstrate some of the many ways in which COVID-19 is impacting states and their international interactions. In the following three pieces, Lucas, Dukeman and Schlesinger offer unique views on how the US and other countries could re-evaluate the means and ends of their grand strategy in the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 era. The pandemic has defined 2020, but the question remains whether it will fundamentally alter states’ objectives and tools.

Emma Campbell-Mohn is a PhD student in Political Science at MIT. Prior to joining MIT, she worked at Goldman Sachs’ Global Markets Institute. She earned an MA from Tsinghua University through the Schwarzman Scholars Program and a BA with High Distinction from Duke University.​

Suzanne Freeman is a PhD student in Political Science at MIT, focused on nuclear issues, civil-military relations, and grand strategy with Russia as a primary case study. Suzanne previously worked as a Research Associate in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. Suzanne holds a BA in Slavic Studies from Columbia University and an MIA from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.