U.S. Global Leadership: Laid Bare but not Beyond Repair

By Kevin Rudd


Earlier this year, I wrote that at the start of the COVID-19 crisis there was an audible popping of champagne corks in certain quarters of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, given the impact it was having on China’s power and
standing in the world. How things change.
As of the start of August, the United States is nearing five million cases of the virus with more than 150,000 dead—almost twice as many as any other country on both counts. By contrast, China has reported fewer than 100,000 cases and fewer than 5,000 deaths—fewer than all of the G7 nations bar Japan, and better than most of the G20.
Notwithstanding this, China has still been damaged by the COVID crisis, both at home and abroad. Its trajectory for economic recovery is challenged on multiple fronts. Its domestic politics is now more fraught than at any time since Xi became leader in 2012. And its global reputation has been deeply tarnished—both because of its failure to contain the virus in the first few critical weeks, despite the “failsafe” systems put in place after the SARS crisis more than a decade ago, and because of the gross insensitivity of its “wolf warrior” diplomacy once the virus spread to the rest of the world.
But in America, the death toll rolls on. Compounding the sheer dimensions of the human tragedy has been the Trump administration’s chaotic management of the crisis. This has left an indelible impression around the world of a country incapable of handling its own crises, let alone anybody else’s. The world has watched in horror as an American president acts not as the leader of the free world but as a quack apothecary recommending unproven “treatments.” It has seen what “America First” means in practice: don’t look to the United States for help in a genuine global crisis, because it can’t even look after itself.
At the same time, the economy has continued to slide. By the Federal Reserve’s own conservative estimate, the U.S. economy will shrink by 6.5% this year or probably more, the largest single contraction since the demobilization at the end of World War II. Washington’s fiscal interventions to arrest the slide already amount to 10% of GDP and rising, pushing the U.S. ratio of public debt to GDP toward 100%—near the wartime record of 106%. The U.S. dollar’s global reserve currency status enables the government to continue selling U.S. treasuries to fund the deficit. Nonetheless, large-scale debt sooner or later will constrain post-recovery spending, including on the military. And there’s also risk that the current economic crisis will metastasize into a broader financial crisis, although the Federal Reserve, other G20 central banks, and the International Monetary Fund have so far managed to mitigate that risk.
More  importantly, the United States seems set to emerge from this period as a more divided polity rather than a more united one, as would normally be the case following a national crisis of this magnitude. It is this continued fracturing of American politics, not just among elites but across the country at large, that poses the greatest risk to the future of American global leadership. Once there was a general political consensus on the inherent virtue and national advantage of America acting as the leader of the free world. Now that is less clear than at any time since the 1930s.
Against this backdrop, “The Great Decisions” of a new administration will be how to arrest this slide in American power both at home and abroad. This will require a great national effort to rebuild the economy, revitalize its infrastructure, revolutionize its education system, transform its basic science and heal the gaping divisions in American society. Unless these challenges at home are dealt with in public policy reality, not just in the high flourishes of political rhetoric, no amount of re-engineering of America’s policy efforts abroad will matter.
The reaction of America’s allies will also be central for how effective this rebuilding effort can be. The United States may now be a diminished power in their eyes. But much of the world still welcomes the prospect of a fundamental renewal of American leadership, anchored in universal values, the consistency of U.S. foreign policy and the traditional restraint in the use of military and economic power. It will be time to rebuild strategic trust and repair some of the damage that has been done. But the regenerative power of American leadership around the world should not be underestimated. Not least because the alternative is a slow and steady slide into international anarchy. The American order is unlikely to be replaced by a Chinese order. If American leadership fails, we are more likely to slide into a “G-Zero” world.
Beyond these two overall challenges—rebuilding American strength at home, and its credibility abroad—there are three specific decisions that will also stare an incoming administration in the face: developing and implementing a long-term, bi- partisan national China strategy; defeating the pandemic globally; and winning the planetary challenge on climate change. All three are linked. And all three depend on the credibility of American global leadership.
The incoming administration will need to attach the first priority to developing a comprehensive, inter-agency, inter-allied and bipartisan national China strategy. The Trump administration announced in 2017 a new National Security Strategy. However, the reality is that this strategy has not been fully operationalized across all the domains of international policy. The framework for such a strategy should be one of what I described elsewhere as “managed strategic competition.” By this I mean the following:
  •  First, that the United States and China should understand each other’s fundamental redlines—those areas where no agreement can be reached between Washington and Beijing, but where to cross those red lines—advertently or inadvertently—would run the risk of crisis conflict or war.
  • Second, defining those areas where bilateral collaboration between Washington and Beijing is useful to both countries’ interests.
  • Third, understanding those areas where there will be full-blooded competition between the two countries in trade, investment, technology, foreign policy, human rights, and ideology—where competition will be pursued vigorously, but within the boundaries of a peaceful relationship—unless deep red lines are crossed.
  • And finally, areas of defined regional and global collaboration where once again it is in both countries’ interests to work together (for example on climate change, global pandemic management and international financial market stability).
The second immediate decision the administration will face will be redefining American leadership in the global fight to defeat the current pandemic. This will require America rejoining the World Health Organization immediately. It will require American refunding of the WHO. It will also require America’s full support for global not-for-profit institutions such as GAVI (the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunizations), which will become fundamental to the global dissemination of a vaccine if and when developed. America should unleash the full potential of its science and research establishment. It should also open fully the channels of collaboration around the world, including with China. And finally, it should guarantee whichever country develops an effective vaccine first will agree to transform that vaccine into a global public good available to all.
One final challenge which will be inescapable for an incoming administration is climate change. The Paris Agreement in 2015 is not being fully honored by a number of countries to the extent necessary for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will keep global temperature increases within 1.5 degrees Celsius. If the Paris commitments were fully implemented, this would only take us one third of the distance we need to travel. Two thirds remain. Therefore, once again, this will be an area where despite fundamental political economical and ideological difference, Washington will need to work closely with Beijing. China and America remain the world’s two largest emitters. And unless these two countries act both nationally and in partnership with one another in a global renewable energy revolution and in global energy demand side management, then the next U.S. administration and its Chinese counterparts will fail the world.
The in tray of the incoming administration will therefore be replete with challenges. But the lesson from history is that each of these five challenges is manageable, resolvable and achievable. If America fails to exercise leadership in these critical domains, then the world will be a much poorer place for the future.
Kevin Rudd was the 26th Prime Minister of Australia and is now President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. This is an updated and adapted version of his essay “The Coming Post-COVID Anarchy” that appeared in Foreign Affairs in May 2020
This essay appears in America in the World 2020, a thought-provoking collection of 28 op-ed style
essays by leading policymakers and experts. The next essay to be featured will be by Victor Davis Hanson

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