Each geopolitical age places a premium on particular forms of national power—seapower and colonial possessions prior to the world wars, nuclear weapons and alliance networks during the Cold War, soft power after the Cold War. And the new era ushered in by COVID-19 has done so as well, revealing the salience of “resilient power”: a country’s capacity to absorb systemic shocks, adapt to these disruptions, and quickly bounce back from them. As the scholar Stephen Flynn once told me, the aim of resilience is to design systems not just so they can endure shocks, but also so they can “fail gracefully and recover nicely.”
The pandemic has taught us that today, a country’s best offense is a good defense. One of its lessons is that national clout and advantage, and thus international power dynamics, will be rooted in resilient power amid the types of mass traumas that look set to dominate this century—not just pandemics, but also climate change, cyberattacks, financial crises, and disinformation campaigns. And right now, it’s a measure of power where the United States is clearly falling short.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, most foreign-policy discussions focused on other challenges: The 9/11 attacks indicated the rise of non-state actors, while the nationalist administrations of Donald Trump in the United States and Xi Jinping in China signaled the dawn of great-power competition. These narratives were accurate, but incomplete. In ways we didn’t fully appreciate at the time, both developments were also early signs that countries needed to get serious about cultivating the capabilities to rapidly recover from the blows that terrorism, on the one hand, and the vulnerabilities inherent in international interdependence, on the other, would deal them. They were about the coming imperative of resilience, and its emergence as a source of state power.