The Pandemic Is Revealing a New Form of National Power

In the COVID-19 era, a country’s strength is determined not only by its military and economy, but also by its resilience.

A bald eagle
Daniel Hernanz Ramos / Getty

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.

When the coronavirus arrived, as the historian Sulmaan Khan has observed, it “didn’t care how many aircraft carriers you had or how many Confucius Institutes you could stick up around the world or what size your economy was. The virus asked simply how your least wealthy people would be treated in times of illness. How effectively you could trace the contacts of those it afflicted. How swiftly your medical system could cope with unexpected demands. It wouldn’t spare you completely, of course, but if you could meet it with a dull, technocratic honesty, it would be easier to survive.”

The need for governments and societies to be resilient in order to thrive is not new. The political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power, pointed, for example, to how the United States overcame the ravages of the Great Depression to fight World War II and to how Europe and Japan surmounted the physical devastation of that war. (Nye is on the board of the Atlantic Council, where I work.)

What’s new is the scale at which, and the frequency with which, that need is arising. “There’s a greater complexity” with contemporary threats as a result of globalization, Nye told me. “We have less historical precedent [for] or understanding” of today’s challenges, and that demands “a new dimension of resilience.”

When I asked William Hynes of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, who has been studying ways to shock-proof countries, what made resilience any more crucial an asset in this century than in previous ones, he recruited a clutch of economists, scientists, and engineers—Alan Kirman of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and Benjamin Trump and Igor Linkov of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center—to help answer my questions. They wrote that while “increasing efficiency” in industry and society “was the main policy objective of the 20th century,” this spawned more interconnected systems with new vulnerabilities that have made enhancing resilience (often at the expense of efficiency) the main policy objective of the 21st. Nowadays, they noted, systemic shocks not only are more common and intense but also increasingly cascade from one complex system to another. Witness how the outbreak of a novel virus in Wuhan, China, swiftly paralyzed the global economy.

In such a world, power is not what it used to be. “Tomorrow’s successful states will probably be those that invest in infrastructure, knowledge, and relationships resilient to shock,” the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicted in a 2017 report. “Traditional calculations of state power” might include military spending, population size, or gross domestic product, but “rarely factor in a state’s resilience,” which depends more on matters such as strong alliances, an orderly society, robust critical infrastructure, and widespread public confidence in government, the analysts noted. Conversely, they added, “states can be fragile in ways that conventional measures of power do not capture.”

If there were one elemental building block of resilience shared by all nations that exhibit it—one weird trick that united every country that has made the most progress in combating COVID-19—then enhancing resilience might be easy. But the pandemic has shown that resilience comes in many different forms. It is, as The Atlantic’s Ed Yong has written, about the mundane alchemy of doing “enough things right.”

What makes some countries more resilient than others, Michele Grossman, a resilience expert at Deakin University in Melbourne, told me, is “how well the interdependent and interactive systems that make up ‘the nation’ are working.”

Australia has so far performed better against the coronavirus than has the United States, which Grossman attributed to a host of variables. She pointed, for instance, to the Australian government’s early restrictions and preparedness measures even before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, which reflected the “resilience principle of being adaptive and dynamic … in response to new circumstances.” Other factors ranged from the government’s prioritization of suppressing the virus over reopening the economy, which recognized that resilience requires “trade-offs between systems,” to Australians’ “long history of lived resilience” from experiencing natural disasters, which underscores that resilience emerges “in contexts of adversity.”

Australia is hardly the only template. Take democratic Germany’s gyroscopic variety of resilience, where social systems autocorrect through government policies such as short-time work programs that kick in as the economy starts to reel, or autocratic China’s far more volatile variety, where the authoritarian system both severely exacerbates the shock and plays a role in accelerating recovery. Writing in The Atlantic in March, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the most important variable for national performance against the virus was not regime type but the capacity of, and especially public trust in, government.

And resilience isn’t just some systemic, impersonal way of national being. It’s also, at its core, quite personal. Leadership matters. “Responding to scientific evidence and insight is now a source of national strength and therefore power; those [who] ignore it will not be able to build resilience to contain shocks,” Hynes and his colleagues told me. “It is hard to mobilize the relevant actors, ideas, and resources to face a threat that political leaders do not believe in.”

Several countries that have proved resilient during the pandemic have consequently become more influential actors in the world. Despite its tiny population and geographic isolation, New Zealand has emerged as a world leader “in implementing resilience governance,” Hynes and his colleagues said. Not only is it now involved in a coronavirus-coordination group with the United States and its top Asian allies, but it has also been part of a new, informal bloc of small and midsize countries—Australia, Israel, Singapore, and several European nations, known as “First Movers”—that have shared best practices in combating COVID-19 and explored forming trade and travel bubbles with each other. “Part of being resilient,” Grossman noted, is “knowing when you need to turn to others for help or support, whether you’re an individual or a nation.”

The scholar Bruce Jones has chronicled how a number of the world’s “middle powers” have, “in the absence of credible great-power leadership from the United States or China … led the way in coordinating health and economic responses” to COVID-19—an extension of their pre-pandemic efforts to bolster the multilateral system. They have, for instance, collaborated on financial responses through the Group of Seven and raised billions of dollars for international work on developing and distributing vaccines. Middle-power governments that have navigated the crisis relatively well have bolstered their reputations at home and abroad. Governments that have fared relatively poorly have sustained serious damage to their reputations and thus their standing at home and stores of soft power abroad.

The United States’ struggles thus far to contain the virus have had real (if potentially only temporary) negative consequences for U.S. power, placing the dollar in a more vulnerable position and devaluing the American passport. The crisis could significantly dent America’s economic power depending on when the country gets its outbreak under control, Nye said, and “our soft power in the short run is greatly diminished, because part of our soft power … was for competence, and we’ve demonstrated extraordinary incompetence.”

But the U.S. remains a military and economic superpower, and Nye argued that it is capable of recovering from these setbacks and regaining any power it has shed during the pandemic. He doesn’t think COVID-19 will ultimately alter the relative balance of power between the United States and China. Middle powers may come out of the crisis with more power than they had before, but that doesn’t mean their clout will suddenly rival that of the world’s great powers. When it comes to geopolitics, Nye cautioned, the pandemic appears to be “accentuating existing trends, but not reversing them.”

The United States—with its diversified economy, cutting-edge scientific innovation, and numerous other resilience-oriented attributes—might have been expected to cope particularly well with a pandemic. But COVID-19 has exposed the country’s vulnerabilities: all-encompassing political polarization; debilitating economic and health-care inequality; a president who has downplayed the threat of the virus and rejected scientific guidance; a decades-long drive to optimize the economy and society for efficiency, not resilience; and a national creed of individualism, optimism, and exceptionalism that has rendered the U.S. resistant to learning from other countries. While many have marveled that just one year ago a Johns Hopkins study ranked the United States first among 195 countries in terms of preparedness for a pandemic, fewer have focused on the fact that the U.S. placed a middling 59th in what have turned out to be the under-appreciated subcategories of political risk and socioeconomic resilience (not to mention 175th on health-care access).

But these vulnerabilities are not destiny. The United States can bounce back from this crisis, and adapt to become more resilient in the process. That, however, will require the government recognizing that human security is national security; that societal resilience is a modern form of deterrence against new types of non-military aggression by adversaries; that investing in more redundancy and contingency planning is a prudent hedge against future risks, even at some cost to efficiency; and that military power isn’t all-powerful. When more than 80 times more Americans have been killed by a pandemic than by the 9/11 attacks, and when the American president, his top advisers, and many members of Congress have been placed at grave risk not by some attack on Washington but by a virus, it’s time to reevaluate U.S. spending priorities.

Greater resilience could entail everything from deepening and expanding the scope of U.S. alliances to shifting from a “just in time” to more of a “just in case” approach toward global supply chains. Two decades after 9/11, it could mean, as a recent Atlantic Council report advocated, reorienting the Department of Homeland Security toward addressing non-military threats, including a new fund for rapid recovery in the event that a cyberattack takes down critical infrastructure. It could mean confronting the fact that, with its high levels of partisanship and low levels of trust in the news media, the United States is exceptionally vulnerable to online disinformation. It could also mean acknowledging that fending off disinformation isn’t impossible. A number of northern and Western European countries are doing so successfully, and they have lessons to share.

The great challenge in applying these lessons is that, until disaster actually strikes, a country won’t really know whether it is a resilient power. “We cannot say when we have truly achieved resilience, since part of resilience is the capacity to react to change,” Hynes and his colleagues told me, “and one will never know in advance in a world of unknown unknowns who is best equipped” to do so.

Then again, a country never really knows the strength of its military, either, until it’s tested on the battlefield. What countries can do, Hynes and his colleagues added, is endeavor to identify and remedy “potential single points of failure.”

As Grossman reminded me, “Resilience is not the absence of vulnerability.” It is, instead, “the ability to manage existing or new vulnerabilities in ways that do not allow them to overwhelm us to the point where we just fold.” Americans haven’t historically folded. And they don’t have to now.