Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and has also taught American Foreign Policy at Yale. He is the “Global View” columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and a scholar at the Hudson Institute. He has also been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a board member of Aspenia, Aspen Institute Italy’s publication. He has written multiple books on foreign policy, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World and God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World.
Princeton Diplomat Staff Writer and Creative Director Joe Becker spoke to Professor Mead about foreign policy in the age of coronavirus, the potential long-term effects of this crisis, and the historical context of today’s shifts in international relations.
PD: Do you believe that the current pandemic has aided the rise of authoritarian governments?
WRM: I think some authoritarian governments have done well, like Xi Jinping in China, but on the other hand it’s been very bad for Putin, so I don’t think you can say there’s a trend—that somehow authoritarian governments are doing better. South Korea and Taiwan both did very well, and they’re democratic.
PD: Tangentially, do you think that the U.S.’ handling of the pandemic will change its role in the international community—that some countries will doubt the capabilities of the U.S?
WRM: Well I think that if there’s another pandemic, there may be countries that don’t ask for U.S. doctors to come over and tell them how to handle it, but that’s a very restricted area of international relations. Probably, it’ll be much more important to see what countries are seen as succeeding in rebuilding their economies after the pandemic, or how favorable countries are to debt relief after the pandemic. I think the question of how you relate—how you deal or don’t deal with the pandemic—is obviously important to people if they catch the disease, and is important economically in the short term, but it’s not going to change anything fundamental in the way the world works.
PD: What countries do you think have handled the pandemic especially well, and could this impact their future role in the international community?
WRM: I don’t think succeeding or failing at the pandemic has much impact on anyone’s international role—I want to make that absolutely clear. It’s the sort of thing that people who don’t know much about foreign relations chat about. For example, Taiwan was extremely successful at dealing with the pandemic. Nobody’s going to recognize Taiwan because of it, and it doesn’t change its problems with Beijing in the slightest. So I think it’s a mistake to spend too much energy trying to figure out how pandemic performance affects international position.
PD: Shifting gears to focus more specifically on the U.S. and China, what long-term impact do you think the combination of increased tension over Hong Kong and attempts by the Trump Administration to frame the pandemic as China’s fault will have on US-China relations?
WRM: U.S-China relations were clearly headed in a very confrontational direction before the pandemic, and China had already decided that it was going to crack down on Hong Kong at some point before the pandemic, so I’m not sure that these things make that much of a difference. It’s given people on both sides something to talk about, something extra to point to, but the relationship was becoming much more confrontational. American public opinion has moved sharply against China over the last couple of years in both parties. So at the very most, the pandemic may have somewhat accelerated a process that was already underway, but again here’s a place where it doesn’t make as much of a difference as people might think.
PD: Do you think that regardless of who wins the 2020 election, U.S-China relations are headed in a similar direction, or do you think that the outcome of the election will have a significant impact?
WRM: Well, the Biden Campaign seems to be pretty focused on seeing China as the central foreign policy challenge for the United States. It looks like in the campaign the Trump people will be trying to claim that Biden will be soft on China, and then Biden will by trying to demonstrate that in fact he’s just as tough as Trump and much smarter about it. So that does not look like a campaign where either side is going to run on the “let’s be nice to China” approach.
PD: Getting back to the pandemic, given the economic stagnation and global recession which we’re seeing elements of now, what long-term effect do you think this will have on international trade relationships?
WRM: We were moving away a bit from globalization in the last 20 years before the pandemic, and I think we’ll continue in some ways to de-globalize a bit after. I think you’re going to see a certain amount of de-sinicization of supply chains. For these companies, if you have all of your production in China, and you suddenly realize that U.S-Chinese, Chinese-Japan relations are bad, and could get dramatically worse, you don’t want your entire business to be held hostage to that possibility. So naturally, you’ll look well, can I put a factory in Vietnam, can I put a factory in India, what else can I do? So in that sense there’s going to be more of a politicization of trade. People will also want to make sure that their supply chains for vital goods are not vulnerable to political disruption. So in the U.S. there’s been talk about how a lot of the material you need to make drugs, PPE, and so on was being made in China, so you don’t want to be cut off from that, and a number of other countries have had that same experience. So I imagine you’re going to see more countries designating certain materials as “strategic,” and saying “we either have to be able to make them here or make them in a place where we’re very comfortable and will always have access to them.”
PD: Do you view any particular country as an emerging economic superpower due to these changing trade dynamics?
WRM: I don’t think [the shifts in dynamics] will be big enough or long enough by themselves to make a huge difference in the standing of different countries. India could emerge as a sort of rival to China if it focuses single-mindedly on trying to attract the kind of industry that China has attracted. But it’s very unlikely India will do that, for a combination of reasons connected to the nature of Indian politics, land laws, and labor laws. India moves more slowly than China does, it’s a much more diverse country with many different political cultures, languages, entrenched interests. In China, if the local government decides “okay we want a factory,” they just take the land and build the factory, and if the workers object to any of the policies of the factory operator, they just put the ones that are complaining in jail, and hire new ones. All of this is a lot harder to do in India.
PD: We’ve spoken already about existing tensions which the pandemic has exacerbated; do you think that after the pandemic there will be somewhat of a return to normalcy, or do you think that any relationship that was already experiencing tension will is going to be further damaged when we return to normalcy?
WRM: Well I think the interesting word in that sentence is normalcy. I think old normal has been breaking up, so the pandemic is another chaotic event, but when the pandemic is over, which hopefully will be soon, I think the process of change…in some ways we’re seeing the delayed changes after the end of the Cold War. In many ways, politics didn’t change very much internationally after the Cold War. Now, we’re seeing Cold War alliances under pressure, the U.S. is much less interested in Europe than it used to be and much more interested in East Asia. The U.S. is moving out of the Middle East—I think both Republicans and Democrats would like to reduce our commitments in the Middle East rather than increase them. So the map of the world is changing. And while transatlantic relations are good, during the Cold War NATO was our chief alliance in dealing with our chief problem, the Soviet Union. Today NATO’s a great thing but Russia’s nowhere near the problem that it used to be, I mean it’s not a well-behaved country but it’s not the Soviet Union, it doesn’t have that power, and isn’t going to get it. On the other hand, NATO, while full of wonderful countries in the great alliance, is just not going to be central to American policy dealing with China—it may have a role, but it won’t be a central role. So the world is changing; it was changing before COVID, and it will continue to change after COVID.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.