COVID-19 Tests World Order, Warns New CFR Report

May 28, 2020 10:00 am (EST)

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“Along with U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War, COVID-19 is one of the two greatest tests of the U.S.-led international order since its founding,” warn Robert D. Blackwill, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) senior fellow, and Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution senior fellow. “Nothing else since that time approaches the societal, political, and economic effects of the virus on populations around the world.”

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In a new Council Special Report, The End of World Order and American Foreign Policy, Blackwill and Wright seek to “place the plague in global context,” by analyzing the evolution of world order before COVID-19, and offer a roadmap for U.S. foreign policy in the face of “radical international uncertainty.”

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The authors contend that world order “weakened after 9/11 and ended over the past decade, driven by a combination of great power ambition, American withdrawal, and transformational changes that left many nations unmoored from old certainties.”

“The fundamental strategic problem the United States faces with respect to world order is how it should respond to the breakdown in agreed arrangements between the major powers,” say Blackwill and Wright.

For the United States to “preserve its national interests and its own notion of international order” in the wake of COVID-19, the authors argue that the United States should

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  • “create a persuasive model of competent U.S. governance, which will in turn reinforce America’s international leadership;”
  • “revitalize North American collaboration;”
  • “fundamentally reform the way the United States deals with its treaty allies and partners;”
  • “increase ambitions with Europe;”
  • “strengthen relations with India;”
  • “invest in international institutions;”
  • “condition engagement with Russia;”
  • “reduce involvement in the Middle East;”
  • “stop deterioration in the balance of power with China;”
  • “compete with China” but “compartmentalize transnational challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and international terrorism;” and
  • “work with other countries so that the rebuilding of national economies is consistent with maintaining an open and mutually beneficial global economy.”


“With COVID-19, the reordering moment is here,” Blackwill and Wright conclude. “Avoiding dangerous confrontations with rivals is possible, but only if the United States is up to that diplomatic challenge, based on U.S. national interests and democratic values. Through wise and steady international leadership, Washington can also implement adroit and consistent policies that substantially shape international order in line with its preferences.”

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Blackwill is CFR’s Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy. Wright is director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Read The End of World Order and American Foreign Policy.

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