The novel coronavirus has ravaged nations across the globe, and its impact reverberates throughout populations worldwide. As the fight against COVID-19 continues, traditional diplomatic and military tools that project states’ power have diminished in importance for great-power competition during the crisis. Instead, states’ resilience in confronting the pandemic has become a measuring stick as they compete for legitimacy, credibility, and global influence. The crisis has also shown that some states seize opportunities to wield information and the appearance of benevolence as low-cost tools to demonstrate resilience, expand their influence, and attempt to subvert democratic societies. Under these circumstances, more ships and planes alone will not have the needed effect to counter adversaries in competition with the United States. In response to adversaries’ activities and the pandemic’s potential impact on government budgets, the US government must build on its culture of resilience and actively pursue innovative, cost-effective means to defend American interests against the threats it faces today.
What is Resilience?
Resilience is hard to define, but easy to recognize. The challenge of overcoming adversity is a concept familiar to virtually everyone, whether caused by COVID-19 or otherwise. For a state, “resilience” suggests the ability to address an external or unforeseen challenge, mobilize national resources to respond, develop adaptive solutions, and mitigate the challenge’s impact.
It is tempting to assume that authoritarians’ decision-making processes exemplify resilience in practice, but doing so risks oversimplifying the role of national resilience among societies. A more comprehensive understanding of resilience should account for how a government leverages relationships with the private sector, maintains transparency with the public, reassures its citizens, and supports foreign nations. While these criteria appear to make a messier process, they are key elements of resilience that positioned democracies worldwide to respond to the crisis. Democratic governments also avoid two traps: bottlenecks in approving policies, and the brittleness inherent to authoritarian regimes that is exposed when decisions are mismanaged.
Resilience, Legitimacy, and Competition During the Pandemic
The pandemic is forcing every national government to make tough decisions to protect its population and mitigate the virus’s spread. Unlike more traditional interaction between states, the COVID-19 outbreak and public health crisis has caused the terms and conditions of competition to be defined by nonstate entities. Media outlets, medical professionals, and public health experts established the metrics that determine competition over how effectively a state has responded. Such metrics include the number of confirmed cases, the fatality rate, testing levels, and quantities of various personal protective equipment (PPE), which have contributed to evaluating a state’s credibility during the crisis. Any state that could be seen delivering PPE resources to a country in dire need—regardless of the quality of the resources—would gain propaganda benefits and enhance its claim to global leadership. As a result, perception of a state’s resilience against the crisis has become a form of currency for states to enhance their legitimacy and expand influence globally.
Recognizing this, several states have used their crisis response in an attempt to inflate their standing, either through gestures or goodwill, or by suppressing information that could undermine their preferred narratives. Russia and China, among others, took measures to be seen sending PPE, specialized facemasks, and respiratory ventilators to the United States and Europe—while their own populations expressed concern with the lack of equipment available domestically—in order to portray an image of a more responsible and prepared government. Both governments took swift measures against whistleblowers at home, stifling information that could be construed as contrary to official messages and statistics on the pandemic’s spread within their countries’ borders. These actions compounded widespread skepticism over the official figures coming from China, Russia, and Iran, and cast doubt on each state’s credibility. A state’s heavy-handed efforts may provide short-term boosts to national prestige and global influence; however, they can become long-term detriments if a strategic counternarrative exposes these activities effectively to the public.
US Resilience and Challenging Adversaries’ Activities
The United States has significant opportunities to compete by emphasizing its resilience in combating the crisis, while refuting competing narratives. Much more needs to be done, however. In the information environment, the United States cannot claim victories through combating disinformation alone. A proactive, strategic messaging effort is needed to craft a message that is truthful, concise, consistent, accessible, and amplified by unbiased sources. Effective campaigning should emphasize and amplify ongoing initiatives across government. A few examples include the Department of Defense’s mobilization and deployment across the nation; increased use of public-private partnerships to pursue testing, treatment therapies, and vaccines; the US government’s provision of more than one billion dollars in foreign assistance to more than 120 countries to date; and efforts with NATO to facilitate movement of critical supplies to support the hardest-hit members of the alliance.
As the US government works through official sources to engage with the public, it must broaden and deepen a global network of influential voices in media, academia, and cyberspace, to ensure that American efforts reach the broadest possible audience, and are tailored for the motivations and consumption habits of local audiences. This requires greater agility within the Department of Defense and the US government, an understanding of successes and failures from similar applications of this approach in other contexts (e.g., countering violent extremism), and underscores the need to cut across “stovepiped cylinders of excellence” and leverage the government’s disparate strengths in the information space.
A comprehensive approach to competing during this crisis should also scrutinize the activities and motivations demonstrated by actors such as Russia and China. For example, despite appearances of Chinese generosity, there is widespread concern over the quality of equipment China provides. Recent reporting has indicated that Chinese leadership deliberately sat on information about COVID-19 for at least six days, allegedly covered up information on the virus’s spread, and evicted African expatriates from their homes. Further demonstrating China’s lack of global accountability, Beijing is aggressively vetting all research into the origin of the virus, has prioritized government secrecy over warning the public, and has arrested whistleblowers in an attempt to prevent embarrassing information from challenging the state’s image. Finally, as partner and allied nations reel from the coronavirus’s impact and look to recover, Chinese companies are undertaking predatory economic practices to extract benefits at their expense. Taken together, these acts call into question how benevolent Beijing’s intentions are.
In a similar manner, Chinese and Russian military activity in the South China Sea and Libya, respectively, has become increasingly exploitative since COVID-19 has forced US and allied militaries to restrict their movements. Far from embracing freedom of the seas or extending humanitarian aid, these developments belie motives centered on self-interest and opportunistic assertion to advance unilateral objectives and extract incremental benefits. In an attempt to drown out this reality, Russia and China have manipulated information to confuse the public and deflect blame by accusing others of creating the virus. If illuminated and challenged successfully, the international audience would need to confront China’s and Russia’s behavior for what it is, particularly when the global community is combating a virus that originated within China’s borders. Factual accounting of Beijing’s activities would not show a benevolent state’s altruism to the outside world—instead, it would reveal China grappling with a “Chernobyl moment” while audaciously seeking to benefit from this crisis.
Next Steps for Competition During a Global Crisis
The pandemic, and our adversaries’ activities during this crisis, suggest a number of changes the United States should consider to effectively compete and protect its security interests. First, the crisis illustrated our lack of a centralized means to develop a strategic messaging campaign that keeps pace with the speed of information. The US government has a vast array of informational tools and authorities, but an integrating mechanism does not exist to quickly develop a messaging plan and put that plan into action.
Within the Department of Defense, the 2020 National Defense Authorizations Act Section 397 attempts to address this, with provisions to establish a Principal Information Operations Advisor charged with overseeing department-wide policy, strategy, planning, and operational considerations, while coordinating with other federal entities and supporting the State Department and its Global Engagement Center (GEC). Across government, we should prioritize funding and personnel—within the GEC, or elsewhere—to coordinate and integrate efforts against foreign propaganda and disinformation. Doing so would achieve more effective “diplomacy with publics” that was envisioned when the US Information Agency was founded in 1953 during the early stages of the Cold War. The crisis gives renewed sense of urgency to ensure that strategic messaging preserves and enhances the United States’ standing amid a maelstrom of false and competing narratives.
Second, the United States must develop the means to quickly develop and disperse messages that advance the nation’s strategic objectives across all forms of media. Early stages of the crisis demonstrate the importance of utilizing nontraditional sources to augment official messaging and to refute adversaries’ heavy use of disinformation and propaganda to deflect, distort facts, and poison public discourse. Far from an American “troll farm,” a networked approach to messaging represents a cost-effective method to spread information quickly while remaining consistent with American values of transparency and free speech. If given enough energy, honest accounting of US government activities and factual refuting of disinformation, from diverse sources, could help to stifle false narratives.
Third, budgetary pressures may require the US government to identify cost-informed means to conduct its national security activities more affordably, as the severity of the crisis required the government to spend trillions to mitigate its financial impact and protect the economy. Competition during the pandemic not only lessens the role of conventional high-end deterrence, it also illuminates the high costs of various systems and platforms which are ineffective for the contest at hand. Maintaining deterrence may be achieved more economically through indirect and asymmetric military means, and via increased integration with allies and partners to share costs and compound the deterrent effect. Numerous options exist to seize the initiative, control the tempo of competition with state adversaries, and challenge their strategies in key regions. We can pursue these activities affordably, and right now.
However, the crisis also makes clear that deterrence is insufficient on its own to preserve a favorable balance of power or deny advantages to our adversaries, who deliberately choose unconventional means to compete for influence because they understand our difficulties in organizing for competition below full-scale war. The pandemic is the most recent iteration in a trend of states attempting to leverage crises to expand their influence. The United States must take a more agile and proactive approach that incorporates information operations into innovative, steady-state campaigning to protect our advantages and impose costs on adversaries’ malign activities without escalating to war.
Fourth, the early stages of the crisis exposed vulnerabilities in national supply chains, particularly when access to materials and resources depends on the goodwill of potential adversaries. Chinese state media threatened that Beijing could curtail the flow of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals to punish the United States; whether serious or bluster, such a decision could have profound effects on the country’s ability to maintain its resilience during a crisis. Supply chain analyses are ongoing, and recommendations that strengthen the country’s ability to sustain itself will be invaluable to increase resilience for future crises, including a possible second wave of COVID-19.
Finally, the pandemic illustrated that the US government is not optimized to address twenty-first century threats within the system established by the National Security Act of 1947. The US government historically examines its response to crises and creates institutions to address exposed weaknesses, but its past approach has been almost entirely additive, layering new structures on top of an increasingly convoluted federal landscape. Post-coronavirus changes to government are almost certain. Whether they culminate in new government entities, codifying rules and responsibilities, or establishing robust guidelines for future crises, government leaders must seize this unique opportunity to transform government—and not merely add to it—and organize itself to maintain the nation’s resilience against the full range of twenty-first-century threats.
Chris Miller is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism. Mr. Miller was the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council from March 2018 through December 2019, and is a retired Army Special Forces officer. Mr. Miller participated in the initial combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, in addition to numerous follow-on deployments to both theaters.
Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving as the Irregular Warfare team chief in the Office of Special Operations and Combating Terrorism. Mr. Bilms most recently served as the Senior Policy Advisor for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council, and has over eleven years of experience in counterterrorism and counterproliferation policy and operations.
Both authors would like to thank their colleagues within the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff who provided feedback on earlier drafts of this article. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Airman 1st Class Charissa A. Menken, Texas Air National Guard