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Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series July 7, 2020

A global strategy for shaping the post-COVID-19 world

By Jeffrey Cimmino, Rebecca Katz, Matthew Kroenig, Josh Lipsky, Barry Pavel


The COVID-19 pandemic is an acute public health and economic crisis that is further destabilizing an already weakened rules-based international system. With cooperation, determination, and resolve, however, the United States and its allies can recover from the crisis and revitalize an adapted rules-based system to bring about decades of future freedom, peace, and prosperity.

Explore the main themes of the report using the guided menu below:

4. Under Pressure

The Headline: Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a rules-based system created by the United States and its partners after World War II had morphed under pressure. Russia and China, uncomfortable with the system’s values, have tried to undermine it. Iran and North Korea have strived to destabilize it.

There are other challenges as well. Many in the United States and Europe are angry at the system. They feel cheated as jobs go elsewhere. Fueled by this anger, populist movements have grown stronger. US global leadership is also increasingly being questioned. Long-standing partnerships and alliances, such as the transatlantic relationship, have become strained.

  • China is the foremost strategic competitor of the United States since the Soviet Union. It is pushing its model of authoritarian state-led capitalism as an alternative to the US-backed model of free market democracy.
  • Despite its economic weakness, Russia remains a formidable nuclear power. It is using disinformation, aggressive military actions, and other means to disrupt the global order.
  • Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and using proxies to create regional instability.
  • North Korea is a rogue state that regularly rattles sabers with the United States and flaunts its nuclear arsenal.

5. Shocked and Battered

The Headline: The COVID-19 pandemic is battering an already weakened world order. The novel coronavirus continues to claim lives across the globe. Trust in governments and global institutions, which are supposed to protect us from crises like this, is falling. The world’s economy is facing a downturn worse than the one it faced just over a decade ago.

Important relationships are fraying or bursting apart. Tensions between the United States and Europe, longtime partners, are rising. The US-China rivalry is intensifying. International institutions, such as the World Health Organization, have struggled to organize a cooperative response to the pandemic. Autocrats are using the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen their grip on power.

  • The most immediate threat presented by the pandemic is a rapidly spreading virus with no currently available vaccine.
  • The pandemic’s negative impact on the global economy is evident in massive unemployment, fluctuating oil prices, volatile stock markets, and the disruption of global supply chains.
  • The relationship between the United States and China has become decidedly confrontational.
  • Worldwide, the economic crisis unleashed by the virus will also lead to a drop in the socioeconomic status of those who are struggling to stay in the middle class.
  • Many international institutions have been ineffective during the pandemic. These pillars of the rules-based system are now perceived as weak and too fractured to address the crisis.
  • The pandemic opens the door to democratic backsliding and increased authoritarianism as leaders consolidate power to address the outbreak.

9. Reaping the Benefits

The Headline: After World War I, the United States turned away from the world. The Great Depression and World War II followed. After World War II, the United States worked with allies and partners to create a stable international system.

The rules-based system established after World War II brought great benefits. For decades, allied military forces have supported US troops in combat. The open economic system created millions of jobs and boosted incomes in the United States. Americans have been able to freely travel, study, and explore the world.

There is now a new opportunity. By once again leading and working with partners, the United States can bring about decades of even greater peace, prosperity, and freedom for the world and secure the benefits of a revitalized system for all of its citizens.

  • The US-led rules-based system has greatly benefited the average American, and the continuation and adaptation of this system will only expand these benefits.
  • Allied military forces have long fought and died alongside US troops in US-led wars, from the Korean War to the First Gulf War to the war in Afghanistan.
  • The international economic system that followed World War II opened markets and increased trade, thereby bringing more goods and services at lower prices to the United States, while creating jobs for millions of Americans.
  • The expansion of freedom around the globe has protected the United States’ experiment with open government.

12. Freedom and a Voice for Everyone

The Headline: Autocrats are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen their grip on power, ostensibly to “protect” their people, but there is also an opportunity to strengthen democracy.

The pandemic has further weakened wobbly international institutions. The world’s leading democracies should come together to form new organizations to deal with relations between nations, technology, and trade: a D10 of leading democracies, an Alliance of Free Nations, a free world technology alliance, and a Free World Free Trade Agreement.

But it is not enough for the nations of the free world to work together on their own. They must also reach out to China and other nations to find points of agreement and areas where it is possible to cooperate.

  • Tout successful democratic models of pandemic response (e.g., South Korea and Taiwan).
  • Counter nefarious Communist Party of China and Russian influence and disinformation in allied and partner nations.
  • Engage in closed-door diplomacy with countries at risk of democratic backsliding.
  • Use new technology to ensure regular election schedules and revitalize existing democracies.
  • Increase responsibility for institutions like the D10 to strengthen coordination among democratic allies.

In Brief: Shaping the Post-COVID-19 World

Related Experts: Jeffrey Cimmino, Matthew Kroenig, Josh Lipsky, and Barry Pavel