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Building the next ‘American century’ in the age of COVID-19

COVID-19 has stripped away the veneer of American power. Our allies and competitors perceive a weak, ineffective America massively in debt and racked by incompetence in its pandemic response. The news is bad. Record numbers of Americans are unemployed. Our citizens are standing in food lines, waiting for Trump stimulus checks and protesting in the streets. The brokenness and corruption of America is played out every night on cable television. America, the “City on the Hill,” has withdrawn from the world, turned its back on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the other multilateral institutions it helped to build in the aftermath of World War II.

History’s door has closed on this American century.

Yet, there is another America — a country of talented, innovative, and entrepreneurial individuals who can shape the future and our role in the new world. Here are three suggestions to build the next American century.

First, American ingenuity and technology can contain and mitigate further COVID-19 waves both in the United States and abroad. These efforts could start to restore American leadership, provide a global common good for humanity, protect the homeland and demonstrate the agility by which our society can confront fast moving threats. 

American researchers, epidemiologists, immunologists, engineers, academics and industry leaders have demonstrated, in rapid time, just how their innovation can be harnessed and applied to address the kinds of fast-paced problems that the novel coronavirus pandemic presents. For example, in less than three months, Remdesivir, an antiviral therapy under development prior to the outbreak was repurposed and studied in human trials, demonstrating promising outcomes for patients with COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health, as well as other federal agencies, are currently funding 29 clinical studies among more than 100 clinical trials in the U.S. Numerous U.S. laboratories are also developing candidate vaccines. The deep bench of expertise and capacity to pivot to COVID-19 research from routine activities is in no small part due to yearly increases in investments in U.S. medical research and development, which reached $194.2 billion in 2018 from federal and industry sources.

In Massachusetts, a non-profit organization took on the role of greatly expanding contact tracing, using lessons from global outbreaks of other infectious diseases, and many other states are following suit. U.S.-based technology companies recently announced a joint initiative to support contact tracing through technology in their smartphone operating systems — an unproven yet ambitious concept that aims to contribute to the scale of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is clear is that American inventiveness, innovation and creativity is unlimited, and in this pandemic could have global impact to benefit both the world and Americans at home.

Second, the Pompeo State Department needs a George Keenan moment to confront the panoply of next generation threats. 

While stationed in Moscow in 1946, American diplomat George Keenan understood that America was at an historical crossroads with questions “so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment” that he crafted a new geopolitical containment strategy of the Soviet Union in his famous “Long Telegram.” America today stands at a similar juncture. Historical trends accelerated by the Trump administration, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, mark the end of the post-World War II international order, championed by every president from Roosevelt to Obama. In this COVID-19 world, Secretary Pompeo and his 70,000 employees must now reorganize the State Department’s strategic posture to focus on the world ahead instead of the world past.

Specifically, Secretary Pompeo needs to re-order the talent and priorities of the Department. U.S. embassies overseas, for instance, place a premium on political analysis and reporting of elite actors in host countries, an old school throwback to the Cold War. In the decades ahead emergent threats like pandemics, climate change, food insecurity, cyberwar, misuse of artificial intelligence capabilities, intellectual property theft, financial contagion and currency collapse require different skills to tackle new national challenges.

The State Department will also need to integrate with a much more forward-leaning National Security Council designed to aggregate these over-the-horizon risks. It should be easy to downgrade political analysis in reporting given that much of it can simply be harvested from U.S. think tanks, universities as well as traditional media as well as social media. Less emphasis on political analysis will yield more time to analyze the data and science of emergent risks. Like great American companies such as Pan Am, Kodak, Blockbuster and Woolworths that failed to innovate fast enough, the State Department too can fail absent a fundamental reorientation of its priorities, structures and core functions to stand down the next generation of threats.

The State Department has talented people and a global distributed network, but it needs leadership and vision for the next American century.

Third, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also needs a hard reset. There has been bipartisan support for USAID for years, with a consensus that targeted aid is more effective in advancing core American interests than additional soldiers. But, the U.S. is now $25 trillion in debt and the Trump administration is borrowing from future generations in order to respond COVID-19 today.

USAID, along with the State Department, must align its $40 billion budget much more tightly so that there are  tangible results that benefit not only the communities served, but American interests. USAID is hampered by a bureaucracy that is bloated, slow, top heavy and misaligned against future challenges of a post-pandemic reality. At a minimum, the Agency should restart its infectious disease program PREDICT which was, incredibly, shuttered in February only to be given a six month reprieve last month. It should also substantially modernize its Famine Early Warning System Network to incorporate new technologies and integrate better market analysis and predictive capabilities. Similarly, USAID should initiate climate change surveillance systems and incorporate public/private climate impact financing, as climate change will serve as an accelerant to conflict, displacement, and food insecurity. Finally, USAID must deploy its Foreign Service Officers faster and more effectively given the likely increase of complex crises in the decade ahead.

USAID’s career staff are talented and have demonstrated resilience and tenacity in solving some of the world’s toughest problems. These officers would be more effective if they were able to disrupt the bureaucratic structures and thinking that have been in place since the 1970s and were empowered to harness innovation and creativity.

COVID-19 has highlighted a number of defining trends. The post-World War II international order dominated by America is over. Great power competition among the U.S., China and Russia will frame much of the geopolitical future.

But COVID-19 is also slaying dinosaurs, those clunky, obsolete Cold War structures entrenched at the State Department and USAID. Nearly every industry has experienced massive disruption and change in the past 50 years; the U.S. government is not immune.

The next American century can rise from the ashes of COVID-19. America — the Great Experiment — has always found its strength in the talent and entrepreneurial reach of its people.

In technology, “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” observed Apple co-founder Steven Jobs. The same is true for geopolitics. If there is to be a new American century, then President Trump will have to unleash the talent of the American people, innovate outdated bureaucracies, accelerate medical and public health research, redefine diplomacy and development and shape a sophisticated response to a complex world in this age of pandemic. Generations of future Americans need the president to lead now.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.

Louise C. Ivers MD, MPH, DTM&H is the executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health, associate professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a practising infectious diseases physician. Follow her on Twitter at @drlouiseivers.


Tags American century Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Donald Trump Foreign policy Innovation NATO United Nations USAID World Health Organization

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