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Document: COVID-19 and the International Security Environment

The following is the Jan. 25, 2021 Congressional Research Service report, COVID-19: Potential Implications for International Security Environment—Overview of Issues and Further Reading for Congress.

From the report

U.S. Global Leadership and Role in the World

Some observers argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating that the United States is maintaining or reasserting its role as global leader, while other observers argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating that the United States has chosen to withdraw from or is no longer capable of performing that role. Some observers argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is the first major international crisis since World War II for which the United States has not served as the leader for spearheading, organizing, or implementing an international response.

The COVID-19 pandemic could influence discussions over the costs and benefits to the United States of acting as a global leader, not only with respect to global health but across a range of issues. Related to this, some observers have focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic may be illustrating the strengths or weaknesses of the Trump Administration’s “America First” approach to the U.S. role in the world.

Some observers, including some foreign observers, argue that the U.S. domestic response to the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating weaknesses in U.S. democracy, governance, and public health, particularly in comparison to how certain other countries have responded to the pandemic within their own borders, and that this will reduce the ability of the United States in the future to offer itself or be accepted by other countries as a global leader on other international issues or as a model for other countries to emulate.

Other observers argue that the U.S. response to the pandemic is focusing international attention on what they view as a need for reform at the World Health Organization (WHO), demonstrating the strength and innovativeness of the U.S. scientific establishment in terms of developing vaccines and other medical responses to the pandemic, and demonstrating the flexibility and resiliency of the U.S. federal system in terms of permitting states and localities to respond to the pandemic in ways that are tailored to local conditions.

China’s Potential Role as a Global Leader

Some observers have focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic may be providing insight into whether China desires and is working to become a global leader on par with (or in the place of) the United States, whether China has a capacity for doing so, and how other countries might view China acting in such a role. China’s transparency, particularly regarding its actions in the early days of its COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, as well as China’s so-called donation diplomacy or mask diplomacy—meaning China’s actions to send medical supplies and personnel to other countries, and the highlighting of these actions in statements from China’s government and state-controlled media—have become new elements of an ongoing discussion regarding China’s capacity or suitability for acting as a global leader. This ongoing discussion includes consideration of a range of other issues, including China’s actions for implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China’s territorial disputes with other countries, its participation in international organizations, and its technology-development and international lending activities.

U.S. Relations and Great Power Competition with China and Russia

Some observers have focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic has become a significant element in U.S-China relations, and in U.S. great power competition with China and Russia, which the Trump Administration has placed at the center of its national security construct. For some observers, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for U.S.-China cooperation on an important international issue of common interest. For other observers, the COVID-19 pandemic is a major new source of dispute and arena of competition between the two countries, and is causing U.S.-China relations to harden more fully into a Cold War-like adversarial situation.

Some observers have focused on what they view as a competition or race between the United States, Russia, China, and other countries to be the first country to develop and field an effective vaccine for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and thus become the first country to be able to restore its economy to full operation and/or exploit foreign access to its vaccine as a foreign policy lever, and thereby gain a political-economic advantage in the post-pandemic world. The term vaccine nationalism is being used by some of these observers to refer to this perceived competition or race. Some observers have expressed concern that decisions by countries to pursue vaccine development and deployment in a competitive, individual manner rather than a cooperative, multilateral manner could reduce the overall effectiveness of efforts to develop and field effective vaccines and thereby prolong the pandemic.

Some observers have focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic provides a prominent new factor in the discussion of whether the United States should decouple its economy from China’s and reduce its dependence on China for key materials and products, including hospital supplies and pharmaceuticals. Some observers have focused on whether the U.S. and Chinese responses to the COVID-19 pandemic will affect views around the world regarding the relative merits of the U.S. and Chinese forms of government and economic models as potential examples to emulate.

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