- The rapid spread of the coronavirus and efforts to address it have strained the US military at its bases and operating areas all over the world.
- That strain underscores the limits of US reach and power and is a message to allies and foes alike about what the US can and can’t do, writes Defence Priorities fellow John Dale Grover.
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Washington never had the bandwidth or resources to be everywhere around the world at once, and COVID-19 is only making this a starker reality.
Recent reports indicate that two US aircraft carriers in the Pacific have become infected with the virus. While the ballad of the USS Theodore Roosevelt was well-publicised, the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan also has coronavirus cases.
The US is stretched thin – and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other countries must be encouraged to build their own defence capacities and maintain their regional balances of power. It is unreasonable to expect the US cavalry to arrive every single time.
In fact, COVID-19 is affecting military capabilities around the world. One of Russia’s cruise missile submarines was quarantined due to potential exposure, and some of the crew on a Dutch attack submarine were infected. The US and South Korea have cancelled or postponed several joint exercises because soldiers have gotten infected.
Each additional case means that countries will increasingly have to consider the security implications of this pandemic. Hopefully, leaders will see the coronavirus as an important reckoning, prompting a reconsideration of broad emergency planning and national security preparedness.
As regional powers – both US allies and non-allies – turn inward, they are confronting the reality of the limits of American power. It is a fact that Washington does not – and cannot – respond to every world event or far-flung conflict. This means countries shouldn’t neglect their own defences just because America has traditionally had their back. Just like during a pandemic, countries not ready to defend themselves will suffer greatly if they don’t plan ahead.
For better or worse, the world is a de facto self-help system. There is no 911 to call when you get invaded. The United Nations has an important diplomatic role to play, but the UN Security Council rarely agrees to use force to actually stop an invasion.
Moreover, the United States has enough of its own problems and its citizens are tired of endless war. For instance, a 2019Pew Research Centre poll found that a majority of both US citizens and veterans did not believe that the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria were worth fighting.
This is why regional balances of power are best maintained by the countries that are in those areas. The actions of East European countries wary of Russia and East Asian states concerned with China show this is true. Whether they are a US ally or not, all of these states maintain active militaries. These actions demonstrate that, even with US security guarantees, countries naturally look after themselves because they can never be certain that someone else will.
This realpolitik has held throughout human history and is ignored at one’s peril. It is good that countries take their regional balance of power seriously and that they don’t want to be dominated by Russia or China. However, they must act. The coronavirus should push these states to further engage in burden sharing and building their own emergency plans.
For example, while every country can and should do more, South Korea is a good example of a state that has been steadily investing in itself. Seoul’s military is one of Asia’s finest and clearly outclasses North Korea’s. Furthermore, South Korea has responded excellently to COVID-19 and is leading the world by example. This is how a country can balance its major regional hard power threat while also preparing for disasters like pandemics.
As South Korea rightly aims to do more in this regard, countries in Asia-and American allies in Europe-should take notice and follow Seoul’s example.
The coronavirus is still taking its evil toll on America. Over 500,000 have been infected and more than 20,000 have died. 16.6 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the last few weeks. Additionally, with military units infected and therefore unable to fight a war, America is less able and willing to engage in another foreign conflict.
Now is the time for a vital pause and rethink. What happens the next time America is in a crisis and Russia or China decide to make a land grab? Those regional neighbours should prepare and make themselves defensively oriented prickly porcupines that Moscow and Beijing would not have the stomach to invade and pacify. By doing this, the world will be that much safer and prosperous as countries balance each other while engaging in productive diplomacy and trade. This is the best way forward.
Just as this pandemic teaches countries to take viruses seriously, so too should America’s turn inward teach everyone that their own security matters. This is about the world as it is, not as anyone wishes it to be. Let us hope that it doesn’t take another avoidable wakeup call in the form of “little green men” seizing territory somewhere to drive this point home.
John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defence Priorities. He is also an assistant managing editor at The National Interest and a Korean studies fellow at the Centre for the National Interest.
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