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Updates from the Strauss Center and our affiliated distinguished scholars and fellows


Strauss Scholars Contribute to COVID-19 Policy Tool Kit

Jan 4, 2021 |

Several Strauss Center Distinguished Scholars contributed to a recent LBJ School publication, “Resiliency in the Age of COVID-19: A Policy Tool Kit.” This tool kit is broken down into twenty-nine separate essays addressing different policy aspects of the COVID-19 crisis.

In his essay titled “Historical Thinking for Resilient Leaders,” Professor Jeremi Suri emphasizes the utility of history in policy craftmanship. He points to the record of Henry Kissinger in Chinese-American relations in the late 20th century, highlighting Kissinger’s adept use of historical patterns to help overcome the myopia induced by events of the time. Suri also uses Abraham Lincoln as an example of this “historical thinking,” underscoring how Lincoln re-framed the narrative surrounding the then-unfolding Civil War by putting it in conversation with the nation’s founding documents. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, too, engaged in this type of re-framing, linking their struggle to “a long history of efforts by mistreated citizens who appealed to the rule of law for fairness and justice.” Suri emphasizes that historical thinking should not be an attempt to predict a precise outcome, but rather an effort to prepare for “any number of possible futures.” Such a mindset, he argues, is apt in today’s policy landscape, when the pandemic has rocked democratic institutions and when longstanding threats, such as climate change, stand to serve increasingly detrimental consequences. Historical thinking, while not a panacea, can forge a sustainable path forward by way of dialogue.

Professor J. Paul Pope, Strass Center Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow with the Intelligence Studies Project, contributed an essay titled “Intelligence Lessons From COVID: Being “Right” Is Not Enough.” In this essay, Pope argues that the weak policy response to the pandemic constituted an “intelligence failure of the first order,” and that it therefore serves as a useful case study for policymakers in the role of intelligence in policymaking. Pope argues that the failure which occurred was not one of intelligence collection, analysis, or dissemination, but rather of policy and policy execution. This underscores an important reality of intelligence work: “intelligence can fail because intelligence officers got it wrong, but it cannot succeed merely because they got it right.” The role of the intelligence officer is to reduce uncertainty so that policymakers can the make informed choices, if they so choose. To underscore this challenge, Pope provides two models which illustrate the process of intelligence, providing one which incorporates the response of the policymaker to intelligence. If we use this model to assess the U.S. national response to COVID-19, we must conclude that this response was indeed a failure. Reflecting on the differences between these models, he argues, will enable us to better navigate the ongoing pandemic.

In his essay, “The World that COVID Made: What Should American Foreign Policy Do?” Professor William Inboden argues that the U.S. must “recover the tradition of enlightened global leadership that it presently seems to have abandoned.” Such a recovery, will be requisite in forging an effective path forward as the post-WWII liberal world order—which is characterized by American dominance— has not truly dissipated, but rather waned. As such, Inboden identifies some key geopolitical opportunities which the U.S. and its allies can capitalize on in order to best chart a path forward. First, he argues that the pandemic will deepen globalization, and will likely do so within geopolitical lines. Second, the pandemic will not, in fact, result in “dramatic, adverse shifts in the balance of power,” because all major economies have been impacted by the pandemic, and because the pandemic has served to highlight the economic and political fragility of China. Third, he argues that despite the early fumbles of institutions of the liberal order, it is more likely that they will reform and revitalize than collapse. Similarly, Inboden argues that the pandemic will prove deadlier for “autocrats and populists than democrats,” given that democracies maintain several features—such as a free press and elections—which provide a feedback loop for bad policies. This therefore enables democratic governments to more efficiently fine-tune their pandemic response. Inboden concludes by listing the ways in which American leadership has thus far failed with regards to its pandemic response—a list which can serve as a blueprint for the work ahead.

In “The New Debt Trap: COVID-19 and Global Development” Dr. Catherine Weaver and her co-author Rachel Rosenberg discuss the potential long-term threats posed by the pandemic in emerging markets and developing economies. They begin with an overview of the impact of the pandemic on these economies, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic “may set back progress in alleviating global poverty by at least 20 years.” Weaver and Rosenberg focus on one particularly severe externality of this development: the looming debt crisis, resulting from pandemic-induced worsening of many developing countries’ debt-to-GDP ratio. While an increase in debt is a common global trend, its impact is worse in developing countries given their limited ability to carry additional debt. Weaver and Rosenberg then identify three primary reasons that debt-relief initiatives led by the G-20 have failed thus far. First, global aid has fallen in recent years. Second, many global debt-relief efforts fail to adequately address the “structural problems of contemporary debt restructuring and relief initiatives.” Third, the present debt crisis is notable for an overwhelming balance of bilateral debt to a single lender—China—which maintains inadequate debt relief policies. They conclude by emphasizing that a comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic must include a “well-coordinated and ambitious effort by multilateral and private sector donors.”

Read the full COVID-19 policy tool kit here