This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.
The Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement program held a fascinating and provocative discussion with Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council, looking at the question of the relevance of the narrative of great power competition among U.S. voters. Something that Ali said in that conversation has continued to resonate with me. In discussing great power competition, he noted that at present, it is conceived in reactive terms: the United States "responding" to steps taken by states like China or Russia. But the United States needs to be able to move beyond response to, as Ali put it, developing an "affirmative agenda" for the "post-pandemic order," where the U.S. can again galvanize collective action among the nations of the world.
Per Carnegie Council polling, a majority of respondents from the "informed, engaged general public" worry about the world become more dangerous and are concerned about the implications of world affairs being defined by competition or confrontation as opposed to cooperation. At the same time, there seems to be growing support for reorienting trade relations to strengthen ties among the democracies and lessen dependence on China and other authoritarian states.
Thinking about a post-pandemic order may seem premature while we move through a second wave of COVID-19, but the coronavirus, as well as other environmental considerations, are reshaping the parameters of the international system. But having a forward-looking "affirmative agenda" is exactly what is needed.
I was reminded of that in listening to the comments of senior German and U.S. officials in the first day of the fall 2020 Loisach Group, a joint German-American forum for defense and security policy. The subject of this fall's conclave is the Euro-American community's response to a rising China, and what was striking is how a purely "great power competition" narrative seemed insufficient as a basis for joint action. Instead, there is an active search for framing what Wyne describes as an "affirmative agenda"—and with the recognition that an affirmative agenda for the 2020s does not equate to turning the clock back to a pre-2016 approach.