For a brief moment it seemed that the worst global pandemic in a century might lead to increased comity between the United States, China and Russia after years of geopolitical eye-gouging. As the virus spread there were early signs of a pause in the escalating cycle of military brinksmanship, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and trade wars that has badly shaken the rules-based international order in this era of great power competition.
Beijing seemed to initially embrace a spirit of cooperation when it donated protective gear and testing equipment to hard hit countries in Europe. President Trump for months was uncharacteristically effusive in his praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to combat the virus. Russian President Vladimir Putin got into the soft power act in early April when he dispatched an An-124 military transport to New York filled with donated masks and ventilators. (Of course, you can also argue it was a highly effective information operation designed to undermine U.S. standing in the world.)
That moment was short lived.
“Unfortunately, this crisis is likely to unfold in three consecutive waves, with a public health crisis followed by an economic crisis, quite possibly followed by a security crisis,” said David Kilcullen, author of the recent book “The Dragons and Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West,” and a former special adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, and the U.S. Secretary of State. The United States is already experiencing high levels of domestic unrest at a time of paralyzing partisan rancor, he noted, and the discord will certainly increase as the presidential election nears in November. Adding to that combustible mixture is likely to be a second wave of the virus expected to hit in the fall, and foreign actors like Russian and China determined to use disinformation to stoke domestic divisions during the election.