The end of power politics has been frequently advertised but never actually materialized. Interestingly enough, great-power rivalries are pronounced dead or irrelevant in the aftermath of major conflicts, such as World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft is rehearsing this argument by emphasizing the importance of non-military threats to national security. The Washington-based think tank is headed by the distinguished historian Andrew Bacevich, widely seen as the most important representative of the Wisconsin School of Diplomatic History. Since its inception during the early stages of the Cold War, this methodological approach has been arguing that there is a fundamental imbalance between domestic and international politics in America. The pursuance of ‘Empire’ has stopped politicians from addressing important socio-economic problems at home, and contributed to political apathy and cynicism among the citizenry. As the founder of the Wisconsin school historian William Appleman Williams showed in a number of influential books, Empire is a convenient but ultimately unsatisfying alternative to community.
Bacevich and the Quincy Institute have adjusted these methodological insights to the post-COVID political landscape arguing that in an age of face masks and half-empty grocery shelves, America’s enemies are no longer situated outside the country. The cumulative effects of pandemics, climate change, floods and hurricanes, exceed by far the threat posed by rogue states, or even terrorist networks. To be sure, America’s global role was already shifting before the COVID outbreak, but the pandemic has accelerated this process. As Steven Metz explains in a piece originally written for the World Politics Review, the pandemic is part of a storm that threatens the viability of America’s grant strategy. This strategy should have been drastically revised after the end of the Cold War, but lost all credibility after the largely futile wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, in another article reproduced by the Institute, the Trump administration is accused for committing mistakes similar to those perpetrated by the Bush administration in the past. By ignoring the warnings of experts, appointing loyalists to crucial posts, and choosing to accuse China for the virus, Trump failed to do what was necessary inside the country.
Although the Quincy Institute has a point in underlining the importance of non-military threats to national security, their political vision leaves many questions unanswered. What Andrew Bacevich and others conceptualize as sustainable self-sufficiency has always been a utopia for America and most other advanced nations. Even the most radical forms of Keynesianism cannot guarantee economic prosperity by relying exclusively on the domestic market and downplaying international commitments. That said, there are aspects of the Wisconsin school approach to politics and historiography that can be useful today. In the aftermath of COVID, many nations realise that they cannot depend on others for the necessary protective equipment and technological infrastructure. Also, Williams’ emphasis on the principle of the ‘externalization of evil’ as an aspect of imperial behaviour can shed light on the tensions between the United States and China.