Conflict, Coronavirus, Power & Security, The Global Cable Conflict, Competition, and COVID-19 with Michael Horowitz

May 15, 2020
By The Global Cable | Perry World House

This week, Season 3 of The Global Cable comes to a close. Our final conversation of the 2019-20 academic year is with Michael Horowitz, Professor of Political Science and incoming Director at Perry World House.

In this episode, Michael talks to us about what COVID-19 means for great power competition and global politics; whether war could be a likely outcome of the pandemic; and the complex issues surrounding the development of a vaccine, which he calls a 'global Manhattan Project.'

Thank you for listening to our third season, and stay tuned for more from The Global Cable this summer!

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Libsyn | Spotify | Stitcher

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Franklin Few

On every episode of The Global Cable, we ask our guests the 'Franklin Few' - an updated version of a questionnaire used by Penn founder Benjamin Franklin. Here are Michael Horowitz's answers.

Someone you'd like to meet: José Andrés, founder of the World Central Kitchen initiative, which provides meals in areas hit by natural disasters.

A book, movie, or anything else you'd recommend to listeners:

Someone who's recently done something that deserves praise or attention: Philabundance, a hunger relief organization in the Philadelphia area that's working to keep food on people's tables.

Something Penn and Penn students can do to be of service to the world: Finding ways to volunteer with and support your local community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Listen now.


Michael Horowitz [00:00:10] I think coronavirus is accelerating the trend toward great power competition, almost by accentuating features of the U.S. And China that already existed. So in the United States, the epidemic reinforces the Trump administration's instinct for protection, closed borders, going it alone. And in China, it reinforces the instinct of the Chinese government toward control, and an attempt to both control their population and exert influence on the world.

Michael Horowitz [00:00:46] And I think one of the most fascinating and troubling things about our discourse surrounding the global politics of coronavirus, and by our discourse, in some ways, I mean the U.S. national security discourse, is it's like you have to make a forced choice between blaming China for the outbreak or blaming the Trump administration for its response in the United States, when it seems like both is a really plausible answer.

John Gans [00:01:14] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from her Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most important issues with the people who work on them. I'm John Gans, the Director of Communications and Research here at Perry World House. On this week's episode, the last of our 2019 through 2020 season, we speak to Perry World House's incoming director, Michael Horowitz. He's a Professor of Political Science at Penn and researches and writes about military innovation, the role of leaders in international politics, and what the future of warfare will look like. Next month, Horowitz will become Director of Perry World House. On The Global Cable, Horowitz talks to us about what COVID-19 means for global politics and great power competition, whether war will be a likely consequence of the pandemic, and the complex issues surrounding the development of a vaccine to fight the disease. Michael Horowitz, welcome to The Global Cable.

Michael Horowitz [00:02:13] Thanks for having me, John.

John Gans [00:02:15] You know, really no need to thank me when you're the boss. It works out really well. We have obviously seen a lot of changes at Perry World House and a lot of changes at Penn as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That is a topic that's familiar to many of our loyal Global Cable listeners. So my question for you—you've been spending a long time studying and thinking about global politics and global security—is what do you think the coronavirus pandemic will mean for global politics? And what we sometimes hear called "the great power competition" we hear so much about?

Michael Horowitz [00:02:57] I think coronavirus is accelerating the trend toward great power competition almost by accentuating features of the U.S. And China that already existed. So in the United States, the epidemic reinforces the Trump administration's instinct for protection, closed borders, going it alone. And in China, it reinforces there the instinct of the Chinese government toward control and an attempt to both control their population and exert influence on the world.

Michael Horowitz [00:03:34] And I think one of the most fascinating and troubling things about our discourse surrounding the global politics that coronavirus—and by our discourse in some ways, I mean the US national security discourse—is it's like you have to make a forced choice between blaming China for the outbreak or blaming the Trump administration for its response in the United States when it seems like both is a really plausible answer. And that trying to cover up the disease, they lied about the extent of its spread, they will limit research into its origins, which is not great for developing treatments or vaccine. Even today, 2,000 cases in total? Like, come on, that's a serious number in the U.S. Our inability to effectively organize and test people is not a shining symbol of American leadership. And the U.S. has over a million cases—more than a quarter I think of the total global coronavirus cases are American. I mean, nobody wants America to be number one more than me, but this isn't usually what I have in mind.

John Gans [00:04:42] Let's go back to a more basic first principle. We hear about great power competition. And it's been discussed and debated about in terms of coronavirus' impact on it. But how would you define great power competition, like how do you see it and who's competing and what in particular about—you talked about China's and the United States as both inadequate responses to coronavirus. What does that inadequacy mean for this so-called competition?

Michael Horowitz [00:05:15] When I think about great power competition, I think about the way that the United States and China, through economics, through diplomacy, through their militaries, posture in some ways. Not always against each other, since obviously U.S.-China trade is vital for both countries' economic success, but posture with an eye toward what international relations scholars would think about as "relative gains"—increasingly rather than absolute gains. So rather than thinking about the U.S.-China relationship as one where a rising tide lifts all boats, I think both countries increasingly think about it in a much more of a zero sum sort of way. Whether what we're talking about is say Huawei and 5G in Europe or what we're talking about is the supply of PPE to the United States and around the world in the context of coronavirus. And I thought it was really interesting that the spate of stories that we saw in like late March, early April, when it was almost like China was trying to go on a charm diplomacy offensive by sending out supplies, claiming they were sending out supplies to the rest of the world to help treat them and then maybe charging for them later. But it signaled in some ways that at least in China, they view the outbreak of coronavirus as something that would be genuinely bad for China's international reputation. But then something as America's response became clear, it's something they could maybe use to illustrate the superiority of their approach to the world. Now, I personally don't think in the long run that would be successful, but I think that it illustrates the way that the U.S. and China are competing in their response to coronavirus just as they compete in a bunch of other areas as well.

John Gans [00:07:24] Okay, that's a good point. If you're comparing the competition between China and the United States in terms of responding to coronavirus, the clear winner of that competition is either New Zealand or South Korea, right? Neither is establishing themselves very well. My question then is, do you actually think that the coronavirus pandemic is going to have a long term impact on the great game, great power competition between China and the U.S.?

Michael Horowitz [00:08:02] I think we're all looking for sabbatical opportunities in New Zealand at the moment. But seriously, absolutely. I'm not sure what the long run effects necessarily would be, in some ways because I think it's too early to tell. And I also think it depends on what exactly you're talking about. The question is could coronavirus and its effects influence the outcome of elections, which does have a significant effect on local politics? Almost certainly that's entirely possible. If the question is will coronavirus itself fundamentally change the underlying balance of power, I think probably not. Only because the underlying strength of both the United States and China brought to the table initially you're likely to see on display. I do think that one of the things we're likely to see is over the medium term, a reorientation of our globalized world into something that it's possible looks a little more bloc-like. If you think about what supply chains look like. The way that we get the cheapest flat-screen televisions possible to watch all the sports that aren't on TV right now is through just-in-time globalized networks. Where components of those televisions are made all around the world.

And what we've learned is that the cost of that is that they aren't very redundant and they're not necessarily all that reliable in the context of a crisis. And so I think the future of supply chains is likely to be in exploring opportunities that maybe cost a little bit more, but are more reliable and more redundant and governments might be more likely to to underwrite a bit of that. And to me, when one thinks about reliability, that suggests that alliances are going to be increasingly important. Alliances are going to be increasingly important in determining supply chain reliability. We talk all the time like, oh, America's allies and partners, our NATO allies, etc. But in some ways, reliability, the supply chain is a function of geography, how far away is something. But also a function of what does your relationship with that government look like and can you count on them in a crisis? And I think one consequence of an attempt to secure our supply chains could be to increase the importance of allies and partners, because it will be even more obvious that it's essential for economic future, not just traditional diplomatic issues that we usually think about in the context of alliances.

John Gans [00:11:09] And then it would seem that it will put making decisions about supply chains in geo strategic terms, not just sort of economic ones and commercial ones.

Michael Horowitz [00:11:23] These issues spill over, essentially. We tend to talk about immigration in one conversation and trade in one conversation and the military in another conversation. Different experts, different reporters, even different academics that are working on those things. What the reality is from a policy perspective, as you know, from working in government, these things are all interlinked when it comes to policy choices.

John Gans [00:11:45] So are you describing more of a bipolar divided world between China and the United States with their blocs and their allies and partners? Or are you envisioning more of a multipolar, and is it really too soon to say?

Michael Horowitz [00:12:07] I think it's probably a little too soon to say because we don't know exactly how the EU is going to recover from this. And we also don't know exactly what's going on in Russia besides that it's way worse than they say that it is. And did it with India, actually. And so I think the U.S. will actually have a lot to do in making and driving what that looks like because while one response to the need to secure supply chains is to increase the emphasis on having reliable allies and partners, it's also possible that the U.S. could go in a further America first creative direction.

Michael Horowitz [00:12:51] And so I actually think the choices the U.S. makes will be pretty consequential because that will influence a lot of what America's NATO allies and partners do, what Australia and New Zealand do, what Japan and South Korea do, etc.

John Gans [00:13:06] Now, it would seem that much of this will depend in part on the November election in the United States, right? Trump's reelection could have real geopolitical consequences in terms of the decisions allies and partners will make in the medium term, in terms of ability to count on the United States versus not.

Michael Horowitz [00:13:36] Structure matters in international politics, it's hard not to be a international relations faculty member and not think that. But leaders really make a difference and elections have consequences. And one of the consequences of this election—even though it's not what will be the thing that people mostly vote on or nearly anybody votes on—but one of those consequences will be about the perks and the direction of American foreign policy.

John Gans [00:14:02] One of the things that you made a pretty robust following online for is your pieces that have told people to relax about the risks of competitions between North Korea and the United States and Iran. You wrote a piece earlier this year in The Washington Post that you assured readers that war between the United States and Iran was far less likely than some might think after the strike on Soleimani and some of the ratcheting up of tensions between Iran and the United States late in 2019, early 2020. That's like one of many issues that's fascinating. We see that tensions continue to boil even between these two powers and their militaries in the Middle East. What do you see COVID-19 doing to standoffs like those? And do you think it makes war more likely or not?

Michael Horowitz [00:15:10] So Elizabeth Saunders, my my coauthor in this piece, Elizabeth and I, we colloquially call these our "don't panic" series of articles. And we know that it's time to write a "don't panic" series when we see—I guess we don't send a don't panic entry when we see some of our political science colleagues on Twitter talking about how the risk of war in the short term is really high. And I don't think that COVID-19 will fundamentally change the probability of war between the U.S. and Iran, because I think a few things still hold. One is that Iran's leaders don't want a war because they wish to survive. The second is that having campaigned in part on getting the U.S. out of the Middle East, I don't think President Trump still wants U.S. troops heading into Iran. And the American military also doesn't seem all that excited about—confrontation, maybe, but war, probably not. And in thinking more broadly about how coronavirus might impact the probability of conflict, you can imagine two mechanisms maybe that could make conflict more likely. One would be if you have countries that have more competition and tension as a result of the pandemic. Whether it's disputes about borders or disputes about PPE and protective equipment exports, something like that. You could imagine competition and tension that maybe would escalate. But it seems sort of unlikely because it doesn't necessarily fundamentally change a country's underlying interests. The second mechanism, second because I think of it more short term and that's probably the way the unequal impact from the pandemic would create windows of opportunity for action. If you have two countries in a rivalry and maybe one of them is a lot more devastated than the other. Maybe a combination with the first, it creates a sort of window of opportunity.

John Gans [00:17:18] And what do you think, it would seem to create windows of opportunity, but at a moment where  every country is struggling, is impacted economically. There's seems to be— coronavirus is having differentiated effects on countries around the world. Every country is, when the United States' economy takes as big a hit on trade and travel, take this big hit. It would seem that this economic downturn will have a cooling effect on belligerence. But that's just one piece, I don't want to get into your turf in terms of "don't panic."

Michael Horowitz [00:18:06]  I think now the research, from my memory, the research actually on an economic downturns in war suggests that during the economic downturn, war can often be unlikely. But to the extent that that significant economic downturn, depressions, etc., sow the seeds of radicalization, the long run impact of economic downturns actually can be there, so there's some empirical evidence about this. You know, obviously we have discussions over the Weimar, Germany, France, etc. One consequence of economic downturns can be to enable the rise of the types of regimes that seem to make significant international conflict more likely. But in the short term, I think it's almost certainly right that countries are absorbing the economic cost of coronavirus, like the first thing that comes to mind isn't, "oh yeah, let's go start a conflict."

John Gans [00:19:12] It would seem not. So here's one potential area for competition, if not conflict. You spend a lot of time looking at technological diffusion and technological competition in international politics. What do you think about the competition to develop a vaccine? How does your research into technological competition inform what you expect to see in that area?

Michael Horowitz [00:19:40] It's a great question, and I think one of the lessons of the research I've done on military innovation that might be applicable here is that often it's less about the specific technique and more about the organizational capabilities. Effectively using the technology—that makes the difference in winning and losing in warfare. And in this context, it's not just having the raw horsepower associated with working on a vaccine, but having the underlying infrastructure to connect that basic research to production lines. And then how do you get it out to people? But I will say, if one wanted to be like a tiny bit optimistic, and you know that I like to be optimistic, there is more intellectual energy and money being devoted to finding a magic bullet for coronavirus than has ever been spent on any medical medical problem or maybe even any problem. And certainly in this time frame, it's like a global Manhattan Project. One where you have competition between countries that want to be the first in developing a vaccine or key treatment, but also a lot of scientific collaboration at the working level. And human ingenuity is a powerful thing. And hopefully that will enable breakthroughs that are certainly faster than the average vaccine development time.

John Gans [00:21:09] Well a little room for optimism. So somebody who knew a thing or two about innovation and scientific advances was Ben Franklin, one of Penn's first trustees, and 300 years ago he used a questionnaire in conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs. Now, if we were still on campus and campus was still open, we could probably look out the window of your office and see a statue of Ben Franklin. But for now, we're just going to use his questionnaire that we've used and updated for use today to anchor our Global Cable podcast. So these are short questions that can have short answers and we thought we'd ask the first, which is who would you most like to meet today and why?

Michael Horowitz [00:21:56] I'm thinking José Andrés in part because I've always wanted to get him to Perry World House and maybe somebody will send him this podcast and it'll make him think about it. He's a famous chef who created World Central Kitchen, which is devoted to feeding people in the wake of disasters. This guy has fed hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even more, around the world in the wake of natural disasters. It's incredible. And then turning and thinking about the intersection of what we do at work with like my side interests and things like cocktails and baking, I'd love to meet that guy. He just seems fascinating.

John Gans [00:22:43] All right. That's a good one. We haven't had him, as mentioned, yet and I'm just glad you didn't mention Winston Churchill since he is the most prominent figure mentioned in our Franklin Few conversations so far.

Michael Horowitz [00:22:56] Seriously, I feel like Winston Churchill is kind of a cop-out answer. Because he is obviously a super famous historical figure and very prominent and known for saying some quippy and interesting things. And so I guess, but I don't know. I got a little "been there, done that" feel about Winston Churchill as an answer.

John Gans [00:23:30] My sense in the Winston Churchill answer is that this question, for whatever reason, is very confounding for people. And they find safety and comfort in history and the deceased. I think the other thing with it is, and I think this speaks a little bit to your pick, which is I find that there's a division between people who would actually like to have fun with somebody. And I feel as though like José Andrés, Winston Churchill would actually be potentially a good time. There's an assumption he could just be a jerk. Right. But I think there's at least a chance he's a good time. So I think that undergirds some of the desire to meet him. I would assume José Andrés would be a good time. I can't imagine him being a bad time and you might get a free meal out of it. Isn't a bad way to go, but it is kind of fun.

John Gans [00:24:31] Have you recently read anything, seen anything, listen to anything related to world affairs that our listeners might be interested in? And this question has taken on greater import as people are socially distancing and staying home and looking for things to binge, to download, to read, to listen to.

Michael Horowitz [00:24:51] Even besides previous episodes of The Global Cable hosted by Perry World House's Director of Research and Communications Dr. John Gans?

John Gans [00:24:58] I assume you were caught up, but I can understand at a time of crisis you want to go to your comfort food listening and I assume that's The Global Cable.

Michael Horowitz [00:25:09] We both have toddlers, listening is not something either of us is really able to do right now.

John Gans [00:25:18] I would say that I've actually listened to more podcasts in quarantine and quiet than I do in my regular day, which I do find it interesting. But something other than that, and you've written about Game of Thrones, so I assume you're not bingeing Game of Thrones again.

Michael Horowitz [00:25:38] My favorite podcast in the whole world is Binge Mode. It's a no brainer podcast network. Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion and they go super, super deep in a very nerdy way into things like Star Wars and Harry Potter and like a bunch of things and so on. I love that stuff. But anyway, the two things that I would recommend right now. One is a book I'm actually rereading and that is Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill. So William McNeill was the great macro historian and we generally know him for books like The Rise of the West. But the follow up to The Rise of the West was actually a book about claims and how they influenced global history. And it's about the contrast between the macro parasitism of humans and human society versus the micro parasitism of viruses and bacteria. And I'll be honest, it's not his most interesting read, but I think it's particularly useful and interesting in thinking about elements of history, like Justinian Airplanes, the Black Death, some of those kinds of things. I think the obvious thing to try to learn about now is the Great Influenza. The book on that is very clear, and that is the book The Great Influenza by John Barry, which is a good example of a publicly accessible history book that is also excellent. And if you're if you're interested in learning about the 1918-onward epidemic, The Great Influenza is the thing you should read.

John Gans [00:27:21] So, as somebody who follows you on Instagram I'm surprised these are not a recipe book on either cocktails or baking options. I'm surprised that you are this serious in your quarantine reading.

Michael Horowitz [00:27:37] In the last two weeks we got an essential on cooking cookbook. So we can expand beyond my tofu and the sorts of things we make. And I just got actually a French cocktail book and made a drink last night called the "French Manhattan," which substitutes cognac for the rye or bourbon that you would generally have at home. It's kind of interesting.

John Gans [00:28:03] And we come full circle because I don't know if you knew this, but legend has it that Winston Churchill's mother commissioned a drink for a cocktail party and it was the Manhattan.

Michael Horowitz [00:28:15] Oh, there you go.

John Gans [00:28:16] She is the mother of both Winston Churchill and the Manhattan Cocktail. You come to The Global Cable for these fun facts. Do you know any individuals in the United States or elsewhere who's recently done something that deserves praise or imitation?

Michael Horowitz [00:28:36] Besides José Andrés and feeding the people? I would actually give a shout out to a Philadelphia nonprofit organization that I think is doing incredible work called Philabundance. It's the largest hunger relief organization in the Philadelphia area. And as food insecurity in Philadelphia County and beyond have increased a great deal in the last couple of months. They're just doing incredible work in trying to keep food on people's tables during a really unstable time for some of the people in the United States as well as around the world. And I would add on a lighter note, maybe any parents anywhere. Just for getting up in the morning and banging away having your kids home all the time.

John Gans [00:29:28] These are fair points. That sounds good, and then last question, which sort of seems timely here at the end of the Global Cable Season 3, but also the end of the school year at Penn. As commencement is right around the corner, even if it will be online, what can Penn students do right now to be a service to the country and the world at this critical time during the pandemic?

Michael Horowitz [00:29:58] It's a great question. I think actually, if anybody's listening that's ever taken U.S. Foreign Policy or a class with me they've probably heard me say a variation on this. But Penn and Penn students are already winners in the game of life, and just by getting to Penn. And with that profound privilege comes an equally or even more profound responsibility to work to make the world a better place. And a lot of students who've suffered through online courses, and just so they know we're suffering too. And we're learning lessons for the fall just in case. But there are things that we can do. We can volunteer. We can transfer knowledge. I think that there's a lot that even as we live in lockdown or partial lockdown, there's a lot that the Penn community can do to try to help in their communities. Even if you know you can't go do that internship around the world or you can't go work at that think tank in D.C. that you planned, you can still do things virtually. You can still do more local work to help people and then hope that the researchers at Penn are working on a vaccine and working on treatments. Let's give them all of our thoughts and prayers and hope that ends up successful.

John Gans [00:31:36] All right. Well, thank you for joining us here. Mike, thank you for ending Season 3 with such a positive note. And we look forward to more conversations in the future here on The Global Cable, stay tuned. Thanks so much for joining us today, Mike.

Michael Horowitz [00:31:56] You've done an unbelievable job hosting it this year, frankly, way better than I ever did. And so thanks to you. Thanks to you and to all the guests that we've had this year. I think that The Global Cable's an incredible outlet, both for ideas within and outside the Penn community.

John Gans [00:32:12] Don't disagree, don't disagree. Well, we'll be back with more in the future. Thanks so much and have a great day, Mike.

Michael Horowitz [00:32:19] Thanks you too.