Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Character and Leadership: COVID-19 in US-China Relations

Insights from Admiral James Stavridis (U.S. Navy, Ret.).

Mercy A. Kuo
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Character and Leadership: COVID-19 in US-China Relations
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Admiral James Stavridis (USN Ret.) – Operating Executive with The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of Counselors at McLarty Associates; Supreme Allied Commander, NATO and commander of U.S. European Commander (2009-2013); Combatant Commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami (2006-2009); and author of Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character (Penguin Press 2019) – is the 230th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the relationship between character and leadership.

Think of leadership as a huge door that swings through the world – it is how we influence others. That “door” of leadership can swing for good or for ill. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a terrific leader who guided the USA through the Great Depression and WWII. But Pol Pot of Cambodia was also a strong leader who mobilized the population of Cambodia for a massive genocide. We should remember that big doors swing on small hinges, and the door of leadership swings on a small hinge called “character.” It is the essence of the human heart, which determines whether a leader serves others sincerely, has empathy and good humor, remains honest, and in the phrase of my book, “sails true north.”

Which admiral in Sailing True North would be a fitting template for leadership in the 21st century? 

For me, I loved Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who took command of the Pacific Fleet in the days after it was nearly destroyed at Pearl Harbor. His new command was still smoking and American sailors were being pulled dead from sunken hulls in the harbor just a few yards from his HQ. His resilience, even temperament, and ability to build a winning team saved the U.S. Navy and led us to victory over the Empire of Japan in the Second World War. Only Nimitz had the spirit and the demeanor to curb willful subordinates and peers like Admiral “Bull” Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur. He epitomizes the kind of leader we need today.

And if I could add one other Admiral from the book, it would be Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a brilliant mind, Ph.D. in advanced mathematics from Yale, and inventor of the original computer programming language, COBAL, who led the Navy into the computer age in the late 20th century. What I loved about “amazing Grace,” who taught me basic programming at Annapolis in the early 1970s, was her sense of humor. Everyone loved to be around her, and her “servant leadership” model stuck with me for many decades.

Evaluate U.S. and Chinese leadership in managing COVID-19. 

After an initial period of obfuscation and attempts to cover up bad news, China’s leadership undertook massive authoritarian measures, which would be very difficult to implement in the U.S., and thus far seems to have curbed the spread of the virus. While they are probably still understating infection and mortality rates, they seem bent on massive testing, contact tracing, and quarantine – the “big three” that can get us ahead.

Here in the USA, the Trump administration, after a similar period of denying the facts, seems to have undertaken the basics of the Chinese approach. We are handicapped to a degree by our traditions of personal freedom and the federal system – which puts enormous power in the hands of governors. This will lead to uneven results, with some states taking fairly draconian measures, such as in New York and California, while other big states  ̶  Florida and Texas  ̶  take a much more laid back approach. The latter will probably change as the medical system in those states comes under severe pressure as is predicted.

So far, the best leadership has been shown in Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea – countries that learned lessons we have ignored from Avian Flu a decade ago.    

How should the U.S. government refute China’s COVID-19 disinformation campaign? 

There is no “silver bullet” here, but a combination of forthright denial across all media; direct demarches delivered to the Chinese; creative use of the social media to debunk such “fake news”; constant, high visibility public appearances by U.S. leadership; use of academic / medical outlets (New England Journal of Medicine, Johns Hopkins APL); and consistent, truthful engagement with international media can help.

Assess President Trump’s self-description as a “wartime president” in your framework of character and leadership.

I think he is facing the most serious crisis of his presidency, but it does not, at least as yet, rise to the level of “wartime” in the sense that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR were true “wartime” presidents who faced existential threats to the nation. This is a dangerous pandemic that might kill a million Americans and create a significant economic depression – but it is still a manageable if concerning challenge to the nation. The key will be finding the balance between draconian medical responses to address the threat to the elderly and the impact doing so will have on the economy, which will create a serious threat to the young. Leadership is about making nuanced choices, and someone will always be disappointed. Let’s hope President Trump is up to the challenge.