Rapid-Fire Thoughts | 2020 | News

Rapid-Fire Thoughts: Looking Back & Ahead with MIT’s Security Studies Program Faculty
Brittany Logan
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SSP Faculty look back on the year 2020, and look ahead to 2021.





The novel coronavirus pandemic. International trade wars. An unprecedented presidential election. Sanctions. Nuclear proliferation. Human rights violations. Economic recession.

So much has happened in the past twelve months that it would be impossible for any one person to remember it all. As we near the end of a year like no other, we asked our renowned resident experts (a.k.a.: our faculty) for their thoughts on the notable events of 2020—as well as what to look out for in 2021—when it comes to national and international security.

Looking Back at 2020

“With a few notable exceptions, the general response of leaders and governments around the world to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to take extraordinary measures to save the lives of their people. Does this tell us anything about the willingness of these same governments to run the risk of wars that could cause vastly higher casualties than COVID? Have governments and people simply become more risk averse than we have assumed?
COVID has done a lot of damage to many economies. Will this damage encourage cautious and conservative foreign policy behavior, as leaders both perceive their countries to be somewhat weakened and also focus their energies on repairing this economic damage?”

Barry Posen
Ford International Professor of Political Science

“The biggest lesson for Japan watchers was that it has come of diplomatic age. The once mercantilist state transformed itself into a champion of free trade—and not from the sidelines or from behind Washington’s apron. After President Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, Tokyo seized leadership of its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It also signed on to a second multilateral free trade arrangement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that includes China, its largest trading partner. It did all this while reaching out to Australia and India in an attempt to elevate its role as a U.S. ally in the regional security landscape and to balance Chinese influence in the region.”  

Richard Samuels
Ford International Professor of Political Science
Director, Center for International Studies

“China’s relatively rapid and effective recovery from COVID-19, the signing of the RCEP, and the continued rapid expansion of the PLA Navy all worked to further cement Beijing’s position as regional powerhouse. To be sure, it faces challenges and its economic growth is slowing, but China is the central motive force in Asia today.  

U.S. demands for a 50 percent increase in South Korean payments for U.S. forces under the Special Measures Agreement, and the rejection of a 13 percent counteroffer, signaled an explicitly transactional U.S. approach to the alliance and weakened the relationship. Korea already spends about 2.6 percent of GDP on its military and has increased that budget by between 7 and 9 percent annually for the last several years, so, while there are alliance issues that need to be addressed, Seoul is hardly free riding.”  

Eric Heginbotham
Principal Research Scientist

“As COVID-19 hit, jihadists cheered the virus as "God's tiniest soldier" on their forums and counterterrorism experts fretted that the virus would open new avenues for jihadists to attack Western countries distracted with managing the surging pandemic. The most dire predictions have not come true, and in fact the pandemic seems to have tamped down jihadist violence, if anything. Vigilance remains crucial, but I think we've learned that not all moments of weakness are equally exploitable by terrorists, and I am less concerned about a rise in jihadist violence than I was at the outset of the pandemic.”

Richard Nielsen
Associate Professor of Political Science

Looking Ahead to 2021

“On the economic front, I would keep an eye on the composition of these new trading regimes. Will the post-Brexit U.K. be welcomed to join CPTPP? Will the U.S. try to return? Will China, the largest economy in RCEP, knock on an open door at CPTPP? On the hard power side, I would watch Taiwan closely. Will Washington draw a red line there? Will Beijing? What will be Japan’s commitment should a Taiwan conflict erupt? What will be the Quad’s?”

Richard Samuels

“The re-opening of international borders to large flows of people after the pandemic passes may present greater opportunities for would-be terrorists than the pandemic has. Whatever the post- COVID-19 "re-opening" looks like, we should stay attentive to security precautions.”

Richard Nielsen

“Will the new Biden Administration focus mainly on the domestic problems in the U.S. that he was elected to solve, or will the largely interventionist group of foreign policy advisers he appointed divert the administration’s attention to international activism?
Almost any one of the usual suspects in international security could go wrong: North Korea, Iran, Russia, or China. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are also in the mix. But the most serious risk is the China-Taiwan-U.S. triangle. Any evidence that the U.S. and Taiwan are trying to alter the status quo and foreclose the possibility of unification could prove the trigger of an extremely seriously crisis.”

Barry Posen

“The fate of New START, set to expire in February 2021 but renewable to 2026, will have consequences for nuclear dynamics not only in Europe, but also in Asia. Its expiration approaches almost exactly two years after the lapse of the INF Treaty. The United States is looking to engage China in arms control, and success in that effort will depend, in part, on U.S. strategy with regard to New START or a successor agreement.   

How Japan fares under the leadership of its new prime minister, SUGA Yoshihide, will also help shape the Asia-Pacific region. Although U.S. strategists will pay close attention to whether Japan continues to grow the defense budget, the fate of structural economic reforms (which Suga has emphasized), immigration policy, and working conditions for women will be equally important in improving the economic underpinnings for defense.”  

Eric Heginbotham

Final Thoughts

“American scholars and practitioners of security presume a much higher level of confidence in governments and in leaders than appears warranted, despite the fact that we see ourselves as hard-bitten, clear-eyed realists (with a small "r'). The possibilities for unexpected failure appear much larger than traditionally appreciated. Essentially, the national security-making process all but collapsed in the last year under President Trump. And the notion that a president would never do [fill in the blank], even with respect to nuclear weapons, likely needs rethinking.

Moving from the U.S. to a comparative plane, the varied and global scale of the mismanagement of the COVID-19 response suggests that human society in general, at least this version, is less capable of crisis-response than is ordinarily presumed.

The American public's view of this issue or that issue in national security has, according to research, typically turned on elite cues. This past year has demonstrated that these elite-led views can be pushed well beyond the boundaries of evidence, logic, or even pushback by a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in a single year. One generally expects reality—disease, war, economic hardship—to be of sufficient raw physical force, so as to coerce even die-hard believers in a proposition to relent. And while that seems true for most people, it is clearly not true about a non-trivial segment of the population under a domestic politics characterized by hyper-partisanship.”

Jim Walsh
Senior Research Associate

To learn more about our faculty and their work, please visit our faculty page.