The United States has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic. Americans are necessarily preoccupied/obsessed with the challenges of surviving — economically and physically — here and now. At the same time, the epidemic is a true global pandemic with profound implications for U.S. foreign and defense policy. The pandemic also challenges our established notion of national security.
Consider the most serious crises this country has faced over the last 20 years. That list includes the 9/11 attacks, the “Great Recession” of 2008-09 and the Russian cyberattack on the 2016 presidential election [one that may well have altered the outcome of an extremely close vote]. Now we have a pandemic that has already killed more Americans than 9/11 and ultimately will kill more of our citizens than all the wars since 1945 combined. What these events have in common is that in each case America’s massive military capabilities — conventional and nuclear — were largely irrelevant. The coronavirus is entirely indifferent to the size of the Pentagon budget. The same is true of an even more threatening, if slower developing, climate crisis.
The Defense Department has made some tangible, if limited, contributions to the pandemic response, including hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles and full-field hospitals to pandemic hotspots. Military stockpiles of ventilators and other key supplies have been released. At the same time the armed forces are a victim. There are few better environments to incubate and spread a virus than a large warship with hundreds or thousands of service personnel crowded together in a confined space. In a telling episode, the captain of a nuclear aircraft carrier, desperate to protect his sailors as the virus spread below decks, sent an appeal to several Navy offices for permission to disembark most of his people. The email become public, President Trump was enraged (it made for bad press), so the acting Navy secretary stripped the captain of his command. In a rare and compelling moment, the captain received a standing, cheering salute from his sailors as he left the carrier. What they saw was an officer who had sacrificed his career in an effort to protect them.
Meanwhile, the White House-led response to the pandemic has descended from incompetence to farce. The President spends most of his interminable daily press briefings lashing out at the media and shouting insults at governors who are insufficiently obsequious. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that everyone wear a protective mask when out in public, Trump announced it — and then said he would disregard the recommendation. In response to urgent pleas from governors for ventilators in federal stockpiles, Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, pronounced that these are “our ventilators” — like a Trump family stash. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is desperately trying to fast-track the search for a vaccine against the virus, but the leader of that effort is constantly pressed by Jared (the same guy who was going to bring peace to the Middle East — “the deal of the century”) to adopt an anti-malarial drug that the FDA does not recommend. [That drug has significant side effects, including cardiac arrest]. So the NIH has to fend off Jared, the snake-oil salesman, while trying to save you and me.
Assuming that at some point we will return to competent national leadership, what will a post-pandemic understanding of national security strategy look like? The baseline concerns with the military challenge posed by China and Russia will remain — and with it the need for a well-equipped Army, Navy and Air Force. The Pentagon has just submitted a request for $20 billion in new spending for forces to offset China in the Pacific. That and other expenditures will have to compete with the new massive demands on the domestic budget. These traditional categories of national security will have to be paired with new capabilities and priorities, including upgraded global surveillance and data collection designed to detect emerging (and future) threats from disease and environmental change. This will require greatly augmented capabilities in the U.S. intelligence community along with a beefed-up mandate to the CDC to have eyes and ears around the world tasked with early warning. This will in turn require advanced arrangements with other countries — with their intelligence agencies, health ministries and research centers. The antivirals and vaccines needed to defeat the current virus, and those of the future, will come from a collaboration between researchers in the United States, Europe, China, Japan and Australia. It should be noted that with all the dysfunction in the political halls of power, biomedical researchers around the world have actually been collaborating quite effectively.
The broader lesson is twofold. First, the world is (whether we like it or not) a deeply interconnected place. Threats will emerge out of that interconnection, as will remedies. Second, government capabilities (think “deep state”) are critical. The intelligence capacity of this country has been degraded by the White House over the last three years. Budgets for the CDC and biomedical research have been gutted. Fortunately, America is rich in talent and in people committed to the public good. Give them a chance — and a little support — and they will secure our future.