The dramatic, global spread of the novel coronavirus has revealed deep vulnerabilities in the international community’s preparedness for global crises. Global missteps have been exacerbated here at home by the Trump administration’s denial of the crisis and slow, insufficient response. In the midst of the administration’s rush to inject money into Wall Street and growing calls for corporate bailouts, very few have asked the question: “how will we pay for it?” It’s a question that is asked all the time when the government spends money on health care, college affordability, housing, and even energy. But when it comes to the Pentagon or corporate interests, champions of fiscal responsibility are nowhere to be found.
As Congress debates another stimulus package to meet the growing needs of the population, the Trump administration has proposed yet another increase in Pentagon spending to address the crisis. Rather than throwing more money at the Pentagon — when it clearly has enough to spare to build Trump’s vanity border wall — policymakers must recognize one overlooked reason for the U.S. government’s failure to address this crisis head on: the militarized foreign policy status quo.
The U.S. has spent decades, and trillions of dollars, building up a global military force assuming that our biggest existential threats could be addressed through military might. The threat posed by the novel coronavirus reveals not only that this mindset is not working, but that it does little to make people in the United States and the world safer. The idea that increased funding for the Pentagon will address the pandemic shows just how insufficient using 20th century thinking to deal with 21st century problems has become. Failing to recognize this reality will only continue to exacerbate the United States’, and the world’s, security challenges.
It’s clear that Donald Trump and his sycophantic cabinet are unlikely to face this reality. Since taking office, the Pentagon’s budget has increased every year — after already reaching historic levels by the end of the Obama administration. This year’s proposed budget of $740 billion will soon be added to the eye-popping $6.4 trillion that the U.S. has spent on endless post-9/11 wars. The results of this spending has not been an increase in human security for people around the world or in the United States. Far from it: instead it’s bought a sprawling constellation of 800+ military bases, multiple fruitless violent conflicts around the world that have led to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and increased the influence of violent groups that perpetrate terrorism, the highest levels of people fleeing violent conflict since World War II, and growing mass income inequality that has helped decimate the middle class.
Meanwhile, investments in critical human needs, from diplomacy and global health initiatives to build economic resiliency and mitigating the growing climate crisis, have been gutted to bankroll our endless wars. In just the past three years, Trump has cut public health tools, including a 10 percent drop in Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funding. Meanwhile, Trump’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal would halve U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, cutting a total of $3 billion from global health programs. And his initial response to the coronavirus this February, a requested $2.5 billion budget supplemental, was about as much as the Pentagon spent on the newest model of aircraft carrier… in cost overages alone.
Fighter jets aren’t going to help us beat this pandemic any more than they will address climate change, ensure that new artificial intelligence technologies are ethical, or deal with a growing mass displacement crisis. Yet that is how administration after administration and Congress after Congress — both Democratic and Republican — have chosen to spend taxpayer dollars in the name of security. The bipartisan belief in this spending, and the prevailing ideology of U.S. foreign policy it represents — namely that being a global military hegemon at all costs is the only way to ensure U.S. security — has distorted U.S. priorities and our ability to adapt.
A silver lining is that the novel coronavirus pandemic provides the opportunity for an immediate course correction. Congress can start by ensuring the next stimulus package directly invests in the needs of workers and families in the United States, rather than the Pentagon, Wall Street, and corporations. To build resilience in the long-term, Congress must focus on increasing U.S. investments in healthcare, a social safety net, and green investment rather than funding another aircraft carrier or another war of choice in the Middle East.
To credibly lead the world in addressing transnational threats, the United States must invest in the international institutions set up to facilitate cooperation across borders — rather than seek to zero out U.S. financial contributions as this administration has done. It must also reverse foreign policies — such as blanket sectoral economic sanctions like those currently imposed on Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, among others — that cause undue harm to civilians, and undermine foreign governments’ and individuals’ ability to cope with this pandemic, as well as the current and future impacts of the climate crisis.
This approach will face obvious obstacles in this administration and Republican-led Senate. Yet with some Senate Republicans and the president endorsing direct cash payments to individuals and the government taking an equity stake in companies that receive financial relief, these typically progressive ideas may not be so far out of reach. It will be up to Senate and House Democratic leadership, ideally with support from Democratic presidential candidates, to truly fight — both publicly and privately — for as bold of a stimulus proposal as possible to secure these priorities.
No one yet knows how this current crisis will end. But one thing is certain: continuing to prioritize funding the weapons of yesterday’s wars in the face of transnational threats like pandemics and climate change leaves us woefully underprepared to meet the challenges of this century. If we continue business as usual, the current coronavirus crisis previews the unimaginable human costs of failing to prepare for the future.