Manhattan, New York, USA – March 28, 2020: No crowds in Times Square after self-quarantine and social distancing was put in place in New York City to slow the spread of the covid-19 pandemic. (Photo credit: haeryung stock images /
Globalization and American security after the coronavirus crisis

As Americans struggle to deal with — even live through — the coronavirus pandemic, their attention is by necessity on daily challenges. Once the immediate crisis abates, though, the changes that it unleashed or accelerated will become clear. As Americans debate what caused the tragedy and how to prevent something like it from happening again, they may undertake a fundamental shift in the way that they conceptualize security.

Until recently, security for Americans meant defense against foreign enemies, usually the military forces of other states. Security was military-centric and enemy focused. Since the U.S.’s battles normally took place abroad, Americans developed an advanced, expensive, expeditionary military.

During the Cold War, the notion of security expanded. Strategic nuclear weapons put the American homeland at risk of attack by the Soviet military. Irregular forces attempting to overthrow friendly regimes, particularly ones connected to the Soviet Union, were considered threats. Then 9/11 expanded the scope of security even further, transforming networked transnational terrorists into enemies and making defense of the American homeland more important. Even so, the United States retained its expensive, expeditionary military, simply adding counterterrorism and homeland security to them. While American security was not as purely military-centric as it had been, for example, a focus on large state armies fighting on the battle field, it still was military dominated.

Recent trends have eroded the viability of this disjointed approach to security. Climate change and what is called the “weaponization of everything” make security more complex and social media have become an important battlespace. Neither of these rely on a high tech, expeditionary military. Now, coronavirus will add public health security to an already expansive concept.

As with the so-called “global war on terrorism” that followed September 11, public health security will change the daily lives of Americans, producing new government organizations, industries, laws, policies, and debates. It will become a massive growth industry, drawing from the hard sciences in the way that the counterterrorism industry drew from psychology. It also will require hard choices. When the counterterrorism industry exploded in size, the United States felt able to sustain, and even increase, conventional military spending levels in large part by deficit funding, justified by the claim that expeditionary military operations in the Islamic world would help prevent terrorist attacks in the United States.

The response to COVID-19 will be different: public health security does not require expeditionary military operations, but it will be expensive. Hence, Americans may have to choose between it and their large, expeditionary military. They may decide that homeland security — to include public health — matters more than stability in distant parts of the world, that a holistic approach to security is more important than defeating identifiable enemies.

Coronavirus is likely to accelerate change in the structure of the global security system which makes this shift feasible. As the New Statesman’s John Gray described it:

The era of peak globalisation is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. 

The world may revert to what socio-economic inequality scholar Branko Milanovic calls “natural — which is to say, self-sufficient — economy.” The result, according to Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Laurie Garrett, “could be a dramatic new stage in global capitalism, in which supply chains are brought closer to home and filled with redundancies to protect against future disruption.”

Some regions and areas will capitalize on this, using robotics, artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing to partially delink from the globalized economy and supply chain. Goods and resources will still move between regions, but they will represent a smaller portion of economic activity. And importantly, goods and resources will be able to move without people transporting them. This will give advanced regions the options to cut themselves off from poorer regions, with technology replacing the low-cost labor that previously came from abroad.

What may emerge is a global security system with an archipelago of stability surrounded by pools of instability. This would undercut the core logic of American security strategy — that the United States must be concerned with stability everywhere because in a tightly connected world, instability and insecurity in even faraway places resonated in the homeland.

Jobs in Indiana, the argument went, depending on stability in the Middle East. That thinking justified an expeditionary strategy and a military to implement it. But if the coronavirus pandemic leads to partial deglobalization and delinkage, the United States could, if it chose, resist the urge to attempt managing stability in far flung places. Doing so would be an option rather than a necessity. And if promoting security around the world was not a vital U.S. interest, it would be harder to justify a large, increasingly expensive, expeditionary military.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a global tragedy. Eventually it will end, but its repercussions will unfold over decades. History suggests that great tragedy can provide an opportunity for reinvention. Today the focus of all Americans must be on the immediate challenges brought by the disease, both health and economic ones. But then they must grapple with the larger questions and implications, deciding if this disease should inspire a basic reconceptualization of strategy.