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Five ways to reset US foreign policy amid the COVID-19 crisis

Each night many of us are transfixed to our television screens, watching in fear and dismay as politicians and epidemiologists recite the latest statistics on COVID-19. With our daily lives upended by stay-at-home orders, sickness, and job loss, it is easy to turn inward and ignore what’s happening far from our shores. But the crisis presents numerous opportunities to build a better, safer world – and to avoid actions that will compound the dangers. Here are just five of them:

1. Seize the day for diplomacy. Out of the pain and suffering comes a rare opportunity for world leaders to join together against a common, mortal foe. Coronavirus sees no geographic boundaries; it favors no political systems; it exempts no race, religion, gender, or creed. To save lives, nations must share data, resources, knowledge, and equipment. If calls for ceasefires in Yemen, Colombia, the Philippines, and globally are heeded, they could break long-running cycles of violence and pave the way for negotiated settlements. Now is the moment to recommit to multilateralism, building the foundation of treaties and international agreements that reduce the chances of war, and enable broader cooperation on transnational challenges.

2. Remember we’re all in this together – but we’re not all at equal risk. This is not the time for xenophobiafinger-pointing and blame. It is not an either-or choice for the United States, helping ourselves or helping others. No one country can flourish at another’s expense. Most of the world will suffer a greater toll from COVID-19 than the United States, given their limited access to clean water, food, sanitation, housing, medicine, and health care. Failing to mobilize a robust international response will only come back to haunt us as hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, face the loss of lives and livelihoods.

3. Look beyond the health emergency. The coronavirus is causing far more than a disease pandemic – it could also set off a violence epidemic. Domestic violence has surged as women and children are trapped at home with their abusers. Authoritarian regimes are using the crisis as an excuse to crack down on free speech and human rights. The sickness and death of leaders – particularly in states without strong democratic institutions – will almost certainly result in power struggles and civil strife. Pre-existing conflicts over rights and resources could flare into genocide and mass atrocities as COVID-19 exacerbates communal division and weakens command and control over armed forces. This is the time to invest in long-term, comprehensive peacebuilding and conflict mitigation networks.

4. First, do no harm. At a time of such intense and universal suffering, it is immoral as well as self-defeating for the United States to continue policies that were designed to pummel other countries into submission. Economic sanctions intended to isolate and weaken “rogue” states are compounding the suffering of innocent civilians. They must be lifted as a purely humanitarian matter, especially in Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. At the same time, drone wars and militarized counterterrorism operations – which have aided the growth of terror networks – should be terminated and replaced by civilian efforts to address underlying grievances and strengthen systems of justice.

5. Shift the paradigm. At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic should make it obvious that our “defense” spending is utterly out of sync with the real challenges to the health and safety of Americans. Already more than twenty times as many Americans have died from COVID-19 as in the 9/11 attacks, and even the best-case scenarios show more dying than in all the wars since World War II combined. A new report from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons calculates that the amount we spend in one year on nuclear weapons would be enough to cover 300,000 Intensive Care Unit beds, 35,000 ventilators, and 75,000 doctors’ salaries. Even the most sophisticated weapons on the planet can’t protect our armed forces – or anyone else – from this virus.

In some ways the COVID-19 pandemic is but a dress rehearsal for climate change, and the world has been granted a golden opportunity to change its ways before the worst is upon us. Before Congress sleepwalks into another $750 billion or more in Pentagon spending, the American public should give it a wake-up call about the investments that are truly needed to keep everyone safe for the long haul.