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Toward a post-pandemic national security paradigm

The coronavirus pandemic has set the table for progressives to craft a new national security paradigm adequate to the times, and to fight for it in the policy arena.

Analysis | Washington Politics

“America prepared for the wrong kind of war. It prepared for a new 9/11, but instead a virus came.” So observes French political scientist Dominique Moïsi in addressing the Trump administration’s incompetence at dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. “It raises the question: Has America become the wrong kind of power with the wrong kind of priorities?”

Progressives were answering that question in the affirmative long before this pandemic forced its way onto the policy agenda, but we have largely failed to make the case. I argued previously in this publication that a prerequisite for national security policy change is paradigm change. The operative U.S. national security paradigm in effect since the 1950s no longer provides useful security guidance, but it has prevailed for lack of an alternative.

The pandemic is a lightning flash in the glare of which the inadequacies of the old paradigm are shown in stark relief. We need to use this tragedy to think anew at the paradigm level about how to maximize our security in this new world. What follows is a beginning — some guidelines toward a new paradigm.

Maximizing security in a time of uncertainty

The lead sentence of this essay — we prepared for x and got y — pinpoints a key security challenge: in today’s world, we face multiple, multidimensional challenges, and it’s hard to predict their nature and timing. Likewise, it’s hard to predict the consequences of any given response. The coronavirus pandemic validates Rosa Brooks’s observation five years ago: “We literally have no points of comparison for understanding the scale and scope of the risks faced by humanity today.”

Because most of these risks are global and are not susceptible to unilateral solutions or military intervention, Brooks reaches a conclusion that progressives can welcome: the United States will maximize its security and well-being by pursuing as its “ultimate objective... the creation of an equitable and peaceful international order with an effective system of global governance — one that is built upon respect for human dignity, human rights, and the rule of law, with robust mechanisms for resolving thorny collective problems.”

A different concept of U.S. leadership

It follows from that proposition that a positive vision for keeping America safe and advancing the national interest in today’s world will demonstrate greater respect for the views and interests of others, and will rely more heavily on diplomatic and multilateral approaches. It will recognize that contemporary security challenges require an emphasis on cooperation rather than domination and on more effective interaction with international institutions.

Through such approaches, it will focus more urgently and purposively on nonmilitary but existential threats — climate change, environmental degradation, and species extinction; pandemic disease; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the desperation of billions living in extreme poverty — each of which is likely to present us with crises comparable in severity to the one we are currently experiencing. When that happens, society will ask why we failed to prevent or prepare for them. Security lies in prioritizing amelioration and response-preparedness at the international level. We need to build these priorities into a security paradigm.

Integrating soft power into our security thinking

A professor of mine in the Vietnam War years used to say that the United States had two approaches to foreign policy, the Peace Corps approach and the Marine Corps approach: We sent in Peace Corps volunteers to encourage change, then when change happened, we sent in the Marine Corps to stamp it out. That captures as well as one sentence can the challenge of national security paradigm change. The Peace Corps is a reflection of the better angels of our nature — but when it comes to security, we think that’s a job for our lesser angels. This has permeated U.S. national security thinking for 70 years; unspeakable atrocities have been committed by or with the support of the United States in the name of fighting communism or terrorism. But it is demonstrably wrong that the iron fist has brought us security.

The competition for the allegiance of the “Third World,” as independence movements ushered in the post-colonial era, was in many respects a soft-power competition. The Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency and the Peace Corps were conscious attempts to exercise and enhance America’s soft power. The integration of human rights into U.S. foreign policy by Congress and the Carter administration in the 1970s was another. It seems undeniable that U.S. diplomats, development-assistance workers and Peace Corps volunteers did more to enhance U.S. security and world leadership than did the wars we have fought over the past 70 years and the massacres that our assistance has enabled. Soft power isn’t soft. It is one of the ways we build a secure world. Progressives can and must make the hard-headed security case for soft power, and build it back into the U.S. arsenal.

Making the security case for the foreign affairs agencies

Funds need to be transferred from the defense budget to the diplomacy and development agencies whose job it is to implement the foregoing policies. But to accomplish this, progressives must stop seeing this primarily as a funding issue. Funding is not where our argument starts; it’s where our argument ends.

Why does the military get the first dollar? Because that’s where Americans think security lies. The contrary is not obvious. It needs to be argued. If we as a society and a polity thought that diplomacy and development were integral to security, the money would be there. It isn’t because we don’t, and that is what progressives must change.

Why should Americans believe that moving funds from defense to the foreign affairs agencies, as currently constituted, will necessarily produce positive security outcomes? Answer: They shouldn’t. To be effective, funding increases must be deployed to a reimagined State Department, staffed by a Foreign Service recruited and trained for today’s world, and to a reimagined development agency, liberated from the domestic interests that hold it captive, and capable of implementing a development policy that would actually promote sustainable development and equitable, resilient societies.  

Revitalizing American security by revitalizing America

The United States has a complicated relationship with a world that resents our imperial overreach but admires the idea of America. What risks our security is that we have increased our imperial overreach — first during “unipolarity” in the decade following the Cold War’s end, and then during the war on terror — while we seem to have abandoned our belief in our own ideals. The true sources of American greatness are a functioning democratic polity, an economy that produces broad-based opportunity and wealth, and a continuing quest for a just society.

Turning away from those ideals has damaged our standing in the world, and thus our security, more than any conceivable cut in our defense budget or any withdrawal from a foreign conflict could ever do. Now the world looks on in shock and disbelief as an unprepared, un-led and divided United States succumbs to the coronavirus. Any national security paradigm worthy of the name must recognize the link between our security and the quality and functionality of our society.

Educating Americans for responsible global leadership

Most Americans have virtually no idea how the world’s people see us and how U.S. policies impact them. This blindness is a security liability. Most students graduate from college with only the vaguest concept of the world beyond our borders. Few pursue any part of their education abroad. The number of new international students enrolling in U.S. colleges each year is declining under the Trump administration, and the pandemic will drive it down further. Because of budget cuts, even before the pandemic, only half as many Peace Corps volunteers were serving abroad as during the 1960s. It is inconceivable that the United States can pursue effective policies and be secure in — much less lead — a world that it does not understand. There is a strong national security case for international education. Progressives must make it.

A call to action

We cannot predict the shape of the post-pandemic world, although many will try. But our future is not inevitable; we have agency. International emergencies don’t remake the world, political actors do. The coronavirus pandemic has set the table for progressives to craft a new national security paradigm adequate to the times, and to fight for it in the policy arena. The question is, will we?

Raoul B Photography /
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