Speaking before the U.N. in 1987, President Ronald Reagan said, “Perhaps we need some outside universal threat to make us recognize [our] common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” Reagan’s focus was avoiding conflict between countries rather than within them, but the coronavirus must do the work of that alien invader, inspiring cooperation both across borders and across the aisle.
History shows us that seismic events have the potential to unite even politically divided Americans behind common cause. In the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic has already taken more than seven times the number of lives as terrorists did in the 9/11 attacks, but the outpouring of solidarity Americans have shown for one another has so far not translated into more unity over government’s proper role at home or America’s proper role abroad. Indeed, the virus struck in an era of the most virulent polarization ever recorded—an unprecedented 82-percentage point divide between Republicans’ and Democrats’ average job-approval ratings of President Trump. And so far that gap appears only to be widening, while internationally, political leaders are trading recriminations rather than coordinating the procurement of medical supplies.
But the shared enemy of a future pandemic must bring about a redefinition of national security and generate long overdue increases of federal investments in domestic and global health security preparedness.
The labels we give our eras can have profound influence. The 9/11 attacks gave those wanting to justify American engagement abroad a sense of purpose: preventing future terrorist attacks. But for the U.S., the “post-9/11 world” became defined by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost more than 7,000 service members their lives and drained vast resources. Those wars also diverted high-level governmental attention that should have been focused on China’s rising power and Russia’s military and digital aggression. While 9/11 spurred rhetorical agreement that America should focus on “threats that cross borders,” the national-security establishment concentrated on terrorism, dedicating paltry resources to battling climate change or preventing pandemics, the deadliest threats of all.
It was against this backdrop that the Trump Administration disbanded the White House unit dedicated to preventing and responding to pandemics, and began trying to cut the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization. The President’s belief in using walls and intimidation—not public-health expertise or global cooperation—to shield America from foreign perils was malpractice, especially given the pandemic warnings from both the intelligence community and public-health officials.
But well before Trump took office, partly because of the tendency to “fight the last war,” and partly because of Republican skepticism, pandemic preparedness was never prioritized or funded as it should have been. Since 2010, the U.S. has been spending an average of $180 billion annually on counterterrorism efforts—compared with less than $2 billion on pandemic and emerging infectious–disease programs. In a reflection of how skewed the U.S. national–security budget is toward the military over other tools in the national–security toolbox, Congress appropriated $685 billion in 2019 for the Pentagon, compared with around $7 billion for the CDC.
In what will surely become known as the “post-COVID world,” supporters of a more robust health–security agenda must go on offense, using Republican governors and mayors to rally Republican Senators, including by ensuring that global stockpiles of medical protective equipment are prepositioned so that developing countries and vulnerable communities are not left behind next time.
The COVID crisis will change us. We will travel less and Zoom more. Some won’t socialize as they once had, others will burst out of isolation to savor the joys of human contact. In the realm of U.S. national security, we need to unite behind ending our decades-long over-reliance on the military, and building national and international mechanisms to protect people not merely from the last threat, but from the coming ones.
Power was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. from 2013 to 2017 and is the author of The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
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