Analysis & Opinions - TIME

How the COVID-19 Era Will Change National Security Forever

| Apr. 14, 2020

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.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Power, Samantha.“How the COVID-19 Era Will Change National Security Forever.” TIME, April 14, 2020.

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