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COVID-19, and Climate Change, Will Change the Definition of National Security

By: Stewart M. Patrick. May 18, 2020

The twin global emergencies of COVID-19 and climate change are forcing the U.S. foreign policy establishment to reassess its traditional conceptions of national security. According to a still dominant paradigm, the gravest dangers the United States faces emanate from adversaries with sufficient military capabilities to attack the nation and its allies or, at a minimum, thwart its political and economic objectives.

These threat perceptions expanded dramatically following 9/11. After a handful of jihadists armed with boxcutters inflicted a grievous wound on the U.S. homeland, transnational terrorists joined geopolitical rivals and rogue states in the pantheon of security threats. But the “violence paradigm” still prevailed.

That is starting to change, as the dangers of pandemic disease and global warming become clear and present. COVID-19 has already infected more than 4.3 million people and killed more than 300,000 worldwide. More Americans have died from the coronavirus than perished in combat during the Vietnam and Korean Wars, combined. Unemployment in the United States has risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and U.S. GDP is likely to contract by at least 5 percent in 2020. Hundreds of millions of Americans are in lockdown, a feat no enemy has ever accomplished.

Still, even the pandemic pales next to climate change, which threatens the integrity of the biosphere and, thus, life itself on Earth. Although the slowdown has brought a brief decline in greenhouse gas emissions, the trajectory of global warming remains unchanged. Without prompt, sustained and dramatic action to decarbonize the world economy, we face a future of soaring temperatures, raging superstorms, devastating megafires, desiccated rainforests, collapsing biodiversity, acidifying oceans, inundated coasts, mass migrations and societal instability.

These twin threats underscore the shifting nature of security in 2020. They also reveal a U.S. national security state woefully unprepared, thanks to a yawning gap between its outdated strategic mindset and the world’s new woes.

In 1947, at the dawn of the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall appointed George F. Kennan the first director of his new policy planning staff. The retired general famously gave the strategist only two words of guidance: “Avoid trivia.” While other diplomats focused on day-to-day minutiae, putting out fires and clearing out the inbox, Kennan and his colleagues would look at the bigger picture and over a longer time frame. In the Cold War, that meant developing a strategy to contain the Soviet Union through a combination of alliances and, when required, “counterforce.”

Avoiding trivia remains imperative today. But what counts as important is trickier. The United States still confronts geopolitical competition, particularly from China, as the two jockey for global influence. But the biggest contemporary threats to U.S. security come less from armed adversaries than from two “threats without a threatener”—a deadly pathogen and runaway climate change. When a pandemic can kill hundreds of thousands, even millions, and when the fate of the living planet is in jeopardy, many issues that once ranked high on the national security agenda, like whether the Islamic State is on the run or whether Nicolas Maduro’s regime is on the verge of collapse in Venezuela, appear less pressing. They seem, in a word, trivial.

Are the threats man-made or natural in origin? Natural disasters like hurricanes can be very dangerous, but even if one assumes they are caused by climate change (which is disputable), are they threats to the nation? Are “threats” from the weather, disease, or lack of food due to manipulations by states or terrorist groups or natural in origin, to be dealt with accordingly?

Adjusting to this new reality has not been easy for U.S. national security professionals. Most are self-styled realists, who equate security matters with people holding a gun and believe that world politics is governed by the enduring verities that Thucydides observed: The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. In an anarchic, war-prone world, effective statecraft means amassing military might to dissuade others from aggression and ensure that if it comes, your side prevails.

National security officials and scholars with this worldview have a hard time acknowledging dangers that do not encompass violence. Part of this reflects an understandable aversion to woolly-minded thinking, which could dilute “security” of all meaning. During the mid-1990s, a coalition of progressive intellectuals, U.N. agencies and global leaders—most notably former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy— promoted the catchall concept of “human security.” It was intended to encompass all aspects of individual well-being beyond simply freedom from physical harm, including many forms of security—economic, political, environmental, food, health and community-related. Critics complained that this new concept conflated “hard” security with “softer” challenges like development, conservation, health and human rights.

The “human security” concept may have fallen flat, but a quarter century later, the traditionalist approach is also wearing thin. What good is a concept of security if it excludes the potentially catastrophic risks of pandemic disease and global warming?

Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States opened the door to a wider view of national and international security. Obama’s National Security Strategy of 2011 gave at least modest billing to pandemic disease and climate change, and his administration spearheaded multilateral efforts to counter these threats, including the Global Health Security Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Donald Trump has reversed this progress. The climate change-denying president has renounced the Paris Agreement, eliminated Obama-era emissions regulations and doubled down on fossil fuels. In doing so, Trump is exacerbating a planetary ecological emergency that his own Defense Department considers a “threat multiplier,” one likely to generate food insecurity, humanitarian crises, political instability and extremism abroad, while harming America’s infrastructure, agriculture, economy and population—to say nothing of placing major military bases, including in Norfolk, Virginia, under water.

The White House, of course, was also caught flat-footed by COVID-19 because it never treated infectious disease a matter of “hard” security. In 2018, John Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser, abolished the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, eliminating a focal point for interagency coordination that the Obama administration had established after the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. The administration handed responsibility for future pandemics to the Department of Health and Human Services, a domestic agency with limited convening authority and no expertise or mandate “to lead on issues with broad security, economic, and foreign policy impact.” These fateful choices contributed to disastrously weak U.S. global leadership on COVID-19 within multilateral forums like the G-7 and G-20.

In the wake of COVID-19, the Pentagon is bracing for a major reassessment of the military’s role in today’s threat environment. Many critics are beginning to ask the obvious question: Why should the United States spend $750 billion annually on a military-industrial complex, when the threats confronting the nation are as likely to be viral and ecological as military? Few go as far as Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development, who recommends “closing the Pentagon.” But the nation’s huge expenditures on military personnel and hardware are suddenly up for debate. As Ro Khanna, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted: “A single F-35 could pay for 2,200 ventilators. 1 nuclear warhead could pay for 17 million masks.”

The debate over “security,” like the planet itself, is starting to heat up.

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.