Home / Articles / COVID-19 and Pandemics: The Greatest National Security Threat of 2020 and Beyond
How should the United States define its national security? At the U.S. Army War College, where I teach, that is one of the first questions we pose to our students. It’s not a simple one. While there is general agreement that national security includes protecting the territory of the United States and the lives of its citizens, securing agreement on more expansive definitions becomes challenging. Most students agree that economic prosperity is vital to national security. Some want to expand the definition further to include protection of key allies and partners, protection of values such as democracy and basic human rights, or upholding a world order that preserves stability. Of course, the more expansive the definition of national security, the greater the means required to protect it.
How a state defines national security helps it discern and defend against threats to that security. One of the next tasks we give our students is to articulate those threats and how the United States should defend against them. Here, the discussion usually revolves around a list of states—Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea inevitably come up. Discussion then usually moves to non-state threats, with international terrorism topping the list, followed often by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international organized crime. Some students argue that things like climate change and pandemic disease should be included on the list. Others argue that these non-traditional threats do not merit inclusion.
Although they occur in an academic setting, these are not purely academic debates. The same debates play out in U.S. government policymaking circles, especially in the National Security Council (NSC). Since Congress mandated it in the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, the NSC has periodically produced a National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS reflects a presidential administration’s view of the world and America’s role in it. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations had defined national security and threats to it more broadly, paying greater attention to threats like pandemic disease. The 2017 Trump NSS broke the pattern. By focusing on a narrow list of interests and threats to them, the 2017 NSS left the United States unprepared to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2017 National Security Strategy and U.S. National Interests
Although it preserved U.S. interests revolving around security and prosperity, the 2017 NSS abandoned support for universal values and a stable international order, replacing these with “peace through strength” and “advance American influence.” A strategy based strongly in the international relations school of realism, the Trump NSS is premised on the ideas that states are the primary actors in world politics, that states seek security above all else, and that the primary threats to that security are other states. In this view, using American power to support universal values or uphold a stable international order is problematic. In the realist view, power is to be expended only on core, usually material, security interests. Realists see expending American power to promote universal values as unwise for two reasons. First, the universality of those values is highly debatable. Second, each unit of power expended to promote or defend values is a unit unavailable to defend America’s core security interests. Similarly, realists see using American power to uphold a stable world order as unwise because the United States pays the costs of upholding the order, while our allies and adversaries “free ride,” enjoying the benefits of stability without contributing to the cost of upholding it. Given its realist view of the world, it is unsurprising that the 2017 NSS pays less attention to non-state threats, such as terrorism and international crime, than the Bush or Obama strategies. It is also unsurprising that the Trump NSS largely ignores less traditional threats like climate change and pandemic disease.
From a realist perspective, this makes sense. After all, we deal with Russia and China daily. China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, its periodic saber-rattling against Taiwan, Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and its attempts to stir domestic chaos in the United States are potent and ever-present reminders that these states see the United States as an adversary and have the means to act on that view. In other words, they are clear threats to U.S. security. This sort of realist calculus holds that things like climate change and pandemic disease should be subordinated to states in the list of threats to U.S. security, or should not be seen as security issues at all.
Looking at the world through a realist lens yields two reasons for this calculus. First, these threats are neither traditional nor tangible. We can count Russian tanks, Chinese submarines, and Iranian and North Korean missiles. They exist in the here and now. Climate change is a threat that is unfolding gradually, its effects won’t be fully felt for decades. Pandemic disease is a latent threat. There is always the potential for a deadly and highly communicable disease to emerge, but until this year, it had been a century since one had. Since a basic maxim in political science is that politicians want to be reelected, the political calculus for an incumbent president is not to ask voters to make sacrifices in the present to avoid potential negative effects in the future. Asking voters to make economic sacrifices now to address future climate change or prepare for a potential pandemic disease outbreak is therefore a bad political bet for most administrations.
Next, climate change and pandemic disease are classic collective action problems. Unless all or most states work together to fight them, efforts by individual states will have little effect. And since these efforts cost money, it is not rational for states to spend that money while knowing that other states are not, especially when the states opting out of the fight against climate change or pandemic disease are rivals. This is why the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and its recent spat with the World Health Organization (WHO) are so damaging to international efforts to fight climate change and pandemic disease. The United States has the world’s largest economy, is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and is among the world leaders in infectious diseases research. Without the United States, collective efforts to combat climate change and pandemic disease are unlikely to be effective. What we are likely to see instead are fragmented, self-interested efforts by individual states to prepare themselves to deal with the effects of pandemic disease and climate change, but little coordinated international effort to prevent them or respond to them collectively.
COVID-19 and U.S. National Interests
When seen through the lens of an “America first” strategy and a realist calculus of threats to American security, subordinating threats like climate change and pandemic disease makes sense. But the year 2020 may change this calculus forever. Even if we adhere to a minimalist definition of American national interests, COVID-19 has done more to damage them than almost any war America has ever fought. The first two—and most important—interests articulated in the 2017 NSS are “protect the American people, homeland and way of life,” and “promote American prosperity.” As of early July, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 130,000 Americans. This figure is larger than the number of Americans who died in all wars since the end of World War II combined, and more than in any individual war in U.S. history except the Civil War and World War II.
COVID-19 has also ravaged the U.S. economy like no event since the Great Depression. The pandemic has been responsible for 48 million initial jobless claims in only 15 weeks, and a spike in the unemployment rate from a 50-year low of 3.5% in February to 14.7% in May. Although the jobless rate declined to 11.1% by the end of June, a new surge in infections is causing some states to shut down again, promising further economic dislocation. Whatever happens over the next several months, the economic damage from the pandemic is likely to be long-lasting. U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 4.8% in the first quarter of 2020, and most estimates predict a contraction of some 5.8% for the year. In dollar terms, this equates to a loss of over $1.2 trillion.
The pandemic further eroded America’s fiscal position. The first round of COVID-19 fiscal stimulus totaled $2.987 trillion, the largest parts of which were the $2.3 trillion CARES Act and the $484 billion Payroll Protection Plan. The House of Representatives followed this in May with an additional $3 trillion in stimulus under the HEROES Act. The Senate has yet to take up this bill, and it is unlikely to pass in its current form. But some form of additional stimulus is likely, meaning direct federal spending on COVID-19 response will total between at least $3-6 trillion. This additional spending is projected to increase America’s debt to GDP ratio from 80% at the end of 2019 to 108% by the end of 2021. When compared to spending on COVID-19, spending on America’s latest wars appears almost modest. Direct spending on the war in Iraq totaled $1.922 trillion by February 2020, and direct spending on the war in Afghanistan totaled $975 billion by the end of 2019. Even taken together, spending on these wars over almost two decades was $1 trillion less than spending on COVID-19 over three months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also damaged America’s security in less immediate ways. Another of the “vital national interests” in the 2017 NSS is “advance American influence.” To do this, America will “compete and lead in multilateral organizations” and “will remain a generous nation, even as we expect others to share responsibility.” The chaotic and fumbling U.S. response to COVID-19 has certainly not advanced American influence in the world and has probably done it great harm. The U.S. COVID-19 death toll is more than 20 times as high as China’s, the country where the virus emerged and one with a population four times that of the United States. And even accounting for the unreliability of Chinese statistics, it is unlikely that Beijing has managed to hush up 95% of its coronavirus deaths. China’s authoritarian regime is certainly better able to direct actions and marshal resources than America’s, but there is no evidence that authoritarian regimes have an inherent advantage here. After all, authoritarian Russia is fourth in the world in total number of coronavirus cases, and democracies from Germany, to Japan, to South Korea have far outstripped the United States in the efficacy of their response to the virus. Indeed, in terms of overall safety of the population from the coronavirus, the United States ranks 58th in the world, just behind Romania and only two spots ahead of Russia.
A New Kind of National Security
The 21st century is not the 20th century. Great power competition is a fact of life and will remain so, but the threats to American security come in a wider variety of forms than they did a century ago. To truly protect its citizens, its territory, and its economic might, the United States needs to be positioned to respond to this wider variety of threats. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the WHO, articulated the type of response plans that governments needed to implement. “These are plans that start with leadership from the top, coordinating every part of government, not just the health ministry – security, diplomacy, finance, commerce, transport, trade, information and more – the whole government should be involved.”
Instead of following this model, the Trump administration created an ad hoc task force in late January comprised almost exclusively of public health and infectious diseases experts. The task force represented Trump’s worldview. According to a top administration official quoted in the Washington Post, “The genesis of this group was around border control and repatriation,” and “it wasn’t a comprehensive, whole-of-government group to run everything.” The drawbacks of a narrow, ad hoc approach soon became evident, but the administration was slow to address them. In late February, around the same time that Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the COVID-19 response effort and that Pence brought economic advisors into the task force, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) memo warned that the virus was “leading to significant impact on healthcare systems and causing social disruption” and that “a much broader interagency approach is needed.” It wasn’t until May 15 that the White House expanded the task force again, this time adding five new members, including the Secretaries of Agriculture and Labor. Even this expanded task force left out the Departments of Defense, State, Commerce, Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and other key agencies impacted by the pandemic or able to assist in responding to it. As a result, the federal government’s COVID-19 response effort remains ad hoc and short-sighted.
It did not have to be this way. There is a standing interagency body with broad membership, direct access to the president, a large and experienced staff, and a structured committee system that allows it to handle multiple issues at once. This body is the National Security Council. Congress created the NSC as part of the National Security Act of 1947 and has amended the law since to correspond to emerging national security realities. Under current law, required members of the NSC are the President, Vice President, and Secretaries of State, Defense, Energy, and Treasury. The Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are advisors to the NSC under law, but not full members. Each president has the authority to expand membership of the NSC as he sees fit. Under the Trump administration, the Attorney General, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Advisor, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations are all “non-statutory members,” meaning they are appointed by the president, but not required by law. When economic issues are on the agenda, the Secretary of Commerce, U.S. Trade Representative, and Director of the National Economic Council are invited.
Adding public health and infectious diseases experts to the NSC for the duration of the pandemic, rather than creating an ad hoc task force, would have ensured the whole-of-government approach and direct access to the president that the effort required. The NSC has another advantage that the task force lacks: a large and experienced staff. The Trump administration’s NSC staff numbered about 310 people before the pandemic hit. While there are good arguments for reducing the size of the NSC—a staff that is too large and too active may move from policy formulation to policy implementation and usurp the authority of executive branch agencies—a staff of 300+ would have been a significant advantage in responding to the pandemic. The NSC also has a four-tiered committee system that would have allowed it to handle multiple coronavirus issues simultaneously and to adjudicate less important ones at lower levels, preserving the time of senior officials for truly important issues.
We may never know the reason that the Trump administration decided not to use the NSC as the focal point for the federal government’s COVID-19 response. Part of the reason was certainly the administration’s focus on traditional, state-based threats reflected in the 2017 NSS. According to that view of national security and threats to it, pandemic disease does not merit attention by the nation’s highest national security policymaking body. This may explain why the Trump administration chose not to use the 2016 Obama administration 69-page “pandemic playbook” in responding to COVID-19 and why Trump ordered the NSC’s Global Health Security and Biodefense unit eliminated, with some of its members assigned to other areas of the NSC and others leaving the administration entirely. The narrow, realist view of U.S. national interests and threats to them articulated in the 2017 NSS is not irrational. It has a solid foundation in realist theories of international relations and echoes the strategic vision of other realist administrations, especially those of Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Unfortunately, such a strategy left the United States focused on traditional, state-based threats at exactly the time when a deadly, non-traditional threat emerged.
This Will Happen Again
Bill Gates famously warned in a 2015 TED Talk that the next pandemic was inevitable and that the United States was not ready. The Obama administration took steps to increase the country’s readiness—writing the 2016 “pandemic playbook,” giving pandemic disease a higher profile in its last NSS, and creating the biodefense unit in the NSC staff—but there was still much work to be done when Trump took office in 2017. Rather than build on the Obama administration’s work, the Trump administration ignored or dismantled it. Over 130,000 lost lives and over $3 trillion in lost treasure later, and America is still paying the price for these decisions.
If we learn from our mistakes, then we will never again see pandemic disease as an issue that doesn’t merit the attention of the national security community. Its potential to do grave harm to America’s national security interests is now undeniable. The eruption of the next pandemic disease is only a matter of time. Globalization, urbanization, and climate change will mean more frequent and possibly more deadly pandemics in the future. And the potential for a state or terrorist group to weaponize a pathogen and release it on the world can’t be discounted.
Like all decisions in the national security world, the decision to take pandemic disease seriously as a threat will require tradeoffs. Dealing with pandemic disease in the NSS and reconstituting the Global Health and Biodefense unit in the NSC are necessary first steps. This will decrease our focus on other states as security threats, but this is a prudent risk that the United States can afford to take. The United States currently spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined, six of which are U.S. allies or partners. Defense spending accounts for about half of the federal government’s discretionary budget, and we spend over 11 times as much on defense as we do on health. Realigning our budget by reallocating dollars from the Department of Defense to agencies engaged in the effort to prepare for and respond to pandemic disease will increase, not decrease, U.S. national security.
A virus like COVID-19 is not a rational actor: it cannot be deterred, coerced, or induced into doing what we want it to do. It is a microscopic killing machine that can only be defeated or contained. The world will eventually win the fight against COVID-19, but at a far higher cost than we needed to pay. We can and should be better next time.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.