For the last two decades, Washington has focused on preventing 9/11-style attacks, considering that to be our most urgent national security concern. But the latest threat to American life has come not from a terrorist with a dirty bomb, or from “rogue states” like North Korea or Iran but, rather, from a microbe too small to see.
Expanding the focus of national security to encompass the broad array of internal and external dangers actually facing us won’t be easy. But the lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the United States has been myopic in understanding what counts as a priority threat.
It now seems abundantly apparent that rather than building hospitals in Afghanistan, we should have focused on producing masks and ventilators here at home. Rather than building schools in Iraq, we should have invested in scientific breakthroughs to treat disease.
Instead, Washington foreign policy has focused on a standard list of threats, most of which are exaggerated and disconnected from Americans’ day-to-day lives. At the heart of our foreign policy has been a commitment to sustaining American primacy through the frequent use of military power worldwide while deprioritizing domestic needs.
The result? An expanding and expensive batch of security commitments to wealthy countries and a massive defense budget of $738 billion for the 2020 fiscal year.
The endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost more than 7,000 American lives and consumed nearly $6 trillion. Americans pride themselves on efficiency; but how many of us would say that the Iraq war or the nation-building project in Afghanistan exemplify effective uses of money or that they have made either the countries we invaded or our own more secure?
By any reasonable metric, both wars have been failures. Yet as they have dragged on, this country has become inured to them.
That’s not surprising. Though our leaders have insisted both wars were essential to safeguard the United States, the costs have been borne by a small segment of Americans — soldiers and their families. Most Americans were not directly affected or called upon to make sacrifices, so didn’t ask questions as Washington relied on the country’s credit card to pay for the military conflicts, helping to run up a national debt totaling $23 trillion in the process.
Meanwhile, our preoccupation with global primacy has utterly failed to protect Americans from some of the biggest threats to their well-being, none of which have military solutions.
Here at home, we have a national suicide epidemic. Every twelve minutes or so someone in this country kills himself or herself. The suicide rate has jumped by a third since 1999, from 10.5 to 14 per 100,000 people.
In 2018, 4,680 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses. States like West Virginia, Delaware, Ohio and New Hampshire (to name but a few) report staggering death tolls, ranging as high as 50 per 100,000 people.
Suicide and opioid overdoses are, however, seldom described as grave national security threats. Nor do we consider the threats from such things as job displacement by automation, steep increases in premiums for health insurance, or the spiraling costs of higher education (average college tuition has increased by 37% during the last decade and student debt by a third just since 2014, now totaling $1.6 trillion -- about $31,000 per head -- last year). Yet all of these pose great threats to the well-being of Americans.
Less dire, but critical to success in a global economy in which the United States faces increasing competition, is our crumbling infrastructure — rail lines, highways, bridges and ports. The cost in lost productivity from inadequate infrastructure totals $160 billion.
In 1930, 4.2% of GDP was spent on infrastructure; by 2016 the proportion had fallen to 2.5%. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives our infrastructure a D-plus grade and, in 2016, estimated a $4.6-trillion investment was needed through 2025 for a comprehensive upgrade.
Now we face what could be the biggest public health calamity since the 1918 influenza pandemic, and everything from protective masks and gowns to ventilators are in short supply. Hospitals may be forced to decide who lives and who dies. We don’t have a system in place ensuring all Americans have adequate access to healthcare. The resulting economic downturn has already been severe.
The havoc wrought by COVID-19 should prompt a long overdue reassessment of our antiquated views on national priorities so we can focus resources and policies on the biggest and most salient threats to Americans. A foreign policy that fails to take those into account cannot sustain support on the home front and will, therefore, fail abroad.
Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at the Powell School at the City College of New York. William Ruger is the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and is a veteran of the Afghanistan War.