If America’s tragic failure either to anticipate or to cope well with the COVID‑19 pandemic doesn’t induce a serious debate about what “national security” means, nothing will.
By Gregory F. Treverton
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
That debate has been occurring in an on-again, off-again way for thirty years since the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, but to little result. The debate started in the 1990s but was then overtaken when 9/11 seemed to provide an answer. To be sure, terrorism was and remains a threat but a relatively minor one. To note that more Americans die from lightning than terrorism seems to trivialize the issue but is no less true for that fact. And, indeed, terrorism is a trivial threat by comparison to the pandemic, which has already killed twice as many Americans as died in Vietnam.
My own effort to rethink security began soon after the fall of communism, when I started a big project at the Council on Foreign Relations. I wanted to use the term “global security”—thirty years ago the term was not yet in vogue, much less overuse—in the project title, but Jim Schlesinger, the former defense secretary who was the chair of my advisory board, wouldn’t let me. Security, he insisted, had to be for someone and against something, so “global security” could only mean defending the planet against meteorites or aliens! His advice was apt, though perhaps he would now admit that “global security” is appropriate for dealing with pandemics and the climate crisis, either one of which could spell the end of the human race. (The project title we settled on, “America’s Role in a Changed World,” implied a good question: what role? We didn’t provide a very good answer, and neither did anyone else.)
Rather than grand labels like “global security” or “new world order,” better to decompose security by expanding on Schlesinger’s questions: who (or what) is to be protected? Against what (or whom)? Who is doing the protecting? And how?
Despite efforts at rethinking, the Cold War answers to all four questions have lingered. “Who is to be protected?” has been answered in concentric circles starting with the American people and moving outward to allies and friends. “Against what?” did change, from the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War (though avoiding nuclear war implied some cooperation with Moscow), to “nothing much” after the fall of communism, to terrorism after 9/11 and, more recently, to geopolitical rivals, especially China and Russia. The last two questions mostly have received the same answer: the military and military means. To be sure, counterterrorism did engage a range of domestic agencies, federal, state and local, but most of the fighting and dying was done by the U.S. military, overseas.
The budget for international affairs—the State Department, foreign aid, and other non-military foreign activities—is less than a tenth that of the Pentagon. More than one senior military leader has regretted the eclipse of diplomatic and others means of promoting national security. In 2007, former defense secretary Robert Gates mused that it would sound like “blasphemy” for him to advocate spending on diplomacy, foreign aid, and other non-military tools of national security. “Having a sitting secretary of defense…make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies might,” Gates noted, “fit into the category of ‘man bites dog.’”
Yet, on both sides of the aisle, politicians know that voting for defense spending is a sure way to look tough on national security. And since the Pentagon spreads procurement across the entire country, more spending means more jobs in almost every Congressional district. The result is a vicious cycle: more defense spending means more tasks for defense, while other instruments of national security wither.
In rethinking “against what?” the current crisis, alas, drives home that there is only one near-term existential threat—pandemics, not China or Russia or terrorists. So, start with the core of “who is to be protected?”—the American people. By the numbers, the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services is about a tenth that of the Defense Department. Plainly, numbers don’t equate directly with priority, but when deaths from terrorism in the last two decades number under 10,000, including the brave Americans who died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, while COVID‑19 claimed more than 100,000 lives in less than four months, there does seem a problem with priorities in securing American lives.
The all-too-familiar Washington reflex would be that of 9/11, to create a new department, this time for health security—one built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but also chunks of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) along with pieces of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other departments and agencies, and perhaps including its own dedicated intelligence agency. The precedent of DHS is hardly a happy one, but it was a shotgun marriage of twenty-odd agencies who missions didn’t overlap all that much. Over time, its center of gravity has drifted toward the mission of the strongest of its constituent agencies, controlling borders and entry points.
The reflex is unlikely to be more than that, for the country has a president who surely isn’t interested in learning from failure and a Congress that can barely agree on motherhood, but resisting probably is wise in any event, and not just because of the parlous fate of DHS. The Pentagon has 1.3 million troops, and DHS has 240,000; by comparison, the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service numbers 6,500. CDC is more like the FBI for public health, identifying, investigating and tracing disease. Virtually all the federal spending on health goes for Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans.
Overall, spending on public health amounted to 2.5 percent of what Americans spent on health in 2017. Given cuts in public health budgets, local health departments slashed more than 50,000 positions between 2008 and 2017. The partisan gridlock in the 2010s that prevented replenishing the federal stockpile of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) has become part of the tragic lore of COVID‑19: at the end of February 2020, the stockpile had but 20 million N95 masks, while the much less severe H1N1 pandemic of 2009 had required 85 million. Another part of the lore, this one a tragic irony, was that because the United States doesn’t really have a healthcare system, private hospitals closed, and health workers were furloughed during the pandemic as money-making elective surgery at those hospitals ceased.
Two lessons from these stories and numbers seem apparent: the nation, especially the federal government (whose grants fund much of local public health), needs to spend much more on public health, and the “troops” will remain in the states, localities, and private sectors. One place to start on the spending side would be to create consolidated national security budget—across military, homeland and health security—breaking away from today’s stovepipes of appropriations. The idea is hardly new. Making it happen, though, is easy to conceive but almost impossible to implement. It would be hard enough for the Executive Branch, but for Congress it would amount to a revolution, requiring some combination of cross-hearings across committees that now have nothing to do with each other, supercommittees or a major rejiggering—and perhaps merging—of existing authorizing and appropriations committees.
Finding new ways to work across the federal system, and especially across the public-private divide will be imperative. So far as I can discover, the COVID‑19 alarm was first sounded outside China by a shoestring private network, ProMED, just before midnight on 30 December 2019. ProMED had received an email from a contact in China, who had noted a post on the Chinese social media site, Weibo. The post said that a few hours earlier, the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee had issued “an urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause.” Yet if the private sector is critical, COVID‑19 has driven home that the market cannot be counted on for health security. Most obviously, there is little money to be made in creating vaccines that are injected only once a year; after all, we still have no vaccine for the common cold. And when vaccines are produced, the timeline is achingly long: the average patient-ready medicine takes 10 years and $2 billion to create. The current pharmaceutical model plainly is not up to the challenge of health security.
The response, albeit badly belated, to COVID‑19 demonstrates the possibilities of doing better, in this instance by drawing the world’s best scientists into a crash program to produce a vaccine, with the government underwriting most of the financial risk. Surely, citizens around the world turned their governments in the crisis; whether that enlarged role for states will persist remains to be seen. Yet if a new Department of Health is unwise, a major government-led health and biosecurity initiative is not. We had the luck to get to practice on pandemics that were either not very transmissible (SARS) or not very lethal (H1N1), but we did not learn the lessons, and with COVID‑19 our luck ran out. The country cannot afford to continue to treat pandemics as a volunteer fire drill. We shouldn’t have to count on ProMED.
 Our answers are contained in Graham Allison and Gregory F. Treverton, eds., Rethinking America’s Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order, W.W. Norton and Company, 1992. See, especially, “Conclusions: Getting from Here to Where?”
 See Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Redefining National Security for the Post Pandemic World,” Project Syndicate, 3 June 2020, available at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/redefining-national-security-for-world-after-covid19-by-anne-marie-slaughter-2020-06.
 As quoted in Brett Rosenberg and Jake Sullivan, The Case for a National Security Budget: Why a Better American Foreign Policy Requires a New Way of Paying for It, Foreign Affairs, 19 November 2019, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-11-19/case-national-security-budget.
 See Rosenberg and Sullivan, cited above.
 Maryn McKenna, “How ProMED Crowdsourced the Arrival of Covid-19 and SARS,” Wired, 23 March 2020, available at https://www.wired.com/story/how-promed-crowdsourced-the-arrival-of-covid-19-and-sars/.
 See Elizabeth D. Sherwood-Randall and John MacWilliams, “The Urgent Need for a National Biosecurity Initiative,” Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, 18 June 2020, available at https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/urgent-need-national-biosecurity-initiative