How the Coronavirus Exposed the Flaws in America’s Security Strategy

August 16, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: CoronavirusPandemicDonald TrumpEconomyStrategy

How the Coronavirus Exposed the Flaws in America’s Security Strategy

It is high time to think in terms of realigning—even redesigning—American grand strategy. U.S. unpreparedness to meet the kind of predictable threat that COVID-19 presented has revealed a serious gap in our grand strategic thinking with regard to the social dimension.

Today, the environmental dimension is still being given short shrift as a dimension of grand strategy. In terms of current foreign policy, American abstention from the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change is a telling sign of the continuing primacy of parochial economic preferences over deep environmental concern about the fate of the planet. A focus on near-term economics also shapes domestic policy, particularly in the energy sector, where the emphasis remains on the exploitation of fossil fuels instead of making a strategic decision to shift to renewable energy sources. Even though, over the longer term, a major move into production of renewable energy holds out the prospect of an absolute revitalization of the American economy—that would also include the potential to have profound beneficial effects for both society and security. 

WE HAVE focused on what we consider to be the two dangerous gaps in American grand strategy: the exclusion of the social and environmental dimensions that, in our view, demonstrate how the primacy of perceived economic self-interest has been driving our country—and perhaps the world—toward irreversible catastrophe. But we have another insight to share as well: Ideally, all of the dimensions of grand strategy (military, economic, governance, social, and environmental) have to be aligned, so they will “fit together” as a coherent whole. If the dimensions are misaligned, that is, if they work at cross-purposes or there is an over-reliance on just one to the detriment of the others, then the grand strategy is likely to fail, or at a minimum become far less effective. As we put it, this disjointedness would devolve into a “not so grand” strategy. 

The most salient examples of “false primacy” of a single dimension of grand strategy can all too often be detected in the military realm. As a case in point, the evidence is overwhelming that, in the wake of 9/11, the threat or use of American force has come to dominate grand strategy. In his study of what he calls “Washington Rules,” Andrew J. Bacevich has focused on the phenomenon of over-militarization and the deleterious effects it has on grand strategy. But it is important to note that earlier debacles, like the Vietnam War, can be included in the category of grand strategic policies that focused overmuch on the military dimension, neglecting diplomacy, society, even the environmental consequences of the way we chose to wage that war. The problem actually precedes Vietnam, going back to the 1950s when thoughtful observers like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who grew deeply concerned about over-reliance on the military as a tool of overall American strategy and policy toward the Cold War world. For all the perils posed by the nuclear arms race and the confrontation with communism, Niebuhr believed that “the greater danger is that we will rely too much on military strength in general and neglect all the other political, economic and moral factors which give unity, health, and strength.”

But misalignment is about more than just the over-emphasis on one dimension. It can also occur when the whole range of strategic factors are incorporated in sequence rather than simultaneously. For example, the call for the Axis Powers to surrender unconditionally took diplomacy off the table in 1943, guaranteeing that the human toll of World War II would be far greater over its last two years, and that an utterly prostrate Germany would guarantee a massive Soviet role in—and threat to—Europe for decades to come. Unconditional surrender had similar effects in the Far East, paving the way for the triumph of Mao Zedong and, soon after, leading to Chinese intervention against un forces in Korea. Had negotiations been tried in earnest, Adolf Hitler might well have been overthrown, much as Hideki Tojo and Benito Mussolini were. And the postwar world would have been far less primed for the forty-year confrontation with Moscow and Beijing that began in the immediate wake of the Second World War. 

Yet, even if all dimensions of grand strategy—crosscut by diplomatic practices and technological advances—are aligned and work in concert, there is another issue to address. Conceptually, there are two general ways in which grand strategies tend to align, or to “cluster,” based on the approach to the governance dimension. For those whose approach is authoritarian, the clustering tends to gather around notions of military expansion, economic autarky, social collectivism, and environmental exploitation. While more democratic governance leans toward non-intervention, free markets, communitarian social values, and sustainable environmental practices.

To be sure, these clusters are not rigid. Take the United States. While the Founders in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries clearly aligned with the democratic cluster in the development of American grand strategy, the United States today shows much less clear alignment. The military interventions of the post-9/11 era reflect this, as do the economic sanctions and tariff wars of recent years. The rollback of the various environmental protections enshrined in U.S. laws, and rejection of calls to join the global fight against dangerous trends in climate change reflect a stance much at odds with virtually all the world’s democracies—and with many of the more authoritarian nations as well. Finally, sharp societal divisions, exploited by all sides of the political spectrum, bear out the deep concern of the Founders, expressed so eloquently in the Federalist Papers, about the problematic potential that would manifest with the rise of warring social “factions.” It seems that the United States is in a state of grand strategic flux.

For us, the remedy requires two steps. First, all dimensions of grand strategy must be considered in the high councils that set national direction and policy. In particular, this means becoming far more attentive to social and environmental matters. Second, alignment of the dimensions needs to be taken seriously. Are we expansionists who still believe in free markets? Exploiters, not sustainers, of the environment? Do we care about, and strive in our social strategy, to limit human suffering in a world replete with so-called “small wars”—for the onset of some of which the United States bears responsibility—that have, during the past two decades, seen over 800,000 deaths and generated some 60 million refugees? 

WHEN DONALD Trump entered office, he held out the prospect of leading the United States away from the military interventionism that has wasted several trillions since 9/11, and toward domestic economic prosperity and social renewal. These laudable goals, though, were in conflict with his willingness to employ tariffs energetically—a tool of economic coercion that has negatively affected average Americans the most. And the pursuit of greater employment for the many has come at a very considerable cost to environmental protections at home and abroad. Even with regard to non-interventionism, it has proved hard for this president to honor even his own instincts, proving unable to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, while engaging in war brinkmanship (“fire and fury”) with North Korea and Iran.

It is high time to think in terms of realigning—even redesigning—American grand strategy. Clearly, COVID-19 has wrought a terrible tragedy upon the world, not just the United States. But American unpreparedness to meet this kind of predictable threat has revealed a serious gap in our grand strategic thinking with regard to the social dimension. A good grand strategy must protect the people against microbes as well as missiles.

John Arquilla and Nancy Roberts are professors of defense analysis at the United States Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed herein are theirs alone.

Image: Reuters