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The events that have unfolded in 2020 thus far underscore the need to rethink the US national security agenda. For decades, the U.S. has zeroed in on great power competition and terrorism as leading US national security concerns. This ordering reflects the traditional security paradigm, which places the state at the center of security studies and generally focuses on threats of a military nature. The U.S. has thrown the weight of its national security apparatus, as well as an impressive flow of funding, behind efforts to counter these traditional threats.
Yet, over the past three months, US national security has been undermined—not by an adversarial state or transnational terrorist group, but by a global pandemic that has claimed over 135,000 American lives and disrupted our economy, government, and way of life. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Americans must ask: Has the US national security agenda, past and present, effectively prioritized existential environmental and biological threats like climate change and the spread of infectious disease? And second, is the U.S. devoting sufficient resources and attention toward combatting these existential threats?
If you’ve read a newspaper at any point during the last three months, you’ll probably arrive at the same answer I did: ‘no.’
Beyond reassessing ‘which’ matters are considered top national security concerns, the recent protests that erupted over the horrific murder of George Floyd call for the national security community to also seriously evaluate ‘who’ the traditional approach to national security serves. Does placing the state at the center of security analysis obscure matters that affect the security of its citizens? Does individual security shape national security?
In short: yes.
This two-part article attempts to address these questions and posits that the US national security community must reevaluate how it thinks about national security, as well as who the national security agenda serves.
Part One of this article outlines the transition in US national security thinking from 2000 to 2020. During this time, the U.S. focused primarily on combatting terrorism and competing with rising powers like Russia and China. This article argues that the traditional US national security agenda has neglected key environmental and biological threats like climate change and the spread of infectious disease—threats that, if left unaddressed, are truly existential. This lopsided approach has rendered our nation, and especially low-income communities and communities of color, highly insecure.
Finally, this article offers a few recommendations for the US government and the national security community to help address the challenges outlined above. These steps include launching a public diplomacy campaign educating Americans about biological and environmental threats; devising a comprehensive strategy for responding to those evolving threats; closely considering the link between human security, national security, and international security when crafting the US national security agenda; acknowledging the United States’ tendency to conflate threats to US interests and threats to US survival; and finally, increasing diversity within the national security community and the government to ensure that national security policies effectively address the range of “traditional” and “non-traditional” threats facing the U.S. today.
From 2000 to 2020: A Focus on Terrorism and Great Power Competition
US national security thinking and strategy in the early 2000s centered primarily on the threat of terrorism. Following the attacks on 9/11 that claimed 2,753 lives, the Bush administration launched the ‘war on terror’ and called for the U.S. to use of every tool in its arsenal to dismantle terrorist networks around the world. Under this broad banner, President Bush authorized invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq, created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), permitted the National Security Agency to eavesdrop and collect data on US citizens without a court order, and established detention facilities around the world to interrogate and imprison suspected terrorists. At the same time, the administration drastically increased the Pentagon’s budget and relied disproportionately on the military to achieve its foreign policy goals.
Despite renouncing the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ rhetoric and policies, President Obama ultimately continued many Bush-era initiatives and expanded US counterterrorism operations around the world. Over the course of his tenure, President Obama faced a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, and an expanding Al Qaeda network. In response, President Obama sustained American military operations in Afghanistan, deployed troops to Iraq and Syria, assembled a US-led coalition to counter ISIS, and, controversially, relied on special operations and unmanned drone attacks to accomplish counterterrorism objectives.
Although President Trump rebuked the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy and military engagement abroad, President Trump’s approach to counterterrorism has in many ways mimicked that of his predecessor. To date, the U.S. still has troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, has special operation forces deployed all over the world, and conducts an increasing number of unmanned drone strikes against suspected terrorists. Since 2000, the ‘war on terror’ has cost American taxpayers over $6 trillion dollars. Despite minor fluctuations in strategy, all three administrations emphasized the threat that terrorism poses to US national security.
Under the Obama administration, however, the US national security community began to divert more attention toward countering state actors like Russia and China. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilizing hybrid warfare operations throughout the West torpedoed US-Russian relations. Concomitantly, China’s obstructive behavior in the South China Sea, impressive military modernization program, and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative raised alarms in Washington that China was gearing up to replace the U.S. as a global hegemon. Russia and China’s behavior prompted Obama to devote more resources toward confronting both states in military, political, and economic domains.
In its 2017 National Security Strategy, the Trump administration also amplified the need to compete with “revisionist powers” Russia and China, as well as counter the “rogue regime in North Korea” and the “dictatorship in Iran.” Officials in the Trump administration have noted developments to Russia and China’s conventional and nuclear arsenals, increasingly predatory behavior in their near abroad, and growing international engagement through military and soft power initiatives as serious sources of concern. Moreover, Iran’s support for proxy groups and terrorist organizations has fueled regional instability and aggravated tensions with Washington, while North Korea’s concerted efforts to develop nuclear weapons capable of reaching US allies and the US homeland have similarly exacerbated bilateral relations. Accordingly, President Trump has issued directives and allocated resources to meet the perceived challenge China and Russia pose to “American power, influence, and interests,” while attempting to erode dictatorships in Iran and North Korea.
To keep pace in the new era of ‘great power competition,’ the U.S. is making substantial upgrades to its conventional and nuclear arsenal, as well as its missile defenses. President Trump approved a $738 billion defense budget for FY2020—a $21 billion increase from FY2019. In the FY2021 budget request, many in the national security community were surprised (and alarmed) to see that the request included over $46 billion for modernizing and developing new nuclear delivery systems, warheads, and reactors. The Pentagon’s FY2021 budget request also included $3.2 billion for hypersonic weapons development and defense programs.
Importantly, budget increases for the Department of Defense under the Trump administration have occurred alongside funding cuts for the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development. On the home front, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for FY2021—the one that included a 19% increase for nuclear weapons spending—also planned to reduce the budgets for the Center for Disease control by 19% and the National Institutes of Health by 7%.
Two points here are worth emphasizing. First, out of all the tools in its national security toolbox, the U.S. continues to rely disproportionately on the military when it comes to executing its national security agenda. Secondly, while US spending priorities reflect efforts to protect the US homeland and US interests from foreign actors, they do not necessarily reflect efforts to increase national resilience at home—or, the country’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the diverse range of threats we face today. This includes threats emanating from state and non-state actors, as well as natural agents. Enhancing national resilience certainly requires a modernized and robust military. However, it also calls for improving the US public education system, expanding access to quality healthcare, strengthening democratic institutions, upholding civil liberties, reducing socio-economic inequality, and preparing our institutions and infrastructure for environmental and biological disasters. Indeed, as the threat landscape and the nature of warfare changes, these are all factors that will affect the overall health and long-term security of our nation.
As the frequency of natural disasters across the United States increase from year-to-year and the number of COVID cases in the U.S. rise, Americans—especially those in the national security community—must recognize that environmental and biological threats are not a tertiary concern; they deserve a place at the top of the US national security agenda.
Climate Change and the Spread of Infectious Disease Pose an Existential Threat to US National Security
Although the Obama administration identified issues like climate change and the outbreak of infectious disease in its 2010 and 2015 National Security Strategies and the Trump administration briefly mentioned the need to “combat biothreats and pandemics” in its 2017 National Security Strategy, environmental and biological threats have received far less attention than those emanating from state and nonstate actors over the past 20 years.
Yet while some in the US government continue to debate whether humans are changing the Earth’s climate and whether environmental shifts are actually dangerous, the effects of climate change are only growing more acute. Severe weather events are escalating in frequency and intensity, warming temperatures are triggering droughts across entire regions, rising sea levels are causing coastal flooding, heat waves are becoming more frequent, and incidences of forest fires are increasing. Indeed, environmental changes are proving to be costly and deadly. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. experienced an annual average of 13.8 weather and climate disasters between 2015 and 2019 and has faced approximately $1.75 trillion in damages from weather and climate disasters from 1980 to 2019. In 2017 alone, the damages caused by natural disasters in the U.S.—including three hurricanes and a series of deadly wildfires—exceeded $300 billion. The fourth National Climate Assessment projected that the U.S. could lose as much as 10% of its GDP by the end of the century due to climate change. Tragically, in 2018, 96 people lost their lives from Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, 85 perished in the Camp Fire that swept Northern California, and thousands were displaced.
Climate change, if unaddressed, will adversely affect people, infrastructure, institutions, and ecosystems. It will exacerbate food and water scarcity, facilitate the spread of infectious diseases, heighten the risk of pandemics, aggravate geopolitical tensions, and prompt widespread human displacement. It will affect every dimension of our daily lives and transform relations within the international community. We know this to be true because it already has.
Environmental threats include more than just climate change, however. They also include issues like the harmful impact polluting facilities have on people living in surrounding areas. These facilities, like coal-fired power plants and incinerators, emit toxins that can cause allergic reactions, respiratory symptoms, and various diseases like asthma, heart disease, lung dysfunction, skin and eye diseases, acute bronchitis, and cancer. In addition to facilitating climate change, exposure to toxins from coal-fired plants and other facilities undermines human health and security.
Biological threats, including the spread of infectious disease and pandemics, are closely linked to environmental threats and must also be prioritized as a top national security concern. As early as 2000, a US National Security Council (NSC) assessment stated, “New and reemerging infectious diseases will pose a rising global health threat and will complicate US and global security over the next 20 years. These diseases will endanger US citizens at home and abroad, threaten US armed forces deployed overseas, and exacerbate social and political instability in key countries and regions in which the United States has significant interests.” Since the NSC’s assessment in 2000, the U.S. has witnessed domestic and international outbreaks of infectious diseases like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H5N1 avian influenza, Ebola, and now, COVID-19.
In less than five months, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 135,000 American lives and over 552,000 lives around the world. Over 3 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the United States. The virus’ economic toll, too, has been profound. On March 27, the US government passed over a $2 trillion dollar relief package in hopes of mitigating the public health and economic fallout from the virus. But even then, the response was too late. By May, as the death toll continued to rise, US unemployment climbed to over 40 million—the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Internationally, a recent press release by the World Bank forecasted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2% this year, representing the worst recession since World War II.
At first, top US officials, including President Trump, refused to acknowledge the urgent threat posed by the virus. Threat denial coupled with a lack of test kits severely undermined the United States’ initial response. As the virus spread across all 50 states, hospitals and other facilities on the frontlines struggled to supply medical professionals with the necessary equipment to treat patients, as well as sufficient protective gear to keep themselves safe. Federal and state-level responses to the virus continue to be delayed, uncoordinated, and under-resourced.
Even as states begin to re-open, experts warn that the pandemic is far from over. There’s no telling how the virus will evolve, and what secondary and tertiary effects it might have on human health, our economy, and way of life. Around the world, as COVID clashes with economic, political, and resource instability in developing states, it will undoubtedly affect the geopolitical landscape and complicate US engagement abroad.
Environmental and Biological Threats Disproportionately Affect Low-Income Communities and Communities of Color
While COVID has adversely affected the country as a whole, low-income communities of color have been especially hard hit. In New York city, the epicenter of the US COVID outbreak, Queens, the South Bronx, and Brooklyn—primarily low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic residents—have faced a significantly higher number of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to the city’s primarily white, upper-class neighborhoods.
Uneven infection rates highlight a broader, alarming trend. Individuals living at or below the poverty line, predominately Black and Hispanic people, often reside in areas with polluted air, which increases their risk of developing asthma and other respiratory illnesses. A 2018 Environmental Protection Agency study echoed this point, concluding that people of color are disproportionately affected by pollution and are more likely to live near polluting industries. Research thus far has found that individuals with moderate to severe asthma and other underlying respiratory issues are more likely to contract COVID-19, which helps explain the virus’ intensified effect on individuals residing in polluted areas. Moreover, Black and Hispanic populations have traditionally had more limited access to healthcare and health insurance coverage than white demographics. These systemic and environmental inequities made low-income Black and Hispanic individuals acutely vulnerable to COVID from the outset, but economic disruptions from the virus have only compounded its pernicious effects. COVID has highlighted how environmental and biological threats intersect to exacerbate insecurity among Black and Hispanic communities in the United States.
Though, for these communities, insecurity prompted by environmental and biological threats are nothing new. For years, activists, and more recently organizations like the NAACP, have highlighted how environmental shifts impact low-income communities and communities of color. The NAACP even established its own “Environmental and Climate Justice” initiative based on findings that “race—more than class—is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country,” and that “communities of color and low income communities are often hardest hit by climate change.” According to the NAACP:
- “More African Americans live near coal fired power plants, nuclear power plants, or biomass (where waste is burned to make energy) power plants than any other demographic group in the US.
- Over the past several decades, approximately 68% of African Americans live or have lived within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.
- As a result, African Americans are more likely to suffer health problems from the pollution that these facilities produce.”
In order to understand why these security threats haven’t garnered more attention, perhaps we need to consider that the US government is overwhelmingly white, with many officials and representatives hailing from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds. Denying that climate change is real, or that diseases actually pose a widespread threat to human security and national security, is the pinnacle of white privilege.
In order to restructure the national security agenda so environmental and biological threats are effectively prioritized, the US government—especially those within the US national security community—must:
- Publicly acknowledge that such threats exist.
To this end, the US government should initiate a widespread public diplomacy campaign that educates the American public about non-traditional threats, why they matter, and why they must be treated as national security priorities. Public messaging must be consistent and reiterated at all levels of government (on both sides of the political aisle), and should call for cooperation between public, private, and civil society stakeholders. Importantly, today and in the past, leaders have used divisive rhetoric that blames underrepresented demographics for our nation’s challenges. This form of ‘scapegoating’ has perpetuated institutional and cultural discrimination, triggered widespread insecurity and trauma, and enabled our nation’s white leaders to evade accepting responsibility for their failures. We must acknowledge this discriminatory pattern, highlight that this tactic does not solve the issues we collectively face (it only makes them worse), and accept responsibility for the widespread harm this practice has caused. Moving forward, we must demand that our elected officials and public servants do not employ this unjust and damaging rhetoric to compensate for their own shortcomings.
2. Devise a comprehensive strategy for combatting environmental and biological threats.
A holistic strategy should significantly expand research and development efforts, improve early-warning indicators as well as institutional preparedness and response mechanisms, push for greater investment in clean energy technologies, and leverage diplomacy to foster international cooperation in environmental and biological realms. The U.S. must also rejoin international organizations and agreements like the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement—for, the fight against climate change and infectious disease is one we will not win on our own.
3. Be more conscious of and explicit about the link between human security, national security, and international security.
All three pieces are intertwined: deteriorating conditions in one area directly undermine the others. Therefore, it must be stressed that the consequences of environmental and biological threats on human security will have widespread and cross-cutting effects on national and international security in the short, medium, and long-term.
4. Remind ourselves of the different tiers of national security threats.
On the one hand, we face threats to our interests, and on the other, threats to our survival. The track record shows that, sometimes, we spend more time, attention, and resources on issues that affect our interests than on issues that affect our survival, both as individuals and as a nation. This is misguided.
5. Be honest with ourselves and recognize that if the same kinds of people are in the room crafting the national security agenda, then year after year, we’re going to get the same kind of agenda that identifies the same kinds of threats.
This cycle will inevitably cause us to miss or misinterpret issues that are indeed serious security concerns. Part Two of this article will address this point—how the lack of diversity within the US national security community actually harms US national security.
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 Danielle Sydnor, “What do clean air, COVID-19, and Earth Day mean to me,” NAACP, April 22, 2020, https://www.naacp.org/latest/what-do-clean-air-covid-19-and-earth-day-mean-to-me-cleveland-branch/.
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