In a COVID world, America is divided on its common defense
Just over a year after the marathon to bring the novel coronavirus under control, many Americans rightly ask when are we going to feel safe again?
The answer is as delicate as the question. Our sense of security, as Americans, depends a lot on how we define security. Since the start of the pandemic, America’s perceptions of what keeps the country safe have changed dramatically. We don’t know enough about how Americans beyond the Beltway view the new dilemmas that the COVID era has crystallized.
We know that the pandemic has exposed the limited ability of governments to keep people safe. It has exposed the inadequacy and inequalities of public health systems, plunged the global economy into recession, disrupted supply chains, tested alliances and accelerated conflicts. The global race for racial justice in the United States, sparked by the police assassination of George Floyd as well as the racist response to the COVID-19 pandemic apparent in the recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes have also demonstrated that the racism is a strategic responsibility for American leadership at home and abroad. Climate change, meanwhile, is advancing in the face of an inadequate response, as exemplified by the unprecedented fire season in the American West last year and power outages after the Texas snowstorm last month.
Now more than ever, US national security appears to be intertwined with globalized interdependence, the shifting demographics and cultural wars it produces, and a recognition of the unintended consequences of human domination over the natural world. But in the face of these interlocking crises of the commons, political polarization has divided Americans over what counts as security – and what it means to ensure common defense. Fueled in part by foreign and domestic disinformation, our growing distrust of government, democratic institutions, and each other widens the divide while hindering our ability to respond effectively. Republican political elites fueled the blaze, with some urging their supporters to join on January 6e Capitol uprising. History gives us few good tools – albeit many disheartening examples – for thinking about security in a fundamentally divided society.
This is not the first time that the United States has experienced a paradigm shift in the way it sees and redesigns the meaning of security. As in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this moment seems to demand that we rewrite the American national security narrative. But it’s also a time when many Americans demand that we see how theoretical definitions of security don’t match their lived experience. So, as the first anniversary of the first COVID lockdown approached, we sought to see if we could map how America’s national security mental models have changed.
Our research included an analysis of public opinion polls as well as a review of publicly available intelligence assessments. We also conducted a media analysis to identify the most significant debates. While our review is by no means exhaustive, what we found in our study, The Sense of Security, is that ten years ago Americans most often identified “ traditional security threats. ” as terrorism, nuclear proliferation and energy security, as the most pressing national security threats facing the United States. Today, as these types of threats persist, a set of “non-traditional” security threats, ranging from the effects of climate change to racial and economic inequalities, are also high on the agenda.
We also found that while many leading experts first attempted to grapple with the idea of post-COVID change, the debate on the expert circuit quickly moved back into familiar conventional frameworks. Some have written about how the pandemic will affect China’s rise to power. Others wondered how COVID fits into their pre-pandemic ideas about America’s decline and the changing nature of the international order. The interrelated challenges of mass unemployment, food insecurity, or supply chain issues in vaccine manufacturing and distribution were little discussed. Fewer have addressed the fuel mixture of pandemic panic and racially and religiously-tinged social fissures that severely cut America’s growing rural-urban divide.
Instead, the national security discourse around the pandemic has been largely reactive and may even revert to our pre-2020 understanding of the challenges we face. Moreover, the narratives of these challenges are often diametrically opposed across political and identity lines. In the absence of a substantial investment in building America’s resilience to these trends, the trend lines over the past decade and the accelerated effect of the Jan. 6 pandemic and insurgency suggest that the problems security – or, indeed, the American political arena more broadly – are unlikely. become less polarized in the short term.
Of course, this is not the first time that American society has been deeply polarized – but we should not rejoice in finding ourselves in an environment that is reminiscent of both the years leading up to the civil war and the political bickering, the divisions and violence that characterized the end of reconstruction. We’re also not the first to note that our theoretical definitions of security don’t align with the experiences of many Americans, especially people of color. But these trends, from the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on communities of color and women, to the growing nationwide movement for racial justice, have once again made it clear that our traditional conceptions of security do not. do not reflect the experiences of many today. .
This has profound implications for the future of US security policy. If strategists across cultures and centuries share one assumption, it is that an effective security policy requires a united population or at least consenting to its institutions and leaders. The current debate offers very few details on what it looks like for a society, let alone a democracy, to strengthen the security of a country whose residents do not share the same conceptions of the threats they face.
Yet this is exactly the situation in which Congress, the Biden administration – and we, the American people – find ourselves. Threats that were once considered purely national – polarization, political violence, or the functioning of internal institutions such as public health systems – are both affected by potential weapons and in the hands of foreign rivals and domestic provocateurs.
The United States faces an unprecedented array of traditional and new security threats. From the global pandemic and climate change to the resurgence of domestic violent extremism and a crisis of racial injustice in the country, these crises interact with each other to present a set of interrelated challenges that cannot be addressed alone. at the international or national political level or by simply reverting to old paradigms and theories. Instead, we’ll need to re-conceptualize what security means; explore how we can build paradigms that reconnect our polarized society; and respond to the security challenges we currently face in a way that opens doors to new, societal understanding rather than closing them.
If we fail to change the discourse on US national security and redefine it to reflect this reality, we could risk losing what we love about our country. As the Biden administration’s interim national security strategic direction states, “We cannot pretend that the world can simply be restored to the way it was 75, 30, or even four years ago. We can’t just go back to the way things were before. In foreign policy and national security, as in domestic policy, we must chart a new course. We will need to develop new ways of thinking about national security and the political tools we can use to address these issues.