The coronavirus crisis should shake all of our assumptions about national security. The United States has been investing in a military establishment as if the next threat would look like the wars and conflicts that occurred in the 20th century. The administration has raised defense spending while at the same time cutting budgets for public health agencies. So it should be no surprise that we are drastically unprepared for the real invader.
The Spanish flu of 1918 arrived in the final stages of World War One. The pandemic and the conflict were intimately related as the deployment of troops was an effective means of transmission around the world. As many American soldiers died from the Spanish flu as from the violence. Then, as now, politics distracted attention away from genuine threats. The original incidence of the Spanish flu in army camps in Kansas was overlooked. In the end, the illness reached about a quarter of the world population and killed about twice as many people as World War One itself did.
Medical science today should be far more able to respond to the current coronavirus pandemic. But are we any better prepared to draw the right political lesson when it comes to national security? Naval ships have now been sent to sea not to defend us from enemies, but to defend us from our own sailors who may be infected. The coronavirus pandemic should bring an end to the entire apparatus of 20th century defense.
Does anyone really imagine that an aircraft carrier group could protect us from the real threat to national health and prosperity? The concern about territorial claims to the South China Sea, at this moment, looks laughable. It has become clear that our real bilateral relationship with China is about the production of pharmaceuticals and surgical masks. We have more at stake in what happens in Wuhan than in a national border contest.
The same lesson, of course, applies to China. Its people are also suffering from an antiquated security regime. Leaders in China lost the opportunity to control the coronavirus early because of the state efforts to suppress bad news. Free speech is a matter of public health, and public health is a matter of national security. This is true everywhere across the world.
Even where a conventional military conflict remains physically imaginable, such as in Syria and Libya, the politics are unimaginable. We are no longer ready to take on the responsibilities that come with military interventions. We may send the drones but will do little more. Preparing to fight the last war, however, cost us dearly, for we have been wasting finite resources. A Pentagon budget of more than $700 billion has bought us little national security. What use are munitions if we do not have ventilators? Plenty of naval ships but too few hospital beds? More than a million young people serving in the military but a dire shortage of health care workers?
A border wall will also not stop a pandemic. If President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE wants to declare a national emergency to shift funds out of defense spending, he should use those funds to pay for sick leave and free testing. We would be safer if he invested the money in public health in Mexico. National health is inextricably bound to global health. Countries must fight the pandemic by intervening early and massively wherever the threat appears.
This does not mean that borders are irrelevant, for it takes a strong sense of national community to rally support for the kind of measures that may be necessary. A national community of public spiritedness is not about walls but about collective effort and the common good. We know that an authoritarian regime can take draconian measures to battle a pandemic. We are now testing whether our democracy can be equally as effective. The answer to that question will determine the security of the West.
For decades, we wasted time and resources in a misdirected effort to protect ourselves. The most important institution of national security is not the Defense Department, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most important international security body is not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but the World Health Organization. Leaders who fail to see this fatally undermine our national security.
Paul Kahn is the Robert Winner professor of law and humanities and is the director of the Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School.