Defense spending post-coronavirus: How to walk and chew gum at the same time

Defense spending post-coronavirus: How to walk and chew gum at the same time
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After toiling for a decade in Washington foreign and defense policy circles, I can confidently say that received strategic wisdom almost always is wrong. Policymakers, so often surprised by a perilous (and unplanned for) present, seem to be always over-correcting for strategic risks they underestimated just months before. Risks go from being underemphasized to overemphasized in the blink of an eye. This analytical tendency is very human, but is just poisonous for American strategic analysis in general.    

And so it is over the COVID-19 pandemic, the most important political risk event so far of the first part of the 21st century. Conventional strategic wisdom predictably has gone from vastly underestimating the impacts of pandemics upon our society to overestimating it in a microsecond. 

With so many strategic analysts badly burned in initially ignoring this seminal threat, they are all now jumping on the bandwagon, an over-correction designed to make up for their glaring analytical mistake in the first place.

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To counter this disastrous strategic error, I offer in place the simple but spot-on wisdom of my grandmother: We must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. The U.S. and its democratic allies must factor in far more seriously the need to eradicate and mitigate the coronavirus and future pandemics, learn the present geopolitical lessons of the virus, and at the same time continue to go about reconfiguring our militaries to deal with a world of increasing great power competition

How to do this? Another of my grandmother’s aphorisms comes to mind: We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While the economic consequences of the pandemic will put a new, ongoing and significant strain on defense budgets, one of the seminal lessons of the crisis must be that China and its semi-ally Russia are indeed strategic competitors of the first order. We must balance both these primary interests, significantly upping our ability to deal with pandemics while still realizing the eternal battle for strategic dominance never ebbs.   

Indeed, once the coronavirus plague was visited upon China, in order to maintain its relative geopolitical position, it did everything initially in its power to obfuscate, delay reporting, and under-emphasize the crisis, allowing it to spread to a largely unsuspecting world. 

There is a simple answer as to why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) went to such lengths to obscure the extent of the virus. It is acutely aware that it is locked in a cold war with the U.S. and its allies for dominance in our new era, whether we are or not. Analysis now must center around what, in policy terms, we in the West must do about this fact. 

What the CCP has done — akin to manslaughter — must be made a central organizing fact in the rejuvenation of our alliances. Much more explicit anti-CCP defence strategies must be established, linking a global League of Democracies that comprises the Quad-plus in Asia (U.S., Australia, Japan, India, plus Taiwan), NATO and the Anglosphere core (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand). The mask has slipped; the choice is ours.

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But to do this within the new economic strictures the virus presents us with requires not more defense spending, but rather more intelligent defense spending. Specifically, we must take advantage of the multiplier effect of working far more closely with our many democratic allies.

A prime example of such an ally is great European power Poland. First — and in line with President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE’s rightful pressing of our NATO allies to spend their fair share — Poland has reached the 2 percent of GDP NATO commitment regarding defense spending, a hugely encouraging fact in countering Russian threats to the eastern flank of the alliance. 

In line with spending together and spending more wisely, in March 2018 Warsaw agreed to purchase the Patriot air and missile defense system, as well as to acquire the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS), as the backbone of its command and control network, linking everything from mini-drones to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  

This “system of systems” is the operational expression of strategically linking together through command and control this League of Democracies, which is the only route to ultimately securing democratic dominance in the face of authoritarian challenges. 

There is much initial good news. In late April 2020, it was announced that because of the U.S. Army and its contractors coping so well with the pandemic, there will be no delay in fielding future weapons systems. This sends a clear and decisive signal to American allies and foes alike that the U.S. military will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, dealing with the geostrategic realities of the new era, all the while managing the challenges the coronavirus raises.

The two clear facts of our post-coronavirus era are clear: We are once again engaged in a cold war — with Chinese and Russian-dominated authoritarian countries — for great power dominance, and given the obvious need to combat pandemics, American defense spending must be made more wisely. Cultivating alliances and defense systems that nurture them is the linking answer to both challenges, and is true whether Donald Trump or Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would 'gut' Americans With Disabilities Act MORE finds himself in the White House. Open systems, just as is true of open alliances, are the future. The days of siloed systems — and siloed thinking — are over.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.