After the Pandemic: America and National Security in a Changed World
The novel coronavirus pandemic is upending life in every corner of the world and its worst effects are just now beginning to spread throughout the United States. Most of the nation has been essentially shut down for weeks, markets have experienced enormous losses and wild volatility, and health systems in some regions are on the verge of being overwhelmed. The next few weeks promise more of the same, with the number of infections likely to rise even more precipitously before they reach the peak. It is a very real possibility that millions of Americans will fall ill, and that tens if not hundreds of thousands will die. The human and material shock to the nation is already staggering, and will get worse before it gets better.
This pandemic will be the greatest human catastrophe to befall the nation in decades. The economic damage will also be extraordinary, maybe even rivaling that of the Great Depression. And it has arrived with breathtaking speed, multiplying the shock effect across markets, businesses, and communities. In the midst of this vast and entirely unexpected calamity, it’s hard to imagine what it will be like when this catastrophe is largely behind us, and the great auditing of our national and global response will begin. But no matter what happens next, one thing is already clear: Americans will look at national security differently than they did before and may no longer be willing – or even able – to give the Department of Defense almost three-quarters of a trillion taxpayer dollars each year to defend against foreign threats.
The primary purpose of the U.S. government, like any government, is to provide for the fundamental security of its people. Whenever we reach the end of this crisis, be it measured in months or years, many Americans will look at the biggest single discretionary spending line in the government’s budget and conclude that the country has gotten the very idea of security fundamentally wrong. They will realize that this massive loss of life was inflicted not by a terrorist attack or rampaging enemy armies, but by an unseen and amorphous health threat. And they will recognize that despite spending more than $700 billion each year on the Department of Defense, the Pentagon’s focus on external threats meant that it played only a very small role in protecting the nation against this deadly and life-changing threat, and in responding once it began to spill across the nation. A poll taken in February found that 31 percent of those surveyed thought that the United States was spending too much on defense. But that number will likely rise after the pandemic ends as Americans start to ask: How well did all that defense spending protect us? Many are likely to conclude that domestic threats and global health issues imperil their personal security and the American way of life far more than any looming foreign adversary. They may emerge from this crisis with radically different spending priorities (as discussed below) that will pressure the defense budget even further downward.
Yet, even if Americans somehow emerged from this unprecedented pandemic with continued support for current levels of defense spending, the immense economic crisis that is already unfolding means that the U.S. government may simply be unable to afford it. The annual U.S. government budget deficit before the coronavirus crisis was about $1 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office projected earlier this year that the deficit will average $1.3 trillion each year for the next decade. The national debt also exploded over the past two decades. It totaled approximately $22.7 trillion by the end of 2019, and the Congressional Budget Office projected that it will reach almost $31.5 trillion by 2030. But those figures will be far worse after the coronavirus crisis ends. Congress has already agreed to spend more than $2 trillion to address the economic repercussions of completely shutting down the U.S. economy. Those figures are almost certain to grow, since we’re still in the early days of this crisis.
However, the debt and deficit are just the tip of the economic iceberg. The staggering second- and third-order effects of the pandemic rippling across the entire U.S. economy already defy comprehension and are about to get much worse. During the week of March 16, almost 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits – five times larger than the previous record-setting week in 1982 – and some economists predict that more than 40 million Americans could be unemployed by the end of April. Many small businesses will permanently shutter, lacking the resources to ride out the crisis. Tax revenues for 2020 (and possibly for 2021) will crater, giving the government far less money to spend. Corporate revenues will also be heavily battered, even with congressional bailouts. And even with further government intervention, homelessness, hunger, and severe poverty could reach catastrophic levels. The severity of this sudden economic crisis will profoundly shape the lives and spending patterns of Americans for years (and perhaps even decades) to come, as they grapple with these disastrous consequences.
After this crisis ends, task number one will involve restarting the economy and getting people back to work. But the country will also have to start investing in ways to help prevent another public health emergency from having such a devastating effect in the future. At a minimum, that will involve expensive measures to revamp emergency pandemic preparedness and to stockpile costly but critical medical equipment such as ventilators and mobile hospitals. It will probably also include initiatives to provide free diagnostic testing and guaranteed paid sick leave during pandemics to quickly identify the ill and encourage them to stay home.
But the aftermath of the crisis could also involve huge policy changes that would have been politically unimaginable just a few months ago. Pressure to expand the social safety net in this country will almost certainly intensify, to help shield Americans from the worst human consequences of future national disasters. (A poll taken in mid-March, for example, found that 40 percent of those surveyed said that they are more likely to support universal health care because of the coronavirus; that number is likely to increase as the crisis intensifies.) Those pressures will grow regardless of who wins the November election, but they will accelerate if the Democrats win the White House, and could lead to dramatic policy changes if the Democrats also win the Senate. In any case, the staggering economic bill of the recovery could lead to a grudging consensus that taxes will have to be raised. It’s even possible that a renewed sense of common national purpose might help heal some of the terrible divisions plaguing our society. However these dynamics play out, domestic policy debates will dominate the national conversation for the foreseeable future. Absent a clear and direct danger to the homeland, national security and foreign policy will fall further and further down the list of American priorities.
The new social, economic, and political realities that emerge after the crisis will almost certainly require the U.S. government to shrink the defense budget — the only question is by how much. Department of Defense leaders and national security professionals must prepare themselves for the possibility that the coming defense cuts will be very deep and disruptive. As Americans focus ever more inward and the country staggers under the weight of the economic recovery, spending half of the nation’s discretionary budget on the Department of Defense will quickly become politically and financially unsustainable. The defense budget will likely become one of the key billpayers for the many domestic demands in the months and years to come.
While it’s far too soon to tell how deep the cuts will be, they may rival or even exceed those of the 2011 Budget Control Act – and this time without the congressional relief that softened the full impact of sequestration. This new budgetary reality will require defense leaders to make extremely hard choices. They may be forced to abandon efforts to modernize expensive legacy systems in order to afford investments in critical next-generation technologies. Active Army and Marine Corps end strength may shrink substantially, requiring those services to rely more heavily on their reserve components. The Navy and Air Force may face steep cuts to their procurement plans, as expensive, exquisite platforms become simply unaffordable and dwindling resources are instead invested in cheaper and unmanned systems. And service rivalries will intensify as they fight each other tooth and nail for shares of the shrinking defense pie.
The nation, and the Department of Defense, will be grappling with the implications of the massive coronavirus crisis for years to come. Given that reality, it’s hard for any of us right now to imagine what the aftermath of this crisis will look like, as we struggle to emerge from today’s steady drumbeat of grim headlines into the very much changed world coming next. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we are not even at the end of the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. But the United States that eventually emerges after the crisis will be deeply transformed and will have new and different priorities. We in the national security community must ready ourselves for this new era, where economic recovery and preparing for domestic threats like pandemics will be far greater concerns for most Americans than threats from foreign adversaries.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.