By Katrina vanden Heuvel
After this pandemic passes, there must be a profound reckoning. I’m not referring to President Trump’s abysmal performance in the crisis; the election in November will render citizens’ judgment on that. No, there must be a reckoning with the profound failure of the United States’ domestic and foreign policies and priorities, a failure that was apparent even before covid-19 revealed the catastrophic bankruptcy of our national security strategy.
Less than 30 years ago, with the end of the Soviet Union, the United States basked in the role of the world’s sole superpower. An establishment consensus quickly congealed. Scholars proclaimed the “end of history,” announcing the U.S. model — liberal democracy and market fundamentalism — was the ultimate endpoint of human progress. Corporate-led globalization would bring untold prosperity to the United States and spread it across the globe. America’s unrivaled military dominance would enable it to police an unruly world, spreading the blessings of democracy. Though partisan differences might exist in emphasis and rhetoric, the consensus — and the overweening arrogance — would be unassailable. The United States, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted, was the “indispensable nation,” while an anonymous George W. Bush adviser boasted, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
The results for the security of Americans have been ruinous. Under the rules rigged by corporations, globalization led to good jobs being shipped abroad, workers losing ground, wages stagnating and insecurity rising while inequality reached grotesque extremes. Trillions of dollars are devoted to building military power that is increasingly irrelevant to meeting the challenges of our time, while fundamental threats — catastrophic climate change, pandemics, mass migrations forced by failed states and endless wars — have been slighted. Americans grow more and more insecure, life expectancy has declined, and an entire generation has been left mired in debt. And the United States remains an outlier among developed countries in its failure to provide basic shared security — universal health care, decent wages, sick leave, first-rate public education and so on.
Americans elected Barack Obama and Trump, in part, as outsiders who might challenge this course. Both failed. Obama fine-tuned the war on terror and extended it. Trump promised to end the forever wars, only to mire us deeper in them, while throwing even more money at our bloated military.
The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy statement — produced by those “adults in the room” that establishment voices expected would prevent Trump from undermining America’s place in the world — announced a major change of focus. The primary threat facing the United States, it declared, was no longer terrorism. It was the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia. A new Cold War excited the entrenched interests and experienced strategists: Here was justification for a new round in the arms buildup, new deployments to Asia and the Middle East, the extension of NATO to the very borders of Russia and more.
The threats posed by catastrophic climate change and by “biothreats,” pandemics and failed states received mention, but they were treated as side lines at best. Unlike the new Cold War, the existential threat posed by climate change was grist for partisan debate. The threat posed by pandemics, by mass displacement of refugees and by failed states was kept on the back burner in the battle for money, contracts and prestige.
Trump failed catastrophically in his response to the coronavirus, costing Americans precious time and many lives. That failure, however, was built upon a wrongheaded security consensus that envelops the establishments of both parties.
What is needed is a fundamental debate about a security strategy for the 21st century. We need a global economic strategy that defends America’s working people and that ensures that the United States remains a center of invention and manufacturing. We should not wake once more to discover that the United States no longer makes things essential to our health or our security. We need a security policy that focuses on the existential threats that are looming ever larger: catastrophic climate change, global pandemics, a nuclear and cyber arms race no longer limited by arms control agreements. We need greater investment in and attention to the capacity of our public institutions — and greater accountability for the private economic behemoths.
The presidential election is unlikely to provide the occasion for this reckoning. Trump will peddle himself shamelessly as a conquering “wartime” president. Former vice president Joe Biden will rightly indict Trump for the catastrophic failures of his corrupt and chaotic administration, but the fundamental failures of America’s strategy and priorities will likely be ignored in the skirmishes. It will take assertive movements — a new generation demanding change — and an independent Congress driven by a coalition of progressive and transpartisan leaders — to force the debate we need.
Surely the horrible human suffering wrought by the pandemic and the economic collapse make it clear that that reckoning is essential to the future security of every American.
Katrina vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Washington Post. She is the editor and publisher of the Nation magazine. She has also edited or co-edited several books, including The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama (2011), Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover (2009), and Taking Back America — and Taking Down the Radical Right (2004). She is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for ABC, MSNBC, CNN, PBS, WNYC and Democracy Now. Learn more here.
This opinion piece appeared on April 7 in The Washington Post.