It is time for a progressive approach to national security.
It looks like President-elect Joe Biden will appoint Michele Flournoy as his Secretary of Defence. This would be the first time a female has been appointed to the role, so could indicate a broader commitment to diversity and inclusion in his first Cabinet. But hopefully it is more than symbolism. Biden could lead a seismic shift in the way the United States handles its security.
As is often the case when seeking to move on from Trump, it has to be understood that he is a symptom of a changing world “as much as an accelerant”. The opportunity a new administration has, therefore, is party to re-write the wrongs of its predecessor, but party to re-calibrate the priorities of the greatest power on earth to better protect those who need it, and to better allocate its resources to reflect a more robust meaning of security.
The Trump presidency, despite some high profile killings such as Qassim al-Rimi and Qasem Soleimani, spoke more to an infantile interest in bombastic statements than a intersectional, nuanced approach that the complexities of global security.
The administration’s narrow-mindness has proved to be lethal for US citizens. The county with a military budget eight times that of its closest competitor simultaneously leads the world in COVID deaths— a figure approaching a quarter of a million.
Let me put this another way. Anyone who says Trump took this deadly virus seriously, needs to wonder what the world would look like if ISIS was executing one thousand Americans a day. Moreover, how foolish so-called foreign policy hawks look when several hundred of those deaths could be prevented simply be using a small piece of material.
Unsurprisingly, the former President is reported not to have attended a COVID task-force meeting for five months, and barely read his intelligence briefings. What’s more, Trump’s refusal to commit to a smooth transition of power has long been known to weaken national security.
When individuals with little to no-state affiliation can use vehicles as deadly weapons, when weapons of war are freely available and can be accessed more easily than a can of beer, an invisible virus strangles the lungs of its victims, and cyber systems are vulnerable to anyone with sufficient skill. And across the world, millions live in poverty, die of hunger, and go without drinking water, an education, or a steady home. When all this, and more, can happen, it is right to ask: Is a military budget this large and a weapons arsenal this unrivalled really making citizens safer?
Answering this question would be the easy bit, doing something about it would not. Security is inherently viewed in militaristic terms, and both parties are mostly joined in their commitment to a astronomically high military budget, irrespective of how irrational that is. The normative values that consume notions of security and defence have a long and deep history. The false synonym that security equals military force needs to be broken down. That’s why voices like Ray Mabus’ are important.
The former Secretary of the Navy talks of security in energy terms, stating climate change is an issue “the American military can, and should, lead the way on” going on to say “energy could be used as a weapon either for or against us”. Secretary Mabus’ framing of climate change as a security issue is a positive move, but it shouldn’t stop there. A robust definition can include food and water security, the freedom to access a safe education, the peace of mind to know a warm, secure home is available.
The idea that security can have a broader remit is nothing new. A United Nations report in 1994 contextualised the concept as a cultural, political, social, environmental, and military system. But previous attempts to realise this have largely been discredited, and so there is no guarantee any future efforts would do better.
During the late 20th and early 21st century the War on Drugs and the War of Terror, for example, manifestly failed. Trump himself has contributed to the evolution of the concept, albeit in typically abstract and conspiratorial way. In 2018, he warned his supporters in Wisconsin and Michigan of the threat illegal gangs crossing the Mexico/USA border two thousand miles away would pose to their lives, and more recently, he suggested Joe Biden would destroy the suburbs.
The United States’ resources are unimaginable to both its friends and foes; that is one of the reasons why the country has been able to command such a firm grip on international relations. It is neither dovish nor naive to want to use these resources in the most efficient and effective ways.